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.