Am I Living it Right?*

teaching-lessonsAn 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Paddy Richardson, Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald

42 responses to “Am I Living it Right?*

  1. It’s a real art. Imparting a value or lesson without being didactic. Sara Paretski does it well. Ruth Rendell often pulled it off but sometime went overboard.

    • I think it takes a great deal of talent, Patti. I agree with you about both Paretsky and Rendell, in general. Here and there I’ve thought they’ve pushed it a bit. But in general? Absolutely

  2. I think Ruth Rendell did this very well indeed, perhaps more so in her Barbara Vine stories which often deal with jealousy particularly so in A Dark Adapted Eye.

    • You’ve a very well-taken point about Rendell’s Barbara Vine novels. I think those really do show lessons (like jealousy) without sounding like a sermon. And A Dark Adapted Eye is an excellent example.

  3. Great topic, Margot. When I teach crime writing, I encourage students to think about underpinning beliefs about crime and justice in what they read and write. Is crime put down to systemic failure (in mental health and education, for example)? Is it about individual pathology? A combination? I much prefer to read novels by writers with the more nuanced take.

    • I do, too, Angela, And that is a really interesting way to think about one’s reading and writing; I’m sure your students learn to think about crime fiction in a deeper way when they start reflecting on the underlying beliefs about right and wrong, crime and justice that a story represents. It’s not a simple question, is it? Thanks for the kind words.

  4. R. T.

    Thanks for pointing me back to Hillerman. I’ve been away too long from one of the best insights into Navajo culture..

  5. Margot: Most legal mysteries at least touch upon the principles of the Anglo – American criminal justice system. The Rumpole books of John Mortimer and the T.V. shows were among the best at teaching the public that every accused is presumed innocent. Everyone who watched the series will remember Leo McKern as Rumpole thundering the principle is the golden thread of English justice to be treasured and honoured.

    • You’re absolutely right, Bill. And, of course, Horace Rumpole made that point quite often in those stories. There are other legal principles, too, that we see in crime fiction. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  6. I do think you can find quite a lot of this within crime novels and as you say, it’s not because the author is planning it but because they’re writing about society so it tends to come out naturally – in the wash so to say.

    • That’s what I think, too, Rebecca. Writers tell about society, and those values can’t help but come across in a story. Sometimes it’s not very obvious, but it’s there.

  7. Crime fiction is often imbued with all sorts of moral and ethical dilemmas – not always neat solutions, but posing some of the fundamental questions about life and death, right and wrong, doing something because it is right vs. doing something because you fear being caught, envy, lust and greed. Maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much! But of course, it succeeds best where it doesn’t aim too much to instruct. I’ve read a few books where the story was ruined somewhat by becoming too much about bigger ideas and social themes.

    • That’s exactly it, Marina Sofia. If a book aims to teach a lesson, then the plot is less likely to draw the reader in. But those fundamental questions are an important part of crime fiction, and some of the best stories address them in some way. I think it works best when characters face those dilemmas, so that they’re presented as questions that humans face, if that makes sense.

  8. In a very general sense, I suspect that a lot of Christie’s thoughts on justice and right-and-wrong were written as dialogue for Poirot. I believe she thought that some murder was justified (simply remembering a specific plot).

    • I think you may be right, Elizabeth. And you’ve got a well-taken point, too, about the way Poirot expresses his thoughts. I’ve often thought that what he said might reflect Christie’s point of view.

  9. Great post Margot and thanks for the very kind mention. Stories teach us so much and as we’ve said before, never more so than in crime fiction a place where good must triumph over evil and characters are exposed for their true selves. Really interesting analysis and some great books and authors mentioned here.

    • Thank you, D.S. And it’s a pleasure to mention you and your work. Stories do teach us a lot, whether they’re fairy tales or noir fiction or romance or something else. In crime fiction, where we see right and wrong discussed so much, it’s little wonder that those bigger questions of values play out.

  10. The fact the value lessons are woven into the stories so subtle is what makes great authors, I think. We learn while enjoying a story much like your posts, Margot. I always learn something new and have fun while doing it.

    • That’s very kind of you, Mason – thank you. I’m very glad you enjoy what you find here. And you’re right about subtlety. I think that’s the key to the way those lessons are woven into great books.

  11. I think that a crime novel by it’s very genre has an inherent value lesson of “crime doesn’t pay.” I recently heard over the radio (can’t remember the details of who was speaking) but the author stated that all art is a socio- political statement. The examples you cited is testimony to that and sometimes it’s what’s left unsaid that makes a novel interesting.

    • I like that comment, Carol, about art being a socio-political statement. Thanks for sharing. It really is, if you think about it, even if the creator doesn’t consciously have a particular agenda in mind. We are all products of our cultures, so it makes complete sense that what we write/paint/sing/whatever would be affected ty our cultural values and beliefs. And yes, crime fiction does have that lesson of the ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ a lot of the time.

  12. tracybham

    I cannot think of any specific examples of books I have read, but I do think this is a very interesting topic. And I really need to read the Tony Hillerman books. I would suspect that there are some books / series with a basis in Eastern religions or beliefs (Zen, Buddhism) which would have this theme but don’t know of any specifically.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And I do recommend the Hillemran series if/when you get the time. In my opinion, it’s a very, very fine series. Hillerman was especially skilled at evoking the desert Southwest. You ask an interesting question, too, about Eastern spiritualism. The series that comes to my mind is (among others) John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series. His protagonist is an observant Buddhist, so readers learn quite a bit about Buddhist values. And yet, I don’t feel I’m reading a sermon when I read the books.

  13. I do prefer crime fiction that teaches “crime does not pay” and “the bad guy always gets caught.” I’m definitely not fond of glorified criminals.

  14. Sometimes the morality in books is too fixed – when there are a group of suspects, and some of the characters are clearly shown as ‘nicer’ than others. I am always a tad disappointed when the author assigns blame to the person, or people, who have been disapproved of. Life isn’t really that simple.

    • No, it isn’t, Moira. And I agree with you that a story is much more engaging, interesting and so on when the characters are more complex, and well-rounded. I think our values and ‘rules’ about what is wrong and what is right are not that ‘black and white.’

  15. Margot, in a non-crime fiction example, British writer Oliver Strange’s eponymous Western hero Sudden, the Texas outlaw, goes from place to place looking for two men who killed his foster father. Along the way he befriends many people, especially ranch owners and their families, and foremen and cowboys, and teaches them a thing or two about courage, honesty, compassion, and integrity. And to think James Green alias Sudden is the fastest gun alive as well as secret Deputy Marshal United States reporting directly to Governor Bleke of Arizona!

    • That’s a fine example of what I had in mind with this post, Prashant. Thanks for sharing it. And it sounds like a fine premise for a story, too. It takes some talent, too, to make an outlaw a sympathetic character, but it sounds as though Strange achieves that.

      • Margot, Strange, who penned only ten “Sudden” novels (another five were written by Frederick H. Christian) wrote about the Wild West from imagination because he never went to America. His cowboy characters, description of places and lingo are absolutely spot-on.

        • That’s really interesting, Prashant! It takes real skill to write about a place one’s never visited. I appreciate this background information.

  16. Keishon

    Speaking of a value system as I was reading your post, the one author who popped into my brain was the late author, Robert B. Parker. I saw where some of his fans chided him on always adding issues to his books. I guess that’s one main reason why I loved reading his Spencer novels because despite all the humor and silliness, he address a lot of issues like racism for that matter and/or privilege. You can incorporate such sessions and values without being preachy. I will admit to not caring for books that are preachy.

    • I know what you mean, Keishon. I don’t go much for preachiness, either. I think it’s much more effective when the author tells a story, and features that and the characters, instead of preaching. And I think you have a point about Parker’s ability to do that. I’ve never felt that his Spenser novels were ‘morality plays.’

  17. That’s very true – I think we can safely use similar ideas and themes from likes of Raymond Chandler and create absorbing novels…Some of those lessons are indeed timeless.

    As Keishon said, you can also add Robert Parker to the list (which by the way finished the last work of Chandler that was unfinished).

    • You put that well, Ehsan. Those lessons are timeless, and can be adapted for other contexts and novels. And thanks for mentioning the connection between Chandler and Parker. It’s an interesting insight into the way different writers learn from one another and add to one another’s ideas.

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