Saturday, October 31, 2009

Murder, Myth and Superstition

Myths, legends and superstition seem to be a deeply-ingrained part of most cultures. I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t have the answer to why myths and superstitions are so appealing to most of us. My guess, though, is that in part, our fascination with myths and superstitions comes from a deep-seated need to protect ourselves. It’s a basic human need to stay safe, and a lot of superstitions and myths are based on ways to do that (e.g. avoiding a house that’s haunted, picking up a pin or a penny for good luck). Because myths and superstitions are an important part of our thinking, they’ve also found a way into crime fiction and murder mysteries.

Sometimes, a myth or superstition is used as a “cover” for a murder. The murderer knows about the superstition and uses it to hide what’s really going on. One of the earliest and most famous of this use of myth is Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. In that novel, Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead in his manor’s park, apparently of a heart attack. His friend Dr. Mortimer, though, believes that Baskerville has fallen victim to a family curse, a demon disguised as a huge hound. According to legend, Sir Hugo Baskerville, a notorious ancestor, brought the curse on the family when he sold himself to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he’d become infatuated. When Dr. Mortimer finds out that Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to the family fortune, is coming to London from Canada, Dr. Mortimer is afraid he’ll suffer a similar fate, and asks for help from Sherlock Holmes. Holmes takes the case and soon finds out that the myth of the family curse has been cleverly used as a “cover” for the murderer, who’s got a much more prosaic reason for killing Sir Charles.

Myths and superstitions also feature in Tony Hillerman’s Skinwalkers. Many of Hillerman’s novels explore Navajo lifestyle, social structure and cultural and religious traditions, and this one is no different. In the novel, Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, is nearly killed by an unknown assassin’s bullets. At the same time, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, another of Hillerman’s sleuths, is investigating three unexplained deaths in his district. At first, the deaths appear to be the work of a skinwalker, a Navajo witch who can take the form of an animal. All of the victims were associated with the Yellow Horse clinic, which practices both Western and traditional medicine; two were shamans there. Chee himself is a yataalii, a Navajo “singer” or medicine man. Chee and Leaphorn investigate these events, first separately and then (in their first pairing-up) together. In the end, they find that the murderer has been using Navajo witchcraft myths to hide the real reasons why the Yellow Horse clinic’s been targeted.

Agatha Christie also uses myths and superstitions to cover up a murder in her short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb which appears in her short story collection Poirot Investigates. In that story, Sir John Willard, a famous archeologist, dies suddenly of what’s believed to be heart failure after his discovery and excavation of an ancient, supposedly-cursed Egyptian tomb. When two more people associated with the expedition suddenly die, Willard’s widow consults Poirot, asking him to investigate the deaths and find out whether the superstitions and myths about the tomb have any truth to them. She’s afraid that they might, and is concerned for the safety of her son. Poirot and Hastings travel to Egypt, to the site of the dig, to find out the truth. What they find is that someone’s been cleverly using the superstition as a “cover” for a series of well-plotted murders.

Karen Robards’ Superstition is also a solid example of the use of myth and superstition to hide real motives for murder. That novel focuses on Pawleys Island, South Carolina, site of the brutal (and unsolved) stabbing murder of young Tara Mitchell and the disappearance of her two best friends. When the story is aired on a tabloid news television show, reporter Nicole Sullivan decides to investigate the death and disappearances. She arranges for her mother, who’s a psychic, to visit the scene of the crime, an old mansion that’s said to be haunted with the ghosts of the dead girl and her friends. During the séance, Nicole’s colleague is murdered in the same way that Tara was, and Nicole herself is nearly killed. She escapes, but is then sent back to continue her investigative reporting. Her investigation leads her to cross paths with police chief Joe Franconi. While the two of them look into the murder, another death occurs and Nicole receives a warning that more deaths will follow. It’s then that Sullivan and Franconi realize that the “haunted house” superstition is only a mask for a real killer who’s now after Sullivan.

Sometimes, myth and superstition are a part of a mystery novel, even when they aren’t used to cover up a crime. Agatha Christie does this quite frequently. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is on a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. Also at the hotel is a beautiful retired actress, Arlena Stuart Marshall, her husband, Kenneth Marshall, and her stepdaughter Linda Marshall. Linda dislikes her stepmother intensely – so much so, in fact, that she gets a book on witchcraft in order to find a spell to kill her. When Arlena Marshall is strangled early one afternoon, Poirot investigates the death and finds out about Linda’s dabbling in witchcraft as he uncovers the truth about who killed Arlena Marshall and why. It’s a really interesting study in the way people’s superstitions can affect them. The supernatural also figures in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), in which Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Emily Arundell, a spinster who’s left her considerable fortune to her companion, although she has several relatives who are just as interested in her money. The companion, Wilhelmina Lawson, is a believer in séances and the supernatural, and shares her passion with two other residents of Market Basing, Julia and Isobel Tripp. In fact, Poirot gets a vital clue about Emily Arundell’s death from an event that happens at a séance held just a few days before she dies. Hallowe’en Party, of course, has many references to a variety of superstitions. In that novel a young teenager claims to have seen a murder. Nobody believes her until she’s murdered at a Hallowe’en Party. When Ariadne Oliver, who’s at the party, asks for help from Hercule Poirot, he investigates the girl’s death. And in both Murder in Three Acts (AKA Three-Act Tragedy) and Lord Edgeware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), there’s more than one mention of the superstition that it’s unlucky to have thirteen guests at a dinner.

Superstition about the number thirteen also figures in Ruth Rendell’s 13 Steps Down, a psychological thriller about Mix Cellini, who’s extremely superstitious about the number thirteen, among other fears he has. He rents a flat in a home owned by Gwendolen Chawcer, a very eccentric spinster whose tyrannical father never freed her to live her own life. Cellini, who doesn’t have a very strong hold on reality to begin with, soon allows his superstitions and his obsession with serial killer Roger Christie, whom he considers a hero, to overtake his life. Cellini meets a beautiful model, Narissa Nash, through his job as an exercise equipment repairman and becomes obsessed with her as well. Eventually, Cellini loses his grip on reality entirely and his life begins to resemble that of his idol, Christie. One of the interesting characters in this novel is Madam Shoshana, who may or may not be a genuine psychic. Whether or not she is, her hold on Nash and Cellini is eerie.

In crime fiction, as in real life, people seem to be fascinated with myths, superstition and the occult. The idea that there might be a spirit world, or that events are caused and not random, or that our destinies can be revealed to us have intrigued us for a long time. Whatever the reasons for that fascination, it can add an intriguing, even gripping level to a mystery novel.

What’s your view? Do you enjoy crime fiction with a taste of superstition? Or do you prefer your crime fiction to be more down-to-earth?


  1. Thanks, Elizabeth :). I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Excellent post Margot. Your depth of knowledge continues to stagger me

  3. Kerrie - Thank you for such kind words! How nice of you : ). I'm glad that you enjoyed the post, and believe me, I learn as much from you and the rest of this community as you ever do from me.

  4. Yes, agreed - fascinating, well researched post, as always. I do always enjoy (1) your minireviews and (2) the way you draw them into a theme for each post.

    Turning to the topic of this post, I am firmly in the "non-superstition" bracket. I once read a book by Greg Isles and though I enjoyed it, I was disappointed in the non-natural explanation. I do like some books that keep you guessing on this aspect, though - for example The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin and Sacrifice by S J Bolton (though I was not so impressed by the resolution/climax of the book, I thought she handled the superstitious "suspicions" very well, and I think the book was very good, on the whole).

    I think there may have been another Agatha Christie that featured superstitious suspcions - Endless Love. (?) Probably there are lots of others. I can't remember too much about Endless Love except I enjoyed it, and there was a good twist to it - and they made a (not terribly good?) film of it with Hayley Mills and Hwyll Bennett.

  5. I am always fascinated by the myths and superstitions in mystery novels. I think it is clever writing, to mix the two.

  6. Maxine - Thanks so much for your kind remarks; it means a lot to me that you took the time to write them.

    Like you, I like more rational explanations for murders in my crime fiction, although I do think it's interesting when the real murderer uses superstition and myth as a "mask," if it's done well. The Bolton book is a good example of that, actually, so I'm glad that you brought it up. I haven't read the Theorin book, but even the title sounds like it keeps you wondering...

    I'm also glad you mentioned Endless Night, as I'd forgotten to include that one. It certainly does deal with a supposed curse on the house and land. It's interesting to me how often Christie uses that theme. Actually, there were several other stories and novels of hers that I thought of but didn't mention, because I didn't want the post to get too long : ).

    Glynis - I agree that authors who can mix the supernatural and the real-life well can create some fascinating plots. It's not an easy thing to do!

  7. In my Breakthrough trilogy, I begin to weave together science and the supernatural, which is not as difficult as it may sound. In fact, they really go together like peanut butter and jelly, strawberries and cream, or ic cream and hot fudge. Quite compatible if you ask me.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. Maxine has almost expressed what I wanted to say, but if Blogger allows me I will go on anyway.

    I don´t mind superstitious characters - they may add local flavour and interesting sub-plots - but the plot should be a proper crime plot, solved by real people and not via hokus-pokus.

    And I would also have mentioned Theorin, because he strikes the balance quite well :D

  9. Stephen - You make an interesting point. Science and the supernatural seek to explain the same phenomena, so it does make sense that they go together. I've read several novels where they did...

    Dorte - I agree completely that a solid plot that's believable should be the focus of a good mystery (or any other kind of novel, for the matter of that). It's also interesting that you mention superstitious characters lending color to a novel. They certainly can, and it's interesting to have that layer in a novel.

    OK, after what you and Maxine have said about it, I'm going to have to add that Theorin book to my TBR list. I'm intrigued now...

  10. Although I am not particularly superstitious it is often a good plot device, I think. So many people are and are often led in the wrong direction by it.

  11. Patti - You make a good point. Using superstition and myth as a plot device can be really useful as a "red herring," especially if the murder itself takes place under murky circumstances where people who are more credulous could believe in some superstitious explanation.

  12. Margot, I recommend reading Echoes from the Dead first, before The Darkest Room. Although the second is not strictly a sequel, they are both on the Island of Oland (as will be the next two) and some of the characters are the same. I think you'll smile at some of the passages in TDR if you've previously encountered Gerlof in EFTD- and he's a great character. His daughter, Julia, is the protagonist of EFTD and she and the way in which the author portrays her situation are extraordinary I think. All that and a great detective story too!

  13. Thanks so much for the recommendation, Maxine. It sounds as though EFTD introduces one to the characters, and that's always a good way to start a series of books. I'll take your advice. Theorin really sounds worth reading.