She Talks to Angels*

Communicating With the DeadIf you’ve seen M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, then you’ll know that its main focus is a young boy who can hear and see those who’ve died. For a very long time, people have wanted to believe that they could communicate with loved ones who’ve passed away. That’s been the driving force behind countless séances.

Each culture is different with respect to whether we communicate with those who’ve died. In some cultures, there’s a vital important link between the dead and the living. In others, there is no such link, and the idea that the dead might communicate is not taken seriously.

Whatever one’s cultural or personal beliefs, the idea of communicating with lost friends and loved ones has had a powerful influence on people. And, given that a lot of crime fiction is about murder, it shouldn’t be surprising that this idea is woven into the genre, too.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle will know that he had a great interest in spiritualism. It’s ironic, considering that his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, is a man of science and logic. Holmes is not one for séances and other spiritualist traditions. But his creator certainly was.

Agatha Christie touches on this theme in a few of her stories. In The Last Séance, for instance, Raoul Daubreuil pays a visit to his fiancée Simone, who is a very successful medium. She is worn out from the work, though, and wants nothing more than to be done with it forever. But she has made one last commitment – a sitting for Madame Exe, who is desperate to stay in contact with her dead daughter Amelie. At first, Simone doesn’t want to do this last séance. She is exhausted; more than that, she is afraid. She fears the consequences of working with Madame Exe any longer. But Raoul insists that she keep her commitment, and Simone finally allows herself to be persuaded. Madame Exe duly arrives, and in the end, we see the tragic consequences. Christie fans will know that she also mentions spiritualism in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Murder in Mesopotamia and the short story Blue Geranium, among others.

In one plot thread of Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams, Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate the death of twelve-year-old Ariana Rocich. She was a Roma girl who, according to the first reports, fell into a canal from a building where she was trying to rob an apartment. Brunetti isn’t so sure that she died accidentally, and starts asking questions. Brunetti doesn’t believe in spiritualism. But he can’t deny that Ariana haunts him:

‘…and the girl’s face…would return to him at odd times and more than once in his dreams.’

That’s part of what spurs him on to find out the truth about her death.

Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past is in part the story of the death of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson. One winter day, she and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go diving into Lake Vittangijärvi, hoping to explore the ruins of a WWII plane that went down there. The two are deliberately trapped and killed. A few months later, Wilma’s body re-surfaces, and Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team investigate. In the meantime, attorney Rebecka Martinsson has been having strange dreams in which a young girl appears, trying to communicate with her. Martinsson doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in the dead communicating with the living, but she knows what she’s experienced. And it’s interesting to see how her experiences are woven into the story.

In Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, Jason Barnes is riding a bus one day when three young people begin harassing another passenger, Luke Murray. Jason intervenes, and for a time, the bullying abates. But then, Luke gets off the bus. So do the three bullies, and so does Jason. The harassment starts up again, and this time it escalates. The fight continues all the way into Jason’s yard, where he is fatally stabbed, and Luke badly wounded. Both boys’ parents are understandably devastated by what’s happened. There is, of course, a police investigation into the incident, and Jason’s parents Andrew and Val do the best they can to help. Part of the plot involves the slow discovery of what really went on and what led up to it. Another part has to do with the impact that Jason’s death has on his family. In the end, though, Andrew and Val are able to begin healing; and, without spoiling the story, I can say that there’s one great scene in which Andrew does have a sense of really connecting with Jason.

There are many cultures in which it is believed that those who’ve died really do communicate with the living. It’s not done in the Western sense of using the planchette or having a séance. In fact, there isn’t really a strong dividing line between the living and the dead in some cultures. We see that, for instance, in Nicole Watson’s The Boundary, some of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels, and Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. All of these touch on Australian Aboriginal people’s connections with their dead.

We also see that link in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series, which takes place in 1970s Laos. Dr. Siri may be a medical professional, but that doesn’t mean he ignores the unexplainable. In fact, he actually does see the spirits of people who’ve died. Again, it’s not in the traditional Western sense, but it’s quite real for him. There are other novels and series, too, that touch on this sense that those who have died communicate with the living (I know, I know, fans of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire stories). When it’s done effectively, it can add a fascinating layer to a story. It can also add some depth to characters.



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Black Crowes.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Åsa Larsson, Cath Staincliffe, Colin Cotterill, Craig Johnson, Donna Leon, Nicole Watson

24 responses to “She Talks to Angels*

  1. Ah, a subject with so many possibilities! Belinda Bauer also made good use of it (the desperate wish to belief vs. the voice of the sceptics) in The Shut Eye. People have said that, since I am an incurable chatterbox, I might feel the need to communicate from the beyond, but I’m thinking now it might be quite restful to be silent and to have to make an effort…

    • I think it might be restful too, Marina Sofia, although the idea of communicating from the beyond has its appeal… And thank you for mentioning The Shut Eye. Bauer is so talented, and she does address this subject effectively I think. This is indeed one of those topics that has a lot of possibility.

  2. Thanks Margot – in particular, really like the sound of the Colin Cotterill series

  3. Ooh, even just reading your bit about ‘The Last Seance’ gives me the shivers – one of the scariest stories of all time!

  4. Interesting topic, Margot and seances are a great way of creating tension. I am a spiritual person myself and have had many, shall we say,odd experiences myself. I’m not sure I believe or not but I can’t ignore the experiences I have had, some of which cannot be explained away. The mind is a funny thing!

    • It is, indeed, D.S. It doesn’t matter whether you are a firm believer in spiritualism or your not; there are some things that happen that are difficult to explain. And as you say, those things, and events such as séances, can add both interest and tension to a story.

  5. When I saw the theme of this post, I wondered whether you would mention the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. I don’t know if it is the setting or what, but I definitely like the supernatural aspect in that series.

  6. Seances play a vital role in one of the best impossible crime stories ever written (by somebody whose name isn’t “Carr”): Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit. A seance, trying to communicate with the spirit of a dead man, apparently unleashes that spirit in demon form – and we’re treated to plenty of impossibilities, including footprints that begin and end in unbroken fields of snow, a giant flying SOMETHING, and, of course, murder. A spirit? Or a malevolent human plot? The book has my favorite opening line of any book, “I came up here to make a dead man change his mind.” If you haven’t read it, it’s available from Ramble House publishers and should be on everyone’s must-read list, because it really is that good.

    • I’m glad you brought that one up, Les. It is such a good example of what I had in mind with this post. And as you say, easily available. I need to actually spotlight that book at some point, so thanks for the reminder.

  7. Margot, I think the main reason we communicate with the dead is to know what exactly happens to us after we die, to see if there is, in fact, life after death, and perhaps to look at death as a less terrifying and a more acceptable spectre. We’re only fooling ourselves! But, coming from a land that has traditionally believed in rebirth and “karma” and rebirth, I can see why the idea of communicating with the dead can be such a powerful tool in fiction. Many a story has been told around the Ouija board, so to speak.

    • It certainly has, Prashant. And I think you have a very well-taken point. We want to know what happens after we die, and as you say, we want reassurance. Perhaps, too, the idea of communicating with loved ones is really appealing. It’s easy to see why people want so very badly to reach across that divide between the dead and the living. Little wonder the whole subject has been explored in books as it has.

  8. Heather Graham has a delightful series, where the main characters are spirits walking among the living. They argue for the right way to haunt, snoop, etc. Actually, all her books deal with the paranormal in one form or another. And yes, I loved the episodes of Longmire when the Indian Chief haunted Branch.

    • Thanks, Sue for reminding me of Heather Graham’s work. I haven’t dipped into it very much, but I know it’s quite popular. And I think the Longmire TV series captures the connection between the living and the Old Cherokee effectively.

  9. Patti Abbott

    Also a fan of LONGMIRE and its use of Indian ideas of death.

  10. Hi Margot. Great topic, and fodder for much of mystery fiction. I’m also reminded of effective use of quack ‘spiritual advisors’ in American mystery fiction, especially stories set in Southern California in the 1930s, which seems a kind of golden age (and place) for phony psychics, both in fiction and real life.

    • Interesting point, Bryan (and thanks for the kind words). There’s been some great crime (and other!) fiction based in Southern California that features spiritual advisors. And it’s always fascinating how deeply committed characters are to that way of thinking.

  11. Col

    It’s been a while since I read him, but are Hillerman’s novels imbued with a sense of the mystical and native American culture as well as a present day grounding?

    • Right you are, Col. In some of Hillerman’s novels, there’s a real feeling for the mystical side of Native American tradition. I should have put that in this post, so I’m glad you filled in the gap.

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