As any crime fiction fan can tell you, the setting for a novel can add as much to the suspense of a story as anything else. Take islands for instance. There are lots and lots of crime fiction novels that take place on islands and if you think about it, it’s not really surprising. Islands offer a kind of “closed” atmosphere that can add to the suspense of a story. After all, if there’s a murderer on an island there aren’t as many places to escape as there on a mainland. And an island also offers a sense of claustrophobia that can add to the suspense in a story too. Islands are also subject to weather extremes and that can add a layer of tension as well. There isn’t space in this one post to mention all of the “island-themed” crime fiction there is; I’ll just make reference to a few novels to show you what I mean.
Agatha Christie uses the island setting in several of her novels and short stories. Perhaps the best-known are A Caribbean Mystery, And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) and Evil Under the Sun. In all of these novels a disparate group of people is brought together for what’s supposed to be a holiday or at least a break from normal life. In A Caribbean Mystery Miss Marple’s generous nephew arranges for her to take a holiday in the West Indies. There she meets Major Palgrave who tells her the story of a man who was married twice and lost both of his wives to what was said to be suicide. The next morning Major Palgrave is dead and it’s not long before Miss Marple suspects that someone on the island is connected with the case Major Palgrove was describing and doesn’t want the truth to come out. In And Then There Were None, arguably the darkest of the three novels, ten people travel to Indian Island off the Devon coast, each for a different reason. When everyone arrives and settles, they are all accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. Then one by one the guests begin to die. The survivors now have to figure out who the murderer among them is before everyone is killed. Evil Under the Sun is the story of the murder of Arlena Stuart Marshall, a well-known actress with a reputation as a “man eater.” This novel takes place mostly at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay, where Marshall, her husband Kenneth and her stepdaughter Linda have gone for a holiday. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel and as it happens he’s possibly the last one to see the victim alive. So he works with Colonel Weston to find out which of the other guests is the murderer. In all of these novels the island setting brings together a group of people who otherwise might not be gathered (that’s even specifically mentioned in Evil Under the Sun). That fact adds much to the plots actually. So does the “closed” setting. And although the weather isn’t a major plot point in Evil Under the Sun or A Caribbean Mystery, it certainly is in And Then There Were None.
A great deal of the action in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead also takes place on an island, in this case a private island owned by Kane “King” Bendigo. In that novel Queen and his father Inspector Richard Queen are summoned peremptorily to Bendigo Island to investigate a series of threatening notes that Bendigo has received. Neither Queen really wants to go but it’s made clear to them that this is a “command performance” because Bendigo’s a very powerful munitions dealer and has quite a lot of “clout” with various governments. When the Queens arrive on Bendigo Island they discover that it’s virtually an armed encampment. Bendigo lives there with his wife Karla and his brothers Judah and Abel. The rest of the residents are closely-supervised factory workers and a large and well-supplied security force. One night Bendigo is shot while he and his wife are closed up in his private office which is hermetically sealed and seemingly impregnable. The most likely suspect is Judah Bendigo, who had already threatened his brother and who actually fired the weapon used in the shooting. But Judah was with Queen at the time of the murder. Besides, the gun he fired wasn’t loaded when he fired it. Now the Queens quite literally have a locked-room mystery to solve. Queen discovers that the root of the mystery lies in the Bendigos’ home town of Wrightsville so he travels there to uncover the past events that led to what happens on Bendigo Island and in the end, he puts together the pieces of the mystery.
Ann Cleeves’ Shetland Quartet is a set of novels set in different places in Scotland’s Shetland Islands. The novels feature Inspector Jimmy Perez, who was worn and raised on Fair Isle but lived and worked in Aberdeen until he returned to the Shetlands. In all four of the novels Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones and Blue Lightning, Cleeves makes use of the tendency for islands to become insular. There’s a real gulf between the locals, many of whom have lived there all their lives, and incomers. And because of the insularity of islands they also often hold secrets. Those secrets and the network of relationships among the islanders play important roles in this series. So does the unpredictable weather. Storms, snow, autumn rain and fog all figure into the ways in which this set of stories play out.
Another series that takes place on an island is Johan Theorin’s Öland series. Those novels (so far Echoes From the Dead, The Darkest Room and The Quarry) all have to do with past tragedies and other mysteries that affect the present. They also feature a focus on the inter-relationships among the islanders and the realities of living in a place that depends heavily on the sea. Oh, and there’s the delightful Gerlof Davidsson, who’s lived there all his life and who knows just about everyone. In fact he’s what you might call a repository of island history and his knowledge is often key to solving the mysteries in this series.
Simon Beckett’s Written in Bone plays out on Runa, a remote island in the Outer Hebrides. In that novel forensic anthropologist David Hunter is called to Runa when the remains of a woman are found in a burned out building. Her death was meant to look like a tragic accidental burning but Hunter soon establishes that she was murdered. Now the task is to identify her and find out who murdered her and why. As he investigates, Hunter discovers that the island of Runa is hiding several secrets and as an incomer, he’s not going to be privy to them without digging deeper.
There are lots of other novels and series that feature islands (I’m thinking for instance of Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez novels which are set on Mallorca). It’s easy to see why. Island settings can be exotic and even when they aren’t they offer a “closed” context, some terrific opportunities for deep, dark secrets and good places too for all sorts of people to gather. Which are your favourite “island mysteries?”
ps. The ‘photo was taken on the lovely island of Aruba, which I can recommend for a quiet holiday. I promise – when I was there, there were no murders.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Weezer’s Island in the Sun.