Monday, October 26, 2009

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?


  1. The police procedurals have been great in outlining investigation techniques, etc.

    Christie...did her husband tinker with anthropological or archaeological things? I remember some of her books were set around digs? Those were interesting. It sounded like she knew what she was talking about.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - You're absolutlely right that good police procedurals give the reader helpful information about gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects, etc. That's part of what makes for a high-quality police procedural - it's accurate as opposed to too much like "TV cops."

    You're right, too. Christie was married to an archeologist. So she had plenty of experience at the site of archeological digs, especially the Middle East.

  3. I have learned about language from Colin Dexter, the Mossad from Daniel Silva and cold war spies from John Le Carre. I've experienced small towns in Georgia, the winter in Moscow and the heat of the Caribbean. I've spent time in numerous English villages thanks to Dame Agatha and Caroline Graham. I've learned about horse racing from Dick Francis.

    Yes, there's always some sort of mystery; but there is so much more between the covers!


  4. Elspeth - You're absolutely right; in a good mystery, there's a lot more than just the plot itself. When authors teach us about different places, organizations and so on, we really do get an education : ). I'm glad you've mentioned John LeCarre and Daniel Silva, too; they and authors such as Vince Flynn and Robert Ludlum have really given readers an inside look at intrigue and espionage. I'd forgotten about Dick Francis, too - thanks for bringing his novels up : ).

  5. Oh, there are so many bits and pieces, and I love well-informed writers who know what they are writing about. Being an Anglophile, I especially cherish British environments and rounded British characters (who quote Shakespeare, Donne and Blake off-hand).

  6. Dorte - I agree! I've learned so very much about the UK from mystery fiction : ). That's what I love about Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Caroline Graham, Martha Grimes and Ruth Rendell, among others.