They Tell of All the Old Tales*

There are some stories (legends, if you prefer) that are deeply woven into a community (and perhaps even more widespread than that). Even people who aren’t at all superstitious listen to the tales and perhaps avoid a certain house, or don’t go to certain other places. It’s not that they actually believe the legends. But those tales are so ingrained that it’s hard to ignore them. Stories and legends like that turn up in crime fiction, too, and it’s interesting see the roles they play.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dr. James Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to look into a strange mystery surrounding the Baskerville family. As the story goes, in the 1600s, Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in return for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. Since that time, the family seems to have been haunted by a phantom hound. Certainly there’ve been some strange deaths in the family, the most recent being Sir Charles Baskerville. Now, a new Baskerville is coming from Canada to assume leadership of the family, and Mortimer is concerned about the curse, even though he’s not a particularly fanciful person. Holmes is unable to leave London just then, so he delegates the investigation to Dr. Watson. It’s interesting to see how that story of a phantom hound has become woven into the local lore, and there are plenty of people who believe that the new Baskerville is just as cursed as the rest of the family has been.

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun takes place at the Jolly Roger Hotel, on Leathercombe Bay. Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife, Arlena, and his daughter, Linda, have come to the hotel for what’s supposed to be a pleasant summer holiday. It doesn’t turn out that way, though. Arlena (Stuart) Marshall is a notorious actress who soon begins a not-very-well hidden affair with another guest. One day, she is found strangled at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. The most natural suspect is, of course, her husband. But he has an alibi that’s substantiated by more than one person. So the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. Hercule Poirot is staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the murderer is. In a few places in the story, there’s talk of pixies, and the way they are said to lead people astray. It’s not spoiling the story to say that pixies are not responsible for Arlena Marshall’s death. But it’s interesting to see how people pass those legends along, even if they don’t really believe them.

Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire is the sheriff of fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Some of his territory is wilderness, and it can be dangerous. There are stories there of the Old Cheyenne, long-dead warriors who take people back with them to the Camp of the Dead. They’re said to haunt the mountains, and even a rifle which plays an important role in the first Longmire novel, The Cold Dish. The stories have gone around for a long time, and there are people who believe them. Walt Longmire is not a superstitious person, nor is he particularly spiritual – well, not in the sense most people think of when they hear that term. But he’s had his own experiences that make him not so quick to dismiss the Old Cheyenne as a silly campfire tale. He doesn’t go around sharing his experiences; he knows where that would likely lead. But he knows what he’s seen and what’s happened to him.

Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour takes place mostly in the French Alps. The residents of the towns of Ventebrune and Pierrefor have become unsettled by a series of deaths of sheep. They’ve all been found with their throats slashed, and at first, people think a wolf must be in the area. But there are those who believe that these deaths are the work of a werewolf, especially after a breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found killed in the same way. Some people even believe they know who the werewolf is: a loner named Auguste Massart. Massart’s gone missing, though, so the villagers try to track him down. They can’t find him, so they ask Chief Inspector Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg to investigate. In this novel, that eerie atmosphere of half-belief (or even complete belief) in a creature like a werewolf adds to the tension.

Reykjavík attorney Thóra Guðmundsdóttir encounters an old legend in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take. Her new client, Jónas Júlíusson, is the owner of a New Age health spa/resort. He wants to sue the former landowners, because he believes that the land is haunted. His claim is that the former owners knew that, but didn’t inform him. Thóra herself doesn’t believe in ghosts, or in the old legend about the land being haunted. But she is interested in the fee, and taking the case will mean an all-expense trip to the spa. So, she agrees to work with Jónas. She finds that people do believe the legend, but she hasn’t gotten very far in her work when there’s a murder. The body of fellow spa guest Birna Hálldorsdóttir is discovered on a beach not far from the resort. The police begin an investigation, and it’s not long before Jónas becomes a suspect. He asks Thóra to defend him, and she agrees. As she looks into the matter, she learns that this murder is connected to a long-ago disappearance, and that it’s all connected to the legend that the place is haunted.

It’s interesting how those stories and legends can be tied up with local culture and beliefs. Even people who don’t believe in the stories sometimes still prefer not to push their luck as the saying goes. And those legends can add a solid layer of setting and context to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Allison O’Donnell’s Song of the Gael.

12 thoughts on “They Tell of All the Old Tales*

  1. Holmes is a huge favourite of mine, and I often find the stories have a little frisson of terror built in – Conan Doyle was brilliant at ratching up the tension, and he did love legends and events from the past spilling over into modern stories!


    1. He did, indeed, KBR! I can see why, too; some of them are deliciously creepy – great for mystery stories. You’re right, too, about his ability to build up tension and suspense. He did it, too, with very little violence, especially compared to more modern stories. I give him a lot of credit for that.

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  2. An interesting theme. As I started the post I thought of Craig Johnson. I am glad you mentioned the mystical Old Cheyenne. As I finished I recalled The Skull Mantra by Elior Pattison in which stories and legends from the Tibetan mountains are very real to those who live in the high mountains.


  3. Not that I’ve read many of them, and not for too many years either, but Tony Hillerman’s books seem relevant to the post.


    1. They are, indeed, relevant, Col. In fact, I was going to use Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, which includes an interesting old legend, but I didn’t at the last minute, so I’m glad you brought up Hillerman’s work.


  4. Great post, Margot. I think you’re right, there are people who may not be superstitious but at the same time they don’t want to push their luck as you say. This makes for intrigue in a story for me because you begin to wonder are they changing their minds, has this event caused them to think differently.


    1. Oh, now that’s an interesting question, Mason! People who aren’t particularly superstitious do sometimes respect those old legends and stories, and it’s fascinating to consider what makes them change their minds. Why in those particular circumstances do they do that? That’s something I hadn’t thought deeply about, so thanks for the ‘food for thought.’


  5. It’s not spoiling the story to say that pixies are not responsible for Arlena Marshall’s death.

    Evil Under the Sun is one of Christie’s best. How she fools us!


  6. Some great choices here! I love The Hound, mainly because Watson gets to be the star and he’s my real hero. I haven’t read My Soul to Take, but I can imagine Sigurdardottir having fun with a haunting – she often has a spooky element in her books and she does it so well.


    1. Thanks, FictionFan! You know, I’m fond of Watson, too. As brilliant as Holmes is, the stories would be much less without Watson. And as for Yrsa, I couldn’t agree more. She does weave an eerie atmosphere, doesn’t she?

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