I Never Tire of Legends Grown*

As this is posted, it’s the 120th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Of course, stories of vampires have been told since long before Stoker came along. And since that time, the vampire has become enshrined in popular culture.

What is it about folktales like the vampire that capture people’s imagination? I’m not a cultural anthropologist, so I can’t give a sophisticated, informed answer. But part of the explanation may lie in human curiosity. We like to understand our world, and certain folk tales may explain certain phenomena. Then, too, the scarier stories have been used as ways to discipline children and teach them the mores of their society (e.g. ‘You’d better come inside when I tell you or La Llorona will get you! [This refers to a South American/Mexican legend about a ghost who goes searching for her children. You can read a version of it here]).

Whatever the reason, those folk legends are woven into the history of many cultures. And we see them in crime fiction, too, and not just in speculative or fantasy stories. People’s belief in such folktales finds its way into more conventional stories, too.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson investigate the death of Sir Charles Baskerville, whose body was found in a park on the family property, Baskerville Hall. The legend in the area is that there is a phantom hound that haunts the Baskerville family, and has for many generations. It’s that hound that has caused Sir Charles’ death. But Holmes doesn’t believe in phantoms or other folktales. He is convinced only by logic and science. He’s unable to leave London at the moment, so he sends Watson to Baskerville Hall to start looking into the matter. Later, he joins his friend there. They find that there is a very prosaic explanation for Sir Charles’ death, and that it has nothing to do with legends or curses.

Some folktales are told about real people. For example, in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, there’s a robbery of a Ute casino, and the thieves get away with a large haul. Officer Teddy Bai is suspected of being an ‘inside operator,’ working with the gang. But Navajo Tribal Police Officer Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Manuelito doesn’t think so. She asks Sergeant Jim Chee to help find out the truth. And that truth turns out to be connected to a Ute legend about a man named Ironhand. It seems that Ironhand was able to almost magically steal Navajo sheep and escape without ever being caught. Stories were told among the Ute about him and his descendants, and those stories turn out to be quite useful to Chee and (now-retired) Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn as they look into the case.

Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money features Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan, who’s turned private investigator. Madeleine Avery hires Quinlan to find her brother, Charles, who’s gone missing from his home in Bangkok. Quinlan travels to Bangkok, and visits Avery’s apartment. There, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner, Robert Lee. There’s no sign of Avery, but Quinlan finds evidence that his quarry has gone on to Cambodia. With help from journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, Quinlan traces Avery to the north of Cambodia. There, he learns of a legend about spirits who haunt that part of the country, and who capture humans. That folk tale helps Quinlan and Sarin find out the truth about what happened to Avery, and where he is now.

I’m sure you’ve heard legends of mermaids. One of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous stories is about one. And there are all sorts of other mermaid stories told by sailors and other people who’ve been out on the sea. Mermaids even swim their way into Sharon Bolton’s A Dark and Twisted Tide. In that novel, Detective Constable (DC) Lacey Flint is working with the Marine Unit, where she’s looking forward to less-stressful police work, such as checking for boat licenses and warning people about unsafe conditions on the Thames, and so on. Everything changes, though, when she discovers the body of an unknown woman in the river. The victim is probably Middle Eastern or South Asian, but she has no ID, and it’s going to be very hard to trace her identity, let alone find out who killed her or why. Once the woman’s death is classified as a homicide, Flint works with Detective Inspector (DI) Dana Tulloch and her team at the Met to find out the truth about this murder. Mermaids aren’t responsible for murdering the victim. But the legend of people who are half-fish, half-human play a role in the novel.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Nelson’s sleuth is retired milliner Blake Heatherington, who lives in the village of Tuesbury. One of the sources of pride in town is a small model village that depicts the various businesses and buildings. One day, newsagent Harold Slater is murdered, and his body found in a local wood. Then it’s discovered that there’s a cross painted on the model newsagent, and the figure representing Slater is missing. And that’s just the first murder that’s marked in the model. There are signs that these murders might be connected with the Vodou beliefs of many people in Jamaica and Haiti. As it turns out, the murders are not caused by religion or even spirituality. They have a more prosaic motive. But there are some interesting discussions in the novel about the differences between traditional Vodou and many of the folk tales associated with it. For example, there’s a mention of Juju dolls, which have become the stuff of folklore. And there’s even a word or two about zombies. Nelson doesn’t go into any description, but I don’t have to tell you how folktales of ‘undead’ corpses have become a part of our culture.

Even people who absolutely don’t believe in the truth of any folktale sometimes enjoy going to see a ‘zombie film,’ or reading a story that involves werewolves or vampires. We humans do seem to enjoy those stories, even though we know a lot of them aren’t true. Little wonder they find their way into crime fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Big Country’s Hold the Heart.


Filed under Andrew Nette, Arthur Conan Doyle, D.S. Nelson, Sharon Bolton, Tony Hillerman

24 responses to “I Never Tire of Legends Grown*

  1. Truth often IS stranger than fiction. There are untold numbers of occurrences that have happened and are still happening throughout this world (and beyond?). And many have no sound/reasonable explanation. Thanks for getting the imagination up and running, Margot! 🙂

    • You make an interesting point, Michael. All sorts of strange things happen. And it’s part of human nature to want to explain them. That’s part of what makes scientific research so fascinating, really. It allows for the exploration of those strange and inexplicable phenomena.

  2. What a fascinating topic, Margot! This kind of thing can add a lot to a novel. Fred Vargas uses folk lore and superstition to good effect in books like The Ghost Riders of Ordebec. But the scariest novel in this line that I have ever read is Fallen Angel by William Hjortsberg, which frankly terrified me!

    • Oh, I’ve heard about Fallen Angel, Christine. I admit I’ve not (yet) read it, but I’m very glad for the reminder of it. I need to put that one on the radar. And as for Vargas, I’m truly glad you mentioned her work, as I left a gaping hole in my post. She’s done some excellent novels (and Ghost Riders.. is one of them) that blend in folk tales. This is one thing I love about blogging – such lovely people to fill in the gaps I leave. 🙂 – Thanks for the kind words.

  3. The weirdest one I’ve read in a long time has to be The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut, which involves children who go missing. Many people believe this isn’t due to a human murderer or kidnapper though – there’s a folktale that trolls take children so they can watch them play. The weird bit is that the trolls actually exist! Though they’re not quite what we think of as trolls – they are strange creatures that can take the form of other animals. I’m still not sure why it works, but it does – maybe it’s the setting in the snow and trees in remote parts of Sweden…

    • Oh, yes, FictionFan! I remember your review of that novel. It certainly sounds like a very unusual sort of crime novel. And I give Spjut a lot of credit for the inventiveness. You make a well-taken point, too, about the setting. Some settings just work for those sorts of folk elements.

  4. Margot, your post reminds me of SS Van Dine’s insistence, in his 20 rules for writing crime fiction, that crime must be solved by naturalistic means. Mind you, so few of his ‘rules’ seem to apply on contemporary crime fiction:

    • That’s true, Angela. Still, I’m very glad you brought up Van Dine’s rules. There really is something to be said for realistic, naturalistic approaches to solving crime. Certainly such approaches are a lot more believable. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. I would not have thought of Fred Vargas in this context, Margot, if Christine had not mentioned her books. In her book Seeking Whom He May Devour, people think that a werewolf is killing their sheep. Her novels do have an other worldly feel.

    • I’m glad that Christine mentioned Fred Vargas’ work, Tracy. She really does do an effective job of weaving those folk tales into her novels. The stories work well, I think.

  6. Col

    Fallen Angel – I’ll second that, it’s a fantastic book. I enjoyed Ghost Money as well and I do need to try something from Vargas someday.

    • Now I’ll have to put Fallen Angel on the list, Col. And I’m glad you enjoyed Ghost Money. I do recommend Vargas. Those stories aren’t ‘typical’ (if there is such a thing), but they’re very well-written.

  7. Folktales do add another fascinating layer to a story. Your mention of Dracula and vampires made me wonder. Do we seem to have more of a idolized look at vampires in stories now than we did 20-30 years ago? Have certain books made us look at vampires in a new ‘light’? Intriguing post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. And you know, you ask some interesting questions here. Certainly, the popular image of vampires has a lot from the original novel (and then Nosferatu to today’s Twilight series. That’s a fascinating point!

  8. I don’t have any extra titles to add, but I too love that dimension, and have enjoyed many of the mentioned titles. And do read Fallen Angel, Margot – you can’t refuse when Chrissie, Col and I are all pushing it!

  9. Myths, Stories, Legends are the heart of a culture, and therefore “true”, in that metaphors, symbols are STAND-INS for truth[s]. I like your picking that topic to analyze in – how many crime writers have woven myths into their “who dun it” manifestos! In other words, WHAT FUN! 🙂 Good thinking, Margot…

    • Thank you. And you’re absolutely right about myths and legends. Every culture has them. And they’ve often served as explanations for things when people haven’t had another explanation. It’s part of human nature, I often think, so it’s no wonder we see them in the genre.

  10. This was definitely a fascinating case for Blake and as you know I am myself intrigued by folklore and mystery.

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