Saturday, April 3, 2010

Rituals and Commemorations

Rituals are an important part of most of our lives. Most of us have little rituals for putting children to bed, getting ready for work, and other routines. There are also some more formal rituals that we observe. Rituals seem to be important to us for a few reasons. One of them is that they help us feel safe (e.g. walking around in the same pattern each night to check that the doors are locked). Others are important because they help us commemorate people or events. Still others are important because they mark the year for us, and mark life’s major events. Either way, rituals matter. This weekend, as many people are celebrating one of two important commemorations, Easter and Passover, it seems like a good time to look at some crime fiction that includes rituals.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes investigates a sort of ritual in The Musgrave Ritual. That’s the story of Sir Reginald Musgrave, an old college friend of Holmes, who comes to Holmes for help when his butler, Richard Brunton, and his maid, Rachel Howells, disappear. Musgrave had caught Brunton reading a family paper with a ritual poem on it, and had dismissed him with one week’s notice. But Brunton and Howells were gone a few days later. Holmes investigates the case and finds that although the ritual poem seemed like a simple if strange family custom, there’s more to it. The poem is actually a set of instructions to find a treasure that was hidden nearly 200 years ago.

There’s an interesting look at a ritual dinner in Agatha Christie’s short story, The Theft of the Royal Ruby (AKA The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding). Poirot is asked to help an Eastern prince recover a valuable ruby that he bought for his fiancée. Soon after he bought the gem, it was stolen by a pair of confidence tricksters. Poirot’s been told that the jewel is at King’s Lacey, the country home of the Lacey family. So he reluctantly agrees to spend Christmas there. The Lacey family has a very traditional, ritualized English Christmas dinner, including a plum pudding with symbolic objects in it, including a button, a thimble, and a ring. That plum pudding becomes very important in the solution of the mystery, and it’s an interesting example of the importance rituals have for many people.

Colleges and universities, especially older institutions, often have rituals, and we see an example of this in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, in which Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in its annual Gaudy dinner celebrations. After returning to her home from Shrewsbury, Harriet receives a letter from the Warden of Shrewsbury, asking her to help find out who’s behind some anonymous letters, vandalism and other upsetting events at the college. Harriet agrees and goes to Shrewsbury under the cover of doing some research. While she’s investigating, the events get more and more frightening; Harriet herself is attacked and almost killed. Lord Peter Wimsey visits the college to help Harriet investigate, and together, they find out who has targeted Shrewsbury College and why.

We see some fascinating examples of rituals and commemorations in the work of Tony Hillerman. His sleuths, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, are both members of the Navajo Nation. In fact, in the first several Chee novels, he’s studying to be a yata'ali, or singer – a healer. In that capacity, Chee learns to lead several of the Navajo rituals that serve a wide variety of purposes. Hillerman uses those rituals to several ends in his novels. One is to add interest and authenticity to the novels. Another is to provide an authentic context for characters to interact. Many members of the Navajo Nation don’t get together for lunch, a drink, etc., as members of the dominant culture do. They do gather, though, for rituals, whether it’s the preparation of a new home, a healing ceremony, or some other reason. Those gatherings, or sings, can last several days, during which there’s a prescribed set of rituals that participants experience, and during which several events in Navajo history are commemorated. In Hillerman’s novels, Chee often learns valuable information when he attends sings, since that’s where he’s most likely to encounter people he might not meet anywhere else. That’s what happens in The Ghostway, where Chee is investigating the murder of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who moved to the Reservation. He’s also investigating the disappearance of Margaret Billy Sosi, a Navajo teenager who’s a distant kinswoman of Gorman’s. Chee finds Sosi, but she disappears again. Towards the end of the novel, though, he finds her again at a Ghostway, or a ritual healing ceremony. Gorman’s killer has also found her, so she’s in real danger. At the end of the ceremony, she (and Chee) have a narrow escape from the killer.

Francis Sayesva is not so lucky in Hillerman’s Sacred Clowns. In that novel, Seyesva is a participant in a Tano Indian ritual commemorating their people’s history and reminding the people of the important moral lessons their ancestors taught. While everyone is watching some other dancers, Sayesva is bludgeoned to death. Jim Chee, who’s been assigned to find Seyesva’s runaway nephew, is attending the ritual, because he believes he’ll find the nephew there. When he finds out about the murder, Chee believes that this killing is connected to the recent murder of Eric Dorsey, a local teacher. The missing nephew seems to be the key, as he attended the school where Dorsey taught. What’s interesting about this particular ritual is that its theme is related to the motive behind Dorsey’s and Sayesva’s murders.

Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s three-novel Anasazi series contains some very interesting rituals. That’s the story of archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole. Stewart and his team unexpectedly find the remains of several bodies in a part of the Sonora desert of New Mexico. When it’s found that they did not die naturally, Cole is called in to try to find out how and why the victims died. In order for them to excavate, they need permission from the Pueblo Indians whose land it is. The Pueblo representative who accompanies the expedition in order to be sure it’s done ethically is Hail Walking Hawk, a wise woman who performs several rituals throughout the course of the first novel, The Visitant. Through those rituals, we learn something about the Pueblo people’s traditions and history, and we get a fascinating look at the connections between the past and the present, as Hail Walking Hawk seems able to reach out to the ghosts of the people whose remains Stewart has found. These novels move between present day New Mexico and the 13th Century Anasazi people who lived there before, so we also get to witness several rituals and commemorations of the Ansazi people. We also meet War Chief Browser and his deputy and friend, Catkin, as they look into the murders that Stewart and Cole also investigate. As Browser and Catkin find, several of the Ansazi rituals end up serving as excellent covers for some of the murders that they probe.

In Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we read of another ritual, the lyikwake. The lyikwake is a watch kept over the dead between the death and the funeral, and it plays an important role in this novel. Alexander Seaton, MacLean’s sleuth, is a disgraced former aspirant to the ministry. Now undermaster at the local grammar school, he’s drawn into a dangerous murder investigation when Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s apprentice, is poisoned. Seaton comes to believe that the apothecary’s daughter, Marion Arbuthnott, knows more than she’s saying about the murder; before he can find out what she knows, though, Marion, too dies. At first, it’s believed that she committed suicide. That explanation seems logical, too, since she and Davidson were widely believed to be in love. Soon enough, though, it’s clear that Marion was murdered, too. Seaton slowly puts together the clues to find out how and why Patrick and Marion were killed, and at Marion’s lyikwake, he finally realizes how everything is connected. The killer realizes it, too, and it’s only through the help of some friends that Seaton survives.

Rituals and commemorations of all kinds are part of the glue that holds our lives together. So it’s no wonder at all that they are so important in crime fiction, too. What’s your view? Which novels have you enjoyed that feature commemorations and rituals?

On Another Note….

To all of you, my very best wishes. If you celebrate Easter, may you enjoy a happy, peaceful and renewing Easter; if you’ve been celebrating Passover, may it bring you a sense of connection and also of renewal.


  1. The Midsomer Murder series comes to mind. Those villages were always having ritual celebrations and festivals! And they were fascinating to me.

    Best wishes and a wonderful weekend to you, too, Margot!

  2. Elizabeth - Thanks for the good wishes : ) You are so right;, too the Midsomer Murders have some great examples of rituals, don't they? I think small-town and village festivals are really interesting, too.

  3. Rituals and commemorations are definitely a part of our lives and should be included in the books we read. Interesting post as always.

    Hope you and your family enjoy the holiday. May the day bring all that you wish for and much more.

  4. Mason - Thank you for the good wishes and the kind words : ). That's so true - rituals really are a part of our lives; sometimes, we don't even realize how integrated they are into the pattern of our lives. So there's no reason they shouldn't be integrated into crime fiction, too. I think they also make really interesting reading.

  5. My first thought while reading this post, albeit unsyllogistic, went to Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. All of these books have one-or-more scenes set at the "ritualistic" family dinner table; and also, Granny's social life is centered on funeral parlor viewings.

    Thanks for the nice Easter sentiments. I know we live in the same part of the country, and didn't we have a glorious day today?

  6. Bob - It certainly was glorious, wasn't it? Of course, there was the mild earthquake, but hey, we live on a fault line....

    You're exactly right about the Plum series, too. Grandma Mazur is very much a fan of the funeral ritual, and that's a terrific example of what I mean. So is the typical meal at the Plum house. Thanks for the reminder : ).

  7. Happy Easter/Passover to you, Margot. It is so nice to have a few days' rest over the long weekend.
    I think I had had enough of rituals after O/Ding on Dennis Wheatley novels in my early teens! (I think I mainly read him because he was considered unrespectable, quite laughable these days I suppose as there was an essential innocence to his books, if memory serves.)

    I think an author has to be very careful with rituals as they can be both cliched and, worse, unintentionally funny - and then you have lost the tension. Mari Jungstedt came a bit too close to this line in her third Gotland novel, I thought, though I enjoyed the book otherwise.

  8. Maxine - Isn't it nice to have a break? It's funny you would mention Dennis Wheatley. I've only read one or two of his books, but I know what you mean about the way his work was regarded. I agree; given today's standards, it is funny to think of that..

    I confess I've not read Jungstedt; I am woefully behind when it comes to Scandanavian crime fiction. However, I agree wholeheartedly with your point about the risks with rituals. I think it's a matter of the author treating those rituals and commemorations with respect. That's what I like about Tony Hillerman's work, which I mentioned in the post. I also like that about Margaret Coel's work. When an author shows respect for the ritual that's integrated into the novel, it's easier, I think, for readers to catch the seriousness of it and pick up, as you said, on the tension.

  9. Happy Easter, Margot.

    I like Elizabeth´s Midsomer example - there are some great stories there.

    Other modern examples are Yrsa Sigurdardottir´s Last Rituals and S.J. Bolton´s Sacrifice. Intriguing stories.

  10. Dorte - Thank you : ); the same to you : ). It's funny you would mention Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I confess that I'm not familiar with her work. However, I have heard that Last Rituals was quite good. And of course Midsomer Murders is a great example, isn't it??

    Folks, if you're interested in learning about Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, please check out this profile of her by Craig at Crime Watch.

  11. Well done Dorte for remembering those two titles, which I'd temporarily forgotten. I think that element worked well in the Yrsa book (perhaps because it involved young people?) but it was the weak spot in Sacrifice so far as I was concerned - the rest of the book was really rather special, but once the reason for the rituals became clear....hmmmm , lost my interest anyway.

  12. Maxine - Now you've piqued my interest. I'm going to have to see if I can find some Yrsa and try it, myself...

  13. It would be interesting to know your views on Tilton Univ compared with the university that features in Last Rituals, in that case, Margot.

  14. Maxine - Consider it done. As soon as I've read The Last Rituals, I'll let you know...