What do you do when you’ve been hit with a major stressor? It could be a serious illness (or worse, a death) in the family, a job loss, a move (even a positive move), or something else. After all, food still needs to be bought and cooked, the mortgage still comes due, and the kids still need to get to school. Sometimes, concentrating on those ordinary, everyday tasks like doing the dishes and walking the dog can help give structure until life starts to feel a little more settled again.
If you’ve been through a traumatic experience, you may have found that doing those everyday things can help you feel a little, well, normal. And that can help you cope. We see a lot of that cooping strategy in crime fiction, and that makes sense. The genre is full of characters who have to face the worse trauma of their lives.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), the Angkatell family faces a tragedy when a weekend houseguest is murdered. Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda, spend the weekend at the Angkatell’s country home. On the Sunday afternoon, he is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch that day, and he arrives just after the incident. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who shot the victim and why. Shortly after the police arrive, Lady Lucy Angkatell makes what seems like a heartless comment about serving lunch. But in a way, it’s not heartless at all. Here’s what another guest thinks about it:
‘One did remember the servants, and worry about meals. One did, even, feel hungry.’
And somehow, those ‘normal’ things work to keep everyone going as the police investigation continues.
Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger takes place mostly in the context of Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) use. One day, postman Joseph Higgins is brought in with a fractured femur. It’s a routine operation, but not without risks. Still, nobody expects him to die. And yet, that’s exactly what happens. Higgins’ death during surgery is put down to a tragic freak incident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police investigates, presumably just to ‘rubber stamp’ the official theory of a tragic accident. But it’s not long before questions come up. For one thing, Higgins’ wife insists that he was murdered. Then one night, a nurse, Sister Marion Bates, has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that Higgins was killed, and she knows how it happened. Later that night she is murdered. Now it’s clear that something sinister is going on, and Cockrill changes the nature of his investigation. The closer he gets to the truth, the more his interest starts to focus on six people in particular, all of whom are employees of the hospital. Despite the fact that there’ve been two murders, and the others are under suspicion, everyone has to go about normal duties. And there are their own daily routines. Those mundane tasks form an interesting counterpoint to the suspicion and suspense of the investigation.
In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, we are introduced to academic and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn. As a widowed mother of three (in this novel), she’s been trying to put the pieces of her life back together since the murder of her husband, Ian. He was killed when he stopped to help two young people who were stranded by car trouble. When he refused to take them to a party, one of them murdered him. Just when Joanne thinks that life is moving along again, her friend and political ally Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is murdered by what turns out to be poison. It’s a bit like reliving Ian’s murder in some ways, so the Kilbourn family’s fragile stability is rocked. Still, they muddle along, and Joanne decides to write a biography of her friend as a way of coping. That choice ends up being very dangerous for her as she gets closer to the truth about Andy’s death. At one point, an old friend of the family stops by for breakfast, bringing fresh corn:
‘I made coffee. Howard cooked the corn, and it was wonderful, indescribably delicate and sweet… It was an oddly comforting meal…’
Just the routine of making and eating a meal together helps Joanne deal with the events of the novel.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe knows that sometimes, those little ‘normal’ tasks can help people focus and cope, so that she can help them. It’s partly for that reason that, when she meets with a new client, she often settles her guest with a cup of bush tea and sometimes cake before getting down to business. Politeness is part of it, too, of course; but those everyday, ‘normal’ things do help her clients come to terms with what’s happened in their lives.
And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. In that novel, Joanna Lindsay and her partner, Alistair Robertson, travel from her native Scotland to his home in Victoria. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. After they land, they begin a long drive from the airport to their destination. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. A massive search gets underway, and the media outlets are very sympathetic at first. But then questions begin to arise. What really happened to Noah? Did one (or both) of his parents have something to do with his disappearance? It’s all harrowing, especially for Joanna. She finds it hard to concentrate, and the media scrutiny doesn’t make it any easier. At one point, Alistair recommends that she take a walk to the shops, and maybe make something in the kitchen, to keep herself busy:
‘She Googled the jam recipe and set to: washing and boiling the berries, draining the misty pink juice through muslin, adding sugar and lemon, boiling, removing scum, waiting for it to set.’
The rhythm of that ‘normal’ sort of task doesn’t make Joanna feel a whole lot better. And it certainly doesn’t take away the fact that Noah is gone. But it’s the sort of mindless task that helps a person feel normal.
And that’s the thing about such everyday tasks. They can help a person connect with normal, whatever that is, during the coping process. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to take out some trash and then walk the dogs.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s The Pretender.