At the Crossroads: Medieval Folklore and Practices

Walking between worlds has long been a theme in human beliefs, superstitions, and folklore. Spirits, otherwordly beings such as fairies, demons, and ghosts are often reported at the boundaries and edges of this realm and the next. Burial grounds, certain days of the year (Halloween, All Saints, Midsummer, Midwinter, for example), the boundaries between cultivated and wild land,are just some of the places where the supernatural may be encountered. Death can be viewed as the ultimate boundary.

It was also believed the spirits travel best in straight lines. Burial mounds, stone circles and the like are often connected by “avenues”. Labyrinths, mazes, knots and tangles (Native American “dream catchers”) were thought to confound and impede their comings and goings., which may be why labyrinthine symbols are often discovered at neolithic burial sites. Crossroads, at the center of which one finds oneself on two roads at once, are such places. The symbol of the cross itself may represent this duality.

A crossroads, then, particularly one located outside of town, was a place where one could encounter ghosts and demons. On the Isle of Man, people would sweep the crossing place at midnight to keep it clear of them. Witches were thought to hold their sabbaths there. In some cultures, offerings were left to appease malevolent spirits. The choice of four separate routes was believed to confuse ghosts, keeping them bewildered until the light of day forced their return to the grave. For this reason, suicides and suspected vampires were often buried near these spots, and gallows were sometimes erected there.

“Corpse ways”, or paths along which coffins were carried to the cemetery, were often straight, but sometimes passed over a crossroads. At this point, the bearers would set the coffin down and exchange positions at the corners of the bier, possibly symbolizing the reversal of life by death.

To argue at a crosswords is a sure invitation to misfortune.

If you take a three-legged stool to a crossroads in Scotland on Halloween when the church clock strikes midnight, you will hear the names of those parishioners who will die in the coming year. But if you take an article of clothing belonging to one of the doomed, at throw it in the air while calling out their name, you can save them. Also, if you listen to the wind, you will hear your own fortune.

Magical cures could also be attained at crossroads. To get rid of warts, some folks in England would rub the wart with a few wheat grains that were then left at the crossing. To avoid the ague, close to midnight you could turn yourself around three times, drive a nail into ground at the center, and walk away backwards before the striking of the clock, which would enable you to stay healthy, but the poor unsuspecting soul who first stepped over the nail would come down with the ague.

In the deep South of the United States, crossroads were held to be places where one could sell his soul to the devil in exchange for the granting of a wish, often for musical talent.

Just a few thoughts to ponder next time you’re sitting at a red light at a crossroads.

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It’s a Mystery: A Pale Horse, by Charles Todd

A Pale Horse (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #10)A Pale Horse by Charles Todd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.” Apocalypse.

Charles Todd continues exploring the hideous ramifications of war in this tenth Ian Rutledge mystery.  Four years after the end of WWI, Rutledge still suffers symptoms of PTSD, which are debilitating even though he manages his flashbacks quite well. The most prominent among his  symptoms is the voice of Hamish, a soldier whom Rutledge unwillingly ordered executed for refusing to follow orders. Hamish functions as a sort of conscience and sounding board , giving readers insight into Rutledge’s thoughts and emotional struggles.

In spite of those struggles, Rutledge is a fine detective, doing  a credible job with Scotland Yard, no thanks to his superior, Chief Superintendent Bowles. Now he’s sent to Berkshire to assist in a War Department search for a missing operative, Gaylord Partridge (really!) Partridge has been residing in a tiny village among eight misfits, who reside in a cluster of cottages originally built for lepers, at the foot of the famous iron age White Horse of Uffington. Though he’s not been briefed, Rutledge strongly suspects that Partridge participated in some top secret mission during the war. Muddying the waters is the discovery, within the ruins of  Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey, of a corpse wrapped in a hooded cloak, face covered with a gas mask. Though not a part of Rutledge’s assignment, that will prove to be the crucial piece of the puzzle.

Populated with an array of interesting characters, some quite complex and all very real,  and set in one of England’s most mysterious locales, A Pale Horse is a layer cake of secret upon secret, some interrelated and some discrete.  If it weren’t so tightly plotted, following this investigation might have been a bit confusing. As more murders and several arsons occur, Rutledge has an ever increasing abundance of connections to sort through while trying not to tread on the toes of the local police.

The Inspector Rutledge series has a prominent place among the more literary mysteries in the genre, and A Pale Horse definitely fits well into that place; it’s an intelligent, socially relevant novel with resonance in today’s world, where war, business, political secrets, and yes, PTSD,  play such  a large role.

It’s a Mystery: The Bones of Paris, by Laurie R. King

The Bones of Paris (Harris Stuyvesant, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Laurie King transports her readers to Jazz Age Paris in the second entry in her Harris Stuyvesant series. Harry is still trying to recover from a long defunct romance, so he accepts a request to look into the disappearance of Philippa Crosby, with whom he had a brief fling on the Riviera. Pip, as she’s known, has been skirting the fringes of the Parisian demi-monde , modeling for artists such as Man Ray and hobnobbing with Hemingway and his cronies. The surreal and macabre nature of some of her belongings disturb Harry initially.  But when he traces Pip’s activities to the Theatre du Grand-Guignol, a venue famous for its depraved and violent presentations, his concerns skyrocket.

Stuyvesant is a morose, rather cynical character, and when his lost love, Sarah,  turns up in the company of Man Ray, it throws him; as a result Harry throws himself into the seamy, often secretive midnight bar scene frequented by artists and writers. Interestingly, he’s developed a real attraction to Pip’s flatmate, but his dark mood and careless habits threaten to wreck the relationship before it begins. During the course of his investigation, he finds himself immersed in a subculture that meets in Paris’ infamous catecombs to celebrate the cult of “death pornography”. Harry begins to receive messages meant to encourage him to quit the search, and when he persists, his casual mistress is shot to death on the streets. Harry connects with a city detective who, because of Harry’s former association with J. Edgar Hoover, is willing to work with him, undercover, bien sur. To their horror, many more young women have disappeared.

The appeal of this novel lies in its ambience, the view it provides into the dark underside of the City of Light. The investigation itself is rather slow, with a shot of real suspense saved for the final chapters. It’s fun to encounter the rich and famous, though the only ones portrayed in any depth are Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray. Harry himself, in spite of his self-defeating choices, is likable for his humanity and genuine sense of justice. King’s writing, of course, is good as ever.  Not a “page turner”, but did keep my interest from start to finish.

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It’s a Mystery: Surrender, New York, by Caleb Carr

Surrender, New York

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disgraced criminologist Dr. Trajan Jones, formerly of the NYPD, has set up shop with his business partner/friend, Dr. Mike Li, in the village of Surrender in upstate New York, where the duo teaches online forensic science courses and takes on private cases for investigation. Trajan bases his methods on those of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, protagonist of author Carr’s fine breakout novels, The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness. Having lost a leg to cancer in his youth, Jones has psychological issues of his own and must deal with constant pain and the possibility of relapse. As a character, he shares much in common with Sherlock Holmes, including the annoying traits of arrogance and irascibility. As the novel’s narrator, Trajan is also prone digressing into lengthy lectures about science, literature, and human foibles. Mike Li, on the other hand, is relatively free of heavy baggage, and is much more genuine colleague than Dr. Watson ever was, though he does offer a sense of humor and steady emotional support and when needed.

The complex plot is replete with other colorful characters, most notably the irrepressible, teenaged “consulting detective Lucas, and Marcianna, the beloved cheetah that Trajan rescued from an abusive petting zoo. Both provide relief from the intensity of Trajan and Mike’s current case, which involves the deaths of a series of “throwaway children”, homeless kids left behind when their parents simply deserted them. It soon becomes clear that the Empire State’s senior politicos understand the depth of this problem but simply don’t care, preferring to cover it up. Trajan and Mike determine to rectify this situation no matter whom they must take down and how much resistance they encounter.

Plot, setting, and characters blend well together, but at times not well enough to overcome the novel’s shortcomings. One is its heavy use of profanity, especially the f word, which peppers every chapter regardless of who is talking. Trajan is also overly fond of the word “indeed” and the use of convoluted sentences when simpler and shorter ones would do just as well. Finally, the book is just too long, and the many suspenseful and/or gruesome scenes are interspersed with passages overloaded with detail.

It’s a Mystery: X, by Sue Grafton

X (Kinsey Millhone, #24)X by Sue Grafton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

X is for _____? Sue Grafton is famous for her alphabet series, with each letter standing for the particular crime being investigated by intrepid PI Kinsey Milhone. It seems that Ms. Grafton’s failure to choose an x word has disgruntled many of her fans. Actually, trying to figure out what it might be is part of the fun of reading X. It could stand for Xenakis, XLNT, X wife, and various other possibilities.

In Kinsey’s 24th case, she tackles 3 separate issues. The book opens with a phone call from a woman wanting her to track her son, recently released from prison for bank robbery. Kinsey takes the job only to find that the woman is an imposter who stiffed her on her fee. The second part of the case revolves around Pete Wolinsky, a colleague who factored in several earlier novels but was recently shot to death. Pete’s widow requests Kinsey’s assistance in organizing his tax documents in preparation for an audit. Before his death, he had been working on gathering evidence against one of his clients, who had a propensity for abusing women. Being Kinsey, she is compelled to finish this work for him. The third situation involves some new neighbors who raise Kinsey’s ire, and who are not what they seem.

Anyone who has written 24 successful novels featuring the same character must be good a devising plots, and Ms. Grafton certainly has that talent, weaving unrelated people and events into one cohesive tale. But these books, which rely upon continuity, are never redundant. Unlike some others, Kinsey remains true to herself and loyal to friends while growing from her experiences and relationships, and she is one of the most deeply moral characters in the genre. Best of all, ancillary characters are nearly as well developed, particularly those who play recurring roles. Each book has its suspenseful scenes that never go over the top, and in X, Grafton has provided the best stream of consciousness example of the experience of being suffocated that I’ve ever read.

Looking forward to Y, and hoping that Sue Grafton doesn’t retire from writing when this series reaches Z.

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It’s a Mystery: The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth Galloway is a skilled forensic archaeologist working in Norfolk, England, the site of many iron age and Roman settlements. Ruth is single, stubborn, and tough, and now, she’s pregnant. The father is Detective Harry Nelson, as stubborn and tough as Ruth, and married. As she’s struggling to decide if and when to tell him, Ruth is called to examine the skeleton of a child found buried under a doorway at a demolition site where Roman ruins have been uncovered. An ancient sacrifice to the god Janus, or the more recent burial of a murder victim? The case gets even more perplexing when a second child skeleton is unearthed, this one without its head, and when the skull is found in an old well, things become downright sinister.
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Elly Griffiths has turned out a complex plot rich with intriguing characters, some recurrent and others case-related. Her Norfolk is a watery, frequently misty county with just the right atmosphere for a murder mystery and she seamlessly works in lots of mythology and folklore. The tension ramps up incrementally for both Ruth and Harry, personally and professionally, and there is no shortage of possible perpetrators with viable motives. The final chase scene is masterful. The book has one major flaw, in that even after being on the receiving end of multiple threats, the usually intelligent and rational Ruth continues to return to the dig site alone at odd hours of the day. But it’s worth overlooking in favor of enjoying a gripping first rate mystery.

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Historical Fiction: The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1943, Florence. The Nazis are losing their grip on Italy, and the invasion of the Allies is immanent. The aristocratic Rosati family, led by patriarch Antonio, have two sons in the Italian army, and are hoping that the winds of war will pass peacefully over their estate, the Villa Chimera. But as the Nazis gear up for the invasion, they commandeer the villa and surrounding property, and much to the chagrin of the Rosati sons, their father takes the path of least resistance. No one is pleased when 18 year old Christina falls hard for one of the German lieutenants.

1955, Florence. The brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, a war widow who also lost her children, takes place, during which her throat is cut and her heart torn from her body. Only a few days later, her mother in law becomes a victim, her heart left in a box for the tourists to find on the Ponte Vecchio. The case is assigned to Investigator Serafina Bettine, who served as a partisan in the war and nearly died from severe burns during the final stand at Villa Chimera. From this point forward, The Light in the Ruins alternates between the two time periods, as Serafina attempts to track down and identify the serial killer.

There is much to be admired in this novel, in its evocation of times past, of the idyllic Italian countryside, and in its depiction of the brutality and horrors of wartime. Its characters are finely drawn, especially those of Serafina, Christina, and the German commander, Decher. All of the characters struggle over painful moral dilemmas; should Antonio be accommodating the Nazi occupiers? Should Italian art treasures be shipped off the Germany without resistance? What role should civilians play, or pay, in wartime? It is in the plotting of what is essentially a murder mystery that the book fails to deliver. What ought to be a gripping serial killer investigation falls short in the suspense department, even though it’s difficult to guess who the perpetrator might be.

At its best, the work of Chris Bojalian is mesmerizing, and in sections, The Light in the Ruins lives up to that standard. As a mystery, however, it is far from compelling.

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