I spent a couple of days at a conference last week. The conference itself was interesting, with plenty of ‘food for thought.’ Just as interesting (at least to me) was the way people interacted. As you’ll know, one of the customs people have at conferences is to exchange business cards. Business cards and other, related, calling cards have been in use in some form or another for hundreds of years. And even with the less formal nature of today’s business interactions, and with today’s technology, they’re still a popular formality.
The exchange of business cards isn’t the only formal ritual custom people keep. And that’s not surprising. There’s a certain comfort and security that can be associated with them. For example, a funeral ritual can help the bereaved go through the process of letting go of a loved one, no matter how casual those left behind are in the rest of their lives. And certain ritual customs, like formal meals, engraved invitations, and exchanging business cards, add what a lot of people think of as ‘class’ to an event. So, even in today’s more casual world, where people often text or email rather than send letters, there’s something about certain formalities. We certainly see that in crime fiction. And those formalities can be effective tools for character development, cultural background, and even the setting up of context.
In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to find out the truth about the murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. He was poisoned sixteen years earlier; and at the time, his wife Caroline was the only really viable suspect. There was plenty of evidence against her, too. She was arrested, convicted and died a year later in prison. Now, her daughter wants to clear her name if that’s possible. Poirot agrees to look into the case. One of the people who give him information is Caleb Jonathan, the Crale family lawyer. He’s retired now, but he knows the family history very well. Both he and Poirot are accustomed to certain formal traditions, so before they even meet, there’s an exchange of letters. Then Poirot receives an invitation for dinner and to spend the night. Only after dinner and an after-dinner brandy does the attorney really begin to talk to Poirot about the Crale family. And that conversation proves useful.
Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series, for instance, will know that Chee and Leaphorn are members of the Navajo Nation, as well as members of the Navajo Tribal Police. In his personal life, Chee is more traditional than Leaphorn is, but both respect their people’s customs. For instance, one custom they observe has to do with visiting people’s homes. It’s the Navajo tradition when visiting to sound the horn and/or call out, and then to wait outside the home of someone one’s visiting until one’s host opens the door and invites one in. This is intended to allow the host to clean up, change clothes, or whatever is needed to prepare for a guest. These police officers know that they could knock on a door right away. But the formality of sounding the car horn and waiting to be invited in shows respect to the homeowner, It also puts witnesses at ease, so they’re more likely to be helpful to the police.
We also see formal courtesy, for instance, in Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss. In that novel, Göteborg DI Irene Huss and her team investigate the death of wealthy financier Richard von Knecht. One day, he falls from the balcony of his exclusive penthouse, and at first, it looks very much like a suicide. But small pieces of forensic evidence begin to suggest otherwise. So, Huss and the members of her team look more deeply into the matter. One of the important witnesses in this case is Fru Eva Karlsson, an elderly lady who happened to be walking her dog at the time of von Knecht’s deah. Huss wants to learn as much as she can from this witness, so she pays Fru Karlsson a visit. From Huss’ perspective, it’s an informal visit, just to get information. But she is a visitor, so Fru Karlsson insists on making a more formal event of it, complete with fresh coffee and homemade pastries. It’s much more than Huss wants to eat or drink, but putting the witness at ease is important, so she goes along with this formality.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe understands the value of a certain amount of ease and modern informality. But there are some more formal traditions that she continues, and prefers. She prefers to greet people in the traditional way, although it is a bit more formal. And she respects the custom of showing traditional respect to the elderly. When clients come to see her, she puts them at their ease by offering them traditional hospitality: a cup of bush tea and, perhaps, some cake. She knows that those formalities can help ease the awkwardness that often goes with hiring a private investigator.
In Kalpana Swaminathan’s The Page 3 Murders, Dr. Hilla Driver decides to have a large house party, both as a sort of housewarming, and to celebrate her niece Ramona’s upcoming eighteenth birthday. The guests are among Mumbai’s elite, and include Bollywood people, a famous dancer, a famous author, and a critic, among others. And Hilla wants this to be a very special weekend. So, at the urging of her chef, Tarok Ghosh, she decides to make it a ‘foodie’ weekend that will culminate in a formal, traditional, seven-course gourmet meal. There are to be special hors d’oeuvres, printed menu cards, and other formalities. The weekend arrives, and so do the guests. Right from the beginning, there’s conflict among some of them, but for the most part, things go smoothly enough. Then, on the night of the gourmet meal, Ghosh gives each guest a custom-made hors d’oeuvre, and uses these to show that he knows a secret about each one. That hint strikes too close to home for someone, and by the next morning, he’s dead. One of Hilla’s guests is a retired police detective, Lalli, who’s there with her niece. Together, the two find out who killed Ghosh and why.
Some formalities may seem unnecessary in today’s world. But they have their place, and a lot of people like them. What about you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s I’m Old Fashioned.