An interesting post by author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about the way stories are used to teach lessons. In oral history cultures, stories are used to teach values, what it means to behave appropriately, and so on. And there are plenty of stories like that in cultures with written histories, too. For instance, many children’s tales teach the value of hard work (The Little Red Hen is one). Others teach other values (honesty, for instance, in The Boy Who Cried ‘Wolf’).
What about crime fiction? Does crime fiction teach values, or a culture’s priorities? Perhaps it doesn’t do so deliberately. I don’t, personally, know any crime writer who consciously integrates a ‘values’ lesson. But there is an argument that an author’s, or a culture’s, values come through in the genre. And that makes sense. Crime fiction is written by humans. And humans have value systems and priorities.
You’ll notice that this post won’t make reference to things such as an author’s political agenda, or to an author’s stance on particular issues. Rather, I mean larger value systems.
For instance, I’m sure you could name dozens of crime novels where we see the lesson that ‘money doesn’t buy happiness.’ If you look at Raymond Chandler’s work (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Big Sleep, but it’s hardly the only example), you see that his Philip Marlowe often works with families that are rich, but miserable. The same is true of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer in The Far Side of the Dollar.
There are plenty of other lessons in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, we are introduced to British special agent Colin Lamb. He’s been looking into the death of a fellow agent, and believes that the key may be a spy ring that this agent was investigating. The trail leads to the small town of Crowdean, and to a street called Wilbraham Crescent. Lamb’s following up on that lead when he gets drawn into a case of murder. It’s not directly related to his own case, but he works with Inspector Richard ‘Dick’ Hardcastle to solve the crime – with help from his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot. At the same time, he’s pursuing his own investigation. And, in the end, he finds the answers. Woven throughout the story (as is the case in a lot of Agatha Christie’s work) is the question of human nature. People are complex – much more than just their intellect – and Christie often makes a point of discussing that complexity. At this end of this novel, Lamb says,
‘‘I’m content…to be human.’’
It’s an interesting reminder that underneath everything, people are human beings, and, Christie seems to say, should be valued as such. Perhaps that’s why Poirot, as he says, does not approve of murder.
Fans of Tony Hillerman’s work will know that most of his stories take place in the US Southwest, among the Navajo people. In fact, his two protagonists, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as being officers in the Navajo Tribal Police. Since many of the characters in these novels are Navajo, readers learn about that culture. And one of the important lessons in the Navajo culture is the concept of hozro – beauty. But in this case, ‘beauty’ doesn’t refer to physical attractiveness or visual appeal. Rather, it means harmony with one’s environment, and peace with one’s situation. All sorts of things can threaten that harmony. Sickness, grief, and encounters with death are just a few examples. So are anxiety and anger. The Navajo culture teaches the value of harmony with others and with one’s environment, and that comes through in Hillerman’s stories. In more than one novel (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Ghostway, among others), characters deal with death, with trauma and so on, and then seek to restore themselves to hozro. It’s portrayed as a desirable state.
Simplicity and being comfortable with oneself are portrayed as valuable in several of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe novels. For instance, as fans can tell you, Mma Ramotswe is ‘traditionally built.’ Normally, she doesn’t worry too much about that fact. She wears flat, comfortable sandals, and clothing that’s roomy enough for her. She makes no attempt to hide her size. And yet, in Blue Shoes and Happiness, she decides to go on a diet. As it turns out, she’s no better off once she starts her diet, and she gets a reminder that she’s not really being true to herself, as the saying goes. In the same novel, Mma’s assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, has her heart set on a pair of beautiful blue shoes she saw in a shop. They don’t quite fit, and they’re not really right for work wear. But Mma Makutsi is determined, and buys them. In both of these cases, we get reminders of the value of being happy with simple things, and being comfortable with oneself.
Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne gets a lesson in Traces of Red. She’s a successful Wellington TV journalist who gets what she thinks will be a chance at a story that will cement her position at the top of New Zealand journalism. Connor Bligh has been in prison for years for the murders of his sister, Angela Dickson, her husband, Rowan, and their son, Sam. Only their daughter, Katy, survived, because she wasn’t home at the time of the killings. Thorne learns that there is a possibility that Bligh might be innocent. If so, there’s a major story there, and she goes after it. In doing so, she finds herself getting much closer to the story than is safe. And she learns important lessons about ambition.
Crime fiction may not be written with the purpose of teaching a lesson, as, say, Aesop’s fables were. And readers would probably get annoyed anyway with crime novels that served as ‘morality plays.’ At the same time, there are lessons woven through the genre. And it’s interesting to see how they reflect an author or a culture’s values.
Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration. Folks, do visit D.S. Nelson’s great blog, and try her Blake Heatherington mysteries. They’re terrific.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Why Georgia.