Saturday, April 30, 2011

Time Passages*

Rites of passage are important ways for us to mark the major changes in our lives. I don’t have a deep background in psychology, so I can’t say for sure why we depend on rites of passage, but if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because they help us organise our lives. In just about every culture, births, marriages, deaths and other rites of passage help people make sense of their development and give people a sense of order. They also allow others to mark those rites of passage with us, and that gives a sense of belonging. It’s no surprise, then, that rites of passage play important roles in crime fiction, too.

There’s a very eerie example of the role that rites of passage play in our lives in Ruth Rendell’s The Bridesmaid. Philip Wardman is a fastidious interior designer with a horror of brutality or violence of any kind and a particular attraction to the beautiful. This fascination proves disastrous for Wardman when his sister Fee gets married. Fee’s chosen as one of her bridesmaids the beautiful and seductive Santa Pelham. Wardman is instantly smitten and before long, he and Pelham are romantically involved. At first, all is well, but then, Pelham tells her lover that in order to prove their love for each other, each must commit a murder. Although Wardman is horrified at the thought, he doesn’t think she’s serious, and besides, he’s too much in love to make much of a fuss. So he lies about having committed a murder. Then, Pelham tells him about a murder she’s committed. Wardman thinks she’s made up her story, too, until he finds out too late that he’s been drawn into a nightmare.

Weddings also feature in Alexander McCall Smith’s The Full Cupboard of Life. In that novel, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets an interesting commission from Mma. Holonga, a very successful owner of several hair-braiding salons. Mma. Holonga is ready to get married, and she has four admirers, each of whom she could imagine herself marrying. She wants Mma. Ramotswe to investigate each of her admirers and help her make the right choice. Mma. Ramotswe agrees, and begins her task. She soon finds out that two of Mma. Holonga’s suitors are likely interested only in her money. Mma. Ramotswe tries to tell her client about what she’s learned, but by that time, Mma. Holonga has already made her choice, and won’t listen to what Mma. Ramotswe has to say. It’s an interesting reminder that we don’t easily listen to advice that we don’t want to hear. Meanwhile, in an interesting sub-plot, Mma. Ramotswe has concerns of her own. She is engaged to Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and is happy with him. However, she wants to be married; she wants a wedding. That rite of passage is important to a traditional lady like Mma. Ramotswe, but her fiancé seems in no hurry to go through with a wedding. On one hand, Mma. Ramotswe would like to hurry things along. On the other, she’s not unhappy with Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and she’s afraid that if she pushes matters, he’ll break off the engagement. In the end, Mma. Ramotswe and her friend Mma. Sylvia Potokwane hatch a plan, and the novel ends with (in my opinion, anyway), a delightful wedding under a tree.

Crime fiction often involves murders, so funerals also figure in lots of crime fiction novels. For instance, Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) begins with the funeral of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family returns to the Abernethie home of Enderby Hall after the funeral, everyone gathers for the reading of his will. During that gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up and even Cora herself makes an apology. But privately, everyone begins to wonder whether Abernethie was murdered. Cora has a habit of blurting out things better left unsaid, and everyone suspects that she made have done so this time, too. Then, the next day, Cora herself is brutally murdered. Now it looks as though she may have been right about her brother. So family solicitor Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. In classic Christie fashion, we find that the motive for murder was there if one pays attention, but not at all what one would have thought.

In Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead, Josh Handleman returns from San Francisco to his native Northern Virginia for the funeral of his father Abe, who suddenly died from a fall down a flight of stairs. Handleman and his family observe the Jewish mourning ritual of shivah, and one of the attendees is Abe Handleman’s best friend Lev Yurishenko. Yurishenko takes Josh aside and tells him that his father was murdered, and that the killer is Abe Handleman’s lodger Yassian. Josh doesn’t believe his father’s friend at first. Everyone loved “Honest Abe” Handleman, and no-one can imagine a reason for murdering him. But then, Josh finds out that his father had a cache of valuable diamonds – and that the diamonds are now missing. He begins a search for the diamonds and as he gets closer to the truth about them, Josh also gets closer to finding out who killed his father and why.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti gets an important clue at a funeral in A Question of Belief. He’s investigating the brutal bludgeoning death of courthouse usher Araldo Fontana in the courtyard of Fontana’s apartment building. One possible motive for this murder is that Fontana was going to reveal what he knew about corruption and payoffs in the local court system. But Brunetti knows that things aren’t always what they seem. So although he and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello explore that possibility, they also look into Fontana’s private life. In the end, Brunetti slowly gets to the truth about the murder, and one of the clues he gets is someone’s presence and behaviour at Fontana’s funeral.

Of course, not all rites of passage are weddings and funerals. For example, Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road begins with Young Men’s Time, a rite of passage in which boys leave and come back as men. Emily Tempest is participating in the ritual when it’s interrupted by an argument. The argument’s settled, but Tempest realises that she has to leave the ritual to start her first day as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO). Little does Tempest know that as an ACPO, she’ll be drawn into a murder mystery when the body of Albert “Doc” Ozolins is found in his cabin near the Green Swamp Well Roadhouse. At first, Ozolins’ murder looks like the tragic result of a quarrel gone wrong. Tempest isn’t sure of this, though, and begins to investigate. She finds that Ozolins was murdered because of some important discoveries he’d made.

Rites of passage are important parts of many people’s lives. They serve as “mileposts” and organisers, among other things, and for lots of us, they have very special meaning. Which novels have you enjoyed that feature rites of passage?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Al Stewart song.


  1. We do like rites of passage, don't we? I guess that's why everybody's so caught up in the silliness of the royal wedding. And mystery novels and funerals do go together. I think the average mystery novel has at least one.

    Like the photo. Very apropos.

  2. Anne - Thanks :-). I really have to say I enjoy putting 'photos together for this blog. And it's interesting you'd mention the royal wedding; I actually wasn't thinking of that when I wrote this post; that was just a timing thing. But you're right; we do enjoy rites of passage, and yes, mystery novels and funerals are a natural match...