One of the more popular kinds of murder mysteries is what’s often called the country-house or country-manor story. A group of disparate people is brought together for a short stay and one or more of them don’t survive the visit. Why are we drawn to these stories? One reason could be that country-house murders often take place in houses that almost seem to have personalities of their own. The setting isn’t always creepy (at first, anyway) but we feel a sense of history or of foreboding and that adds to a story. So do the different characters who are drawn together in these mysteries. The clash of personalities, the histories that can come out and the secrets that characters often hide can really bring suspense to the story. There are many, many country-house mysteries out there, and space in this post is limited. So I won’t be able to mention all of them by any means. But a quick look should give you a sense of what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings pays a visit to an old friend John Cavendish and his wife Mary at their family home Styles Court, in Essex. The home belongs to Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp, whom Hastings remembers fondly, so he’d prepared for a pleasant stay. One night shortly after his arrival though, Emily Inglethrop is poisoned. The most likely suspect is her husband Alfred, whom everyone else thinks married her only for her money. As it happens, another of Hastings’ friends Hercule Poirot is living in the nearby village of Styles St. Mary, and when Hastings asks Poirot to look into the case, he agrees. As Poirot begins to investigate, we gradually find out that each one of the people in the house had a motive for murder.
Christie wrote several other novels too that you’d probably count as country-house murders. So did Ngaio Marsh. The country house setting is the basis, for instance, of A Man Lay Dead, the first of Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn series. In that novel, Nigel Bathgate and his cousin Charles Rankin have been invited to a house party hosted by Sir Hubert Handesley. The main event of the party will be a Murder Hunt, in which one guest will be tagged as ‘the murderer.’ That person will choose a ‘victim.’ The rest of the guests will be tasked with finding out who the ‘murderer’ is. The game starts off well enough but ends tragically when Rankin is actually murdered. Alleyn is called in and soon finds that just about everyone in the house, including the staff, had a good reason to want Charles Rankin dead. There’ve been all sorts of country-house type mysteries since, but in my opinion (so feel free to differ with me if you do) it’s hard to beat Ngaio Marsh’s skill with this premise.
M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Cad is the story of an ill-fated house party at the country home of Colonel and Mary Halburton-Smythe. They’ve invited several people to join them at a gathering to meet up-and-coming playwright Henry Withering. The Halburton-Smythes’ daughter Priscilla has just become engaged to Withering, so this is also in the manner of a ‘welcome to the family’ party. Early one morning, one of the guests Captain Peter Bartlett goes out hunting; he’s made a bet with another guest Jeremy Pomfret that he can bring in a trace of grouse before Pomfret can and he leaves the house early to hedge his bet. He’s shot on the way back in what looks like a tragic hunting accident. Local constable Hamish Macbeth goes to the Halburton-Smythe’s home to visit Priscilla, in whom he’s interested himself, and comes upon the scene. He is soon convinced that Bartlett was murdered and begins to investigate, despite the Halburton-Smythes’ insistence that Bartlett died by accident.
As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell takes readers to Lydstep Old Hall, which is owned by the Cosway family, in The Minotaur. Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist meets the Cosways when she is hired to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to have schizophrenia. Kvist is glad to get this position since it will allow her to be closer to her lover Mark Douglas. But soon after she takes up her duties, Kvist begins to notice several things about the house and family that make her uneasy. First, both house and family seem to have been preserved rather eerily from Victorian days. The family is dysfunctional too. Then Kvist discovers that her patient is kept under heavy drugs by his mother the family matriarch. She’s quite certain that Cosway doesn’t need that much medication and begins to deliberately withhold those drugs without mentioning it to Cosway’s mother. Kvist’s decision to involve herself in the family leads to tragedy when one of the family members is murdered. It turns out though that a diary she keeps provides major insights and clues as to who the murderer is.
And then there’s Louise Penny’s The Cruelest Month, the third in her Armand Gamache series. In this novel it’s the old Hadley home that serves as the setting for a murder. Fans of these novels will know that the Hadley place has a dark history of its own (no spoilers). A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying at the local Bed and Breakfast in the small Québec town of Three Pines. She is persuaded to hold a séance but soon, it’s discovered that she is neither Hungarian nor really psychic. Still, it’s agreed to go ahead with the event. When that first séance isn’t successful, another is planned on Easter night at the now-unused Hadley house. During the séance, Madeleine Favreau, who’s recently returned to the area after a difficult battle with illness, is killed. At first she seems to have been frightened to death. But as Gamache and his team learn, she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. Now the team has to learn which of the other guests at this séance had reason enough to commit murder. This novel doesn’t feature the traditional upper-crust family that’s been associated with most country-house mysteries. But the gathering of disparate personalities, the unexpected death, the discovery of dark secrets and hidden agendas, and the house with a personality of its own are definitely reflective of the country-house premise.
As I mentioned, there are many, many country-house mysteries. I’ve probably not brought up the ones you like best, so it’s time for you to fill in the gaps I’ve left. Come and join me at the family home. It’ll be a very pleasant stay. Wait… what was that sound??? ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby Stills, Nash & Young’s Our House.