Life 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.