Try to Realise It’s All Within Yourself*

Mind FocusLife can get very stressful at times, especially when one’s faced with a challenging task. It helps to clear one’s mind and focus, to drive away the clutter. And there are dozens of different ways to do that. An interesting guest post on author and fellow blogger Sarah Ward’s blog has got me thinking about what people do to help them focus when they need to accomplish something. The discussion on the post is about music (and you’ll want to check it out for some great musical ideas!). There are a lot of other ways to focus, too, and we see them in crime fiction just as we do in real life.

Any fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes can tell you that he is a skilled violinist. At times, he plays for others’ (read: Watson’s) enjoyment. But he also uses the violin as a way to clear his mind and ponder an investigation. And as we learn in A Study in Scarlet, when he’s doing that, Holmes doesn’t really play songs. Instead, he

‘…would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee.’

The result may not be musically appealing, but it does help him to concentrate.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he sometimes builds houses of cards (and does jigsaw puzzles) to clear his mind when a case is particularly challenging. For example, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot is faced with a difficult investigation. Reverend Stephen Babbington was poisoned by a cocktail at a small party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Babbington had no enemies that anyone knew of, and certainly no fortune to leave. So it’s hard to understand why anyone would have wanted him to die. Then, not long afterwards, Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange was poisoned at a dinner party at his home. Many of the same people were present at both occasions, and the murder method is nearly identical. So the two deaths are likely connected, but it’s hard to see how. One day, Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore, who’s mixed up in the case, goes to visit Poirot. When she arrives, she sees him building a house of cards with a deck of Happy Families cards. Poirot explains to her that he does this because it stimulates his mind. And in this case, his house of cards turns out to provide him with an important clue, too.

Some fictional sleuths run as a way clear out the mental cobwebs. For example, Kate Rhodes’ Alice Quentin is a dedicated runner. She’s a psychologist who often works with the police, so her job can be quite stressful. She also has a very difficult past, so she’s got her own personal issues to face. Running frees her mentally, and helps her to clear her mind. Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. In Crossbones Yard, the first Alice Quentin novel, she’s on an evening run through London when she discovers a body at an old graveyard that used to be used for prostitutes. A body in a graveyard isn’t such a surprising find, but this body is quite new. And it turns out that this death might very well be related to the recent release of convicted killer, and to a set of previous killings.

K.T. Medina’s Tess Hardy, whom we meet in White Crocodile, also uses running as a way to free her mind and clear out the clutter. She’s a member of MCT, a charity mine-clearing agency, and has seen her share of danger. One day, she gets a call from her abusive ex-husband Luke, who now works as a mine clearer in Cambodia. He has a completely different attitude now to the one she’s accustomed to; he’s more balanced, but most importantly, he’s afraid. Something about the place has unsettled him. There’s not much time to find out what it is, though, because two weeks later, he’s dead. Tess travels to Cambodia to look into what’s happened to him, and finds herself drawn into a dark mystery. Young women are disappearing, and abandoning their babies. Some of them are discovered murdered. Tess’ habit of running doesn’t solve the mystery of the murders, but it does add an interesting layer to her character.

Along similar lines, in Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilse Klein, who swims as a way to focus herself and clear her mind. Originally from Leipzig, she and her family moved to New Zealand during the ‘Iron Curtain’ years to escape the Stasi, the dreaded East German secret police. Now, she lives and works in the small town of Alexandria, on South Island. She gets concerned when one of her most promising pupils, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She misses a lot of classes, and when she is there, doesn’t participate. Ilse voices her concerns to the school’s counseling service, but that backfires when Serena’s mother refuses to cooperate. Then, Serena goes missing. Ilse’s decision to take an interest in Serena’s well-being has consequences she couldn’t have imagined.

Many people choose meditation as a way to focus themselves. And there are studies that suggest that meditation is associated with a stable heart rate, lower incidence of stress-related illnesses, and lower levels of depression, among other things. Whether those studies are actually correct, millions of people find personal benefit in meditation. Certainly John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep does. He is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and lives and works in Bangkok. He is also a dedicated Buddhist who continually strives to move towards enlightenment. That process involves mental and physical discipline, for which Sonchai needs a clear and focused mind. And for that, he engages in regular meditation. To a great extent, he meditates as a part of his commitment to the Buddhist Eight-Fold Path. But meditation also helps him to keep the clutter at bay, so to speak, as he works on his investigations.

Whether it’s music, puzzles, running, meditating or something else, people do need a way to focus their minds and clear out the ‘static.’ And it’s interesting to see how different fictional sleuths go about it. These are just a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Within You Without You.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, John Burdett, K.T. Medina, Kate Rhodes, Paddy Richardson

30 responses to “Try to Realise It’s All Within Yourself*

  1. tracybham

    I like the idea of Poirot building houses of cards and working on jigsaw puzzles… I don’t believe I have encountered any of the books where he does this. A timely post for me, Margot. I have been extremely stressed at work lately and it affects everything in my life, reading and blogging included.

    • I think that’s the way stress is, Tracy. It really does seep into everything, doesn’t it? I hope things ease up for you soon. And I like that aspect of Poirot’s character, too.

  2. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey is another one who likes to run. Lord Peter Wimsey has a lot of hobbies and pastimes, such as collecting rare books, and playing the piano – perhaps they are for de-stressing, although also filling the time because he doesn’t have a proper job…

    • You know, I hadn’t thought about that, Moira, but I can certainly see those hobbies as Wimsey’s way of passing time. And yes, indeed, Kinsey Millhone keeps her focus by running. I appreciate your filling in that gap.

  3. Pingback: Try to Realise It’s All Within Yourself* – Bum's Landing Memorial – Andrè Michael Pietroschek at

  4. I learned to meditate quite early in life, and still I remain of the opinion that it is, like in yin & yang, only one “half” of the solution. The other ‘half’ depends on what kind of problem ails us or stresses us beyond the bearable level. So meditation to develop a basic level of stress-resistance, but by specific problem further actions like sports, serious talks with the mate, hugging the cat, or writing that story or poem nobody considered ‘proper for us’… 😉

  5. Margot: I have always thought that Nero Wolfe has the right approach of thinking while drinking two beer.

  6. kathyd

    V.I. Warshawski runs with her dogs along Lake Michigan, a beautiful shoreline. I grew up there and miss swimming in it. She also listens to opera.
    Guido Brunetti reads Roman and Greek history to relax and walks through Venice.
    Salva Montalbano drinks wine and reads crime fiction, including by his own author!
    Irene Huss takes martial arts lessons and walks her dog.

    • Right you are, Kathy. Warshawski does use running to focus herself, and Helene TUrsten’s Irene Huss does martial arts. Both are good ways to clear the mind and focus. I’m glad you mentioned them, too – excellent examples of what I had in mind with this post.

  7. When I need to think I wash dishes, blow dry and straighten my hair, or go for a long walk … when my main character needs to think she bounces thoughts off an imaginary friend or runs when she doesn’t want to think there’s tequila. 🙂

    • 😆 Yes, there’s always tequila, isn’t there, Cat? And you know, long walks or runs really can clear out the cobwebs. Funny you’d mention dishes; Agatha Christie said that the best time to plan a novel is when you’re doing the dishes, so you’re in good company.

      • Last night there was definitely tequila 🙂 so many good ideas come from Agave. 😉 … dishes and drying my hair are the best ways to come up with plot twists and massive scenes. Great minds?

        • Great minds, indeed, Cat! 🙂 – And hey, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of Agave now and then… 🙂 Funny, too, how doing mundane things like hair, laundry, dishes, etc. calms the mind and lets you focus. I know that happens to me.

  8. Kathy already mentioned that Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski runs and listens to opera, but I think she also plays basketball. I believe there was at least one novel where she played or coached some at-risk teen girls (perhaps not so relaxing). According to Wikipidia, she also likes long soaks in the tub, although I didn’t remember that from the novels.

    • I’m so glad you mentioned Warshawski’s interest in basketball, Pat. In fact, you reminded me of Fire Sale, where those basketball skills come into the plot, when Warshawski coaches the girls’ basketball team at her former high school.

  9. Great post, Margot. I have never read about a meditating sleuth in crime fiction. For that matter, do PIs solve crosswords anymore? British private eye Rip Kirby did in the comics books, I think. I favour meditation. You can do it anywhere, anytime, whenever the mood suits you, and it works wonders.

    • Oh, crossword puzzles are great relaxation, Prashant. And you’re right that they’re portable. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse loves solving them, and he’s not alone.

  10. Great post, Margot. Didn’t Philip Marlowe play games of chess against himself? Or something similar?

  11. I’m always amazed at how doing something mundane often helps me find a solution to a problem so ironing often brings key eureka moments and swimming definitely stops me thinking and so blows all those cobwebs away – whether there is anything else left afterwards is sometimes the problem 😉 I do enjoy the Kate Rhodes series but all the running she does exhausts me!

    • It is a good series, isn’t it, Cleo? I don’t think I’d be able to do all that running, either, though! And you’ve got a point: something like ironing, dishes, or dusting can really relax the mind so that you can focus yourself. Little wonder Agatha Christie said that the best time to plan a story is while you’re doing the dishes.

  12. kathyd

    And how many detectives listen to music? Harry Bosch is a jazz enthusiast.
    Me? I read crime fiction to distract and clear my mind. How can I be stewing about something when a character is in distress or a detective is pursuing clues? Reading a book with descriptions of beautiful locations is so relaxing — vicariously being in meadows, forests, on lake or ocean shores will do it. The Outer Hebrides is one such location in Peter May’s books.
    And then there are dvd’s to watch. Forget today’s news. That just creates more stress.

    • I’m glad you mentioned music, Kathy. Bosch, Warshawski, and lots of other sleuths often clear their minds with music. And they have different tastes, which I find really interesting. And as for crime fiction, it certainly is a stress reliever, isn’t it? Getting lost in a good story does help one clear the mind and face one’s life again.

  13. Playing 2 deck solitaire works also. It’s like moving characters around. trying them here, “no that didn’t work”. Then that hand doesn’t work, so lets redeal and try a different sequence. Your post brought up something to think about for characters. Lets not forget Miss Marple and her knitting or Inspector Morse and his opera and classical music (I’m with
    Sergeant Lewis,on that, “sometimes it can be distracting”). .

    • Thanks, Judy, for mentioning two-deck solitaire. Games like that really can calm the mind, can’t they? And, yes, Miss Marple’s knitting often serves as a way to help her focus. And Morse does the same with his opera. It seems many of those sleuths have ways of calming themselves, so they can focus their minds. It’s interesting to see how they do it.

  14. Col

    Pronzini’s Nameless has his Pulp magazines.

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