It’s Just Another Day*

Regular HabitsTo an extent, most of us are creatures of habit. We leave our keys in the same place all the time. We walk the dog or feed the cat at the same time. We usually take the same route to work. Or we order the same thing for lunch most of the time. Those routines can be comforting, and can free our minds up to deal with other things. And they help us not lose keys, handbags and so on.

We may not even be aware of our routines, but they figure in our lives. And they can be very useful for fictional criminals. Learning someone’s habits is a good way to find out when that person is vulnerable. For the detective, finding out people’s habits can also be useful. It’s a good way to learn who might have been in contact with a victim. And when a person goes missing, the first thing detectives do is find out where that person would likely be in the habit of going. Finding out people’s habits is also a way for the detective to find possible witnesses to a crime (e.g. Who’s in the habit of walking their dogs at the time the victim was seen going towards…). There are a lot of examples of the way habits are used in crime fiction, both by sleuths and by criminals. Here are just a few examples.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Violet Smith. She’s been hired as a live-in piano teacher at Chiltern Grange. The arrangement is that she spends the week there, and weekends with her mother in London. So, every Friday, she bicycles from Chiltern Grange to the train station. Every Monday she returns by the same route. And therein lies the problem. As Violet tells the story, she’s been followed lately by a man on a bicycle. He doesn’t allow himself to get close enough to her so she can get a good look at him. And he hasn’t approached her or spoken to her. But he knows her habits. She’s now quite concerned, and wants Holmes to investigate. This he agrees to do, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. It turns out that Violet Smith’s routine is key to this story.

So are the routines of Bob, the terrier who features in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). Bob shares his home with Miss Emily Arundell, a wealthy woman with plenty of financially desperate relatives. During one holiday, they come to visit her. She’s not at all naïve enough to think they’re visiting because they love spending time with her, but she makes it clear that they’ll get everything when she dies, and that they’ll have to wait until then. Late one night, Miss Arundell has a dangerous fall down a flight of stairs. At first, it’s put down to a terrible accident caused by Bob’s habit of leaving his toy ball at the top of the stairs. Everyone thinks Miss Arundell slipped on the ball and fell. But once the initial shock wears off and she has time to think things through, Miss Arundell is no longer quite so sure that that’s what happened. Now she begins to believe that someone is trying to kill her. So she writes to Hercule Poirot. By the time he gets the letter, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. It turns out, though, that she’s been poisoned. Now Poirot works to find out who the killer is. And there are several possibilities. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that it’s not Bob the terrier.

In Donald Westlake’s The Hot Rock, we are introduced to John Dortmunder, who’s recently been released from prison. He learns through a friend that there’s a heist in the works that might interest him. The target this time is a valuable gem called the Balabomo Emerald, which is part of an exhibition being shown at New York’s Coliseum. And the client is Major Patrick Iko, the UN Ambassador from Talabwo. There’s a lot of money to be had if Dortmunder and his team can get the emerald, so they make their plans carefully. Part of that process is studying the habits of the staff, the guards, and the visitors. This heist isn’t going to be easy, because as you can imagine, the jewel is heavily guarded. But after a time, they learn those habits, and put together their plan. Needless to say, it doesn’t exactly go as planned…

In Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to psychologist Alice Quentin. DCI Don Burns asks her to help evaluate a soon-to-be-released prison inmate named Morris Cley to determine if he’ll be a danger to society. She believes that he won’t, and says as much to Burns, so Cley is released. That night, during her usual run through London, she discovers a body that’s been dumped at an old cemetery. Burns believes that this murder may be related to a series of other murders from several years ago, and that Cley is the key. But he seems to have disappeared. Now Burns asks Quentin to help profile and try to identify the killer. In the meantime, though, she starts getting disturbing notes that suggest that someone has learned about her habits (in particular, her habit of going running) and is stalking her. If that person is the killer, Quentin is in real danger. So she’ll have to try to find the killer in order to keep safe herself.

Because people do have habits and routines, it’s sometimes quite noticeable when they don’t follow them. For example, in Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall, we follow Gurdial Singh one morning as he’s doing his rounds delivering the Globe and Mail to his Toronto customers. One of his stops is the exclusive Market Place Tower condominiums, where he always stops at the home of famous radio personality Kevin Brace. And every morning, Brace is there, waiting for the paper, with a mug of tea and a moment or two of conversation. This morning, though, Brace isn’t at the door, as is his habit. Singh is immediately concerned, and wonders for a moment what to do. He finally drops the paper as loudly as he can at the door, so that hopefully Brace will hear him. After a while, Brace appears, and it’s soon clear that something terrible has happened. And it has. Brace’s common-law wife Katherine Thorn has been killed. Detective Ari Greene and his team investigate, and find that this case is not at all ‘open and shut.’

Most of us have our little routines and habits. They make things comfortable and predictable, and that can be a good thing. And they can turn out to be very useful in a crime novel, too.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s Another Day.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Donald Westlake, Kate Rhodes, Robert Rotenberg

32 responses to “It’s Just Another Day*

  1. Oh yes and I find as I get older I mind more when my routines get interrupted – an annoyance I try to resist to avoid becoming a grumpy old woman. I’m glad you mentioned Alice Quentin whose running habits are documented throughout this series.

  2. I love Bob the dog – I think he’s one of my favourite Christie characters! I was going to mention Peter Tremayne’s historical series set in 7th century Ireland about Sister Fidelma… but I think that’s a different kind of habit… 😉

    • 😆 I think so, too, FictionFan! And yes, Bob is a great character, isn’t he? Just – well – you may not want to let Tommy and Tuppence know how you feel about a mere canine… 😉

  3. I can’t think of an example right now but yes, a lot of the times there are habits mentioned in the crime novels and killers using these habits in their advantage. I’m a terrible creature of habit, I always order and eat the same things, and it’s hard to make me change things.

    • You’re not alone, TBR. I think to an extent most of us are creatures of habit. It just makes life easier when we do things in a way that works for us, and keep that routine. As you say, that can make fictional characters very vulnerable. But it is very human.

  4. Tim

    I have nothing substantial to add here. However, I must — again — thank you for adding to my must-read list with your generous, encyclopedic renderings of so many stories/novels. I have no idea how you remember so many details. Whew!

  5. Good observation, Margot. Disrupted routines show up in lots of novels as a sign of life gone terribly wrong. We are all creatures of habit and the person who’s paying attention (like the old lady watching neighborhood activities out her window) will notice changes.

  6. There’s a Poirot short story by the sainted Agatha, Four and Twenty Blackbirds, in which a man of very regular habits suddenly one night changes his ways, and dies not long after. Was he very stressed perhaps – what was going on? But Poirot makes one of his excellent logical leaps, quite a satisfying one I think.

    • Oh, yes!! I’m so glad you filled in that gap, Moira. And it’s interesting how that story makes use of habits and changes in them. Somehow, Poirot’s leaps of logic just work in that story.

  7. Margot, I think Poirot would be no fun without his routine and habits. I wonder if he’d have been as meticulous and fastidious in his investigations if he didn’t live his life according to plan. He’d have been annoying in the real world.

    • I think so, too, Prashant. And yet, as you say, those little habits and rituals really are an important part of what makes him, well, Poirot. And he wouldn’t be the same without them.

  8. Routines do make us feel grounded and safe. When my routine gets interrupted it can really throw me off-kilter. I think that’s why they work so well in crime novels, because we all are creatures of habit. Excellent examples as always, Margot.

    • Thanks, Sue. And I think you’re right about routines. We do depend on them, and we do feel off-kilter and out of sorts when our routines are disrupted. There’s a real comfort in our habits.

  9. kathyd

    What would we do without our habits and routines? When I can’t go out at night to get my chocolate fix, that gets me crabby, or when I don’t have time to pick up my New York Times or a mystery and read a few pages at night.
    I’m sure everyone has them and when we get holder, we get more set in our ways.
    Look at Salvo Montalbano: If he can’t get his daily pasta and pesce, he gets even crankier.
    Guido Brunetti goes home for a family lunch and dinner. Where would he be without this ritual?
    One could go on and on about the habits of our favorite detectives.

    • I think you’re absolutely right, Kathy. We do depend on our habits, whether they’re going out for chocolate, reading the paper, or something else. When those rituals get disrupted, it an ‘upend’ us, and that can definitely make us feel cranky. Thanks for the reminder about both Camilleri’s Montalbano and Leon’s Brunetti. Both do have their habits and routines; and, when they can’t follow them, it does make them grumpy.

  10. kathyd

    And then there’s the agoraphobic genius of NY’s West Side, with his fixed schedule, his green house hours, his mealtimes, his clothing, etc., etc. It could only be Nero Wolfe, the most extreme creature of habit ever crafted.
    Now he gets very crabby if removed from his environment or made to vary his routine.
    If someone is murdered during his orchid green house time, that murder has to wait until he’s finished.

  11. Col

    I do like routine and regularity in my own life. Perhaps that’s partly why I like reading about disruption to it in crime fiction.

    • That’s an interesting point, Col. I think a lot of people are comfortable with (and prefer) their regular routines and habits. But at the same time, speculating about disruptions can be intriguing. That’s what crime fiction is for.

  12. tracybham

    I do have a lot of routine in my life. And I can see where routine in the victims lives can be quite useful to criminals.

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