Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime*

One of the joys of reading is learning as you read. Of course, most readers don’t want ‘information dump,’ so authors need to be thoughtful when they use their research. But lots of us like to learn new things, whether it’s about history, scrapbooking, a particular sport, the law, or something else.

Good crime fiction is no different to any other genre when it comes to what you can learn by reading. I can only speak for the things I’ve learned, but I’m sure that you can give many more examples than I ever could.

For instance, if you read this blog at all regularly, you’ll know I’m a big fan of Agatha Christie’s work. She used her knowledge of chemistry and her experience working at a dispensary to create some clever fictional poison murders. For instance, pure nicotine is the weapon in Three Act Tragedy, coniine is used in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), and morphine tartrate does the job in Hickory Dickory Dock. In the course of reading these books, I’ve learned some interesting things about chemicals and their properties, and how they can be used as poison. Some of what I learned has made its way into my own writing (but not, rest assured, my cooking!). But even if I weren’t a writer, I’d have found that aspect of Christie’s work fascinating.

You might not think that banking and finance are interesting, but I learned a lot about them from the Emma Lathen team’s John Putnam Thatcher series. Thatcher is a vice-president for the international bank Sloan Guaranty Trust. Of course, some things about banking have changed quite a lot since this series was written. There weren’t ATMs, online banking, or credit cards with chip readers when the series began, although those things did become available as the later books in the series were written. There are other things, like mergers, counterfeiting, embezzlement, offshore tax havens, and other aspects of banking that haven’t changed, much, though. And this series explores those aspects of banking and finance in ways that make them accessible to people who aren’t sophisticated when it comes to banking.

Tony Hillerman’s novels take place mostly in the southwestern part of the US; many of them are set among the Navajo people. His main characters, Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn, are both members of the Navajo Nation, and of the Navajo Tribal (now Nation) Police. Throughout the novels, Hillerman shared much about the Navajo way of life and history, all of it within the context of the characters and stories. From reading Hillerman’s work, I’ve learned a great deal about Navajo history, language, customs, and more. And the series includes these things without making the Navajo people out to be objects of curiosity or of condescension. In fact, he received a special tribute from the Navajo community for his respectful and thoughtful portrayal of their lives.

It’s not surprising that the law and court system play big roles in a lot of crime fiction. And, of course, there are lots of novels that feature lawyers as protagonists. The good ones show how the law works and give realistic portraits of what it’s like to be in that profession. Of course, the law doesn’t work the same way everywhere. Through reading crime fiction, I’ve learned a little about how it works in a few different places. Authors like Scott Turow, John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, William Deverell, Robert Rotenberg, John Mortimer and Sarah Caudwell have given me a lot of insight on the way the legal system operates, the way lawyers do their jobs, and the way cases move through the court system. And these are only a few examples!

There are a number of novels set in the world of sport. And while I know a little about some sports, I know almost nothing about cricket. That changed after reading Jock Serong’s The Rules of Backyard Cricket. It’s the story of brothers Wally and Darren Keefe, who grow up in the Melbourne suburb of Altona. Both are obsessed with cricket, and play the game whenever they get the chance. And both happen to have talent for the game. There the similarities end, though. Wally is focused and disciplined, determined to be the best, and dedicated to practicing all the time to hone his skills. Darren has once-in-a-generation talent, but is less inhibited than his brother, and less disciplined. When he is on his game, he is superb, but he’s not consistent. As the two brothers grow up, we see how their personalities impact their relationship with each other, and the things that happen to them. As they become professionals, they start to encounter the dark side of cricket. This, too, impacts them, and plays a role in the story’s outcome (to say more about it would be spoiling the book). Throughout the novel, Serong provides interesting information about cricket. Yet, it doesn’t overwhelm the story or take away from it.

I’ve learned quite a lot from other crime novels,  too – much more than there is room for in this post. And yet, the best crime novels don’t overwhelm the reader with lots of facts. The emphasis is on plot and characters. What are some of the things you’ve learned about from reading crime fiction? Horse racing? Baking? Genealogy? TV broadcasting?

 

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

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

12 thoughts on “Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime*

  1. I love the John Putnam Thatcher series, and one of the reasons is what I learn about banking and the various businesses he visits. Yes, they are out of date, but like you say, some things are timeless. I have only read one Tony Hillerman book and I want to read more to expand my knowledge of Navajo history and culture. Same for the William Kent Krueger books, where I learn about northern Minnesota and the Anishinaabe culture.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning the Krueger books, Tracy. I’d like to read more of them, too. There’s just never time to read it all, is there? And I do recommend Tony Hillerman’s work when you get the chance. He was so talented, and added a great deal to the genre. And as for the John Putnam Thatcher series, I like the way the authors added in information about banking and finance without drowning the reader in it. That takes skill.

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  2. I am not sure that I have learned any skills but I definitely have picked up information and perspectives, particularly in works that portray other cultures than my own.

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    1. That’s how I feel about it, too, Aidan. I’ve learned a lot of new ways of thinking and seeing the world. And that’s to say nothing of the insights and background on other cultures.

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  3. Margot, since I read a lot of action thrillers and espionage novels, I have learnt quite a bit about real wars and conflicts in different parts of the world, such as Northern Ireland, Vietnam, the Middle East and Afghanistan. What I read in fiction about these issues, to my mind, is more or less factual and the way things might have actually happened. It’s like reading nonfiction within fiction, so to speak.

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    1. I know exactly what you mean, Prashant, and I’ve had a similar experience. When I read novels that take place against a war/conflict backdrop, I learn some of the subtleties of that conflict – the things they don’t teach you at school. That’s especially true (at least for me) when I read about a conflict that I don’t know much about, or haven’t heard of before.

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  4. Too much to mention in one comment, but let’s see… Last week, I traveled to Africa and worked in a rehabilitation/conservation center where they rescue wildlife, injured or orphaned by poachers — ZURI by Ruth Harris. This morning, I spent time at a family reunion and learned about Jewish wedding traditions — CROWDED HEARTS by Debbie Burke. Oh, and two days ago I learned all kinds of magic and how to kill a ghoul — The Hat by C.S. Boyack. LOL It’s been an exciting couple of weeks! Earlier this year, I traveled back to the days of Jack the Ripper and learned so many fascinating tidbits about the case and Victorian England (still got a few broken cobblestones in my shoes) — THE CURSE SHE WORE by Jordan Dane.

    Every time I crack open a Tony Hillerman book, I marvel at the beauty of the Diné (Navajo) people and their customs. So much so, he inspired me to incorporate similar (but different!) elements in one of my series. Hillerman painted such a vivid portrait of Diné culture, finding things he hadn’t mentioned was no easy feat. 🙂

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    1. I’m sure it wasn’t, Sue! Hillerman shared so much of that culture, those traditions and those beliefs, didn’t he? And I can see how you were inspired by those books.

      Thanks for sharing some of your recent reading adventures. It sounds as though you’ve done quite a lot of traveling and learning lately! I always feel that way, though, when I read a good book. Whether it’s a new recipe, a set of traditions, some geographic features of a place, or interesting background in psychology (to name just a few), I learn when I read. It’s one of the great things about reading, as I see it.

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  5. Most of what I know about the Tudor era comes from CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series – I’d read the history books, but his fiction brought it to life so that it sticks in my mind better. And Megan Abbott took me deep into the world of cheerleading in Dare Me – something that, as a Brit, I knew very little about. She inspired me to spend many happy hours watching videos on youtube, and made me realise that there was so much more to it than twirling sticks and waving pom-poms!

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    1. You know, I almost mentioned the Sansom series, FictionFan, but then I didn’t, so I’m so glad you did. I’ve learned an awful lot from those books, too, about the Tudor era. Sansom has a way of sharing a great deal of information without it feeling like ‘information dump.’ And the smaller details he shares bring that era more alive. As for cheerleading, it is a lot more than sticks and pom-poms. I’m no expert about the sport, either, so it really was interesting to go ‘behind the scenes’ in Dare Me. It’s so interesting the knowledge we don’t have depending on where we grow up. For example, it was years before I understood the difference between a barrister and a solicitor; it’s a different structure in the US.

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  6. I love the Emma Lathen books too, and found them very informative.
    Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books are full of information about archaeology and related matters such as folklore – one of the many reasons for loving that series.

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    1. Yes! I always learn something about archaeology from the Elly Griffith books, Moira! And certain things about history, too, which I find fascinating. She is such a talented writer, isn’t she? And I think the Lathen books don’t always get the attention they should. They’ve got some good, solid mysteries and really interesting information in them. How else could banking and finance be made so absorbing and engaging?

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