…or at least, the Year of the Snake. The Chinese New Year has arrived and that’s got me thinking about astrology and horoscopes. The other day I was asked whether I think there’s any truth to astrology and horoscopes. My answer was that I think humans are far too complicated for just one factor to account for everything we are and do. But a lot of people believe very strongly in astrology. So it shouldn’t be surprising at all that we see astrology mentioned in crime fiction.
In Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain for instance, we meet Kevin Costyn, a secondary school student who’s got lower than average academic intelligence but is shrewd, tough and a magnet for many of his female schoolmates. He’s been in trouble with the police, served two juvenile sentences and in general is not the kind of person nice parents want their nice daughters to bring home, so to speak. But he’s not entirely without redemptive traits. He’s fallen in love with his teacher Mrs. Julia Stevens because in his mind, she’s the only one who’s ever been good to him. It’s his attachment to her that gets him inextricably mixed up in her life (No, I promise – not in the way you might be thinking). That relationship turns out to be important when Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the disappearance and later murder of Ted Brooks, husband of Julia Stevens’ house cleaner Brenda Brooks. That murder turns out to be related to the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure, for whom Brooks was scout. It turns out that Kevin Costyn has an important piece of the puzzle and it’s interesting to see that he gets involved in the first place because of his horoscope (Gemini) which promises that
‘Maximum mental energy helps you through to a hard-to-reach person who is always close to your heart.’
We may not think much of Kevin Costyn’s character but his interest in what his horoscope says is fairly common.
In Henry Chang’s Year of the Dog, NYPD detective Jack Yu is assigned to Manhattan’s Ninth Precinct to help fill in during the end-of-the-year holidays. He’s called to the scene when a Chinese-American family of four is found dead in their home, apparently a case of murder/suicide. In the meantime, Yu’s old friend Tat ‘Lucky’ Louie is now a local mob leader. He is in charge of a gang called Ghost Legion. Lately, though, there’ve been a lot of raids on local gangs and Lucky suspects it’s because some of the incoming gangs from Hong Kong are feeding information to the police so they can take over when the current gang leaders are arrested. When a gang war threatens, Yu returns to the Fifth Precinct, his usual assignment. Lucky wants help from Yu, who decides not to co-operate. To Yu, Lucky has wasted his life and besides, Yu likes his work as a cop and doesn’t want to ‘go dirty.’ Two other Chinatown cases also crop up and all of them present a fascinating look at the Chinatown culture and the need to ‘save face’ – to make and protect a reputation. The book is called The Year of the Dog because it begins on the Chinese New Year that in this case brings in the Year of the Dog:
‘The Dog is the eleventh sign, next to the last in the lunar cycle, the most likeable of all the animals. The Dog is fearless, charismatic and believes in justice, loyalty and fidelity. The year is characterized in the masculine Yang by struggle, perseverance and faith.’
The novel ends a year later with the coming of the Year of the Pig:
‘The Pig was the twelfth sign, the last sign in the lunar cycle, the purest in heart and most generous of all the animals. The Pig was loyal, chivalrous, and believed in miracles. The year was characterized by honesty, fortitude and courage.’
While Yu himself isn’t a traditionalist with respect to Chinese astrology he respects it and we can see that culture woven through the novel.
We also see how astrology plays an important role in people’s lives in Tarquin Hall’s series featuring Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. The ‘bread and butter’ of his business comes in part from families who hire Puri to ‘vet’ prospective spouses for their children and grandchildren. Time and technology have changed many parts of India, especially in the city. People don’t know each other in cities as they do in smaller villages. However, the arranged marriage is still a critical part of the culture. It’s believed that young people are not in a position to choose their own spouses and that the ones who most have their interests at heart – their children – should do so. And that’s where astrology comes in. Many parents now make use of personal ads online or in newspapers; those ads include their children’s appearance, age, educational background and astrological information. It’s strongly believed among many that astrological harmony between the two potential spouses is important not just for the marriage but for the wedding date itself. And in The Case of the Missing Servant, the Singla family has done just that to find a husband for their daughter Vimi. They hire Puri to find out as much as he can about Ramesh Goel, who seems to be the top candidate for Vimi. His horoscope is compatible with Vimi’s, he’s made a good impression, and the wedding date has been planned. Puri agrees to investigate and looks into Goel’s background. What he and his team find is so unacceptable that the Singla family has to call off the wedding – after having paid for everything. This isn’t the main case in the novel but it does reflect how very important horoscopes can be to people’s way of thinking.
And then there’s Donna Leon’s A Question of Belief. Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello is concerned about his aunt Zia Anita. While normally what he regards as a sensible person, she’s been reading horoscope magazines lately and watching horoscope shows on television. At first, Vianello hopes that it’s just a private interest of hers. Then he finds out that she’s been taking money from the family business account. It’s money to which she’s entitled so there’s nothing illegal about it. But Vianello is worried that someone may be taking advantage of his aunt’s interest in astrology. So he asks Brunetti to look into the matter and Brunetti agrees. One of the things Brunetti does is (unusually for him) an Internet search where he discovers just how many people are convinced of astrology and how many astrologists and horoscope readers there are to advise those people, or fleece them if that’s how you see these things. As it turns out Zia Anita is indeed giving her money to a man who turns out to be a charlatan and when Vianello finds out the truth, he decides to risk his aunt’s anger rather than let her continue to be ‘taken.’
There’s also Sunny Frazier’s series which features Office Assistant Christy Bristol who works for the Sheriff’s Department in Central County, California. Bristol is also an astrologist whose skills prove critical in Fools Rush In. In that novel, informant Jimmy Blue is brutally murdered. Jack Wolfe, the undercover narcotics cop who was Blue’s contact, wants to catch his killer. Wolfe believes that Lloyd Parr, a local meth manufacturer, is behind Blue’s killing. He’s subpoenaed Parr’s telephone records and found that his quarry is an avid believer in horoscopes; he calls a dial-a-horoscope number every day. So Wolfe asks Bristol to help him lay a trap to catch Parr by casting his horoscope. It doesn’t help matters that Bristol is Wolfe’s ex-girlfriend and that he’s always made fun of her skill with horoscopes. But he convinces a very reluctant Bristol to agree. And it turns out the two have chosen an innovative way to catch Blue’s killer.
Even some sleuths read their horoscopes. Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson does. She’s not what you’d call a slave to it but reading her horoscope is a part of her daily routine.
Whether or not you believe in horoscopes a little, a lot or not at all, it’s hard to deny that a lot of people do. So it’s not really surprising that astrology is woven into crime fiction. Which examples have I forgotten?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerome Ragni and James Rado’s Aquarius.