Category Archives: Lawrence Block

He Was the Bed and Breakfast Man*

B&BsIn yesterday’s post, I mentioned that B&B’s are a different sort of accommodation to boarding houses or lodges. They’re not usually intended for long-term guests. At the same time, like lodging and boarding houses, they are often private homes. There’s also a sort of intimacy about the B&B that isn’t as common in hotels. The B&B makes a sometimes very pleasant alternative to the hotel or motel, too. You may not be able to get your dinner, but if you do a bit of research (and have a bit of luck), a B&B can be delightful.

There are a number of them in crime fiction; and, even when they aren’t directly concerned in the plot of a novel, they can certainly add character to a story. Here are just a few examples.

In Lawrence Block’s The Burglar in the Library, New York bookseller Bernie Rhodenbarr plans a romantic getaway for himself and his current love interest Lettice Littlefield. The plan is for them to go to Cuttleford House, a lovely B&B in upstate New York. Then, Lettice surprises Bernie with the news that she can’t go because she’s getting married – to someone else. Not wanting to waste the trip or go alone, Bernie invites his friend Carolyn Kaiser in Lettice’s place. To add to his motivation, there’s a rare book in Cuttleford’s library that he’d like very much to have. The snowfall that started before they even got to the B&B gets worse and worse. Still they arrive safely and prepare to enjoy a break from New York City. Then, the body of fellow guest Jonathan Rathburn is found in the very library where Bernie saw the book he wants. And with everyone snowbound, it’s more than likely that one of the other people at the B&B is the killer. And Rathburn’s is only the first death…

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Nag, Lochdubh Constable Hamish Macbeth has recently been demoted from sergeant. That in itself might not be so bad, but he’s also dealing with the breaking of his engagement to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. And the circumstances of that breakup haven’t exactly made him popular. He’s fed up and a bit at loose ends, as the saying goes. So he makes arrangements to stay for a bit at the Friendly House, a beachside inn, and makes the trip there. It’s not really a B&B – more like a boarding house – and it’s certainly not friendly. There are all sorts of annoying and eccentric guests, and the hosts are not exactly model innkeepers. Then, one of the residents, Bob Harris, is murdered. Macbeth gets drawn into the investigation. He traces Harris’ last days, including an incident in which he saw Harris leave a house that he’s discovered is a brothel. Unfortunately, when Macbeth returns to follow up on that clue, he knocks at the wrong door:

‘An angry flush rose up her face. ‘This is a respectable bed and breakfast, I’ll have ye know. It’s that Simpson creature you’re wanting. I could hae ye for slander. Off wi’ ye.’

Upon hearing that the brothel he’s looking for is next door, he makes a very understandable hasty retreat. A few moments later, he speaks to the brothel owner, Mrs. Simpson. Here’s what she says when Macbeth tells her about the mistake he’s made:

‘She burst out laughing. ‘That must ha’ got the old biddy’s knickers in a twist. I can tell you her gentleman boarders, as she ca’s them, drink mair than any o’ the lot that come here.’

Just because a B&B is respectable doesn’t mean all of its guests are…

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that many of the stories take place in the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. If you aren’t staying with relatives or friends there, the place to stay is the local B&B/bistro, owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s the setting for many interactions in the series, and both owners get involved at one point or another in the mysteries that Gamache investigates.

There are also, of course, a few mystery series set in B&Bs, with owners as sleuths. For example, there’s Jean Hager’s Iris House B&B Mystery novels. Beginning with Blooming Murder, the series follows Iris House’s owner Tess Darcy as she converts her late Aunt Iris’ former Missouri home into a B&B and launches her business. Things get off to a rather rocky start when Tess prepares to host participants in the Iris Growers’ Convention – and one of them ends up dead, stabbed with a cake knife.

And for a truly creepy B&B story, I recommend Roald Dahl’s short story The Landlady. Billy Weaver has just arrived in Bath to start a new job. He’s on his way to the Bell and Dragon, where he’s heard he can get a decent room, when he happens to pass a small, homey-looking place with a B&B sign. On impulse, he stops there and asks about a room. You can read what happens next right here. But I suggest you read it during the day. And not just as you’re looking up a B&B for that next getaway…

Don’t let stories like The Landlady stop you booking a B&B, though. They can be wonderful places; I know I’ve had some great experiences.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Madness’ The Bed and Breakfast Man.


Filed under Jean Hager, Lawrence Block, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Roald Dahl

She Lived There With This Roommate I Despised*

RoommatesVery often, young people don’t have the means to purchase or even lease a place to live by themselves. So they room with another person (sometimes more than one person). In fact, rooming together is a lot more common at universities (especially for undergraduates) than is having a place to oneself.

The roommate relationship is a very unusual one, if you think about it. In a lot of cases, roommates are not relatives or family members. And yet, they may know more about one another than family does. And there are all kinds of things that can happen between roommates, too. If you’ve seen Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female, you know some of what can happen. Even if you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you have your own ‘roommate stories.’

Roommates also figure into crime fiction. That makes sense, simply because of the relationship. Here are just a few examples.

Of course one of the best-known set of fictional roommates is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For many of the stories in that series, they share rooms at perhaps crime fiction’s most famous address, 221B Baker Street. They’re very different people, but they manage to make it work.

Agatha Christie’s Third Girl is in part the story of three young women who share a London flat. Claudia Reese-Holland and Frances Cary share with Norma Restarick, who’s been brought in as a ‘third girl:’

‘The main girl takes a furnished flat, and then shares out the rent. Second girl is usually a friend. Then they find a third girl by advertising if they don’t know one…First girl takes the best room, second girl pays rather less, third girl less still and is stuck in a cat-hole.’

Norma pays a cryptic visit to Poirot, and then changes her mind, saying he’s ‘too old.’ Shortly thereafter, she disappears. Poirot’s friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, knows who Norma is, and is interested in the mystery. So she works with Poirot to find out what happened to Norma and what it all may have to do with a murder that may have occurred. It’s an interesting look at taking a place together in London in the 1960s.

In Edward D. Hoch’s short story The Oblong Room, we meet university roommates Ralph Rollings and Tom McBern.  Connecticut police detective Captain Leopold is sent to the local university campus when Rollings’ body is found with stab wounds in it. McBern is in the room (which is locked), and apparently has been for two days. At first, no-one says anything about what happened – not McBern and not the young woman both roommates admired. Without any background, it’s hard to pinpoint a motive, but in the end, Leopold gets there. In this case, the motive is as unusual as the ‘locked room’ nature of this crime is.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers introduces readers to his sleuth Matthew Scudder. In this first novel, Scudder hasn’t yet got his PI license, but he does occasionally do a little very informal work for people. Successful businessman Cale Hanniford has heard about Scudder and want to hire him. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has been murdered, and all of the evidence points to her roommate, twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, Hanniford doesn’t even want Scudder to investigate the murder. Rather, he wants to know more about the daughter from whom he’d become estranged. He’s hoping Scudder can help him understand the kind of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. Rather reluctantly, Scudder agrees and asks some questions. As he does, he begins to wonder whether her roommate was actually responsible. In the end, he finds that Wendy’s murder is not as simple as it seems.

Neither is the murder of Kate Sumner, which we read about in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. Two young boys who out exploring find her body on the beach near Chapman’s Poole, Dorset. The alarm is raised and PC Nick Ingram begins to investigate. In the meantime, a toddler, who turns out to be Kate’s daughter Hannah, is found wandering around the nearby town of Poole. Gradually, the police trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and narrow the suspect list down to three people. One is Kate’s husband William. Another is a local schoolteacher Tony Bridges. A third is Bridges’ roommate, actor Stephen Harding. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that all three men had a motive, and that Kate’s complicated personal life and psychology have everything to do with her murder.

A group of college roommates features in Lisa Unger’s In the Blood. Lana Granger is a college senior who’s done everything possible to hide the darkness in her past. She’s managing, with difficulty at times, to function and is currently finishing her degree. As the story opens, she shares a dormitory suite with Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller and a third roommate, Ainsley. Then, Lana’s mentor recommends her for an after-school nanny job supervising Luke Kahn. Luke’s had severe psychological/emotional problems; even on his best days, he can be difficult. Lana takes the job, although she’s a bit reluctant about it. Things begin to go downhill, as the saying goes, when Lana suspects that Luke is manipulating her. Then one terrible night, Beck disappears. It’s not long before she’s officially reported missing, and Lana becomes the chief suspect, since she had an argument with Beck that evening. Lana claims that she doesn’t know what happened to her roommate, but the police aren’t ready to take her word for it. And the more they learn about that night, the more they question what she says. The truth about what happened isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. Without spoiling the story, I can say that one of the things we see in this novel is college campus ‘roommate life.’

Living with someone who’s not a family member and not a romantic partner can be odd at times. In its way, it’s a very intimate relationship; yet, most of the time, roommates aren’t related. It’s certainly an interesting dynamic, so it’s no wonder it pops up in crime fiction. Got any ‘roommate war stories’ you’d like to share?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ She Just Happened.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edward D. Hoch, Lawrence Block, Lisa Unger, Minette Walters

I Ain’t Got Much to Lose*

Not Much to LoseIt’s not easy to investigate a murder, even for police and professional PIs, who’ve signed up to do that work and who have some training. It’s even more so for people who haven’t and don’t. Some people – at least fictional characters – investigate because they’re implicated, or because someone they care about is implicated. There are other people though, who get into investigation because they really don’t have anything else in their lives. So they don’t have much to lose, even if they get into danger.

Characters who don’t have a lot to lose sometimes take chances that others wouldn’t. And if that’s not handled well in a story, it can pull the reader out. But these characters also can bring a certain perseverance and focus to a case because they’re not risking families, successful businesses and the like. There are a lot of characters like that in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

When we first meet him in The Sins of the Fathers, Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has very little to lose, at least from his perspective. He’s a former New York police officer who left the force after a tragic accident in which a seven-year-old girl was shot as Scudder was going after some thieves who’d killed a bartender. As the series begins, Scudder doesn’t have a home life, or even very much of a place to live. He doesn’t have a steady job, either. So he doesn’t have a lot to lose when successful business executive Cale Hanniford asks his help. Hanniford’s estranged twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has recently been murdered, and he wants to know the kind of person she’d become. The police have arrested the victim’s roommate Richard Vanderpoel, and there is a great deal of evidence against him. So Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the crime. He simply wants to know what sort of life his daughter had, and what would have led to her murder. Scudder agrees to at least ask some questions, and begins following leads. The trail leads to the past for both the victim and the alleged killer, and as Scudder looks into the matter, he finds the pattern that has led to the killing.

In Giorgio Scerbanenco’s A Private Venus, we meet Dr. Duca Lamberti. He’s recently been released from prison, where he served a sentence for euthanasia. He can no longer work as a doctor, so he has nothing much to lose when Pietro Auseri offers to hire him. Auseri’s son Davide has been in a deep depression for almost a year, and can’t seem to stop drinking, despite some time spent in treatment. Lamberti isn’t sure what he can do that professional treatment can’t, but he agrees to take on Davide’s case. Little by little, he gets to know Davide, and learns the reason for the young man’s depression and drinking. Davide blames himself for the death of Alberta Radelli, whose body was found outside of Milan a year earlier. He says that he met her by chance and offered her a ride and a day in Florence. They had an enjoyable day, but when he prepared to return with her to Milan, she begged him to take her with him – to help her escape Milan. He refused, she threatened suicide, and not long afterwards, her body was discovered. Lamberti believes that the only way to free Davide of his demons is to find out the truth about the young woman’s death. With little to lose, that’s exactly what he sets out to do.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins also gets drawn into investigating in large part because he doesn’t have much; therefore, he has very little to lose. In Devil in a Blue Dress, we learn that he worked at a wartime factory (this series takes place just after World War II). When the war ended, the factory downsized and he became redundant. When DeWitt Albright needs someone to find a young woman named Daphne Monet, Rawlins sees no real reason not to agree. And he’s well-suited for the task. He knows Los Angeles well, and, being Black, he can ‘blend in’ in the local Black community, which is where the missing woman was last seen. This case draws Rawlins into a web of fraud and murder; it also begins to establish his reputation as someone who can find people and get things done.

Fans of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum will know that she had nothing much to lose when she got started investigating. When Plum discovered that her husband was unfaithful, she got a divorce and took a job in a department store to pay the bills. Then, the department store made cuts in its staff, and Plum was laid off. With no real alternative, Plum took a job at her cousin’s bail bond company. She was supposed to work as a file clerk – a nice ‘safe’ job – but instead, ended up as a bounty hunter. It’s not exactly the job her family dreamed of for her, but it’s certainly never dull.

In Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), we meet Smilla Jaspersen, a half Inuit/half Danish mathematician and scientist. Although she grew up in Greenland, she now lives in Copenhagen. She has no close ties to anyone, and not very much to lose personally. So she’s got nothing to hold her back, so to speak, when she decides to ask questions about the death of ten-year-old Isaiah Christiansen. He, too, was a Greenlander, and lived in the same building as Jaspersen. One day, so the police say, he was playing on the roof of the building and had a tragic fall that killed him. Jaspersen is drawn to the roof where the accident occurred, and when she looks at it, she notices some things about the snow that aren’t consistent with an accidental fall. The trail leads back to Greenland, and as Jespersen looks into what happened there, she finds that this case is much more than a young boy who fell from a roof.

When we first meet Ken Bruen’s Jack Taylor in The Guards, he’s been removed from the Garda Síochána for excessive drinking, which led to an incident involving unprofessional conduct with a speeder. Taylor has some friends, and people he knows, but no really close ties. He doesn’t have much to lose when he decides to hang out his shingle as a PI in Galway. He doesn’t have the money for a posh office or a staff, so he uses his local, Grogan’s, as an office. That’s where Anne Henderson finds him when she goes in search of someone to learn the truth about the death of her daughter Sarah. The police called it suicide, but she knows better. Taylor takes the case and ends up involved in a coverup, multiple killings and more.

Some people make the choice to become professional detectives. But for others, the choice to look into a crime (or crimes) happens because they have no real alternatives and not much to lose by investigating. These are just a few examples (I know, I know, fans of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee). Which ones occur to you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Citizen King’s Better Days (And the Bottom Drops Out). I almost chose a line from Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster’s Me and Bobby McGee; both songs are good matches for the topic, I think.


Filed under Giorgio Scerbanenco, Janet Evanovich, John D. MacDonald, Ken Bruen, Lawrence Block, Peter Høeg, Walter Mosley

I Will Remember You*

MemorialsAn interesting post from Cathy at Kittling: Books has got me thinking about Día de los Muertos, a memorial celebration that’s typically observed in Spain and in Latin American countries. It’s a time to remember loved ones who have died, and in lots of places it’s marked by parades, food, visits to cemeteries and the decoration of private family memorials. You’ll want to check out Cathy’s post to see some of the artwork and other observations.

Día de los Muertos isn’t celebrated in every culture. But many cultures do have some way of remembering loved ones who’ve died. And people often find personal ways to do so as well. They do in real life and they do in fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet well-known sculptor Henrietta Savernake. One weekend she is invited to join one of her cousins Lady Lucy Angkatell and her husband Sir Henry at their country home. Henrietta is pleased about it because, among other things, she’ll get to spend some time with her lover John Christow, who’s also been invited. Christow is married, so they can’t be very public with their relationship, but everyone knows about it. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch that day and arrives just after the shooting. To him it looks like a macabre tableau arranged for his ‘benefit.’ He soon sees though that it is all too real, and works with Inspector Grange to find out who killed Christow and why. At the end of the novel, Henrietta has to deal with the grief she feels, and she wants some way to remember her lover, even though they weren’t officially a couple. Here is how she does so:

“I must take my grief and make it into a figure of alabaster.’
Exhibit No. 58. ‘Grief.’ Alabaster. Miss Henrietta Savernake…’


She may not be able to publicly put flowers on his grave, but she finds her own kind of memorial.

Lawrence Block’s New York PI Matthew Scudder has to deal with the fact that while he was a police officer, he killed a young girl Estrellita Rivera in a tragic accident. He was chasing some thieves who’d just shot the owner of a bar, and Estrellita was shot by mistake. Although her family never blamed him for what happened, Scudder feels the burden of it. Whenever he has the opportunity and is in a Roman Catholic church, he lights a candle for her. It’s his way of remembering her.

One of the older Roman Catholic traditions is that bones, piece of cloth and other things belonging to saints were to be revered. They were regarded as holy and used as memorials to the saint. This belief plays a major role in Ellis Peter’s A Morbid Taste For Bones, the first of her Brother Cadfael stories. Fans will know that Cadfael is a Benedictine monk in 12th Century Shrewsbury Abbey. In this novel, Cadfael travels with a group of monks to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to retrieve the bones of St. Winifred and take them back to the abbey. As you can imagine, the people who live in Gwytherin are unwilling to have a group of English monks take their prized memorial away. Among other things they regard St. Winifred as their protectress. So there’s already hostility between the monks and the townspeople. Then Lord Rhysart, who led the opposition to the monks, is killed. If the monks are to return to the abbey in safety, and with the bones, it will have to be proved that none of them is responsible. So Cadfael works to solve the murder.

Tarquin Hall’s Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri has his own way of remembering those who have gone before. He visits temples, although he isn’t what you would call blindly religious. He also keeps a personal shrine in his Delhi office. Here’s how it’s described in The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing:

‘The first thing he did upon entering his office – that is, after turning on the air conditioning – was to light an incense stick in the little puja shrine below the two frames hanging on the wall next to his desk. One contained a photograph of his father, Om Chander Puri, the other a likeness of Chanakya, the detective’s guide and guru who had lived around 300 BC and founded the arts of espionage and investigation. The detective said a short prayer, asking for guidance from them both, and then buzzed in his secretary.’

Puri feels a connection not just with his own personal ancestors, but with those from the broader history of India as well.

Some people of course develop smaller ways to reflect on and remember those who’ve died. Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer, for instance, has a prized photograph of his wife Elise, who died of cancer. He doesn’t obsess over her loss, ‘though he misses her very much. But he keeps that ‘photo in place of pride. He remembers her often and sometimes reflects on what she might think or say about what he does.

In Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China, Shanghai Police Bureau Chief Inspector Chen Cao investigates what seems to be the suicide of Zhou Keng, Head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official explanation for his death is that he killed himself because he was under investigation for corruption. Chen is assigned to the case under the assumption that he’ll ‘rubber stamp’ that account of Zhou’s death. But Chen isn’t entirely satisfied with the ‘suicide story.’ So he begins to ask some questions and works to find out what really happened to the victim. In one plot thread of this novel, Chen gets an invitation/request from his assistant Detective Yu. Yu’s wife Pequin wants to remember her dead father on the hundredth anniversary of his birth. It’s the Buddhist tradition to have a celebration to mark that occasion, and when possible, the memorial takes place at a Buddhist temple. Normally, a Party cadre such as Chen wouldn’t attend a religious observance like that. However, it’s a request from his friend and assistant. What’s more, it’s a mark of pride for Yu and his wife to have such an important person as Chen attend the memorial. So Chen agrees. It’s an interesting look at Buddhist customs for remembering dead loved ones as they’re observed in China.

Of course, not all cultures have such memorials. In some cultures, for instance, those who have died are still considered to be a part of one’s life, so creating memorials simply isn’t a part of daily living. In others, memorials to those who have died are seen as possible openings for malevolent spirits. So once loved ones have died, they are not mentioned. That said though, in a lot of cultures and a lot of different ways, we do remember those we’ve loved who have died. These are a few examples. Over to you.

ps. The ‘photo is of a yahrzeit candle. In the Jewish tradition, these candles are lit at certain times of the year to remember family members who have died.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a the title of a Sarah McLachlan song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Karin Fossum, Lawrence Block, Qiu Xiaolong, Tarquin Hall

Whatever Gets You Through Your Life*

RitualIt seems to be human nature that we want to impose some sort of order and structure in our worlds. We like to feel at least some sense of control over our lives, especially when things happen that are out of our control. One way in which people try to get and keep that control is through certain rituals. I don’t mean just religious rituals, although sometimes they’re used that way. Rather, I mean rituals we go through in our daily lives.

Some people develop personal rituals to help them cope with things that have happened, and it’s interesting to see how this plays out in crime fiction. After all, the genre’s full of murders, abductions and other horrible events that people have to deal with in one way or another. Here are just a few examples of what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner hires a nurse Amy Leatheran to help his wife Loiuse cope with her fears and anxieties. The Leidners are on a dig a few hours from Baghdad, so Nurse Leatheran stays at the house the dig team is occupying. At first all goes as expected, although there are undercurrents of strain among the members of the party. There are also a few incidents where Louise Leidner hears unusual noises and sees an unknown face at her window. But that’s put down to her strain and fear, and things settle again. Then one afternoon, she is bludgeoned and her body found in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area on other business and he’s persuaded to investigate. The story is told from Amy Leatheran’s point of view, and at one point, she goes through a sort of ritual to try to find out the killer’s identity. Although she’s not normally at all a fanciful person, she tells herself that if she goes into the victim’s room and lies on the bed in the same way, the door will open and the murderer will come in. Sure enough, when she does lie down on the bed, the door does open. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that Nurse Leatheran isn’t murdered, but it’s an interesting look at how even the most pragmatic among us can have those rituals.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder does. He’s a former NYPD police officer who left the force after a tragic incident. He was going after two armed thieves who’d shot a bartender when he accidentally shot a young girl Estrellita Rivera. No-one really blames Scudder for this – not even the victim’s family. But he himself feels a great deal of guilt about it. He knows that nothing he can do or say will bring the girl back and he does pick up his life after a fashion. Slowly, he starts a new career as a PI. But he never forgets Estrellita. Whenever he gets the chance, he visits local churches, and always lights a candle for her. That ritual helps him deal with his reaction to having shot her, however accidentally.

In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, we meet Jonas Hansson. He had a very unhappy childhood, but managed to make it into adulthood and found happiness in his relationship with his fiancée Anna. Then one day, Anna nearly drowned. Now she’s in a coma, and although she hasn’t responded, Hansson visits her at least once a day. At first, the hospital staff respects his devotion to Anna, but before long, it’s clear that he’s not dealing with what happened in a very healthy way. One night, he’s at a pub when he meets Eva Wirenström-Berg, who has her own problems. She’s just discovered that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful, and she’s devastated about it. She and Hansson strike up a conversation and after this chance encounter, things begin to spiral out of control for both of them. The end result is real tragedy for more than one person. As the story evolves, we learn that Hansson still bears the scars of his youth, and has certain rituals for dealing with stress. One of them is to recite from memory the distances among different places in Sweden:


‘Alingsås to Arjeplog 1179 kilometres, Arboga to Arlanda 144, Arvidsjaur to Borlänge 787.’


The rituals that Hansson goes through don’t change anything. They don’t bring Anna back to health, and they don’t draw him out of the tragic course of events in this novel. But they do calm him and we can see in his character how and why people sometimes engage in them.

When families have to deal with a missing loved one, especially (‘though not exclusively) when it’s a child, they often develop rituals. It’s almost as though those rituals will bring the child safely home. You see that sort of thing in several crime novels; I’ll just mention one. In Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow, we are introduced to Dorothy Pine, a member of the Ojibwa First Nation. Five months before the events in the novel, her daughter Katie went to school one morning and never came home. John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay Police was assigned to the case, but he and his team couldn’t find any solid leads as to the child’s whereabouts. Although it’s highly unlikely that Katie is still alive, her mother has ritually kept her things exactly as they were. Then a body is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. When the body is identified as Katie Pine, Cardinal has the thankless task of informing her mother. When he visits the house, we see how Katie’s things have been kept neatly, as though she would be home any time. This ritual actually turns out to be helpful to Cardinal, as he finds a clue that helps him track down the murderer.

And then there’s Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, which takes place mostly in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook, located where the East River empties into a bay. One hot summer night, Valerie ‘Val’ Marino and June Giatto decide on an impulse to take a raft ride on the bay. At first it’s fun, but then tragedy strikes. Very early the next morning, Val is found on the beach by one of her teachers. June has disappeared. At first there’s every hope that June will come back, but as time goes by, it seems more and more likely that she’s drowned. Val has to cope with the grief of her friend’s disappearance. She also has to cope with the way everyone reacts to her (i.e. Might she know more than she’s saying about what happened?). Part of the way she deals with this, especially at first, is to go through all sorts of rituals, with the idea that they’ll bring June back.


‘If she goes to the party, does exactly what June would have wanted her to do, June will come back.’


It’s not spoiling the story to say that Val’s rituals don’t affect the truth of what happened, or of the novel’s outcome. But they do give Val a sense of control, however false, over what happens.

And that’s true for most of us. We may know very well intellectually that those kinds of rituals don’t change things. But it doesn’t stop us going through them. These are only a few examples from crime fiction. Which ones have stayed with you?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s Whatever Gets You Thru the Night.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Giles Blunt, Ivy Pochoda, Karin Alvtegen, Lawrence Block