Category Archives: Zoë Ferraris

He’s Gonna Save My Reputation*

People’s reputations sometimes matter a great deal. After all, most people don’t want others gossiping about them. And, of course, reputation has a lot to do with how one’s perceived at work. The wrong reputation can get a person fired, not promoted, or not hired in the first place. It stands to reason, then, that people do a lot to protect their reputations.

Sometimes, people do a lot to protect another person’s reputation too, especially if that someone else is a friend or loved one. And that’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. For instance, there are plenty of crime novels in which a character doesn’t provide an alibi for a crime, because that alibi might compromise someone else. Protecting someone’s reputation can add motive, character development, and even a plot point to a crime novel. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll think of plenty of others.

We see that sort of gallantry in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles. In that novel, Captain Hastings visits an old friend, John Cavendish, who lives at his family’s home, Styles Court, with his wife, Mary, his brother, Lawrence, his stepmother, Emily Inglethorp, her husband, Alfred, and her ward, Cynthia Murdoch. Cynthia becomes a ‘person of interest’ when Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. She was present at the time, she worked in a dispensary (and so, had the requisite knowledge), and she’d been told that she would be provided for in the victim’s will. The family doesn’t want a scandal, so they’re reluctant to have any sort of investigation. But Hastings learns that his friend, Hercule Poirot, is in the area. He persuades the family to engage Poirot’s services, and the investigation begins. When Cynthia learns that there is no financial provision for her, she isn’t sure what she’ll do. At that time, and in that place, a respectable young lady doesn’t live on her own. And Cynthia doesn’t feel she can stay on at Styles Court. What’s more, she’s been mixed up in a murder investigation – enough to tarnish any young lady’s reputation. Hastings decides to try to protect her by proposing marriage. It’s not spoiling the story to say that things don’t work out that way, but it’s an interesting example of wanting to protect someone’s reputation. You’re right, fans of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison, that’s a similar sort of situation.

In Stuart Kaminsky’s Bullet For a Star, we are introduced to Los Angeles PI Toby Peters. He is a former security guard at Warner Brothers Studio, so he knows the Hollywood industry. That’s in part why producer Sid Adelman wants his help with a case of blackmail. It seems that famous star Errol Flynn (the book takes place in 1940) was photographed with a very young girl, and someone is threatening to release that photograph to the press and public. That, of course, will ruin Flynn’s reputation, and his bankability. Adelman wants to protect both, so he’d decided to pay the blackmailer. He wants Peters to deliver the money and collect the photograph and the negative. Peters agrees and goes to the appointed meeting place. But while he’s there, someone kills the blackmailer, steals Peters’ gun, and takes the print and the negative. Now, Peters has to get the photograph and negative back. He also has to clear his name, since his gun was used in the murder.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are introduces readers to TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He’s doing well at his job, he has a solid marriage, and a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter. But he’s reached a sort of crossroads in his life, and he doesn’t feel settled. What’s more, he’s dealing with the death of his predecessor, friend, and mentor, Phil Smedway, who was killed in a hit-and-run incident while he was out jogging. Allcroft’s restlessness draws him to the scene of Smedway’s death, and he notices some things. The road is straight and wide – plenty of room for even an impaired driver to swerve and avoid a pedestrian. The death happened during daylight, too, so it would have been easy to see Smedway. Now, Allcroft gets curious about what really happened, and starts to ask questions. And he finds that wanting to preserve a reputation plays a role in the story.

Zoë Ferraris’ Finding Nouf takes a different perspective on preserving someone’s reputation. In the novel, Palestinian-born Nayir ash-Sharqui works as a desert guide in the Jeddah area of Saudi Arabia. He gets drawn into a murder investigation when his friend, Othman ash-Shrawi, asks him to find out what happened to his sixteen-year-old sister, Nouf. It seems that Nouf went missing and was later found dead in a wadi. Othman wants to know what happened to her, and Nayir agrees to look into things. In the process of seeking answers, he meets Othman’s fiancée, Katya Hijazi, who is a medical examiner. As the two work to find out the truth, we learn how important reputation is in this culture, especially for women. For instance, women do not go out without a male family member or ‘official’ male escort. And they’re expected to dress and act in accordance with the very traditional Islamic culture of the area. Any whispers that they are doing otherwise can have all sorts of consequences. So, Katya has to be very careful about where she goes, whom she speaks to, and so on. She is less conventional in her thinking than Nayir is, but she understands what the risks are. At one point in the novel, the two of them are walking when they are approached by a man:
 

‘‘In the name of Allah, and Allah’s peace be upon you, Sir, pardon me, but your wife is not properly veiled.’’
 

Nayir has to think quickly in order to protect Kaya’s reputation. Here’s his response:
 

‘Nayir frowned, ‘Are you looking at my wife?’ he asked. The man opened his mouth, but Nayir interrupted. ‘She’s my wife,’ he shouted. ‘You’d better have a good excuse for staring at her!’
The man took a step back. ‘Apologies, brother, but you understand it’s a matter of decency.’
‘That’s no excuse.’ Nayir moved closer with a menacing squint. ‘Don’t you have your own wife to worry about?”
 

The ruse works, and Katya is spared any humiliation.

Brian Stoddart’s Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu is a police superintendent in Madras (today’s Chennai) during the 1920s – the last years of the British Raj. As the series begins, he is separated from his wife, who lives in England, He shares his home with his housekeeper, an Anglo-Indian named Roisin McPhedren. He’s in love with Roisin, and she with him. But in that place, and at that time, a public relationship is out of the question. If word of it gets out, she won’t be able to find any sort of respectable work. And his career is at risk. One story arc in this series is the way each of them protects the other’s reputation.

The way other people see us, and the reputations we have, do matter. So it’s little wonder we care about those perceptions. And it’s little wonder that we work to protect the reputations of those who matter to us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Feldman, Jerry Goldstein and Richard Gottehrer’s My Boyfriend’s Back.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Brian Stoddart, Catherine O'Flynn, Dorothy L. Sayers, Stuart Kaminsky, Zoë Ferraris

In The Spotlight: Zoë Ferraris’ Finding Nouf

Hello, All,

Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Among the many reasons people enjoy crime fiction is that it sometimes sheds some interesting light on another culture. In novels like this, the reader doesn’t just follow the main plot line – the crime and its investigation – but also learns about a different way of life. That’s the sort of novel Zoë Ferraris’ Finding Nouf is, so let’s turn the spotlight on that novel today.

Palestinian-born Nayir ash-Sharqui makes his living as a desert guide in the Jeddah area of Saudi Arabia, escorting the wealthy into the wilderness for the ‘desert experience.’ He’s not a Bedouin himself, but he’s learned from many of them, and he knows his business well. Then, his friend, Othman ash-Shrawi, hires him for a much sadder purpose. His sixteen-year-old sister, Nouf, went missing, and was later found dead in a wadi. Othman wants to know what happened to her. The official explanation, and the one that the powerful Shrawi family wants made public, is that she drowned in the wadi when a sudden storm came up. But there is also evidence that she might have been murdered.

As a gesture of friendship to the Shrawi family, Nayir offers to bring Nouf’s body from the mortuary to the Shrawi estate, where the funeral and burial will be. That’s where he meets laboratory technician Katya Hijazi. As it happens, she is Othman’s fiancée, so she’s familiar with the family and with the tragedy surrounding Nouf’s death.

Soon, the two learn a little about Nouf’s last days and weeks. She was engaged to marry a distant cousin, Qazi. One day, she ran away (or was abducted) from the Shrawis’ private island. Then, she was either abandoned, or got lost, in the desert, where she was knocked unconscious. She died of drowning, though, when the wadi she was in filled quickly during a sudden rain. From this evidence, it’s hard to tell at first whether she was murdered or died by tragic accident. But, little by little, the evidence begins to suggest that she was killed.

That brings up the question of motive. Katya discovers that Nouf was pregnant when she died. Qazi was not the father, so could he have killed her out of jealousy or revenge? Could it be a family member who killed her in a so-called ‘honour killing?’ Or, could it have been the baby’s father, who perhaps didn’t want to have the responsibility of a wife and child? Or is there another explanation? Little by little, Katya and Nayir, sometimes separately, sometimes together, uncover some secrets that Nouf was keeping, and in the end, they find out who the killer was, and what the real motive for the murder was.

This novel takes place in Saudi Arabia, and the story reflects the Saudi culture in many ways, from diet, to dress, to daily living and more. It’s a culture in which hospitality is valued, so it’s only natural to put out coffee, tea, and something to eat whenever anyone visits. There’s a high premium placed on loyalty among friends and family members, too, and that’s made clear in the novel. It’s a culture that’s trying to balance modernity (e.g. mobile telephones, GPS systems, the Internet, and modern television and music) with traditional culture and values.

Saudi Arabia is, of course, a desert culture, where temperatures can be unbearable, especially in the summer. The novel reflects this, too, as these people have learned how to cope with the heat. Clothing, daily habits, and more are reminders that no-one survives long in that much heat without taking precautions.

Perhaps the most powerful influence on the culture (and the novel, really) is the influence of Islam. Some of the characters are more observant than others, but all of them hold their religious faith in high regard. It’s reflected in the way they speak and act, and in everyday life.

We see that, for instance, in the character of Nayir (and he’s not the only one). He truly wants to live a good life and behave as his religion teaches him that he should. And in more than once scene, he reflects on that. He’s known as ‘a good man,’ because he does try to live by the spirit of his religion.

In her way, so does Katya. But she has a different outlook, because she’s a woman. And in no way does Islam impact society more than in the separation of the sexes, and what that means for both. Women and men are to have no contact unless they are family members. And even then, that contact is limited unless they are married. Women do not go anywhere unescorted, either by a male family member or by an official male escort/driver. On the one hand, this doesn’t mean that a woman can’t have a job or go to university. On the other, it also means that women are very much subject to what the men in their family think is right. Katya’s and Nayir’s two different perspectives show the struggle to keep the traditions of Islam, but at the same time, acknowledge that the world is changing.

There’s also an interesting element of class difference in the novel. The Shrawi family is wealthy and powerful. They’re regarded as ‘good people’ who support philanthropy. But they have a lot of privilege. And we see those assumptions in some of their attitudes. Nayir and Katya, by contrast, are neither particularly wealthy nor privileged, and it’s interesting to see how that impacts the way they are viewed.

The solution to the mystery is truly a sad one. And knowing the truth doesn’t help anything. And, yet, we get the sense that life will go on, especially for the two sleuths. It’s also worth noting that the violence in the novel is almost completely ‘off-stage,’ and there’s no profanity. In that sense, you might even argue that it’s a traditional-style mystery (as opposed to, say, a noir novel).

Finding Nouf is the story of what happens to a family when one of its members is killed. It explores the dynamics of family relationships and takes place in a distinctive sociocultural context. And it features two protagonists who each show different sides of life in modern Saudi Arabia. But what’s your view? Have you read Finding Nouf? If you have, what elements do you see in it?

 
 
 

Coming Up On In The Spotlight

 

Monday, 7 May/Tuesday, 8 May – Forty Acres – Dwayne Alexander Smith

Monday, 14 May/Tuesday, 15 May – Silent Scream – Angela Marson

Monday, 21 May/Tuesday, 22 May – A Rising Man – Abir Mukherjee

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Filed under Finding Nouf, Zoë Ferraris

>Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About*

>One of the things that makes crime fiction so engaging is the “window” it gives us on ourselves. A quick look at crime fiction, for instance, can show us how our attitudes about a lot of things have (or haven’t) changed over time. In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, crime fiction shows us what we’re like as a society and historical crime fiction shows us what we were like. As our values and priorities change, so does crime fiction. That’s one reason crime fiction can be such a powerful teaching tool. It’s also a reason crime fiction captures our imagination the way it does.

For example, consider social attitudes towards marriage. It used to be that people were expected to marry and not expected to live together until they did. In fact, that’s a critical issue in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. In that novel, mystery author Harriet Vane stands trial for the murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. There’s evidence against her, too. She had arsenic in her possession. Also, the two quarreled and in fact Harriet broke off the relationship shortly before the murder. That quarrel was over the fact that they’d lived together without marriage for a year before Philip Boyes proposed. Harriet Vane saw this as an unfair test of her love that for her, cost her reputation. So she broke off the relationship. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and falls in love with Harriet Vane. He resolves to clear her name so that he can marry her. In the end, Wimsey finds the real killer.

We see a similar theme in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes gets a secret visit from the King of Bohemia, who’s preparing to get married. The king is worried because Irene Adler, his former lover, has a compromising photograph of the two of them, and publication of that photograph could ruin his prospects with the princess he’s engaged to marry. The king hires Holmes to retrieve the photograph from Adler and Holmes agrees. Little does he know he’s up against a formidable opponent, as Adler manages to elude him and even keeps the fatal photograph in case she ever has need of it.

Today, it’s very common for people to live together without marriage. There are dozens of example of this kind of home in crime fiction; I’ll just mention two. Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid are lovers throughout several of the novels that feature them. They live together for quite a while, too, and their relationship is depicted as perfectly natural. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Joe Morelli are also live-in partners who aren’t married for most of the Plum series. The same is true of the relationship between Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon and Thomas Samuelsson. They do marry, and we see their very real-life marriage depicted in The Bomber. But for quite a while (e.g. in Prime Time), they’re live-in partners. Again, this relationship is shown as perfectly natural. In fact, that’s part of Annika Bengtzon’s appeal; she’s a very real-life character who faces everyday, normal challenges as she balances her family life and her career.

Of course, cultural attitudes towards marriage vary quite a lot. We see this in novels such as Zoe Ferraris’ Finding Nouf, Elizabeth George’s Deception on his Mind and Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box. Those stories address the question of whether marriage is important and just exactly how important it is in different cultures. What’s interesting about these novels is that several of the characters in them don’t assume that marriage is the only option.

There’s also a marked change in the way that crime fiction treats unwed parents. For example, in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), we meet Miss Emily Brent. She and several other people receive mysterious invitations to visit Indian Island off the Devon coast. She accepts and travels to the island. On the first night there, Miss Brent is accused of being responsible for the death of Beatrice Taylor. As the story unfolds, we find that Beatrice Taylor became pregnant while she was in service with Miss Brent. When Miss Brent found out, she forced Beatrice to leave because of what Miss Brent saw as her immorality. Beatrice Taylor then drowned herself.

There’s an interesting discussion about unwed parenthood in Christie’s Sad Cypress . In that novel, Hercule Poirot solves the murder of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, an estate in the village of Maidensford. At one point in the novel, Mary discovers that her parents were not married when she was born. She tells her friend, village nurse Jessie Hopkins what she’s found out.

“‘Well, after all, what of it? Don’t go worrying about that, at this time of day!’

‘But Nurse, I can’t help it!’

Nurse Hopkins spoke with authority:

‘There’s many couples that don’t go to church till a bit after they should do so. But so long as they do it in the end, what’s the odds? That’s what I say!’”


As Poirot finds out, the circumstances of Mary Gerrard’s background have a lot to do with her murder.

Today in many cultures, unwed parents don’t face the social stigma they once did. For instance, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series features Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, a divorced mother of sixteen-year-old Gylfi and six-year-old Sóley. In Last Rituals, the first novel in the series, we learn that Gylfi’s fifteen-year-old girlfriend Sigga is pregnant. The news is a shock to all four parents, and what’s interesting is the differing reactions. Sigga’s parents are deeply upset and they are only too eager to blame Gylfi and his parents. Thóra is furious at their reaction and, although she isn’t happy at the prospect of her teenage son becoming a parent, she takes a much more modern attitude as she says to Sigga:

“Sigga, the baby will always be welcome in my house – as will both of you if you want to live there together.”


In Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit, successful attorney Mason Hunt gets involved in the case of his life when his own brother Gates accuses him of a long-ago murder that Gates himself committed. Along with the stress of the trial comes the news that Mason’s fifteen-year-old daughter Grace is pregnant. At first, he’s shocked and angered. But it’s not long before he remembers that Grace needs him now more than ever. So he reminds her that he’ll always be there for her and at the end of the novel, there’s a very positive scene in which Mason Hunt is out walking with his grand-daughter.

There’s also been change in social attitudes towards homosexuality, and we see that reflected in crime fiction. In a few of Agatha Christie’s novels, for instance, homosexuality isn’t presented in a positive light. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore is smitten with famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. She confesses the attraction to her friend Mr. Satterthwaite, who mentions that Sir Charles has a reputation as a ladies’ man. Egg says she likes the idea of a man having affairs, because,

“It shows they’re not queer or anything.”


In Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Ariadne Oliver is working with playwright Robin Upward to adapt one of her novels for the stage. At one point, Upward wants to include a love interest for Oliver’s sleuth Sven Hjerson. Oliver objects saying,

Sven Hjerson never cared for women.’…

‘But you can’t have him a pansy, darling. Not for this sort of play. I mean, it’s not green bay trees or anything like that. It’s thrills and murders and clean open-air fun.’”


Today, there are all sorts of crime fiction novels where homosexuals are integral to the story and their lives are depicted as perfectly natural. For instance, there’s Val McDermid’s Lindsay Gordon, an investigative journalist who appears in several of McDermid’s early novels. Gordon has long-term relationships with Cordelia Brown and later, Sophie Harley. There’s also Mark Richard Zubro’s Paul Turner/Buck Fenwick mysteries and his Tom Mason/Scott Carpenter series. Both of those series feature gay detectives as well. In Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series, we meet Olivier Brulé and his partner, Gabri Dubeau. Together, they own a Bed-and-Breakfast/bistro in the small Québec town of Three Pines.

As society changes, so do our social attitudes. I’ve only mentioned a few examples of the way crime fiction reflects this; there are many, many more. There’s a strong argument that this is one of the great appeals of the genre. It shows us ourselves.

On Another Note…


I am able to write this post today in part because of the dedicated and generous men and women who have served and who continue to serve their country in the military. Their bravery cannot be quantified; their generosity is beyond description. I thank them and their families for their service.

ps…

If you’d like to contribute a story for my upcoming Fifty Words to Kill Your Victim post, there’s still time! Please Email me your stories by Saturday, 13 November!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bonnie Raitt’s Something to Talk About.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur C. Doyle, Deborah Crombie, Dorothy Sayers, Liza Marklund, Louise Penny, Mark R. Zubro, Martin Clark, Ruth Rendell, Val McDermid, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Zoë Ferraris

>Murder at Worship

>As I’ve often said in this blog, well-written crime fiction reflects real lives and real people. It also acknowledges the forces that motivate people and underlie what they do, and the things that are important to them. For many people, religious faith is one of the most important facets of their lives. Of course, many people don’t strictly observe the religion they profess, and many don’t profess any religion at all. Yet religious tradition has been one of the most important driving forces in human history, and it’s woven into nearly every culture. Many people are raised with some sort of religious education, and religious beliefs help to shape what people think and how and why they act as they do. So it’s only natural that religion plays an important role in some very well-written mystery novels.

Sometimes, the mystery itself has to do with religion and religious beliefs. That’s the case in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons. In The Da Vinci Code, Harvard professor Robert Langdon is recruited to help solve the murder of Louvre curator Jacques Saunière. The position of Saunière’s body, as well as coded symbols he left behind, are clues to Langdon that this murder is connected to the ancient Knights of Templar, and related to the centuries-old search for the Holy Grail. In Angels and Demons, Langdon is again recruited, this time to help solve the murder of respected physicist Leonardo Vetra. Langdon finds that Vetra had a symbol branded on his chest that represents an old secret society, the Illuminati. The Illuminati was a group of scientists and other Enlightenment thinkers who opposed the Catholic Church’s insistence on dogma. It seems that the Illuminati still exists, and have stolen antimatter from the lab where Vetra worked, which they’re planning to use to destroy the Vatican. The conflict between science and religion is a major theme of Angels and Demons, and as Langdon searches for clues to find the antimatter before it can be detonated, Brown invites the reader to consider the limits of religion and the limits of science.

Steve Berry’s The Templar Legacy has a similar focus on religion. In that novel, Cotton Malone, a former U.S. Justice Department operative, has retired to become an antiquarian book dealer. He’s called back into action by his former supervisor, Stepanie Nelle, who’s traveling in Europe on a quest to find a legendary treasure and secret lore that was supposed to have been hidden before the original Knights Templar were destroyed in the 13th Century. Malone joins Nelle in Europe, and becomes intrigued by the mystery when a purse-snatcher who tries to mug Nelle commits suicide by jumping from a tower. Malone’s sure there’s something wrong with this supposed suicide, and goes in search of the clues that will lead him to the secrets that the Knights Templar left behind them.

Religion also plays a critical role in Zoe Ferraris’ Finding Nouf, in which Palestinian desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi is hired by the wealthy Shrawi family to find sixteen-year-old Nouf, who mysteriously disappeared just before she was to be married. When Sharqi finds Nouf’s body, he works with laboratory technician Katya Hijazi to find out the truth behind Nouf’s death. It turns out that Islamic traditions play an important role in Nouf’s life, her impending wedding, and her death.

In Kathy Reichs’ Devil Bones, Dr. Temperance “Bones” Brennan is called in to help investigate the skull of a teenaged girl that’s found by a plumber in an unused basement. Near the skull are animal remains and other indications of some sort of religious ritual. A local evangelical preacher starts the rumor that rumor that the remains are evidence of devil worship, and whips many of the townspeople into a frenzy to find the “Satanists.” The reality, of course, turns out to be quite different.

In some mystery novels, the sleuth is a member of the clergy, and that membership is woven throughout the story. For example, Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael is a Benedictine monk who lives at Shrewsbury Abbey with his fellow monks. The Benedictine rules govern Cadfael’s daily life, and sometimes, in the mysteries he soles. In A Morbid Taste for Bones, for instance, Cadfael goes on a journey to the Welsh village of Gwytherin to recover the bones of St. Winifred and return with them to the abbey. The expedition is met with hostility by the locals, who regard St. Winifred as their protectress; it only makes the situation worse that the monks (except for Cadfael himself, who’s Welsh) are British. Matters come to a head when Lord Rhysart, who’s been the leader of the opposition to the monks, is murdered. Cadfael must solve the mystery of Rhysart’s murder so the monks can return to the Abbey.

Ralph McInerny created a series of mystery novels featuring Father Roger Dowling, a Catholic priest who serves in a poor Chicago parish. In those novels, Dowling solves murders that are frequently related to his parishioners, fellow priests and other members of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. Religious themes are frequently woven through the novels, and Dowling frequently discusses theology. The same is true of Harry Kemelman’s creation, Rabbi David Small. Rabbi Small serves the Conservative Jewish congregation of Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts. As he solves mysteries, he frequently shares Jewish theology and Talmudic teachings. The novels also frequently features subplots having to do with congregational matters, so a strong thread of Judaism is woven throughout the stories.

Even when the sleuth’s not officially a member of the clergy, many mystery novels make references to religion, and religious traditions play a role in the way the characters behave. That’s true of Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn series. Chee is studying to be a Yata’ali, a Navajo “singer” or healer/shaman. Navajo religious beliefs color many of Chee’s actions and impressions as he goes about his job, and several of Hillerman’s novels (The Ghostway, Dance Hall of the Dead and Sacred Clowns are just a few examples) treat religious themes.

In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders), Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of his dentist, as well as the mysterious disappearance of the one of the dentist’s other patients. The authorities believe that these events are connected with attempts to get rid of Alistair Blunt, a leading financial tycoon. Blunt invites Poirot to spend a week-end with him at his country home, and on the Sunday of that weekend, Poirot accompanies the Blunt family to church services. In the middle of the service, while the congregation is singing a hymn, Poirot suddenly perceives the truth behind the dentist’s murder. Struck by his idea, he doesn’t notice that everyone has finished the hymn and sat down. It’s a comical scene, but it highlights the integral role that religion and churchoing play in Christie’s society. Several other of her novels also refer to religion, and Church of England traditions are frequently mentioned. She often mentions, too, that Poirot is a practicing Roman Catholic.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series, Reverend Herbert Jones is an important character in the tiny town of Crozet, Virginia. He appears in several of the novels, as the town’s social life often includes church events. What’s interesting about Jones’ characters is that he often has discussions about religion, faith and Christianity with Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth. He’s not a sleuth himself, but he sometimes give “Harry” a very helpful perspective.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Myrtle Clover, Craig’s sleuth, is signed up against her will to join the Altar Guild and United Methodist Women, groups at her local church. Her son, Red, who signed his mother up for these groups in a misguided attempt to help her stay busy, is repaid for his efforts when a garden of garish gnomes pops up in Myrtle’s yard overnight, just to make him angry. Myrtle’s dragged them out to embarrass her son. That morning, she stomps over to the United Methodist church to begin her duties, only to find the dead body of Parke Stockard, a recent arrival who’s succeeded in alienating nearly everyone in town. Myrtle decides to investigate the murder, just to prove she’s not ready to be put out to pasture yet.

Religion has played a pivotal role in human life for thousands of years, and it does in crime fiction, too. It affects characters’ thinking and behavior, and sometimes, it’s an integral part of the mystery. Do you think that religious themes and traditions and mentions of religion add to a mystery? Do you think they’re too controversial?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Dan Brown, Ellis Peters, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Harry Kemelman, Kathy Reichs, Ralph McInerny, Steve Barry, Tony Hillerman, Zoë Ferraris

>An Education in Murder

> Why do mystery fans find crime fiction so irresistible? Of course, compelling and believable plots, interesting characters and the intellectual challenge of solving the mystery have a lot to do with the genre’s appeal. Besides that, though, well-written crime fiction can also teach readers. It can add real interest and depth to a novel or series when there’s interesting information to learn that goes beyond just the plot, characters, and so on. So long as the information is relevant to the mystery and falls out naturally as a part of it, that kind of knowledge can keep the reader engaged and at the end, pleased with having learned something.

Many crime fiction authors have expertise in one or another field, and they share what they know with readers. For example, Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear have rich backgrounds and expertise in archeology and anthropology, respectively. Together, they’ve created a compelling mystery series that taps that expertise. Their Anasazi series is focused on an excavation of an ancient Native gravesite and the mysteries surrounding the deaths of the people found in it. Throughout the three novels in the series, we learn a great deal about how modern archeology is done, the realities of living as an archeologist and the clues that archeologists use to answer the questions they ask. We also learn a lot about forensic anthropology. Through one of the sleuths in the series, Dr. Maureen Cole, we learn how forensic anthropologists gather information from human remains. We learn about their techniques and strategies as well as the clues they use.

Kathy Reichs is also a forensic anthropologist whose expertise we see in her Temperence “”Bones” Brennan series. In novels such as Deadly Decisions, Grave Secrets and Cross Bones, we learn through Dr. Temperence Brennan how forensic anthropology is conducted. That information – a look into the world of that field – is almost as compelling as the mysteries themselves are.

Not every crime fiction fan knows this, but Agatha Christie also had some professional expertise that comes through in her novels. During World War I, she worked in a hospital dispensary. She also worked as a nurse. That medical background allowed her to teach readers a great deal about different kinds of poisons. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Three-Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Appointment With Death, Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), and Sad Cypress, among others, the victim dies by poisoning, and the reader learns a lot about how the various poisons work as the mystery is unraveled.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn novels have much to teach the reader about several of the Southwest USA Native American peoples, especially the Navajo people. Hillerman does this by making his sleuths members of the Navajo Nation. In fact, Chee studies to be a yataalii, or “singer” – a Navajo healer. Through Chee, we learn a great deal about Navajo religious traditions and customs. But Hillerman goes much further than that. Throughout the Chee/Leaphorn novels, we also learn about the lifestyles, daily lives, challenges and social customs of the Navajo people as well. Not only does Hillerman provide an education on many of the Navjo spiritual way of life, but also on day-to-day realities such as water rights, casinos on Native lands, blanket making and selling and tribal politics.

Zoe Ferraris teaches us similar things about the Islamic way of life, especially in modern Saudi Arabia. For instance, in her debut novel Finding Nouf, Nayir al-Sharqi, a Palestinian desert guide, is called in by the wealthy Shrawi family to investigate the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Nouf, who’s just about to be married. When Sharqi finds Nouf’s body, he becomes curious about what happened to her and works with laboratory technician Katya Hijazi to find out how and why Nouf died. Through Sharqi’s eyes, we learn about modern Saudi social and class structure, the roles of men and women in Islamic societies, and Islamic religious beliefs.

Sometimes, what we learn in mystery novels comes from the sleuth’s expertise. For example, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, while not by background a linguist, is a purist when it comes to the English language. He’s quick to correct anything nonstandard, and can quote with no effort from a wide range of what are often called classic authors. Although Morse’s passion for language isn’t the main focus of Dexter’s mysteries, it does teach the reader about language. What’s also interesting is that each chapter of the Morse mysteries begins with a quotation which later turns out to be relevant to the action of that chapter. The reader therefore learns not only about the structure of standard English, but also about many different writers.

Robin Cook’s sleuths are nearly always practitioners in some medical field, and through them, we learn a great deal about medical procedures, the latest medical tests, medical research and medical ethical issues. We also learn about hospital and laboratory procedures, medical training programs and the social structure of the medical field.

Many of the novels and series that teach as well as provide mystery stories are “cozy” mysteries. Not all mystery fiction fans like “cozies,” but they include some interesting examples of the kind of education a person can get from reading crime fiction. For instance, Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis and her aunt, Margaret “Aunt Peg” Turnbull are experts in the breeding, raising and showing of champion dogs, particularly Standard Poodles. Throughout the Melanie Travis series, we learn interesting information about US dog shows and dog breeding, and sometimes, useful information on the care and raising of puppies. Other “cozy” mystery series provide an education in other fields like baking (Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swenson), antiques (Max Allan Collins and Barbara Collins’ Trash n’ Treasures series) and veterinary medicine (Claudia Bishop’s Austin McKenzie series).

No discussion of what we can learn from reading high-quality crime fiction would be complete without a mention of how much we can learn about other places. Whether it’s the Four Corners country of Tony Hillerman’s Chee and Leaphorn, the Mallorca of Roderick Jeffries’ Enrique Alvarez, the Sicily of Andrea Camileri’s Salvo Montalbano, the Chicago of Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, or the Venice of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, good crime fiction can teach us a lot about the geography of a place. We almost feel that we know the place, even if we’ve never been there. If we are familiar with the locale of a mystery or series, we can learn even more about it.

Well-written crime fiction novels can do a lot more than just give us an intriguing plot, solid characters and a challenging puzzle. They can give us a whole education. Does that make a good argument for a degree program in crime fiction? : )

What kind of education have you gotten from your favorite crime fiction?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camileri, Colin Dexter, Donna Leon, Joanne Fluke, Laurien Berenson, Robin Cook, Roderick Jeffries, Sara Peretsky, Tony Hillerman, Zoë Ferraris