I Want to Find Out, I Want to Find Out Now*

wanting-to-learn-moreAn interesting post from Tim at Beyond 221B Baker Street has got me thinking about context. Every book is written within a sociocultural and historical context, and that is often reflected in the book. As I’ve been reflecting on that, it’s got me thinking about the way people’s curiosity can be aroused when they read. To put it another way, sometimes, we read books (or, at least, I do) that make us curious about the context, and wanting to read more.

Everyone gets curious about different things, of course, but I suspect I’m not the only one who’s read a book and then wanted to know more about something. It might be details about an incident, an era, or something else. Whatever it is, the author’s presented it in a way that makes you want to know more. As I say, everyone’s different, but here are a few things I’ve wanted to know more about because of the crime fiction I’ve read.

As Agatha Christie fans know, her second husband was an archaeologist, and she accompanied him to the Middle East. Several of her stories are set there, including Appointment With Death. That story’s focus is the Boynton family, a group of Americans who are on an extended trip through the Middle East. One of their stops is a trip to the famous red city of Petra. On the second afternoon of their visit, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like a heart attack. Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied, though. He asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Even ardent Christie fans admit that this isn’t her best. But it does have an interesting setting – Petra – and I got curious about that. So, I did a little reading on the place. Am I an expert? Not even close. Not at all. But I did learn some interesting things, and it’s because the book piqued my curiosity.

After I read Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors, I got interested in Australia’s 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government. Here’s why. In the novel, Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen and his team investigate two murders. One victim is Alec Dennet, who was a member of the Whitlam government, and is now writing his memoirs. The other is Dennet’s editor, Lorraine Starke. The two were killed at Uriarra, a Canberra-area writers’ retreat. One very good possibility is that Dennet was killed because of what might be written in his upcoming book. There are plenty of people in some high places who wouldn’t want what he had to say to come out. So, Chen and his team pursue that lead. Robertson gives some interesting information about the Whitlam government – enough to leave me wanting to know more. So, I looked up a few things. I couldn’t quote you anything like chapter and verse on the ins and outs of that government, nor all of the details of the events that brought it down. But I found the reading I did do fascinating.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead takes place mostly at Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, also known as The Body Farm. Anthropologist David Hunter wants some time away from London to recover from the events of Written in Bone. So, he decides to go to Tennessee to do some research and catch up with his former mentor, Tom Liebermann. When the lab receives word of a decomposed body found at a cabin not far from the lab, Hunter is persuaded to get involved in the investigation. And that leads to a complex and difficult case. After I read this novel, I got interested in The Body Farm and what it does. It’s actually a fascinating place where a great deal of forensic and other scientific research is conducted. So, I did a bit of reading. It certainly got the crime writer in me very interested.

As fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano series can tell you, many of his books have been translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli. His translations go beyond simply expressing Camilleri’s stories in another language (as though that weren’t enough). He also adds notes and commentaries to the novels, to give readers background information on everything from history, to the origins of certain sayings, and much more. Several times, I’ve found myself reading a little more about one or another topic Sartarelli’s mentioned. I always find them interesting, and they add context to the series.

Brian Stoddart’s Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu series takes place in the early 1920s, during the last years of the British Raj, in Madras (today’s Chennai). Le Fanu is assisted by the very capable Sergeant Muhammad ‘Habi’ Habibullah. I knew a little about those years before I started reading this series. But some of the information Stoddart provides made me curious to learn more. So, I did a bit of reading on the topic, and I’m glad I did. I learned things that I wouldn’t otherwise have known, and (I hope) I have a better perspective on that period of time.

Those are just a few books and series that have gotten me curious to learn more. The things that pique your interest are bound to be different. Which novels and series have inspired you to find out more?

Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration. Folks, do check out Tim’s blog. It’s a fascinating place for rich discussion about crime fiction and other literature.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Grateful Dead’s Caution (Do Not Step On Tracks).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Brian Stoddart, Kel Robertson, Simon Beckett

20 responses to “I Want to Find Out, I Want to Find Out Now*

  1. Tim

    Thank you, Margot, for the very kind words. I have an example of context-as-catalyst-for-inquiry: reading C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake books, I sent myself into Henry VIII’s world, hoping to learn as much as possible about such a fascinating, turbulent era in history; a great resource was Peter Ackroyd’s _Tudors_, and I’m still reading and learning more. If anyone has any H8-era recommendations, I’d love to hear more about them. So, Margot (et al), give me some ideas for my next library visit.

    • It’s my pleasure to mention your fine blog, Tim, and I do appreciate the inspiration. I know what you mean, too, about Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series. That one is done, I think, quite well, and there’s a lot there for the curious mind to ponder, isn’t there? I’m glad yo found The Tudors to be a valuable resource for further reading, too. Folks, any good ideas for further exploration of Tudor life?

  2. I like to take my book reading a step further. Just today while reading a Christmas mystery by Anne Perry, I discovered a place in Italy called Stromboli. That name makes me think of delicious food. I did learn there is a very active volcano in Italy named Stromboli. While I looked at the location on a map, I also explored new or forgotten facts about volcanoes. One thing is for sure. I’m still very afraid of volcanoes. Have no desire to visit one.

    Oh, I’ve put Appointment with Death on hold at the library. I’ve had a desire to see more and learn more about the Rose City, Petra for a long time. I really liked this post for today written by you.

    • Thank you, Acacialane. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I’m also grateful you shared your own search. That’s exactly the sort of thing I do when something intrigues me like that, and your discoveries are really interesting. And about volcanoes? My daughter visited one once. I’m not really all that eager to do so…

  3. By chance I have just re-read Appointment with Death, and it most definitely made me want to know more about Petra…

  4. I’m going to hold my hands up and admit to being a lazy, lazy reader when it comes to fiction. I can’t think of an occasion when I’ve headed off to find out more. In my defence, I suspect this is because I do it the other way round – I read tons of factual stuff as you know, Margot, and then tend to head from it towards fiction. So all my reading on the history of the British Empire has led me to seek out Indian fiction and stuff relating to the settlement of the Dominions and so on, rather than heading from fiction to history.

    In terms of the Tudors, there’s a lovely book called Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor, which, despite the title, is really more about glimpses into the Tudor world than about the Shakespeare plays. It’s twenty chapters in each of which Neil MacGregor discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day. It’s also beautifully illustrated. For more in-depth serious history, I recommend any of John Guy’s books – he’s my go-to historian for the Tudor era.

    • I was hoping you’d have some good suggestions, FictionFan. I know you’re an avid reader of non-fiction as well as fiction, especially history. So I hoped you’d have some ideas. I appreciate it very much *busily makes notes for future reading.* And you know, there’s nothing at all wrong with starting on a non-fiction topic and then seeing how it’s treated in fiction. That makes sense, and I don’t call it lazy at all. It’s just another perspective on the same topic, as I see it.

  5. As any athropology minor I was very drawn to books that used this trope. Such as Aaron Elkins, for instance.

    • I can well imagine, Patti. And, even though I’m not an anthropology expert, I’ve always found Elins’ discussions of the topic fascinating. I like his Gideon Oliver series very much for that reason.

  6. Wonderful post, Margot! 🙂 I just read Appointment With Death day before yesterday (thus completing the whole Poirot series) and looked up Petra too! It was very interesting.

    • It is interesting, isn’t it, Regulus98? I always enjoy it when a book gets me curious to learn more. And well done on finishing the Poirot stories! Thanks for the kind words.

  7. Almost every historical mystery I’ve ever read has sent me online or to the library’s nonfiction section to learn a little more about the period or the events in the novel. History is addictive.

    • It is for me, too, Pat. I really do like to know about the actual history behind the historical novels I read. And the more I learn, the more respect I have for authors who convey history accurately without overburdening a story.

  8. One of my favourite things to do is to read up on ‘real-life’ parts of crime fiction – like you I read quite a bit about the body farm, I also checked out the Foundling Museum after reading Kate Rhodes The Winter Foundlings, something that I never knew existed. I frequently switch from book to google whether it’s to find out more about the setting or some details about forensics and of course those historical true crimes that I can get quite obsessive about. My love of Martin Edwards Dancing for the Hangman prompted extensive research into Crippen while this year’s historical fiction novel The Ballroom had me interested in what life was really like in an asylum in the early part of the twentieth century.

    • It sounds as though you and I are kindred spirits when it comes to looking up things that make us curious, Cleo. And I’m glad you mentioned The Winter Foundlings. That’s a natural connection to the Foundling Museum, so I can certainly see how you’d be interested in that. And I know just what you mean about the Crippen case, too. Edwards’ novel certainly gives a strong sense of that case, and it’s fascinating in its own right. Little wonder it captured the imagination of so many people. It certainly does make one wonder whether there might not be an alternative explanation for what happened…

  9. This happens to me all the time. Most recently, I read a story that featured a pedophile-sniffing K9 cop. Apparently, there’s a training facility in Texas that trains the dog. Did you know Jared from Subway got busted by one of these amazing dogs? Incredible! The book hasn’t release yet, so I can’t mention the title (she wants to surprise readers). However, the book piqued my curiosity so much that I feel compelled to write a blog post on the subject.

    • I didn’t know that that was how they caught Jared Fogle. Really interesting! And I’m not surprised that they can train dogs that way. I hope you’ll write that blog post; I know it’ll be interesting!

  10. tracybham

    I agree, Margot, reading fiction inspires us to do further research and learn more, so it is like an extended education.

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