And When the Morning Light Comes Streamin’ In, I’ll Get Up and Do It Again*

everydaytasksWhat 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Christianna Brand, Gail Bowen, Helen Fitzgerald

40 responses to “And When the Morning Light Comes Streamin’ In, I’ll Get Up and Do It Again*

  1. Tim

    Well, this is interesting: “We see a lot of that cooping strategy in crime fiction, and that makes sense.”
    I avoid being cooped and instead cope by escaping into crime fiction. In fact, my announcement at my blog explains my latest coping mechanism. The world spins, thing fall apart, and I take comfort (ironically) in the world of crimes, detectives, and mysteries. Yes, the chaos of those stories almost always gives way to good order in the end. Ah, if only life were so properly managed.
    Visit me at the new blog, which you can access via the current blog. See you there?

    • You certainly will, Tim! Thanks for letting me know. And you’re right: there’s nothing like a good crime novel to help with coping. That goes for lots of fiction, actually, or so it is for me.

  2. I wish cleaning or gardening were good coping mechanisms for me…at least it would feel more productive than what I really do which is read. Generally a certain kind of crime fiction…the kind where the good guys are gonna get the better of the bad guys. Doesn’t seem to happen much in real life.

    I can’t think of any examples for your post though, then again I’m a bit muddled this morning. Watching you election unfold was…troubling…from this distance (can’t even think of a word that might describe it for you guys) and I now have to work out a way to ‘forgive’ a close family member who is proudly claiming his vote for your new president elect. You think you know a person… might be needing some of those coping mechanisms myself. Sigh.

    • Oh, dear, Berdaette! I hope you’ll be able to work that out. The whole thing has been so…difficult and troubling and a lot more. I try my very, very best to keep away from politics on this blog. It’s not a politics blog, and I don’t want to be divisive. So I’ll just say that it’s been extremely difficult for me. You can fill in the blanks, I’m sure.

      As to crime fiction? Yes, there are times when those good-guy-gets-the-bad-guy stories are just what the doctor ordered. I like them too. As you say, that doesn’t happen in real life as much as I wish it would. But then real life’s messy and complicated, isn’t it?

  3. Great post Margot. My characters are always eating, murder doesn’t slow them down lol. Seriously though you’re right it’s the everyday routine that keeps us moving forward sometimes. Deadly Appearances sounds like a fascinating premise for a mystery. That may have to go on the TBR 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, D.S. I think those scenes where your characters share a bite are done really well. They show the characters as actual people. And actual people eat, make tea or coffee, and so on. And you’re right; those everyday things do keep us getting up in the morning and moving along in life. And sometimes they help us hold on.

      About Deadly Appearances? It’s the start of a fantastic series. I highly recommend it.

  4. tracybham

    Cooking might work as a coping mechanism for me, everything else I think too much while I do it. Reading is good for that though. Reading is what I did after turning off the TV last night when it got too depressing. Working today certainly is not helping.

    • I read, too, Tracy, after I couldn’t watch the TV results last night. And working hasn’t helped me today, either. At least we have some fantastic fictional worlds into which we can escape.

  5. I have a theory that the popularity of cooking and home renovation TV shows in Australia is all about people taking comfort from things that are more or less within their control, a response to global politics spinning increasingly out of control. And I expect a surge in the popularity of ‘escapist’ literature in the wake of the US Presidential results. For my part, I’ll be reading, writing, cooking, holding my daughter close; and then trying to figure out the next steps for making the world a better place for her.

    • Your theory makes a lot of sense, Angela. TV shows where you can learn a skill like cooking or gardening or whatever gives a sense of control and empowerment. And you can feel productive. With other things getting so far out of control, it is good to have something that makes sense. I like your plans, too, and I suspect I’ll be doing much the same. Trying to do our bit to make things better for my daughter and granddaughter, and your daughter and any children she may someday have, is an important purpose. Right now it’s good to concentrate on that.

  6. I wish I coped by doing household chores – after Brexit and now this my house would be gleaming! Even chocolate has failed this time, I fear. It’s certainly not the world I expected to be living in when I was young and idealistic. But I bet there are just as many young idealistic people today, and I guess we just have to hope they do better than our generation at working things out more fairly so groups of people don’t end up feeling left behind. And my optimistic nature, though sadly bruised, still believes that the vast majority of us, on whichever side, would rather get along and be kind to each other, so once the shouting stops maybe the listening can begin…

    • I choose to believe the same thing, FictionFan. That’s my fond hope: that we can actually get along and make some progress. As you say, there are a lot of idealistic, confident young people who want to make things better. I say we support them, try to make things better for them, and hope they make progress at working everything out. I know what you mean about housework, too. My home would be a showplace! Let’s hope and work for better…

  7. Margot: Not exactly on point but your post made me think of Patricia Blondal who, facing terminal cancer, chose to “cope” by writing, in 3 months, a wonderful work of fiction, A Candle to Light the Sun.

    • Oh, yes, Bill, I remember a href=””>your excellent reflection on that book. Folks, Bill did a fine three-piece series that book and story behind it. You’ll want to read those posts.

  8. kathy d

    Oh, gosh, the last several days has sent me into reading Peter May’s “Coffin Road,” and eating a chocolate-laden diet. Nary a healthy food to be imbibed.
    And, I, too, would have a sparkling house if I reacted to this election super stress by cleaning it. I no longer do that. I stare at the TV in disbelief.
    Everyone around me was depressed today — until I met some young women a few blocks away who had just been to a protest against the “president elect.” (I can’t believe I’m using that term.)
    And young folks are protesting all over the country by the thousands.
    They are my hope, too, along with all other activists on all issues.

    • That’s just it, Kathy. It’ll be interesting to see what the young people do as this all unfolds. And in the meantime, chocolate makers everywhere are going to earning a ton of money. I’m glad for you that you have a good Peter May novel to read. He does tell a great story.

  9. mudpuddle

    this may be a bit declasse, but to distract my obsessing brain, i resorted to an old remedy: Doc Savage; Kenneth Robeson was a surprisingly witty author with a penchant for bizarre plot twists… recommended for stress…

  10. Col

    Not too familiar on your examples though I have Green for Danger somewhere in the stacks to read at some point.

  11. Margot, I regret not picking up a bunch of Alexander McCall Smith’s paperbacks at Books by Weight. The covers are colourful and nicely illustrated. Besides. McCall Smith has been very prolific, which I didn’t until a few weeks ago. I’d eventually like to read some of his books in The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series.

  12. Interesting post and great examples, Margot. We do need those small things that give us a bit of ‘normal’ when life goes off track. I think sometimes our mind takes over for us and we do those things without realizing it and definitely not to make light of what the trouble is. When I read about these situations in a story, I feel the author has made it more realistic because that’s what we would do in that same light.

    • Exactly, Mason! Those everyday tasks, like cooking, taking care of pats, and so on, help us to keep a focus when everything seems to be falling completely apart. And because we do those things in real life, it makes sense that we’d see them in crime fiction, too. Thanks for the kind words.

  13. You never wrote truer words, Margot. During difficult days recently I have spent a lot of time in the company of Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe – now there is someone who didn’t let ANYTHING stand in the way of dinner.
    And my commiserations. Brexit was bad enough, but this . . .

    • Thank you, Christine. This, indeed… At times like these, you’re quite right that companions such as Wolfe and Goodwin are good company. That’s one wonderful thing about a good book. It can be a balm for much.

  14. I particularly liked Fiction Fan’s comments above, they summed up what I wanted to say. (If housework did it for me in bad times, think how lovely my place would look after recent events.)

  15. kathy d

    Precious Ramotswe is a wonderful panacea for times of stress. And Wolfe and Goodwin are just fun.
    Me — I’ve got the new Michael Connelly and Tana French books to distract me after I finish Peter May’s Coffin Road. Haven’t have much reading time as I’m glued to the TV, which I should avoid at this point.
    Yup, a chocolate-rich diet this week. And friends are living on pie and other sweets to get through this travesty. I’d imagine wine consumption is up.
    Young folks are still out there protesting. And nothing has been done yet; one hopes that everyone stands up to it all, wherever they may be.

    • Michael Connelly and Tana French are both great choices, Kathy. I’m glad you have the new ones; I’ve heard great things about them. And yes, indeed, Precious Ramotswe is very helpful at stressful times. As are Wolfe and Goodwin.

  16. kathyd

    Precious Ramotswe is a good distraction and a wonderful woman to spend time with in times of stress. And Goodwin and Wolfe are fun and a reader often laughs out loud at their “dialogues.”
    Whatever gets one through stress works.

  17. kathyd

    Sorry about duplication. Thought the post didn’t go through due to my zany computer. After hearing the potential “Cabinet,” I may gain 25 pounds and not watch TV for months.

  18. As you’ve so eloquently shown by the examples, adding normal chores make our characters feel more real, too.

  19. What a perceptive post Margot and something that I enjoy reading about in crime fiction because life does go on when the worst strikes and so this is a realistic portrayal. There are jobs to do and for me, structure did help me keep putting one foot in front of the other until the struggle of doing so was a little less hard. Most of us have jobs too, bills still need to be paid, and getting back out in the real world where other people have lives too, can make you focus outward, at least some of the time.

    • Thank you for your insights, Cleo. You put it so beautifully, too. It is really a matter of one foot in front of the other, doing those little things that give a bit of structure. Little by little, those everyday tasks help you find your way back, I think. And since that’s the way people are in real life, it makes sense to portray it in novels.

  20. Sometimes I watch Finding Nemo and really listen when Dory says “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. ” On the day you wrote this I read Bird by Bird or kept reading it and of course there was work and my dear fella made a yummy minestrone. Oh what a dark week this has been. Also writing every day helps. After 9-11, I would go visit the ducks at the Dingle Tower in Halifax and shout “ducks at war” at them. They didn’t seem to mind and I found it oddly soothing.

    • I love that line from Finding Nemo, Jan. I’m so glad you’ve found things to soothe you and keep you going. I think that’s so important. And you’re right; the daily discipline of writing is really helpful at dark times, isn’t it? Anything, I think, that gives one a sense of some sort of peaceful order, if I can put it that way, can help. And ducks, too.

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