There’s something about the process of building or refinishing something. It can give a real sense of satisfaction (i.e. I did this myself). And doing things yourself allows for a real creative outlet, and it means that you don’t have to pay for someone else to do the job. So it’s little wonder that a whole industry has been built up around doing things yourself. There are all sorts of home building outlets, and some furniture chains (Ikea comes to mind) sell only put-it-together-yourself pieces. You can do as little or as much do-it-yourself as you want, too, from snapping casters onto the bottom of a prefab chair to building your own house.
Of course, not everyone enjoys do-it-yourself projects, but they are very popular. They make appearances in crime fiction, too. In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for instance, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He’s soon drawn into a murder case when retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. The most obvious suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, who was desperate for money and had quarreled with Ackroyd about that. What’s more, Paton has been missing since the day of the murder. But his fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced he’s innocent, and wants Poirot to clear his name. This story is narrated by Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the house Poirot has taken. Sheppard knows everyone in the area, and takes an interest in the case himself. Although he’s a medical man, Sheppard also enjoys do-it-yourself electronics, and has an entire workshop in his home that’s devoted to that interest.
Fans of Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa will know that he loves books. He’s got quite a collection, especially for a small home like his. He’s a busy police inspector, so he doesn’t have a lot of time for home improvement projects. But he does want to take care of his books. At one point, he considers building bookshelves, and there are a few references to his reflections on what they might be like and where he might put them. But he settles on another option,
‘…a ‘shelf in its purest state’…’
He’s made his bookshelves completely out of books stacked on one another. No nails, hammer or paint are required for that project.
Peter Temple’s Jack Irish knows the sense of satisfaction that can come from making and building something yourself. He is a sometimes-lawyer who also has a side business in finding people who don’t want to be found. But whenever he can, he spends time in his friend Charlie Taub’s cabinetry shop, where he is a kind of unofficial apprentice to Taub. There, he’s learned the real pleasure one can get in choosing the right piece of wood, using the right tools, and creating something in which he can take pride. He’s not the master of the craft that Taub is, but he’s learning; even Taub, who is not a man to gush, occasionally praises his work in his own way.
One of the plot threads in Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers concerns dubious developer Denny Graham. Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne has been doing the research for an exposé on Graham, and she’s hoping to shut down his business. It seems that he lures people to invest their money in what seem to be lovely retirement or holiday properties. Then, they discover too late that the ‘luxury’ property they’ve bought is anything but. Thorne finds that several of Graham’s victims don’t want to be a part of her story, in part because they fear the consequences of going up against a powerful person like Graham. But there’s another reason too for which Thorne finds it hard to get her story at first:
‘It was difficult to work out exactly how he got away with it but buyers generally either sold up at a huge loss or got out their deckchairs and barbies and got on with it. New Zealanders are do-it-yourselfers and there’d always be someone they could count on to give them a hand to fix up the electrics or sort out the plumbing for the exchange of a week or so at the bach. And it was a whole lot easier and cheaper to pick up discounted floor coverings and a Para pool than to try to take it through the courts.’
Depending on how large and complex the job is, there certainly is something to the argument that if you’re willing to learn the task and do the work, it’s easier to do it than to deal with contractors.
Even people who don’t generally enjoy do-it-yourself projects sometimes like to put their own personal ‘stamp’ on a project or a place. For instance, in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall, television personality Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford and her mother Iris have planned to open an antique business together. Everything changes though when Kat gets an odd call from Iris. On what seems to be a complete whim, Iris has suddenly moved to the small Devon town of Little Dipperton and taken the former carriage house on the estate of Honeychurch Hall. Shocked at this change in plans, Kat rushes to Little Dipperton to find that her mother has indeed started a whole new life there. Iris has recently broken a hand in a car accident, so Kat decides to stay for a bit to help out until her mother recovers. During that visit, she gets involved in a murder case when Honeychurch Hall’s housekeeper Vera Pugsley is killed. She also learns things about Iris that she never knew before. The carriage house itself is not in very good shape, and Iris is not by nature a do-it-yourselfer. But she’s trying to ‘stretch herself’ since the death of her husband Frank, and she’s doing a few things:
‘The pantry…was in desperate need of a coat of paint but it was clean and Mum had painstakingly lined every surface with adhesive paper in a cheerful red gingham pattern.’
There’s something about a coat of paint or varnish or paper that turns a room or a piece of furniture into something personal.
There are also several mystery series that feature do-it-yourself projects. For example, there’s Jennie Bentley’s Do-It-Yourself Mysteries, featuring New York-based home renovator Avery Baker. And there’s Sarah A. Hoyt‘s (as Elise Hyatt) Daring Finds mysteries, which feature furniture refinisher Candyce ‘Dyce’ Dare.
Even if you’re not one to open a can of paint or wield a hammer, you know how popular do-it-yourself projects are. They really can be satisfying, and in a novel, they can add character depth or even be a plot point. This is just a smattering of what’s out there. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Woody Guthrie’s Bling Blang.