Well, I Ain’t Superstitious*

scepticismI’m sure that you’ve learned in the course of your adult life that it’s not a good idea to be too credulous. A certain amount of disbelief – even cynicism – can protect you from all sorts of trouble, from scams to terrible relationships and worse. Even when people read fiction, they often keep that disbelief with them. I know I do.

Authors know that a lot of readers are not willing to believe everything they see and read. And sometimes, they use that in stories. A character who isn’t easily convinced by things such as spiritualism, psychics and so on can give voice to readers’ doubts. Such a character can also add tension to a crime story.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, for instance, believes only what logic and deduction show. He’s not convinced by otherworldly explanations for anything, which is quite ironic considering his creator was deeply interested in spiritualism and the occult. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, Holmes gets a visit from Dr. James Mortimer, who tells him of a curse on the Baskerville family (Mortimer is a family friend). Legend has it that the family has been cursed by a phantom hound since the 1600s, when Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. And there certainly have been strange deaths in the family. In fact, the most recent head of the Baskervilles, Sir Charles, was found dead of an apparent heart attack. Mortimer doesn’t believe that it was a heart attack, and wants to protect the new head of the family, Sir Henry, who is due to arrive soon from Canada. So, he asks Holmes to investigate. Holmes, as fans know, is a cynic when it comes to matters paranormal, so he seeks a more prosaic solution to the case. And it turns out that he’s right.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is also incredulous about spirits, Ouija, curses, and ghosts. But, as he says in The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb,

‘‘…I believe in the terrific force of superstition. Once get it firmly established that a series of deaths are supernatural, and you might almost stab a man in broad daylight, and it would still be put down to the curse, so strongly is the instinct of the supernatural implanted in the human race.’’

And that’s exactly what happens in this story, when a series of murders are put down to a curse on a tomb. As Poirot makes clear, this killer is very much a human being. You’re right, fans of Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client).

In The Cat Who Could Read Backwards, Lilian Jackson Braun introduces her sleuth, journalist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. As a former crime reporter, he’s learned to be very, very cynical. And life hasn’t taught him to think otherwise. That’s what makes it such a challenge for him when he inherits a Siamese cat, Kao K’o-Kung ‘Koko’, as a result of this first case. The cat previously belonged to George Mountclemens, the art critic for the Daily Fluxion, but adopts Qwilleran when Mountclemens is murdered. Koko is, in many ways, a normal (if quite spoiled) Siamese cat. But every once in a while, he acts in ways that can be interpreted as paranormal. Qwilleran is just as incredulous as you probably are about Koko’s abilities, and it’s interesting to see how Braun weaves that cynicism through the stories. It’s a very useful tool to keep the series grounded, if I may put it that way.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun has become quite cynical over the years, and with good reason. He lives and works in 1970s Laos, where he is the country’s only medical examiner. It wasn’t a job he wanted; he’d been ready to retire. But he was ‘volunteered’ for the job, and really has had no choice but to carry out his work as best he can. He’s seen plenty of government programs that don’t work, Party promises that haven’t been kept, medical supplies and equipment he can’t get, and so on. So, as you can imagine, he’s not one to believe in mysticism. And yet, in The Coroner’s Lunch, the first in this series, he has several encounters that make him wonder. For example, he seems to have a strange connection to an ancient shaman called Yeh Ming. And he has dreams and visions in which those who have died communicate with him. On the one hand, he doesn’t believe in ghosts in the way that belief is traditionally portrayed. He’s a sceptic and a pragmatist. But he knows what he’s seen and experienced. It’s an interesting dichotomy that runs through the series.

And then there’s Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Dr. Suresh Jha has made a career out of unmasking spiritualist charlatans. He doesn’t believe in religion or mysticism. In fact, he is the founder of the Delhi Institute for Research and Education (D.I.R.E.). One day, he’s attending a morning meeting of the Rajpath Laughing Club. During the group’s session, so say witnesses, the goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Believers say that this is punishment for Jha’s lack of faith. When Delhi PI Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri learns of what’s happened, he decides to investigate. Jha was a former client, so Puri has a particular interest in the case. On the one hand, he doesn’t believe in spiritualism or the occult, although he has religious beliefs. On the other, he can’t at first suggest any other explanation for what happened. In the end, though, we learn what really happened to Jha and why.

It’s interesting to contemplate things that seem otherworldly. But most people do have a strong attachment to the credible – to something prosaic. That’s why characters who are sceptics can add so much to a crime story. They resonate with many readers, and their reluctance to believe can add tension to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Steve Miller’s Rockin’ Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Colin Cotterill, Lilian Jackson Braun, Tarquin Hall

22 responses to “Well, I Ain’t Superstitious*

  1. As you know, I sway toward mysticism. I have experienced remarkably ‘unreal’ happens that can’t be rationally explained without a spiritual connection. Considering that I am normally that grounded logic person, it does create some mental challenges as mentioned by Poirot – I too believe in the terrific force of superstition. Any read that includes realism mixed with unexplained events is up my ally, unless it is used in a way to cover the author’s inability to explain any other way (and is overused).

    • Oh, I don’t like that, either, Lesley. I much prefer stories where the plot is sturdy, and doesn’t require that inability. As to mysticism, I know what you mean. Things do happen that can’t be explained logically – at least, not given what we know now. And, for the logical, naturally sceptical person, that can bring up a challenge. How do you explain those things? I think a lot of people wrestle with that, especially people who are reflective.

  2. Being pretty cynical myself, I tend to avoid stories with a supernatural element, but I do agree with Poirot about the power of superstition, and I love when an author can manage to make a story ambiguous enough that it gets left to the reader to decide whether there’s something supernatural going on or whether everything can be explained rationally. Can’t think of any crime examples off the top of my head, but I always think Daphne du Maurier was expert at treading that line, especially in her short stories.

    • Oh, yes, she was, indeed, FictionFan! And I think that added an awful lot to the atmosphere of her work. It’s eerie without stretching credibility too far. And that makes it even eerier! I know what you mean about what Poirot says, too. No matter what we may personally think about the supernatural, superstition does have a strong hold on the human consciousness. So when an author can blend that in just enough to make you wonder, that can add a solid layer of suspense. And it’s not easy to do that, either.

  3. I know in Peter James’ novels his character Roy Grace uses a medium to attempt to trace his missing wife. As far as I can see this is the first time I’ve seen a straightforward non-supernatural crime series feature a character who does something like this. I’m not sure how much he believes and how much is desperation but it certainly makes him different to other detectives out there.

    • Oh, yes, of course, Rebecca! You’re right! He does use a medium, and in a very straightforward way, too. You raise an interesting question, too, about how much he really believes, and how much is his desperation. I think James has done a fine job of weaving that element in without letting it take over Grace’s personality, if I can put it that way.

  4. I’m less than convinced usually by supernatural elements in crime fiction (I can handle them in overt ghost stories etc. but I feel it’s cheating to use them in solving a crime). One recent example that was well written and played around with scepticism was Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye.

    • Bauer is so talented, Marina Sofia; I’m glad you mentioned her work. And I know exactly what you mean about using mediums as a way to get to the truth in a crime novel. I’ve read a few where I thought the author ‘played fair,’ but honestly, it is difficult. That’s one of many reasons I’ve not used one in anything I’ve written.

  5. Interesting topic, Margot, and very good examples. When supernatural elements are introduced in the right way, it does make a story more intriguing and makes me wonder. There are things that happen in life that we can’t always explain. It’s only natural that such elements would be included in what we read.

    • That’s what I think, too, Mason. There really are things that happen that we can’t explain, at least not with our current technology. But it’s human nature to want answers. So it’s no wonder people have turned to the supernatural. Ans, as you say, when it’s done well, it can be intriguing.

  6. Totally agree, Margot. I’m the same way, whether it be books or TV. If the story makes me rolls my eyes, I’m done. I’ve really gotten to be quite the book snob in my old age. LOL

    • Oh, I know what you mean, Sue. The more I read, the less patient I am when a plot or character isn’t credible. I forgive plenty of things under certain circumstances. But asking me to part company with my disbelief is the quickest route to Station DNF for me.

  7. kathy d

    I was well trained by my father and Holmes and Watson to always look for a scientific, physical explanation for everything. My father steered me to the Holmes canon while I was a teenager, and I think he wanted me not only to enjoy them, but to be even more convinced of the scientific method of investigation. It worked.
    I don’t have patience for the paranormal or supernatural in mysteries. That said, Asa Larsson’s “Until Thy Wrath Be Passed,” was an exception with a ghost narrator. And a few other books where Indigenous people’s beliefs and culture are brought in and I enjoy learning about them.
    If an author is raising a possible supernatural happening, but later unravels the mystery and shows that it’s based on reality, then I can enjoy it. Fred Vargas does that, including in the brilliant book, “The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.”

    • Those are all good examples, Kathy, of the way that authors can bring those supernatural elements into a story, but still keep that story credible. It’s not easy to do that well, but Vargas and Larsson do so. And I know what you mean about supernatural explanations for mysteries. I’m not very fond o them, myself, as a rule. I like prosaic explanations.

  8. I loved Victor Canning’s The Rainbird Pattern, which featured a medium as the main character, left you wondering what was fake and what was real, and had a terrific thriller plot.

    • That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind with this post, Moira – thank you. One of these times, I really do have to spotlight a Victor Canning novel. I appreciate the reminder.

  9. kathy d

    There is a great scene with a medium and a seance in Welsh writer, Mari Strachan’s book, Blow on a Dead Man’s Embers, set in post-WWI Wales. Excellent book. But the protagonist exposes the truth about the medium.

  10. tracybham

    In general, I don’t like supernatural elements in mystery fiction. But there are always exceptions, and I love Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun series. I guess it matters how those elements are used in the story.

    • I’m the same way, Tracy. I generally don’t go for the supernatural in my reading. But there are authors (and Cotterill is one of them) who weave that element in quite effectively. I very much enjoy that series, so, at least for me, it can work if it’s done very well.

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