Call Up the Craftsmen, Bring Me the Draftsmen*

HandmadeThere’s something about handmade, custom-created things. There’s a personal touch that you don’t see in machine-made products. And when you’re fortunate enough to have something custom made, you know what a difference that extra effort and personal touch can make. Before the advent of the assembly line, a lot of things were handmade, but that’s not as true now. So when you can get something handmade, the experience can be all the richer.

Handmade and custom-made products add richness to crime fiction, too. There are, of course, historical series such as Eleanor Kuhns’ that feature handmade things. Her Will Rees is an itinerant weaver whose trade is a part of this series. And this is by no means the only example.

But there are also books and series set in modern times that include people who create handmade and custom-made things. For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels take place mostly among the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation is noted for exquisite weaving, so Navajo blankets and rugs are well-made and beautiful, too. If you know where to go, you can actually find some that are made traditionally (i.e. not just produced for tourists). In People of Darkness, for instance, Chee, who is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, is looking for a man named Tomas Charley, who may have valuable information on a case he’s investigating. He learns that Charley will be attending a rug auction at a local elementary school, and goes there. The rug auction is a regular way for local weavers to sell their wares, and for those handmade products to be available to successful bidders. It’s not the sort of thing that you find at a roadside tourist stop. But for those who know, there’s nothing like a custom-made rug or blanket.

Handmade rugs also feature in Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client. Pranav Gupta wants to know what happened to his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ The younger Gupta had been on a trip to the Middle East to give a series of lectures on antique carpets, and to get some samples of traditionally-made carpets for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent collection. He was killed in what police said was a tragic, but unplanned, murder by local thugs in an open-air market. But Pranav Gupta thinks otherwise, and sends Bidulka to the Middle East to find out the truth.

If you enjoy baked goods, then you know that it’s hard to match the quality of fresh-baked, homemade bakery items. That’s part of the reason why Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is successful with her bakery, Earthly Delights. She is dedicated to making real breads with proper ingredients, and she knows the difference between machine-produced bread and handmade bread. And her apprentice, Jason Wallace, is just as dedicated. His specialty is muffins, and his work is of such quality that one of his nicknames is ‘The Muffin Man.’ When a competitor from a large chain called Best Fresh moves in down the street in Trick or Treat, we see just how seriously these two take their work. Best Fresh may be a larger company, but the cooks there are more technicians than they are real bakers, and that difference shows in the product.

D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington knows the value of handmade, custom-created products, too. He is a former milliner, who ran the family business for several years in London. Now he’s retired to the village of Tuesbury, where he still makes hats to order – discreetly, of course, so as not to arouse too much interest from the local council. After all, he’s not technically supposed to have a business on his home property. But anyone who has a Heatherington hat knows how well worth it that extra effort is. Heatherington creates hats from the right materials, and always with his client’s needs and wishes foremost in mind. He’s quite observant, too, which makes him not only a skilled milliner, but also a very apt amateur detective…

Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels will know that he has unofficially apprenticed himself to cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Both of them know the value of careful workmanship and the right wood. They tease each other, but they both respect the effort it takes to do a cabinet job the right way – by hand.

And then there’s Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker. He and his assistant Virgile Lanssien are wine experts, and they know what it takes to make great wine. Certainly there are machines and technology used in the process, but at the same time, the real key to fine wine is the personal touch of the vintner. Properly made wine doesn’t taste ‘mass produced,’ and these amateur sleuths know that. In this series, along with the mysteries, readers also get a look at the way wine is made, and the many subtleties that the personal touch adds to the final product.

There are other series, too, that feature characters who make handmade and custom-made items. There’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which feature Beatrice Coleman. She’s retired from her work as an Atlanta folk art curator, and has moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina, where she’s joined a local quilting guild, the Village Quilters. In this series, readers get a look at the Southern tradition of handmade quilts. And there are Beth Groundwater’s Claire Hanover novels, which feature custom-made gift baskets. Those are only two examples; there are many others.

Although today’s technology certainly has its place, there really is something about handmade and custom-made items. Perhaps it’s because so much is machine-made that we really appreciate it when something is made just for us.


ps. The ‘photo shows you what I mean. This set of bookshelves was handmade by a friend who’s, among other things, a skilled carpenter. I love it, not least because of the careful workmanship that went into it. What?! Can’t a girl find a solution to the TBR problem? 😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars.



Filed under Anthony Bidulka, Beth Groundwater, D.S. Nelson, Eleanor Kuhns, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Kerry Greenwood, Noël Balen, Peter Temple, Tony Hillerman

32 responses to “Call Up the Craftsmen, Bring Me the Draftsmen*

  1. The gentler crime novels often seem to feature some sort of craft or art. One of the nice things about them.

  2. I quite agree Patti – one of the great things about my Dad is that he can build or repair practically anything and to me that is such a precious ability, one that seems to be truly on its way out. Perhaps that’s what the greatest sleuths are – artisans rather than professionals? 🙂

    • Oh, that’s intriguing, Sergio! And I do think that it’s possible for a sleuth to be an artisan. I like the way you think! And you’re fortunate that your father has that sort of gift. It is certainly rare these days!

  3. There doesn’t look as though there’s much room left in your bookcase, Margot. Maybe it’s time to get an extra one made… 😉

  4. Col

    Time to read some more Peter Temple soon I think. Thanks for the reminder!

  5. Margot: And there’s room for another group of shelves to go atop the bookcase. All you need is a rolling ladder. I can see you whizzing around the room!

  6. Kathy D.

    Yes, crafts and self-made furniture and, of course, baked goods, all attractive. And anyone who can do these things has my congratulations.
    Except for Corinna Chapman, can’t think of sleuths who make things, only spouses of detectives who are culinary artists, as Paola Falier, Guido Brunetti’s spouse and Irene Huss’s spouse, Krister.
    V.I. Warshawski can sing and play the piano, but isn’t a craftsperson.

    • There are definitely plenty of culinary craftspeople among fictional sleuths, aren’t there? I’m glad you mentioned Guido Brunetti; his father was a glass blower, and I like what we learn about that craft in Through a Glass, Darkly.

  7. There are so many wonderful crafts mentioned in crime fiction. Maybe it’s a great way to introduce the next generation to elements they may not otherwise know since technology consumes our lives so much. Your post made me think about when a beloved handmade object is used in a crime, the killer sometimes get caught because they can’t part with the item. Love your bookcase.

    • Thank you, Mason – I love it, too. And I really like your idea about introducing new generations to certain crafts (like cabinetry or weaving) that they might not otherwise get the chance to see. As you say, technology is so omnipresent that books can be a way for them to learn those things that you don’t see as often any more.

  8. When we first bought our house we had a local carpenter make us a kitchen table and floor-to-ceiling knotty pine doors for built-in shelves in the kitchen that were an eye sore, with all our can goods, etc, on display. He used the old cast iron hinges and handles. It’s really become a showcased area. Love hand-crafted workmanship!

    • Oh, it all sounds wonderful, Sue! And I’ll bet your kitchen turned out beautifully! You’re right about that workmanship – there’s nothing like it at all.

  9. Thanks for including my Mrs Hetherington in your run down, Margot. What an excellent selection of craftsman and as always a very informative post with more books to add to the TBR list 🙂

  10. let’s have a shoutout for all those Golden Age desks with secret doors, intricate boxes with tricks to get into them, false bottoms in drawers and boxes, intricately carved curios from the East…. all must have been made by unsung craftspeople…

    • Oh, yes, indeed, Moira! I hadn’t thought about that connection, but it’s most definitely there, so I’m glad you’ve filled in that gap. You have to love those secret compartments, those boxes, and so on. Where would those classic novels be without them?

  11. Kathy D.

    Can one be considered a craftsperson for devising the perfectly executed locked-room murder, where elaborate construction of a door, window, lock, key, secret passage, etc. is involved?
    If so, then I congratulate Sjowall and Wahloo’s book “The Locked-Room Mystery.”

    • Now, that’s an interesting question, Kathy. I think someone who writes an outstanding book can be considered a craftsperson. You raise a fascinating point here.

  12. I’m late again, Margot, but let me add one of my favorite characters from one of Arthur Upfield’s Bony novels. In The Clue of the New Shoe, we meet Ed Penwarden, a fine craftsman who makes coffins by hand, with exquisite workmanship, mostly from red-gum wood. The coffins – and Mr. Penwarden’s craftsmanship – play major (and unexpected) roles in the story – one of the best in the series, IMHO.

    • There’s no such thing as late here, Les; it’s a never-ending party. And I’m very glad you added that example. Not only is the Bony series an excellent one, but Penwarden is exactly the sort of carpenter/craftsperson I had in mind with this post. Thanks

  13. Your examples are mostly current mysteries, Margot, but this seems another case where this type of person shows up more in vintage mysteries. I can’t think of many mysteries that I have read that feature this type of person and talent.

    • That’s an interesting point, Tracy. There are certainly plenty of cosy mysteries where you see craftspeople. Otherwise, though, I think there are a lot of them in vintage mysteries, perhaps more than in modern mysteries.

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