Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Ordinary, Everyday Glue

For most of us, murder isn’t an ordinary, everyday sort of thing to happen. Our lives are usually filled with what one might call “ordinary” things like reading the newspaper, mealtime, going to the office, shopping and taking care of children. Even for police officers and other law enforcement officials, the murders they investigate occur against a backdrop of everyday life and routines. When a murder occurs, it’s those everyday routines that can help to maintain some semblance of normalcy, and can keep those whose lives are shattered by the murder functioning as they begin to cope with the tragedy. In real life, everyday routines aren’t always engrossing, but they are the important glue that holds the bigger events in life together. They serve the same function in well-written crime fiction. After all, good murder mysteries are about what happens to realistic characters when they get caught in the web of a tragedy; that includes everyday, sometimes mundane routines.

Some authors use those scenes of everyday life to foreshadow. That’s the case in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. That novel opens with the very ordinary routine of the beginning of a new term at an exclusive girls’ school. The girls arrive and are greeted, various arrangements are made, and all seems as usual. Christie makes it clear, though, that very soon, the school will be embroiled in a set of tragedies, and that’s exactly what happens. Shortly after the term begins, the new (and unpopular) games mistress is shot one night, and soon, other murders take place. Finally, one of the students goes to Hercule Poirot and asks his help in solving the mystery.

John Alexander Graham uses everyday routine in the same way in Something in the Air. As that novel begins, a group of passengers, including Professor Jake Landau, are waiting at a gate in Boston’s busy Logan Airport for a flight to New York. Some passengers wait patiently, some fret about flight delays, and some strike up conversations with others. It is, in short, a routine pre-flight wait. It’s also a very effective use of foreshadowing. Shortly after the flight takes off, a bomb goes off in the plane, killing several passengers, including Landau’s best friend, Martin Ross. Landau resolves to find out what happened and who sabotaged the plane, but he’s blocked at every turn. When he realizes that he’s not going to get answers from the official sources, Landau decides to undertake his own investigation.

Scenes of everyday life are also quite effective as contrasts to the horror of the murder that’s being investigated. They throw the murder into stark relief and keep the reader focused on that event. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Hercule Poirot rents a country couttage, Resthaven. When his neighbors, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, find out who their famous neighbor is, they invite him to lunch. Poirot arrives just in time to see that a man’s just been shot by the Angkatells’ pool. At first, he thinks the scene has been staged for his benefit, and decries the lack of taste. Soon, though, he realizes that the murder is all too real, and that Dr. John Christow, who was staying with the Angkatells for the week-end, has been shot. The murder occurs just before lunch, so, despite the death, and the police being called in, lunch is still served. In fact, there’s a conversation between Lady Angkatell and Gudgeon, the butler, about what’s being served. That everyday conversation serves to bring the murder into stark relief.

A similar thing happens in Charlotte MacLeod’s The Withdrawing Room, her second Sarah Kelling/Max Bettersohn novel. In that novel, Sarah Kelling has had to turn her brownstone into a boarding house in order to make ends meet. Although they’re eccentric, most of the lodgers are pleasant people – except for Mr. Quiffen, who’s rude, obnoxious, and far too inquisitive. One day, he’s pushed under a moving subway. No-one at the boarding house feels much sadness at Quiffen’s death, and the domestic scenes, especially at the dinner table, show this. But, as the stress of investigating his murder builds, and another lodger, Mr. Harter, proves to be more of a problem than Sarah had imagined, there’s an increasing contrast between what’s supposed to be the peaceful, domestic routine of planning, cooking and serving meals and the reality of the murder and the other mysterious goings-on at the boarding house.

Everyday routines can also give the reader important clues to the murder mystery that’s at the heart of a novel. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot is called in when Elinor Carlisle is arrested for murdering her wealthy Aunt Laura’s protégée, Mary Gerrard. At the beginning of the novel, Elinor and her fiancé, Roderick “Roddy” Welman go to Hunterbury, in the village of Maidensford, to visit Aunt Laura after she’s had a stroke. Aunt Laura’s being tended by two nurses, Eileen O’Brien and Jessie Hopkins. One afternoon, the two nurses have a perfectly ordinary cup of tea and conversation; that conversation includes an important clue to Mary’s murder. So does what seems like a mundane exchange of letters between the nurses later in the novel. In Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot investigates the murder of a French moneylender, Madame Giselle, while in an airplane en route from Paris to London. One of the other passengers on the plane, Jane Grey, works with Poirot as he solves the mystery. One day, she’s getting up from a table in a restaurant when she notices she’s broken a fingernail. As he watches Jane pull out a nail file and fix the fingernail – a perfectly ordinary, everyday act – Poirot gets an important clue to finding out who killed Madame Giselle.

I do the same in my own Publish or Perish, which centers on the murder of Nick Merrill, a graduate student. One evening, the sleuth, former police officer-turned-professor Joel Williams, is out to dinner with his wife. On their way out of the restaurant, they see another character trying to start his car, but unable to do so. Williams offers the character a jump start. When the other character opens the car’s trunk to get out jumper cables, Williams gets an important clue to the mystery surrounding Merrill’s death.

Of course, everyday routines also serve to make the characters more real and believable. We all do routine things like going to the ATM machine, buying groceries and watching television; when characters do that, too, they become more real. That’s especially true of when it comes to the sleuth. For example, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover has a family. She writes a newspaper column, wards off her son’s well-meaning attempts to keep her busy and contented, and dotes on her grandson. She does everyday things. So does Caroline Graham’s Tom Barnaby. He has dinner with his family (despite his feelings about his wife’s cooking), he dotes on his daughter, and reads the newspaper. He’s also fond of his garden and avidly sprays for bugs. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse does crossword puzzles, listens to classical music, and of course, never misses the chance to make a stop at the local.

Daily routines and everyday scenes can, of course, be overdone. After all, a murder mystery is about a murder and its investigation. That said, though, they can add a welcome layer of authenticity. They may not always be exciting, but they tie the rest of a well-written crime fiction novel together.

What do you think? Do you prefer your crime fiction to focus just on the crime and investigation? Or do you like a larger picture of the characters that includes those sometimes humdrum routines? Do you think they detract from the suspense?


  1. Another outstanding post, Margot! You are a wealth of information, and what an avid reader you are. I appreciate all these golden nuggets. I definitely like the everyday mixed in, i think we all can appreciate that.

    I always laugh at the scene in Pulp Fiction when Samuel L. Jackson & John Travolta are having the conversation about the intimacy of a foot massage, and they're walking to an apt where they're about to blow people away.

    I'm writing a true crime memoir; it's about an unsolved murder (the 54th anniversary was yesterday), that my armchair detective grandmother told me about when I was 12 (she lived 2 miles from the scene of the hatchet murder). I grew up to become a cop and work in the area where the victim lived & worked. When I met my husband at my relief point (he was a volunteer fireman at the time), I found out he grew up on the street where the murder took place...many, many more twists & turns where that came from, heavily rooted in fate, I believe. For seven years, I've been interviewing retired cops, witnesses, relatives of anyone involved in the case from half a century ago. It's been a labor of love, and hopefully I'll get an agent soon, and get close to making this dream a reality.

    Keep up the great work you are doing. I am enjoying your blog posts and of course, following you on Twitter!

    Have a great weekend!


  2. I think it's very important to show characters in their regular life before the murder turns everything topsy-turvy. I don't want to read 100 pages of people cleaning their floors or baking cookies or whatever, but let me know what their 'normal' life is like.

    Taking my own wants to heart, my WIP's first chapter is my six POV characters having a regular day and then receiving (two of them are involved in sending) an invitation to the house party where the murder will occur. It gives the reader an introduction to the main players and a beginning of understanding of what makes each of them tick.


  3. I like the small "real life" routines, if not done to excess. Two authors I think do this very well are Liza Marklund and Helene Tursten. Marklund's Annika is a subeditor at a newspaper and is always having trouble with the nursery, getting enough time to get food for dinner, etc. And similarly, Tursten's Irene Huss is a senior detective with two teenage daughters. She has a very supportive husband who is a chef so they can shift each other, but even so there are plenty of domestic issues that impinge on the investigations, in particular I remember one awful incident with the neighbour's cat, and another time when Irene is visiting London and just cannot get any time to buy her daughters a present. In the end, in desperation, she goes into H&M (a Swedish store) and buys them something each from there because it is familiar and she can get something quickly that she knows they will like and that is the right size.

  4. I am sure most readers like meeting ´real´ people who have to live with the same troubles and worries as we do. I also like getting an impression of their temper and their little weaknesses.

    (My latest character, Mildred, is a member of a knitting club, and my writing course ´classmates´ just love their squabble though it is not crime-related at all).

  5. Kathy - Thanks so much for your kind words. It really means a lot to me that you follow my meanderings : ). I also enjoy follow your tweets and learning from you, too.

    That is a great scene in Pulp Fiction, isn't it? That's exactly the kind of thing I meant, too - that contrast between the murderous action and those everyday moments can be fabulous!

    I'm so excited to hear you're working on your own book. It sounds like an absolutely fascinating work. I'm not usually one for reading a lot of true-crime, because often, true crime stories aren't written by someone who's got a good grasp of investigation and police work. Besides, it's scary to think of the kinds of crimes that people commit in real life. You can't put it aside and say, "That could never happen!" But your book sounds really compelling; I look forward to it.

    Elspeth - The more I learn about your WIP, the more interested I become in it! I agree with you that understanding what someone's "regular" life is like before a murder is really helpful in getting to know that character. To me, it's also really interesting to see how that "normal" life changes as a result of the murder.

    Maxine - I agree 100%. It really keeps the reader's interest to know the kinds of everyday routines that characters go through, so long as it's done well. Marklund really is a great example of that, too. I have to say I empathize with Annika's struggles to do her job, feed the family, pick up a sick child, etc.. I used to go through the same thing when my daughter was a little one, so it's easy to identify with her. I really do think it's that identification that helps the reader stay interested.

    Dorte - I agree; it's very helpful to get a sense of what a character's temperament is like, and the kind of person that character is. I'm so excited to read your work, too : ); I'm really impressed that you're pursuing your writing. I admire you for that. Mildren's knitting club sounds like the boarders in Charlotte MacLeod's Kelling/Bittersohn series - they sound like fun : ).