Every 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.