For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual, Sherlock Holmes uses a passed-down family story to solve the mystery of some perplexing events at Hurlstone, the home of his university friend Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave had caught his butler Brunton looking through some family papers, in particular a paper on which were written some seemingly meaningless questions and answers. The story had been passed along in the Musgrave family for generations, and Musgrave can’t understand Brunton’s interest in it. Then, the next day, Brunton disappears. So does Rachel Howell, one of the housemaids. Nothing’s been stolen, so Musgrave can’t understand why the two would disappear that way if theft wasn’t the goal. Holmes travels to Hurlstone and uses that passed-along family story to get to the truth about the strange occurrences. The story contains important clues and once Holmes figures out the clues, he is able to trace both Brunton and Howell.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot uses passed-along stories in more than one of his cases. For example, in Evil Under the Sun, he’s taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. One tragic day, fellow guest Arlena Stuart Marshall is strangled on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. The most likely suspect is her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall. Arlena was not a faithful wife and her latest “conquest” is another hotel guest, Patrick Redfern. Soon enough, though, Marshall is able to prove an alibi, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for a suspect. In the course of his investigation, Poirot learns stories about Pixy’s Cave, a hidden but accessible cave near Pixy’s Cove. Only people from the area who know the old stories know where Pixy’s Cave is, and not many people think it matters. But Poirot pays attention to those stories and when he discovers the cave, he also discovers an important clue as to who killed Arlena Marshall and how the murder was accomplished.
In Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors, Lord Peter Wimsey makes very effective use of a story that he hears. He and his valet Mervyn Bunter are stranded one New Year’s Eve in Fenchurch St. Paul when they have a car accident. They’re rescued by the Reverend Theodore Venables and his wife Agnes, and soon settle in. Wimsey is able to return the kindness by taking part in the church’s traditional New Year’s Day change-ringing when one of the regular ringers falls ill. On New Year’s Day, Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire, dies of influenza, and is duly buried. Wimsey and Bunter remain in Fenchurch St. Paul for the funeral while they are waiting for the car to be repaired. During their stay, Wimsey hears a twenty-year-old passed-along story. When Lady Thorpe and her husband Sir Henry Thorpe were married, one of the guests had an emerald necklace stolen. The culprits were caught and imprisoned, but the emeralds themselves were never found. Wimsey pays attention to the story and remembers it after he and Bunter have left the town to go on their way. A few months later, Sir Henry himself dies and preparations are made to follow his instructions and bury him in his wife’s grave. But when that grave is opened, everyone is shocked to find the body of an unknown man already in the grave. Reverend Venables writes to Wimsey to ask him to help find out who the man is, how and why he died and how his body got in the grave. Wimsey agrees and he and Bunter return to Fenchurch St. Paul. The passed-along story about the emeralds proves to be the key to the identity of the dead man and the reason he’s buried in the grave.
There’s also an interesting passed-along story in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger. Navajo Tribal Police officer Bernadette Manuelito asks fellow officer Jim Chee for help with a difficult case. A casino on the Ute reservation has been robbed, and two security officers have been shot; one of them has died. The suspects in the robbery seem to have escaped by plane, and Manuelito asks Chee’s help in tracking down the thieves. Meanwhile, retired Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn is approached by an old friend Roy Gershwin, who tells Leaphorn that he knows who the thieves are. According to Gershwin, the thieves are members of an anti-government militia group who want to finance their cause. Leaphorn and Chee look into the case and find out that it ties in with an old passed-along story from the Ute nation. Generations ago, a Ute named Ironhand was said to be able to escape after raids on Navajo lands by flying. The elderly members of the Ute Nation know this story, and they’ve heard stories of how Ironhand really escaped, but they are not interested in co-operating with Navajos in solving the casino robbery and murders. But Leaphorn’s love interest Professor Louisa Bourbonette is not a Navajo, and she’s able to be very helpful in sharing the story with the police officers and helping them find out what happened to the killers.
Val McDermid’s The Grave Tattoo focuses on another passed-along story, this one about Fletcher Christian of H.M.S. Bounty fame. The story has gone round for years that Christian did not die on Pitcairn Island, but returned to his native Lakes District. It’s said that he was hidden there by family and loyal friends who didn’t want to see him prosecuted for mutiny. When a centuries-old body is pulled from a Lakes District bog, talk begins to circulate that the old stories might be true. This is enough to pique the interest of Lakes District native Jane Gresham. She’s a Wordsworth scholar who believes that Wordsworth might have left behind an as yet undiscovered manuscript. When the stories begin to re-surface about Fletcher Christian, Gresham begins to think that she might be right about the manuscript. Wordsworth and Fletcher Christian were known to be good friends, and what would be more natural than that Christian might have told the story of his escape from Pitcairn Island to his friend? If so, what would be more natural than that Wordsworth would use that story as the basis for some of his writing? Gresham returns from London to the Lakes District to try to find out if she’s right about the manuscript. With some help from fiends and colleagues, she slowly begins to trace its possible whereabouts. Then, someone who may know something about it dies. Then there’s another death. Soon, the police begin to wonder whether Jane Gresham knows all too well how those deaths occurred. Now, Gresham has to work even harder and faster both to clear her name and to find the manuscript before some other very shady people who are also after that manuscript get there first.
In In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, is Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is told of a passed-along story that a long-dead child is haunting a piece of land owned by one of Thóra’s clients Jónas Júlíusson. In fact, he’s hired Thóra to help him sue the land’s former owners, whom he claims didn’t inform him that the land was haunted. Thóra doesn’t believe the old story but she is interested in the fee, and the thought of a getaway at the upscale spa and resort that her client owns is appealing. So she takes the case and travels to the spa. Then, the body of architect Birna Hálldorsdóttir is found on the beach not far from the spa. She was also staying at the spa and in fact, was having a relationship with Jónas Júlíusson. Soon, he’s accused of her murder and Thóra agrees to defend him. As she looks into the case, Thóra finds the connection between the old story that’s been passed along, and Birna’s murder. She also finds out who really committed the murder and why.
Stories that are passed through the generations are not just interesting reflections on a culture. They can be the stuff of history, and they can be very useful when sleuths are on the case. But what’s your view? Do you enjoy novels that hinge on those old stories? Which ones have you enjoyed?
On Another Note….
If you’re celebrating Easter, or if you’ve been celebrating Passover, I wish you a wonderful holiday with family and friends! I hope the stories of the season give you a sense of renewal and of connection with each other and with history.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks' Living On a Thin Line.