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]
'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?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stevie Wonder's Superstition.