I’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.