I’ll bet you’ve had the experience. You enjoy skiing, and you’ve tackled some challenging runs. Then, you don’t get the chance to ski for a while. When you finally do again, it’s back to the bunny slopes, because your skills have gotten a bit rusty. Or, perhaps you’re a card player who takes a break from it for a while. Then, when you get into a poker game, you find yourself making ‘beginner mistakes.’
Whether it’s music, running, poker, or cooking, your skills get and stay sharper if you use them regularly. The same is true for writing. That’s why writers are so often urged to write every day, even if it’s just a few sentences.
If you ask Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, he’ll tell you that detection skills need to be sharpened regularly, too. In The A.B.C. Murders, he works with Chief Inspector Japp and other police detectives to solve a baffling series of murders. It’s a challenging case, and certainly puts Poirot on his mettle. But that actually suits Poirot. At the beginning of the novel, before the first murder actually occurs, he has a conversation with Captain Hastings, who’s returned from Argentina for a stay in London. Hastings makes a comment about Poirot’s being retired; here’s Poirot’s answer:
‘‘And I will admit it, my friend, the retirement, I care for it not at all. If the little grey cells are not exercised, they grow the rust.’’
Research bears him out. Studies show that the more we use our thinking skills, the longer in life we have them.
And it’s not just thinking and detecting, although there are several examples of those in crime fiction. We see plenty of other examples of characters who know the value of regular discipline to keep skills strong. That side of a character can add an interesting dimension; it’s realistic, too.
For example, fans of Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss can tell you that she is a police detective with the Violent Crimes Unit of the Göteborg Police. She is also a former Swedish national judo champion, and former European champion. Her job and family life keep her very busy, but that doesn’t mean she wants to give up martial arts. So, she goes to the dojo sometimes to work out and to keep her skills strong. Her judo sessions are also very useful for keeping her in good physical condition. And sometimes, when she’s on the job, her skill at judo turns out to be very useful.
One of Elizabeth Spann Craig’s series features Beatrice Coleman, a former Atlanta folk art curator who’s retired to the small town of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. As we learn in Quilt or Innocence, the first of this series, she originally moved to Dappled Hills to be nearer to her daughter, Piper. But she’s soon drawn into life in her new home. And that includes the Village Quilters, one of several local quilting guilds. When she first gets to know the members of the guild, Beatrice doesn’t know much about how to quilt. It doesn’t help, either, that some of the members have been quilting for decades, and make it all look very easy (which it’s not, really). Part of the reason for this is that the guild members mees regularly, both to keep their skills sharp and to keep their social network strong. Little by little, Beatrice learns some quilting skills, and is better able to contribute to the group’s work. Among other things, this series shows how something like quilting really has to be done regularly to hone skills.
So does playing baseball. Like any athletes, baseball players have regular workout sessions, even during the off-season. Skills such as pitching, catching, running, and communicating with teammates, have to be kept sharp if a team is going to win. And that doesn’t happen if players spend too much time off the field. There’s a dose of this in Alison Gordon’s Katherine ‘Kate’ Henry series. Henry is a sportswriter for the Toronto Planet. Her specialty is baseball, as was her creator’s. So, she travels with the (American League) Toronto Titans, and, of course, attends their home games. Readers follow along as the team members sharpen their skills during spring training (in Night Game), and work out before games during the baseball season (e.g. in The Dead Pull Hitter). The series gives readers an ‘inside look’ at the way professional athletes keep their skills from getting rusty.
But it’s not just athletic or other physical skills that need to be honed. Just ask John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep. He’s a member of the Royal Thai Police, based in Bangkok. He is also a devout Buddhist. As you’ll know, Buddhism entails the mental discipline of regular meditation and focus. And it doesn’t come easily. It requires patience, lots of repetition and training, and regular mental exercise. And all of that takes time. Still, Jitpleecheep has found that study and meditation help him keep his focus and develop his spiritual and cognitive side.
You might say a similar thing about Tony Hillerman’s Sergeant Jim Chee. As fans can tell you, he is a member of the Navajo Nation. He is also a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Chee has kept many of the Navajo traditions, too. In fact, at the beginning of the series, he is studying to be a yata’ali, a Navajo singer/healer. To be a skilled yata’ali takes a great deal of training and time. Each ritual has its own complexities, and Chee aims to learn to do each one exactly correctly. So, he hones his skills regularly, by going through the steps of each ritual. And, at least in the first novels of the series, he doesn’t let a lot of time go by between sessions. He knows the importance of not allowing his skills to rust.
And that’s the thing about skills, whether they are mental or physical. They need to be used, on a regular basis, or they do get rusty. Little wonder we see characters keeping their skills sharp in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman’s Scales and Arpeggios.