Once Upon a Time in the Land of Misty Satin Dreams*

Fairy StoriesEvery culture has fairy tales and legends that are passed along from generation to generation. Because they’re such an integral part of our culture, it’s not surprising that fairy tales are woven into our daily references and allusions, too. If I mentioned that I knew someone with hair as long as Rapunzel’s, you’d probably know exactly which fairy tale I meant, and how the story goes. That’s how much a part of culture fairy tales and legends are.

We also see them in crime fiction, both in subtle and less-subtle ways. Agatha Christie, for instance, included several references to fairy tales in her stories. One of them is in The Murder on the Links. That story begins with Captain Hastings returning to London after a trip to France. He meets a fellow passenger who, so she says, is going to meet her sister. The two get to talking and end by striking up a friendship. When he asks her name, she tells him it’s Cinderella. Shortly after Hastings returns to London, he and Poirot get involved in a strange case of murder when Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, who lives in the small French town of Merlinville sur Mer. ‘Cinderella’ has a role to play in this story, so we meet up with her again. And at one point she and Hastings have this conversation:

‘‘Cinderella married the Prince, you remember. I’m not a Prince, but—’
 She interrupted me.
 ‘Cinderella warned him I’m sure. You see, she couldn’t promise to turn into a princess. She was only a little scullion after all—’’

Perhaps ‘Cinderella’ doesn’t have evil stepsisters in this story, but the references to that fairy tale are clear.

Nele Neuhaus’ Snow White Must Die features police detectives Pia Kirchoff and Oliver von Bodenstein. In this novel, they investigate a terrible accident in which Rita Cramer falls (or was she pushed?) off a bridge onto a car passing underneath the bridge. As the detectives start to look into the case, they naturally begin with people who know the victim. This leads them to an insular sort of town, where everyone is keeping secrets. It also leads them to a puzzling coincidence (or is it?). It turns out that Rita Cramer’s son Tobias had spent the last ten years in prison in connection with the disappearance of two seventeen-year-old girls. Now he’s been released and has returned to the village. Was he guilty? Then another young girl goes missing. Now the detectives have to ‘fight the clock,’ as the saying goes. This case turns out to be connected to the story of Snow White, and to a play that tells that fairy tale.

Carin Gerhardson’s The Gingerbread House makes, I admit, a less direct connection to the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. But it’s still present, if you look. Stockholm police detective Conny Sjöberg and his team investigate when real estate professional Hans Vannerberg goes out to look at a house for a client and doesn’t return. His body is found at the home of Ingrid Olsson, who was recovering from surgery at the time of the murder, and couldn’t be guilty of it. Since she’s not guilty, the team look among Vannerberg’s family and friends, but there seems to be no motive. Then there’s another murder. And another. Now it looks as though someone either has a personal vendetta, or there’s a serial killer at work. In the end, the answer lies in the past, and in people’s relationships years earlier. This story doesn’t, as I say, directly mention the Grimm Brothers’ story of Hansel and Gretel. And I don’t know for a fact that Gerhardsen took her inspiration from that story. Still, it’s arguably a subtle influence in the novel. There’s even a sort of fairy-tale reference at the beginning of the novel:

‘The brown, Queen Anne-style villa is a stately structure, perched at the top of a grass-covered hill, surrounded by tall pine trees. The white corner posts and window casings, with their rounded corners, give it an inviting, fairy-tale shimmer.’

Despite that almost magical beginning, the story turns out to have anything but a fairy-tale happy ending.

There’s also Michael Buckley’s Sisters Grimm series, which features Sabrina and Daphne Grimm as youthful sleuths. The novels are intended for young readers, and take place in the world of Everafter, which combines real and fantasy characters. Perhaps this series isn’t targeted at adult readers, but it’s an interesting look at how fairy tales and mystery fiction are woven together.

In Ruth Rendell’s Gallowglass, which she wrote as Barbara Vine, we meet Joe Herbert. He’s despondent and in fact, is about to throw himself under a train. But he’s saved at the last minute by Sandor Wincanton. What Joe doesn’t know at first is that Sandor has plans for him. He wants Joe to be his ‘gallowglass’ – the servant of a Chief. Joe is blindly loyal to Sandor, and is easily groomed for his role in Sandor’s plans. And Sandor uses a very effective means for winning Joe over. He tells the boy a fairy tale about a prince, a kidnapped princess, and the prince’s quest to rescue her. What Sandor’s really planning, though, is something quite different. He is obsessed with supermodel Nina Abbott, and intends to ‘rescue her’ from the heavily guarded home in which she lives. His use of a fairy tale is essential in getting Joe’s cooperation in a quest that turns horribly wrong.

Of course, fairy tales and legends come from many cultures, and we see that in crime fiction too. For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger features the Ute folktale of Ironhand, a Ute who was able to slip in and out of canyons magically. This allowed him to steal sheep from Navajo (the Utes’ traditional enemy) and confound Navajo attempts to catch him. This tale proves useful when a band of right-wing militiamen pull off a robbery at a Ute casino. It’s suspected that Deputy Sheriff Teddy Bai was an ‘inside person’ who helped the robbers, but Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito doesn’t think he is guilty. When she tells Sergeant Jim Chee about her concerns, he starts to ask questions. It turns out that the truth about this robbery is related to that Ute folktale.

Fairy tales and folk tales may be dismissed as fantasy. But they have permeated our cultural consciousness. And it’s interesting to see how they also permeate crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Falling of the Rain.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Carin Gerhardsen, Michael Buckley, Nele Neuhaus, Ruth Rendell, Tony Hillerman

22 responses to “Once Upon a Time in the Land of Misty Satin Dreams*

  1. This put me in mind of one of the weirdest books I’ve read this year – weird in a good way though – The Shapshifters by Stefan Spjut. Set in Sweden, it is very much a crime novel, about child abductions. But in Spjut’s Sweden, the creatures from Swedish folklore still exist and are involved in the story – trolls and shapeshifters. It’s fascinating how he weaves them into an absolutely contemporary society and makes them believable even to this old cynic. A strange one, indeed, but very readable and done so well it doesn’t require quite as much suspension of disbelief as you’d expect.

  2. Was it Nicholas Blake (aka poet-laureate Cecil Day Lewis) who said that the detective novel is “the folk myth of the twentieth century”? I would certainly add Christie’s BY THE PRICKING OF MY THUMBS to the list of fairy-tale themes mysteries – thanks Margot.

    • That sounds like Blake, Sergio, ‘though I can’t say for sure that it was. And he had a point. So do you, too, for mentioning By The Pricking of My Thumbs – one I shouldn’t have left out. Thanks for filling in the gap.

  3. Col

    Ed McBain had a whole series of Matthew Hope books. The titles at least bear the names of familiar characters…Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Rumpelstiltskin etc. Not sure if the stories in his books are allegorical to the character’s stories or not, as I haven’t yet tried any.

    • Oh, yes, of course, Col, McBain did have those Matthew Hope books. I have to admit I’m more familiar with McBain’s 87th Precinct series. Still, I don’t think the Matthew Hope novels deal directly with the fairly tales mentioned in the titles. At least, they don’t from what very little I know of the series. I’m glad you mentioned these, as I really should ‘dive in’ more.

  4. I read Snow White Must Die which did a fantastic job of alluding to this well-known tale – I’m always fascinated by how these books have been softened over the years to make them more palatable for younger children when the originals are actually so much more gruesome.

    • You’re right, Cleo. The original stories really are gruesome, aren’t they? I wonder if they started out as children’s stories, or were simply scary stories that later evolved into children’s stories. And I agree about how well the Snow White story is woven into Snow White Must Die. It’s quite effective, I think.

  5. Fairy tales do seem to be woven into what we read. In the cozy murder genre author Maia Chance has a Fairy Tale Fatal Mystery series where she does a spin on fairy tale characters such as Cinderella and Snow White so far. Besides, aren’t fairy tales all about death and mystery anyway? Great post, Margot.

    • You know, Mason, you’re right. Fairy tales have a lot of stories of death and mystery woven into them. I hadn’t thought of that, but it’s quite true. Thanks, too, for mentioning the Fairy Tale Facial series. I’ll admit, I’ve not tried it (yet), but I like the way the fairy tale stories and characters are brought into the mysteries.

  6. As I normally do on every visit, I was reading your comments. Such great examples to add to yours. You’ve got a great bunch of crime buffs here. 🙂

    • Oh, I’m very lucky that way, Sue. Such fantastic and well-informed people stop by here, and when they’re kind enough to leave comments, I always learn. Every time.

  7. Kathy D.

    I think or rather I know I’m not drawn to mysteries based on fairy tales: once was enough with those scary Grimm’s tales, Hansel and Gretel, And even the words “Snow White” still bring up the image of the evil queen with the poison apple, a scene that had me at age four hiding under the movie theater’s seat and then having to be carried out by my mother. So, none of that. My father ended up telling us Greek myths rather than those “grim” fairy tales.
    So, it’s not my cup of tea. But legends emanating from peoples’ cultures and customs are different. Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest books are terrific at raising Indigenous people’s belief systems in a very positive, educational way. They are worth reading for a slew of reasons. (We want more of them — plea to the author!)
    And although I haven’t gotten into Tony Hillerman’s books I know I would appreciate them.
    R.J. Harlick — whom you featured earlier in the week — also goes into First Nation culture and folklore in her books, which I so appreciate.
    And, of course, the genius Fred Vargas often uses Medieval myths and beliefs as the background to her books. I think she is fascinated by their holdover especially among rural dwellers in France. The Ghost Riders of Ordebec is one such story.
    So, yes, I do enjoy books with myths and folklore from the peoples of the areas written about.
    But I stay away from the “grim” and scary tales of our childhoods and avoid buying any such books for children I know.
    Why is this? Who knows? My younger sibling would blithely watch horror and disaster movies as I scurried through the room, avoiding the TV.

    • I’m with you, Kathy, in wanting more from Adrian Hyland. Two Emily Tempest books are not enough! And I think you would like the Hillerman books, particularly when it comes to what the novels share about Navajo history, stories and the like. You’re right about the Harlick novels, too. There are other legends and folktales that I’ve read about too that fall into that sort of category. As for Snow White and the other such fairy tales, who knows why people react differently to them. It has a lot, I’d bet, to do with experiences they’ve had, their particular personality, and other individual factors. But I think it is worth saying that the original versions of those old stories really are awfully brutal.

  8. As you say there are some very frequent tropes in fairytales and myths that also are very common in crime fiction – I’d pick out family friction, missing parents, stepmothers, and difficult siblings…. the breath of life to both kinds of story….

    • Oh, absolutely, Moira! I think the two genres really do have a lot in common, now you mention it. Perhaps that’s another reason why you see them blended. You’re really cast a whole new light on this, for which thanks.

  9. Keishon

    I love folk tales and myths in my crime fiction reading. What do you make of Fred Vargas use of it in her series? She’s the first author I think about. I’ll have to see what I have of the books you mention in your post.

    • I actually think Vargas makes some fantastic use of legends and tales, Keishon. She’s so inventive that that aspect doesn’t surprise me. And I will be interested in your view if you get to some of these others.

  10. tracybham

    No suggestions come to mind, Margot, but this is a very interesting topic. I will be on the lookout for this combination.

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