There are several different kinds of knowing and understanding. Some of that knowledge, of course, comes from what we learn formally. That’s why people with a lot of education are often thought of as especially ‘smart.’
The fact is, though, that there’s plenty of wisdom that has little to do with schooling. It’s not that people with such ‘down home’ wisdom disparage formal education; rather, their knowledge comes observation, experience, and the reflection. That ‘down home’ sort of wisdom can be extremely valuable. And in crime fiction, it can make for a very interesting sort of character.
For instance, Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s sleuth is Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. Known sometimes as the ‘codfish Sherlock,’ Mayo is a former sailor who’s settled in Cape Cod. He’s a general assistant at Porter Motors, and there’s not much he’s not able to fix. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he’s got quite a lot of his own kind of wisdom. He knows the area very, very well, and he knows the people, too. He’s shrewd and quick-thinking, and he has a lot of what people call common sense. He may not speak with an educated accent, but people underestimate him at their peril.
They do Gil North’s Caleb Cluff, too. Cluff is a police inspector who lives and works in the fictional town of Gunnershaw, on the Yorkshire moors. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but he does have a lot of ‘down home’ sort of common sense wisdom. He knows the people of the area, their histories, and the way they’re likely to behave. And he knows the moors as well as anyone could. It’s that sort of wisdom that helps him put the pieces together.
Eleanor Kuhns’ Will and Lydia Rees have that same sort of ‘down home’ common-sense wisdom. This historical series takes place at the very end of the 18th Century. Rees is an iterant weaver who’s settled in Maine. In the course of the series, he meets and marries Lydia Farrell, and develops a bit more of a ‘home base.’ But he still does plenty of ‘wandering.’ For instance, in Death in Salem, Rees travels to Salem, to look for a gift for Lydia, who’s expecting a child. He wants to get a few yards of well-made cloth, so she can have something special to wear. As it happens, he sees a funeral procession for Mrs. Antiss Boothe, wife of a very prominent shipping magnate. The next day, Boothe himself is found dead, and it’s clear that he was murdered. Rees’ old friend, Twig, is worried because the woman he loves is very much under suspicion. So, he asks Rees to find out the truth. Rees isn’t educated, but he has his own sort of wisdom, and so does Lydia. Even with a group of wealthy and prominent suspects, he finds out who the murderer is, and what the motive is.
Craig Johnson’s series features Sheriff Walt Longmire, who lives and works in Durant, Wyoming. As sheriff of Absaroka County, he’s learned quite a lot about the local area and the people. And he has a lot of common sense. That ‘down home’ understanding and wisdom help Longmire make sense of his investigations. For example, in The Cold Dish, the body of Cody Pritchard is discovered not far from town. Longmire knows the victim’s history, and has a good sense of the sort of person he was. A few years earlier, Pritchard and three other young men gang-raped Melissa Little Bird, who was sixteen at the time. Longmire doesn’t need a lot of formal education and scientific deduction to guess at the motive for this murder. There are aspects of the case that aren’t clear at first, and the solution isn’t the one that it seems to be on the surface. But throughout the novel, we see how Longmire uses his every wisdom and common sense to solve the case. Fans of this series can tell you that Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear, has a similar sort of ‘everyday wisdom’ about things.
And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe. She’s smart, and did well in school, but she doesn’t have a lot of formal education. What she does have, though, is a great deal of wisdom. She learned some of it from her beloved father, Obed Ramotswe. She’s also a natural observer, so she’s learned to watch and make sense of what she sees. It’s interesting, too, to see how Mma Ramotswe’s common sense and ‘folk wisdom’ sometimes contrasts with more ‘book learning’ approach of her assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi, especially at the beginning of the series. Mma Makutsi is very proud of having graduated the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with a 97% average, and she is good at the clerical skills she was taught. But it takes her a little time to develop a bit of the sort of ‘down home’ wisdom that her boss has.
There are plenty of other characters, too, who have that sort of common-sense, ‘down home’ wisdom that doesn’t come from books or classes (right, fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon Bonaparte?). These sleuths may not have university degrees, but they have a great deal of understanding of how the world and the people in it work. And that can be extremely helpful when solving a case. Which common-sense sleuths have stayed with you?
ps. Oh, the photo? Dogs may not have an education, but they have the wisdom to find the sunniest spot for a warm, cuddly afternoon nap when they’re sleepy.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Irving Berlin’s Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly.