Words of Wisdom*

You might not think of crime novels as sources for ‘words of wisdom.’ But they can be. In fact, there’s a surprising amount of everyday wisdom in lots of crime novels. Sometimes, those gems come from the sleuth; sometimes they don’t. Either way, though, you can learn some interesting lessons when you read in the genre.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to the village of Market Basing in response to a letter from Miss Emily Arundell, who lived there. She wasn’t specific in her letter, but referred to a delicate matter on which she wanted to consult Poirot. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. At first, it’s put down to liver failure. But Poirot is not convinced, and he decides to look into the matter. One of the people he and Hastings consult is Miss Caroline Peabody, who’s known the Arundell family for a very long time. She tells the two men about Miss Arundell’s sisters, saying that one of them had ‘a face like a scone.’ Here’s what she says next:

‘There’s something to be said for marrying a plain woman; you know the worst at once and she’s not so likely to be flighty.’

Now, admittedly, that might be seen as a dated way to think about a woman’s value. But it does hint at the importance of character as opposed to outward appearance. And it’s an interesting perspective on the times.

Lawrence Block’s Matthew Scudder has learned some important lessons in his time first as a police officer, and now as a private investigator. And, although Block’s novels aren’t necessarily what you’d call philosophical, they do offer some of Scudder’s hard-won wisdom. In The Sins of the Fathers, for instance, successful business executive Cale Hanniford hires Scudder to find out about the death of his daughter, Wendy. There seems no doubt that she was murdered by her roommate, Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, the case has already been closed. But Hanniford had been estranged from his daughter, and he wants to know more about the person she had become. Scudder agrees to find out what he can, and he starts asking questions. He slowly traces Wendy’s last weeks and months and learns more about her. And, in the end, he finds out the truth about her death, too. At one point, here is what he says about getting information:

‘You have to know when to stop. You can never find out everything, but you can almost always find out more than you already know, and there is a point at which any additional data you discover is irrelevant and any time you spend on it wasted.’

It’s not easy to know where the right stopping point is, but it’s interesting to consider that there is one.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger is the story of Fabien Delorme. When he is informed that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash, he is, of course, sad at her loss. But their marriage hadn’t been a good one for some time. What upsets him even more is that she was with someone else at the time of the crash. Her lover, Martial Arnoult, also died, and Delorme learns that he left a widow, Martine. Delorme finds out more about her, and slowly becomes obsessed. That obsession draws both of them into a spiral of events, and the end result is real tragedy. At one point, Delorme reflects on their marriage, and how happy they were at first. In fact, he thinks that they were so happily wrapped up in each other at that time, that their friends started avoiding them:

‘Everyone knows that excessive happiness is as off-putting as excessive misfortune.’ 

That’s a very cynical point of view, of course, but there’s a grain of wisdom in there about constant cheerfulness without the acknowledgement that misfortune happens, too.

One of Kerry Greenwood’s sleuths is Melbourne-based baker, Corinna Chapman. At one point, she was an accountant. But she has discovered that baking, especially breads, is her passion. In Trick or Treat, though, she is in great danger of losing the bakery. In one of the plot threads of that novel, some of the local supply of flour has become poisoned with ergot. In fact, there’s already been an ergot-related death. Now, all of the bakeries have to be temporarily closed until they can be shown to be ergot-free. There are other plot threads, too, that threaten Chapman’s, and the bakery’s, peaceful existence. When the danger is past, here’s what Chapman thinks about it:

‘I had come very near to losing all the things I valued and I valued them more now that I knew how very much I would miss them.’

It certainly offers a perspective on the things we hold dear.

And then there’s the list of Solomon’s Laws. They are the creation of Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon, a Coconut Grove (Florida) lawyer. He’s not afraid to push the limits of what’s accepted in the courtroom, and some judges do get annoyed at his antics. But he is completely dedicated and tireless when it comes to defending his clients. And he’s good at what he does. He’s developed a series of laws that guide the way he lives. Here are a few of them:

When the law doesn’t work…work the law
In law and in life, sometimes you have to wing it.
I will never compromise my ideals to achieve someone else’s definition of success.
Lie to your priest, your spouse, and the IRS, but always tell your lawyer the truth.
We all hold the keys to our own jails.

The novels have a lot of wit in them. Still, there is some real wisdom in some of these laws.

And that’s part of what makes crime fiction such an interesting genre. Yes, there are characters, plots, and so on. But there’s also a lot of wisdom. Who’d’a thunk?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Christopher Cross.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Lawrence Block, Pascal Garnier, Paul Levine

32 responses to “Words of Wisdom*

  1. Kathleen Gust

    Love the Corinna Chapman books. There’s lots of thought provoking ideas tucked into them. I also loved Dorothy Sayers when she had Peter Wimsey say to his mystery writer Harriet “Detective stories contain a dream of justice.” I think that’s why many people still read mysteries.

    • The Corinna Chapman series is very well-written, isn’t it, Kathleen? I like the way that Greenwood tells an interesting story, but also weaves in those larger ideas. And thanks for sharing the Sayers quote. It captures quite neatly why a lot of people like to read mysteries.

  2. Chrissie Poulson

    Such an interesting topic. Margot. There are some words of wisdom that I’ve never forgotten from Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry by Harry Kemelman. The Rabbi goes to see a newly bereaved widow. Her husband was twenty years older than she and an alcoholic who still occasionally fell off the wagon. Yet it was a good marriage. They looked after each other and she tells the rabbi that she met him when he holed up in a hotel and she was on the cigar counter: ‘if he hadn’t been on a bender, how could the likes of me have met a man like him?’
    The Rabbi says, ‘And you feel you got the best of the bargain?’
    ‘It was the best kind of bargain there is, Rabbi, when both parties feel they’ve got the best of it.’

    • I love that quote, Christine! Thanks for sharing it. I like the Rabbi Small series, and part of the reason is that there is some very rich ‘food for thought’ in the books. It certainly makes you think about things, doesn’t it? And what an interesting perspective on marriage, too. Lots to think about, so I appreciate your adding that in.

  3. Andre Michael Pietroschek

    You might not think of our humble host, dear professor M.K., as a living source of ‘words of wisdom, professionalism, and enthusiasm’, but she has been through many years. Kudos, Margot Kinberg.

    We had a little of it, on Jessica Fletcher. And I would repeat that not just Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot, among much more, served due to showing children that the brutal way of the criminal can be undone by prudence, properly learned education, and without becoming a monster, or victim, in the process. Naturally, such is rarely the main goal of crime fiction, though still a benevolent side-effect.

  4. No words of wisdom from me, but I do like Solomon’s Laws! Must investigate those books… 😀

    • Those are good ‘uns, I think, FictionFan. There’s a lot of wit, but there are also some interesting court cases and legal discussions. And there’s a solid sense of South Florida, too. If you do try one of Levine’s books, I hope you’ll enjoy it. 😀

  5. This is a truly delightful post. TY for the good read.

  6. Margot: Levine should just write a book of Solomon’s laws. One of my favourites should be remembered by all real life trial lawyers:

    4. You can sell one improbable event to a jury. A second “improb” is strictly no sale, and a third sends your client straight to prison.

    I wish I could be as witty in court.

    • I like that law, too, Bill. And it does make sense for all trial lawyers to take heed to that one. I like the idea of a book of Solomon’s Laws, too; I’ll bet Levine could make it both funny and useful.

  7. Col

    Block does drop a few pearls of wisdom into his writing. Time to check out the Solomon books from Levine I think.

    • Oh, I think you’d like the Levine series, Col. The characters are solid, and the court cases/mysteries are interesting. There’s an awful lot of wit in the novels, too. And I like Block’s way of including wisdom in his stories, too.

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog with words of wisdom found in crime fiction.

  9. Spade & Dagger

    The Jack Taylor series by Ken Bruen is liberally doused in pearls of wisdom from all the characters that surround Jack in a modernising Ireland, & in flashes of insight by Jack himself (although it’s usually too late to be of use to him :)). As the author has a PhD in Metaphysics moments like these are probably to be expected in the writing, but they are always wryly written & somehow Jack’s relentless quest for justice always comes at a huge personal cost. A bittersweet series indeed.

    • You know, it really is, Spade & Dagger. As you say, the wisdom comes too late for Taylor, most of the time. But it’s definitely there, and I’m glad you’ve mentioned the series. I didn’t know Bruen has a Ph.D. in Metaphysics! That’s fascinating. Little wonder that there is that wisdom woven through the novels.

  10. kathy d.

    How horrible what happened in New Zealand. My heart goes out to all the family and friends of the victims of this neo-Nazi. Time for solidarity and support.
    Paul Levine’s Lassiter and Solomon v. Lord books are hilarious. There are three. I just read “Bum Deal,” and was laughing out loud so often. I just bought two more online.
    But I think Donna Leon imparts a lot of wisdom through Guido Brunetti and Paola Falier. Sometimes her books are about ethics and the quest for justice and Brunetti ponders throughout the story. He always thinks about the human aspects of a case; it’s not just policing.

    • That’s quite true, Kathy. There is wisdom mixed in with the stories in Donna Leon’s work. And I’m glad you enjoy the Solomon & Lord series. I think they’re very witty, too.

  11. Success, I managed to get here at last. had to disable all sorts but here I am and I hope from now on I can continue to visit as before.

  12. Reblogged this on Jane Risdon and commented:
    Never boring, always informative and interesting, do drop into Margot Kinberg’s blog and find all things crime and writing. I just love it.

  13. I’m really tempted to say: we don’t need actual words of wisdom, just learn from excessive reading of crime novels that you should trust no-one, never go off without telling someone where you are going, watch out for personable members of the opposite sex, beware all trips in small boats, don’t borrow someone else’s distinctive coat/scarf/hat, watch out for food of uncertain provenance. Too many crime books makes the reader very suspicious!

    • Ha! That’s true, Moira! The more crime novels one reads, the more cautious one becomes. There are so many ways to fall into danger, aren’t there? Simple things like, charge your ‘phone, be sure you have fuel, if something seems too good to be true, go the other way. Fast. All of those are good pieces of advice we get when we read enough of the genre. I wonder how jaded that makes us as readers…

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