Today would have been Bram Stoker’s 165th birthday. Interesting enough factoid, but why bring it up on this crime-fictional blog? After all his most famous novel Dracula isn’t, strictly speaking, crime fiction. And no, I’m not going to mention novels with vampires in them. Promise. The fact is, Dracula is a very well-known example of the Gothic tradition in literature, and it’s interesting to see how elements of that tradition have found their way into crime fiction. People disagree about what counts as the Gothic tradition, but a quick look at crime fiction will show I think that it’s a definite presence in the genre.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, is the story of the Baskerville family. Sir Charles Baskerville is found dead one day in the park of the family manor. Family friend Mr. Mortimer believes that Baskerville fell victim to an old family curse: a demon in the shape of a hound. The curse is said to have been brought on the family by an ancestor Sir Hugo Baskerville, who sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he’d become infatuated. Mr. Mortimer is afraid that the curse will claim another victim when Sir Henry Baskerville comes from Canada to claim his title. Mortimer asks Sherlock Holmes to look into the curse and the family history, and he agrees. At Holmes’ request, Dr. Watson travels to Baskerville Hall to do the ‘legwork’ on the case, and later, Holmes himself goes there. In the end, Holmes discovers that Sir Charles’ death had nothing to do with a family curse. In this novel, we have the family history, the dark atmosphere and so on that we see in a lot of Gothic novels. And the family home Baskerville Hall is, in my opinion anyway, a Gothic setting:
‘The avenue opened into a broad expanse of turf and the house lay before us. In the fading light I could see that the centre was a heavy block of building from which a porch projected. The whole front was draped in ivy, with a patch clipped bare and there where a window or a coat-of-arms broke through the dark veil.’
While Conan Doyle’s work isn’t always thought of as Gothic, there are certainly some elements of that tradition in this novel and in some of his other stories too.
John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook also has elements of the Gothic in it. That’s the story of Tad Rampole, an American who’s just finished his university studies. On the advice of his mentor, he travels to England to meet famous lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell, who welcomes him warmly. When Rampole arrives, Fell tells him the story of the Starberth family. Beginning many years earlier, two generations of Starberth men were governors of Chatterham Prison until it fell into disuse. It’s now a crumbling ruin, and of course the Starberths haven’t worked at the prison for a very long time. But they are still associated with it through a ritual that each Starberth heir goes through on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday. Each heir must spend that night in the Governor’s Room at the old prison, open the safe in that room, and follow the instructions he finds there. A few Starberths have died mysteriously, and there is talk that the family is cursed. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth and Rampole takes a special interest in this ritual because he’s fallen in love with Martin’s sister Dorothy. When Martin dies tragically during his night at the old prison, Rampole works with Fell to find out how and why he died. There’s no real curse involved in this novel, but there are elements of the Gothic novel here. There’s the crumbling building, the hint of romance, the family history and the dark atmosphere.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca isn’t really thought of as crime fiction, but if you think about it, it has so many elements of mystery fiction that I think it ‘counts.’ And it’s definitely got elements of the Gothic novel in it. Maxim de Winter marries for the second time and brings his new bride to his home at Manderley, where both are hoping to be happy. It’s not long though before the new Mrs. de Winter is made to feel very unwelcome. Housekeeper Mrs. Danvers was fanatically devoted to de Winter’s first wife Rebecca, now deceased, and does everything in her power to undermine the new lady of the house. Even Manderley itself seems haunted by the ghost of Rebecca. De Winter’s second wife, whose name we aren’t told in the novel, begins to wonder if she’s imagining things or if she really is unwelcome in the house. Although she begins to doubt herself and her husband’s love for her, we find that there was more to Rebecca’s life and death than it seems. Manderley has the brooding, dark presence that we see in many Gothic novels. There are also the elements of family history, troubled romance and horror, too.
Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence has several elements of the Gothic novel about it too. In that novel, we meet the Argyle family. Two years before the events in the novel, matriarch Rachel Argyle was murdered. Her adopted son Jacko was arrested for and convicted of the crime and has since died in prison. At first, the family thinks the matter is settled. But then they get a visit from Dr. Arthur Calgary, who’s recently recovered from a bout with amnesia. He alone can prove that Jacko Argyle was innocent, and when he arrives at the family home Sunny Point (an ironic name, really) he plans to do just that. But as it turns out, no-one in the family wants him to re-open the case. Only Rachel Argyle’s son-in-law Philip Durrant seems to have any interest in pursuing the matter, so he and Calgary work together to find out who really killed Rachel Argyle. This novel has the atmosphere and the setting we often associate with Gothic novels. There’s the family history element too, and a touch of the question of one’s own motives and sanity that we sometimes find in Gothic novels. There’s a hint of romance too.
You might not think of ‘hardboiled’ PI novels as having Gothic novel elements, but they can. One example that comes to my mind is Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. PI Lew Archer is hired by Dr. Sponti, head of the Laguna Perdida boarding school. Sponti is concerned because one of the school’s pupils Tom Hillman has run away. Tom’s parents Ralph and Elaine are wealthy and influential and are going to make Sponti’s life miserable and possibly ruin his school if their son’s not found. Archer is just about to leave to begin his investigation when Ralph Hillman bursts in, claiming that Tom’s been kidnapped and that his abductors have contacted the Hillmans. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work with them – or try to – to find out where Tom is and return him safely. The truth isn’t as simple as a kidnapping for money, though. For one thing, the Hillmans are not as co-operative as you’d expect frantic parents to be. For another, hints come up that suggest that Tom may have joined the kidnappers of his own free will. Then one of the people Tom’s with is killed. Then there’s another death. Now Archer is looking into not just the disappearance of a teenager, but two murders. The element of family history figures strongly in this novel. So does the element of brooding and atmosphere that’s been associated with Gothic novels. The Hillman house is not the crumbling castle or mansion of traditional Gothic novels, but it’s no less forbidding for that.
In her own name and under the name of Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell has written a number of novels that have strong Gothic elements. One that stands out (at least to me) is A Dark Adapted Eye, Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine. Investigative journalist Daniel Stewart wants to do a story on the long-ago execution of Vera Longley Hilliard for murder. He wants to know about the history of the Longley family and what led to the murder for which Vera Hilliard was hanged. Stewart approaches Faith Longley Severn, Vera’s niece, and asks for her help with the family history. As the two work together, we learn of what the Longley family was like, the secrets hidden beneath the family’s oh-so-respectable exterior, and the story of Vera Longley Hilliard. This Longley family home isn’t a castle but it is full of brooding, of family secrets and of atmosphere. There’s a strong Gothic element here of psychological suspense too.
Not everyone enjoys Gothic novels but there’s no denying the effect of the Gothic tradition on crime fiction, from the days of Edgar Allan Poe to now. What do you think? Where do you see Gothic elements in today’s crime fiction? If you’re a writer do you include those elements in your stories?
See? Told ya. No vampires ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Alan Parsons Project’s The Cask of Amontillado. Yes, it’s a tribute to Poe’s short story.