For thousands of years, people have merged beauty and practicality in many ways (blankets, clothing, furnishings, etc.). And in doing so, they’ve left behind real windows into their lives. We see this in a lot of ways; I’d never be able to do justice to it in a book, let alone a blog post. But we can get a hint just by looking at pottery.
If you have handmade pottery, then you know it really can be seen as a form of art. If you’ve made it, you may feel even more strongly about that. But pottery also serves lots of practical uses. Potters and pottery certainly turn up in crime fiction, and that makes sense. There are all sorts of possibilities for including interesting information, linking past and present in a mystery, and even creating conflict.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Illustrious Client, pottery is used as a way for Dr. Watson to help Sherlock Holmes prevent a disaster. Sir James Damery is worried about his daughter, Violet, who’s fallen in love with Baron Adelbert Gruner. Both Holmes and Damery are certain that this marriage will end in disaster, since the baron is a philanderer who sees women merely as conquests. The problem is that the Baron has a way of getting a hold over people, so that they do anything he wants. That includes thuggery against anyone who tries to get in his way. Holmes learns from one of Gruner’s former mistresses that he has a book in which he’s chronicled his amorous adventures, and it’s hoped that, if Violet sees that book and learns the truth, she’ll break off the engagement. But getting the book proves to be harder than it seems. The Baron has one weakness, though: he is a renowned expert on and collector of Chinese pottery. So Holmes has Watson study up on Chinese pottery and go to Gruner’s home in the guise of someone wishing to sell a Ming piece. Watson’s visit has some unintended consequences, but it certainly plays a role in helping Holmes’ client.
Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) introduces London potter and sculptor Henrietta Savernake. One weekend, she’s invited to the home of a cousin, Lady Lucy Angkatell. Among the other guests is Henrietta’s lover, John Christow, and his wife, Gerda. Also present are some of Lucy’s other relatives: Midge Hardcastle, Edward Angkatell (who is in love with Henrietta), and David Angkatell. As you can imagine, the weekend does not bode well. On the Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who has taken a nearby cottage, is invited to lunch. When he arrives, he sees what he thinks is a macabre sort of joke, set up for his ‘benefit.’ John Christow has been shot and is lying by the pool. His killer is standing nearby, holding the weapon. Within seconds, it’s clear to Poirot that this isn’t a tableau: it’s a real murder scene. But does it tell the truth? Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who really killed Christow and why. And it’s interesting to see how pottery plays a role in solving the crime. You’re quite right, fans of Murder in Mesopotamia and of The ABC Murders.
In Mary Kelly’s The Spoilt Kill, PI Hedley Nicholson is hired by Luke Shentall, of the Shentall Pottery Factory in Stoke-on-Trent. Someone’s been stealing pottery designs from the factory and selling them to foreign competitors. One of the main suspects is the firm’s top designer, Corinna Wakefield. On the one hand, she’s a likely possibility; she’s quite talented, and has access to everything she’d need to be ‘the mole.’ And, since she’s an ‘outsider,’ no-one knows much about her. On the other hand, there are other possibilities. And the very fact that she’s an ‘outsider’ could prejudice people against her. Then one day, Corinna is on the spot when a body is discovered in a kiln. She says she’s innocent, and Nicholson wants to believe her, especially since he’s fallen for her. But is she? And are the two crimes connected?
Margaret Maron’s Uncommon Clay introduces readers to the Nordan family, a dynasty with a long history of pottery-making. Now the family’s being torn apart by a messy, ugly divorce. James Nordan and Sandra Hitchcock, both highly skilled potters, are separating after twenty-five years. Judge Deborah Knott is in the Asheboro (North Carolina) area to visit the potters’ festival there, and see if she can find a piece that she wants. While she’s there, she’s also on temporary assignment; her role is to oversee the distribution of the Nordan/Hitchcock property and ensure that it’s as equitable as possible. Everything changes, though, when Nordan’s body is found in a kiln. Sandra is the natural most likely suspect, but this case turns out to be more complex than that.
And then there’s Stephen E. Stanley’s Pottery and Poets, which features his sleuth, Luke Littlefield. He is an academic who also writes crime fiction (hmm…). His specialty is cultural anthropology, so, in one plot thread of this novel, he is consulted when a major find is reported in the Cape Cod area. Littlefield is from Maine, so besides his academic credentials, he knows New England and a lot of its history. He is sent a collection of pottery and other relics, and uses it to establish that the dig may be a long-buried 17th Century village. Apparently, a fire swept through the village. It wasn’t a brush fire or a lightning strike, so one mystery concerns how the fire started. The other concerns the unexplained death of the village’s cleric, Reverend Josiah Babbage. It was believed he committed suicide, but did he? In this plot thread, it’s really interesting to see how Littlefield’s knowledge of pottery helps him to draw some conclusions about the village and its people.
And I don’t think I could do a post on pottery without mentioning Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins. She is a sculptor, potter, and sometime-model who is very much a free spirit. But she is quite loyal to her friends, among whom is Gentill’s protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. In fact, she’s his muse. During the time when this series takes place (the 1930s), it’s a bit unusual for a woman to chart her own artistic and personal course, but that’s exactly what Edna Higgins does.
Pottery really is fascinating, and so are the people who create it. They have a unique perspective on the world, and the things they make reflect that world. Little wonder we see that perspective in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George and Ira Gershwin’s Love is Here to Stay.