Many people have regular rituals that help them stay connected with others. It may be Sunday roast at the parents’ or in-laws’ home; it may be visiting parents or grandparents in a care home; it may be a weekly card game or trip to the wine bar, or it may be something else. Whatever the ritual may be, it’s a way of keeping in contact with the people in our lives. Those rituals are also ways to preserve some order during a chaotic time.
Rituals are enough of a part of our lives that it’s no surprise we see them in crime fiction. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Mirror, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore. In the letter, Chevenix-Gore claims that he’s being cheated by someone in his inner circle, and he wants Poirot to find out who it is. Poirot’s a bit put off by Chevenix-Gore’s peremptory tone, but he goes to the family home. He soon learns that his host is very particular about the dinner ritual. Everyone is expected to be waiting in the drawing room when the dinner gong is sounded at eight o’clock. Lateness is not tolerated, and guests who do arrive late are not asked to the house again. So, it’s a bit of a shock when Chevenix-Gore isn’t in the drawing room when the dinner gong sounds. Not long afterwards, his body is found in his study. At first, it looks like suicide; in fact, that’s what Chief Inspector Japp thinks. But little clues suggest otherwise, and Poirot finds out that more than one person might have wanted the victim dead.
Arthur Porges’ short story Horse-Collar Homicide features the ‘blueblood’ Lakewood family, headed by tyrannical patriarch Leonard Bugg Lakewood. He is very drawn to old-fashioned customs, including old games; and, because of the family dynamics, his family participates in these rituals whether they want to or don’t. Once a year or more, he gets everyone together, and members of the family are expected to compete for prizes. This time, the game he’s chosen is an old one in which a horse-collar is suspended from a barn rafter, and contestants take turns putting their heads through the collar and making funny faces. The one who gets the most laughs is the winner. On the night of the competition, Lakewood is taking his turn at the horse-collar when he suddenly collapses and dies. Dr. Joel Hoffman is called to the scene, and soon learns that this was a well-planned murder.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets an unusual case. Wealthy heiress Charity Wiser claims that a member of her family is trying to kill her. She wants Quant to find out who her enemy is. In order to do that, she invites him to join the family for a long yacht cruise, so that he can ‘vet’ the members and work out who the would-be killer is. Quant soon finds out that family get-togethers are regular rituals for the Wiser clan. At each gathering, Charity finds a way to humiliate the members of the family. No-one enjoys these get-togethers, but everyone knows that not joining in would be far worse. During the cruise, there’s another attempt on Charity’s life. And then there’s a death. As Quant searches for answers, he finds that more than one member of the family deeply resented Charity and her insistence on these rituals.
Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are features TV presenter Frank Allcroft. He happy enough with his job, and he loves his wife and his eight-year-old daughter. But he’s at a crossroads, and a bit at loose ends. He’s also unsettled by the death of his predecessor, Phil Smedway, who was killed in a hit-and-run incident. Partly as a way of helping himself to focus and get some purpose, Allcroft decides to find out what happened to Smedway. It turns out that his death wasn’t as clear-cut as it seemed. In one plot thread of the novel, Allcroft is also concerned about his mother. She’s recently had to move into a care home, and she’s having trouble settling in. The Allcrofts are trying to build new rituals, like visiting her in the care home every week, but things are not going as smoothly as everyone had hoped. Still, Allcroft wants the best for his mother, and he keeps up the visits, to be sure she has what she needs.
And then there’s Martin Walker’s Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, who serves as chief of police in the small French town of St. Denis. The town is in the Périgord, and food – good food – is an important part of town life. The weekly market is an essential part of the town’s regular life. Buyers and sellers interact, food is shared and discussed, and everyone enjoys the chance to gossip and catch up with one another’s lives. Market Day has been an important part of St. Denis’ culture for a very long time, and everyone depends on it. As you can imagine, no-one is particularly happy at the EU authorities’ attempt to regulate how food is made, bought, and sold in town, and the people of St. Denis find some innovative ways to make their feelings clear. It’s an interesting look at how important regular get-together rituals can be.
And they really are important. Research shows that we benefit greatly by keeping in contact with others. And rituals like Sunday roast, ‘girls’ night out,’ and poker nights are ways to keep those relationships in our lives. Little wonder they’re also in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Moody Blues’ Lazy Day.