There’s something about handmade, custom-created things. There’s a personal touch that you don’t see in machine-made products. And when you’re fortunate enough to have something custom made, you know what a difference that extra effort and personal touch can make. Before the advent of the assembly line, a lot of things were handmade, but that’s not as true now. So when you can get something handmade, the experience can be all the richer.
Handmade and custom-made products add richness to crime fiction, too. There are, of course, historical series such as Eleanor Kuhns’ that feature handmade things. Her Will Rees is an itinerant weaver whose trade is a part of this series. And this is by no means the only example.
But there are also books and series set in modern times that include people who create handmade and custom-made things. For example, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels take place mostly among the Navajo people. The Navajo Nation is noted for exquisite weaving, so Navajo blankets and rugs are well-made and beautiful, too. If you know where to go, you can actually find some that are made traditionally (i.e. not just produced for tourists). In People of Darkness, for instance, Chee, who is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, is looking for a man named Tomas Charley, who may have valuable information on a case he’s investigating. He learns that Charley will be attending a rug auction at a local elementary school, and goes there. The rug auction is a regular way for local weavers to sell their wares, and for those handmade products to be available to successful bidders. It’s not the sort of thing that you find at a roadside tourist stop. But for those who know, there’s nothing like a custom-made rug or blanket.
Handmade rugs also feature in Anthony Bidulka’s Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client. Pranav Gupta wants to know what happened to his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ The younger Gupta had been on a trip to the Middle East to give a series of lectures on antique carpets, and to get some samples of traditionally-made carpets for the University of Saskatoon’s permanent collection. He was killed in what police said was a tragic, but unplanned, murder by local thugs in an open-air market. But Pranav Gupta thinks otherwise, and sends Bidulka to the Middle East to find out the truth.
If you enjoy baked goods, then you know that it’s hard to match the quality of fresh-baked, homemade bakery items. That’s part of the reason why Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman is successful with her bakery, Earthly Delights. She is dedicated to making real breads with proper ingredients, and she knows the difference between machine-produced bread and handmade bread. And her apprentice, Jason Wallace, is just as dedicated. His specialty is muffins, and his work is of such quality that one of his nicknames is ‘The Muffin Man.’ When a competitor from a large chain called Best Fresh moves in down the street in Trick or Treat, we see just how seriously these two take their work. Best Fresh may be a larger company, but the cooks there are more technicians than they are real bakers, and that difference shows in the product.
D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington knows the value of handmade, custom-created products, too. He is a former milliner, who ran the family business for several years in London. Now he’s retired to the village of Tuesbury, where he still makes hats to order – discreetly, of course, so as not to arouse too much interest from the local council. After all, he’s not technically supposed to have a business on his home property. But anyone who has a Heatherington hat knows how well worth it that extra effort is. Heatherington creates hats from the right materials, and always with his client’s needs and wishes foremost in mind. He’s quite observant, too, which makes him not only a skilled milliner, but also a very apt amateur detective…
Fans of Peter Temple’s Jack Irish novels will know that he has unofficially apprenticed himself to cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Both of them know the value of careful workmanship and the right wood. They tease each other, but they both respect the effort it takes to do a cabinet job the right way – by hand.
And then there’s Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen’s Benjamin Cooker. He and his assistant Virgile Lanssien are wine experts, and they know what it takes to make great wine. Certainly there are machines and technology used in the process, but at the same time, the real key to fine wine is the personal touch of the vintner. Properly made wine doesn’t taste ‘mass produced,’ and these amateur sleuths know that. In this series, along with the mysteries, readers also get a look at the way wine is made, and the many subtleties that the personal touch adds to the final product.
There are other series, too, that feature characters who make handmade and custom-made items. There’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting mysteries, which feature Beatrice Coleman. She’s retired from her work as an Atlanta folk art curator, and has moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina, where she’s joined a local quilting guild, the Village Quilters. In this series, readers get a look at the Southern tradition of handmade quilts. And there are Beth Groundwater’s Claire Hanover novels, which feature custom-made gift baskets. Those are only two examples; there are many others.
Although today’s technology certainly has its place, there really is something about handmade and custom-made items. Perhaps it’s because so much is machine-made that we really appreciate it when something is made just for us.
ps. The ‘photo shows you what I mean. This set of bookshelves was handmade by a friend who’s, among other things, a skilled carpenter. I love it, not least because of the careful workmanship that went into it. What?! Can’t a girl find a solution to the TBR problem? ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Bragg’s Between the Wars.