A lot of us have developed certain habits that have become routine over time. We stop at the same coffee shop a few mornings a week, or we go to the grocery store at the same time each week, or we go to the gym on the same day(s) each week. Those habits help give our lives some structure, and many people find that to be comforting. I don’t know about you, but I know I have those sorts of routines.
Those habits can also be helpful when a crime has been committed. If police want to know someone’s whereabouts, they can find out that person’s normal routine and try to trace the person that way. In the case of a missing person, knowing someone’s habits is an important part of finding out exactly when the person might have gone missing, and where that person might have gone.
In crime fiction, habits are a useful way to set a scene (some of the characters gather every morning for coffee at a particular place, for instance). They can also be helpful in leaving clues and ‘red herrings.’ And those habits are realistic, so they can make characters seem more believable.
In Agatha Christie’s short story Four and Twenty Blackbirds, for example, Hercule Poirot is dining with a friend one evening. He happens to notice another diner eating by himself, and finds out that this man – the waitstaff doesn’t know his name – eats at this same restaurant at the same time every Tuesday and Thursday. He’s one of the ‘regulars,’ so when he doesn’t show up one evening when he’s ‘supposed to,’ it’s a matter of curiosity. And it gets Poirot involved a puzzling case.
Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire is a widower with an adult daughter, and not the sort of person who does a lot of cooking for himself. So he has a habit of eating at the Busy Bee Café. It’s convenient (right near his office and the local jail), and he likes the food. The owner, Dorothy Caldwell, knows just about all of her customers, including Longmire. She almost always knows what he’s likely to order, and she knows his habits. So it’s a comfortable place for him. The Bee is also a good place to find out the local gossip, so Longmire usually learns things when he’s there. And, since the café is one of the local watering holes, Longmire also uses it for informal meetings when he wants to talk to someone he knows is likely to be there.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran is a journalist who lives in the small town of Pickax, in Moose County (‘400 miles north of nowhere’). He not married, although for much of the series, he’s in a relationship with the local library director, Polly Duncan. He’s a creature of habit, as many of us are, and has his regular ‘stops’ as he goes through the week. One of them is Toodles’ Market, where his does both his own and Polly’s grocery shopping. The other is Lois’ Luncheonette. The owner, Lois Inchpot, knows Qwilleran, and always lets him know when the daily special is something he particularly likes. She also makes sure to save some turkey or chicken for his two Siamese cats. As one of her ‘regulars,’ he also gets to hear the local gossip, which is often very useful when he’s looking for information.
Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Salvo Montalbano will know that he enjoys good food. He appreciates the subtlety of fine cooking, too. One of his regular stops is the Trattoria San Calogero. The owner (who’s also the chef) knows him, knows his tastes in food, and knows he’s a gourmand. He’s a ‘regular,’ and a valued customer, so the owner sometimes bends the rules for him. In The Terra Cotta Dog, for instance, Montalbano arrives at the trattoria just as they’re closing. But he’s told,
‘We’re always open for you, Inspector,’
and he’s served generously.
Being a creature habit can mean your ‘regular’ drink being ready when you walk in, or a grocery manager telling you when one of your preferred brands is on a good sale. But it can also get you in trouble. In one plot thread of Mark Billingham’s Their Little Secret, for instance, we are introduced to Sarah, who’s recently joined one of a group of parents who meet at drop-off and pick-up times at their children’s school. Several of them have a habit of gathering after drop-off at the local coffee shop for a chat and a chance to unwind a bit before going on with their days. Everyone in the group knows everyone, although as the story goes on, we learn that not everything is as it seems. The coffee shop habit gives these parents an informal support group, as well as a source of all kinds of helpful tips and recommendations. Sarah’s story intertwines with another major plot thread, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Thorne’s search for the murderer of several women, and the con artist who stole their money and might be responsible for their deaths.
It’s natural to have a set of habits and regular stops as we go through our lives. Those things are comfortable and become part of our routines. They can also be interesting aspects of character development, and can add solid plot points, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s Belle.