Sunday, October 31, 2010

Very Superstitious Writing on the Wall*

Do you think of yourself as superstitious? Most of us don't like to admit that we pay any attention to what are sometimes called "old wives' tales" (I know; not the most enlightened of expressions). And yet, those sayings and stories are passed on and many people, almost unconsciously, follow them. For instance, people absently pick up a penny or a pin for luck. Many actors and directors refuse to say the name of "the Scottish play." Many people won't walk under a ladder, or are afraid to break a mirror, or in some other way they allow those old stories to affect them. Why? Part of the reason may lie in our deep-seated need for safety and security. If Maslow was right, then the need for safety is more important than anything except the basic drives for food, water, reproduction, and so on. Not being a psychologist, I can't say for certain exactly what the appeal of those stories are, but they are an important part of our collective consciousness. So they also play a role in crime fiction. Even when sayings or superstitions aren't at the heart of a story, they're sometimes woven into the story, and can add interesting dimensions to a novel.

For instance, in Agatha Christie's
Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, actress Jane Wilkinson, is suspected of the murder. It's a well-known fact that she wanted to be free of him so that she could marry someone else. Besides, she'd been heard threatening him. The only problem with that theory is that Jane Wilkinson has a strong alibi; she was at a dinner party in another part of London. In fact, several guests attest to her presence there. One of them is an up-and-coming actor, Donald Ross. Poirot and Hastings interview Ross about the night of the murder so that they can establish the course of events. In this conversation, we see a hint of the way those old tales can affect people:

"'Odd thing,' he said. 'That dinner last night.' [Ross]

'Yes?' [Poirot]

'We were thirteen. Some fellow failed at the last minute. We never noticed till just the end of dinner.'
'And who got up first?' I asked.

He gave a queer little nervous cackle of laughter.
'I did,' he said.

Ross' reaction is based on the old tale that if thirteen people sit down to dinner, whoever gets up first will die within the year. Ross' reaction proves tragically prophetic when he himself becomes the killer's next victim.

We see that particular tale crop up again in Colin Dexter's
The Secret of Annexe 3. The Haworth Hotel is offering a New Year's Eve gala package, and several couples have written to request reservations. With the hotel completely booked, several rooms in the hotel's annexe are also being used to accommodate guests. John Binyon, the hotel's owner, carefully prepares the events for the gala, and with help from his highly capable manager Sarah Jonstone, arranges all of the details. For example, at the gala dinner,

"It would have been easiest to divide the original guestlist into three tables of thirteen; but in deference to inevitable superstition Binyon had settled for two tables of fourteen and one of eleven…"

Binyon's precautions turn out to be fruitless when, on New Year's Day, the body of one of the guests is discovered in his room in the annexe. Inspector Morse, who'd been hoping for a year-end furlough, is called in since he lives quite close to the Haworth. Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the case and find that they have to work through a tissue of lies, fake names and addresses and hidden relationships to find out what really happened on New Year's Eve.

We also see the effect of old tales in Agatha Christie's
Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, well-known French moneylender Madame Giselle is traveling from Paris to London by air. Towards the end of the flight, she suddenly dies of what seems at first to be heart failure. When it turns out that she was poisoned, Chief Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp works with Poirot (who was on board the fateful flight) to find the killer. At one point, Poirot asks one of the stewards if he'd noticed anything unusual or odd about Madame Giselle. The only thing the steward has noticed is that Madame Giselle had two spoons in her coffee cup. The old story is that two spoons in a coffee cup means a marriage. In this case, as Poirot says, it doesn't. In fact, that second spoon turns out to be an interesting clue.

In Ngaio Marsh's
Night at the Vulcan, we learn about several old tales that are told among theatre people. Martyn Tarn is a young New Zealand actress trying to make her way in the London theatre scene. By chance, she arrives at the Vulcan Theatre just when famous actress Helena Hamilton loses her regular dresser to illness and needs another. Martyn's lucky enough to get the job and hastily shown around. At one point, her guide asks,

"'Sure yer not superstitious?'

'No, I'm not.'
You ain't been long in this business, then.'"

Martyn's guide then tells her about an old story of a man who was murdered in one of the dressing rooms. Unfazed by the story, Martyn begins her work. She does well and ends up being understudy to Helena Hamilton. Then, Helena's husband Clark Bennington dies by gas poisoning in what looks like a successful suicide attempt. Eerily enough, his death is quite similar to the death Martyn had heard about when she first came to the Vulcan. Soon, we learn that Bennington was murdered, and Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigates. As he looks into the case, he's up against quirky characters, hidden motives and several likely suspects.

In Peter Robinson's
Aftermath, we meet Maggie Forrest, who's wakened late one night by the sounds of what seems to be domestic violence. She calls the police to report the incident, and Probationary Constable Janet Taylor and PC Dennis Morrisey are sent to the scene. Maggie looks out her window to see what's going to happen next:

"Above Lucy's house, Maggie could see the crescent sliver of a new moon and the faint silver thread it drew around the old moon's darkness. The old moon in the new moon's arms. An ill omen. Sailors believed that the sight of it, especially through glass, presaged a storm and much loss of life. Maggie shivered. She wasn't superstitious, but there was something chilling about the sight, something that reached out and touched her from way back in time, when people paid more attention to cosmic events such as the cycles of the moon."

Maggie's not a fanciful person, but her sense of foreboding proves all too accurate. The police make a gruesome discovery at the home of Lucy and Terence Payne. It seems that Terence Payne may be a serial murderer called The Chameleon, who's been responsible for the disappearance of several teenage girls. DI Alan Banks and his team begin their investigation of Payne, and the end result of it leads to a great deal more horror than Maggie could have imagined.

There are, of course, many other novels where old stories and superstitions play a role. Even those who really don't consider themselves superstitious sometimes pick up a penny, avoid black cats or don't travel on bad-luck days. What about you?

: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder's


  1. I am not the least bit superstitious (though I tend to believe it will rain if I don´t bring an umbrella, but I have been proved right so many times ..:D)

    I enjoy stories that include superstitious people if it seems to fit the character. Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Johan Theorin are good at pulling it off, and it also feels credible when it is in remote villages in Britain or the US. I don´t want anything supernatural involved in the solution of the crime, however, unless it is marketed as a Halloween or ghost story.

  2. Dorte - I know what you mean! I often bring a jacket or umbrella so I won't need it. :-)

    I'm glad you mentioned both Johan Theorin and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Both really do weave those old tales throughout their novels. In fact, I'm rather cross with myself because I'd meant to mention Yrsa and didn't. Fortunately, you were there to save me :-).

    I agree, too, about solutions to crimes. I'm not one, either, for a supernatural solution. It's fine with me if the supernatural is a cover for the real motive or solution, but I like down-to-earth motives and solutions for crimes...

  3. What a wonderful post for Halloween. I'd have to say I am a bit superstitious and enjoy it when it is mixed in with a cozy mystery. When a detective has a luck good charm they carry with them, it gives them a bit of realism to me but not if they relay on that charm to solve the crime. Hope you've had a wonderful Halloween.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. I know a bunch of people who are so wildly superstitious, that compared to them I am not superstitious at all. But like you and Dorte, I do thinks like carry an umbrella to ensure it doesn't rain. I also pick up quirks and habits which I consider lucky (the first race I ran, I put my shoes on before my t-shirt. The race was good, so before a race, I always do that now).

    I remember a Miss Marple short which got solved because the constable had subconsciously picked up a dressmaker's pin from the crime scene which proved the dressmaker had arrived earlier than she claimed to have (Tape Measure Mystery, was it?) That is the only kind of "superstitious solution" that I like

  5. Mason - Thanks :-)! I hope you've had a wonderful Hallowe'en, too. I agree that just a bit of superstition can add a layer to a character. And I think most people have little superstitions about things. Those superstitions can make us feel just a bit safer, even if they're not based on reality.

    Rayna - Oh, that's so interesting that you have a particular way you get ready for a race. I believe a lot of athletes do things like that to ensure a lucky race. And if that gives you the added confidence that helps you to do your very best, why not?

    And right you are about that Miss Marple story; what a memory you have. Tape Measure Murder does, indeed, involve that old tale about picking up a pin for luck. In this case, it's also a crucial clue to a murder. Thanks; I should have included that story and didn't. Shame on me!

  6. I'm not superstitious but I think some wives tales have merit. I think that the Mexicans are much more superstitious. I see people walk by a church and cross themselves.

    I honestly can't think of any books I've read where people are superstitious but I want to keep an eye out for it in the future.


  7. I'll admit to being more of a "well, why NOT avoid walking under the ladder" type thing. :) I find superstition interesting and there are many superstitions and old wives' tales in my region. Love it in definitely adds a little something.

  8. Clarissa - It's interesting how some of those stories seem to ring true and have some merit to them, so that it's easier to understand how people could believe them. It's funny you would mention people going by a church and crossing themselves; I've seen that, too, actually.

    Those old stories are pretty interesting, and definitely can add spice to a story.

    Elizabeth - There's something to be said for the "Well, why not be careful?" point of view. And to me, it's fascinating the effect that region has on those stories. In some regions, there are a lot of them; in others, there aren't. And many of the stories vary by region, too. On a cultural level, I really find that interesting. In a novel, those old tales can add local zest and can make a story or character interesting.

  9. As always amazing. Amazing you can think of new topics and amazing you can come up with examples.

  10. Am I superstitious? Seriously? I was in the theatre, for heaven's sake. I appreciate superstitions, but I tried not to have to many - that I was aware of at any rate. I have a black cat that has crossed my path many times, I don't panic at a broken mirror, and I will walk under ladders. I do 'knock on wood'. I mean, let's not be completely insane.

  11. Patti - *Blush* You really are far too complimentary....

    Elspeth - LOL! You're right; why tempt fate? ;-). I've always found it fascinating, actually, that theatre people have quite a lot of superstitions. So do many athletes. Some social and professional groups just seem to have more of those beliefs than others. Whatever the reason, they're interesting!

  12. +1 to what pattinase (abbott) said.

    We Indians are one of the most superstitious people anywhere ( I think Rayna will agree with me)! Many people including myself show respect to the gods while passing a temple (~ to the mexicans).

    I know a few haunted(?) spots on national highways where frequent travelers will stop to pay their respects to the departed. Not doing so is supposed to bring bad luck.

    The Red Signal by Agatha christie has a protogonist with the proverbial sixth sense (or "the red signal" as he describes it.) Also,a medium who warns all the men present in the room not to go home as there is danger there. Both prove to be correct in the course of time.

  13. Amey - How kind of you :-). How fascinating that there are places where one's expected to stop and pay respects to the gods or the departed. In the dominant U.S. culture, that's not as common, although there are many Native American cultures and other cultures in this country where it is more common. Thanks for sharing that.

    And thanks for reminding me of that Agatha Christie story. It's a great example! Her story The Last Seance has a focus on a medium, too. It's a slightly different theme, but in it, there's a really powerful example of the effect of being a medium on the person with those skills.

  14. Great examples, Margot. I don't read books where I think the paranormal etc will feature, so don't have too many examples. Dorte's of Theorin (in particular) and Sigurdardottir are the ones that came to my mind, too. There is also Elly Griffith's Ruth Galloway series, in which old superstitions feature, but not in an intrusive way.

    I did not enjoy the John Connelly books after he introduced the superstition elements, but also they got very long/slow (or at least, the last one I read did, one with Angel in the title I think). I prefer to have my explanations rooted in reality!

  15. Maxine - Thanks :-). And I had to laugh out loud when I read your comments about John Conelly. I, too, like to have explanations that are rooted in the real. That's one thing I like about the Yrsa Sigurðardóttir novels, among other things. There are superstitions and old tales in them, but they don't get in the way of a good, believable plot. Theorin, either. And thanks for bringing up the Ruth Galloway books; I should have thought of those when I was writing this, but no matter; you came to my rescue ;-).