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.