Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine House*

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.

 

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Barbara Vine, Louise Penny, M.C. Beaton, Ngaio Marsh, Ruth Rendell

26 responses to “Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine House*

  1. I love a good country house murder and Christie excelled in them. I love ‘Crooked House’, ‘Ordeal by Innocence’ and ‘Pocket Full of Rye’. I really must try Louise Penney. There is a book by her waiting on my shelf to read.

    • Sarah – I love ‘em too, and I agree completely about Christie’s skill with them. Thank you so much for mentioning those three. As I said, there’s so little room in one post and so many good country-house murder mysteries out there. I do heartily recommend Penny. Of course tastes differ, but I hope that when you get the chance to try her work, you’ll like it.

  2. Oh dear, where to begin? You are quite right about Christie and Marsh being masters (mistresses?) of the country house murder, and their examples are legion. I’d like to put in a plug, however, for my favorite Nicholas Blake novel, “Thou Shell of Death,” which is set in an English country house at Christmas. The host of the party, a retired World War I flying ace, has been receiving threatening letters, and Blake’s detective, Nigel Strangeways, is invited down to keep an eye on things. Despite his presence, there is murder – and I think it’s one of the cleverest mystery plots I’ve ever read, with some brilliant and completely unexpected twists. Rue Morgue Press republished it a couple of years back, so it should be fairly easy to find…no comfort, alas, for the To Be Read mountain…

    • Les – LOL! I wondered that same thing (Where to begin?) when I put this post together. There are far, far too many good ‘uns to mention each one. And the Golden Age/Classic country-house murder is not to be missed. Thanks for bringing up that Nicholas Blake. I like Nigel Strangeways and haven’t thought of that series in a while. I should actually do a spotlight on one of his books some time. So not only have you filled in a gap I left, you’ve also inspired me for a Spotlight post. Thanks :-)

  3. Margot: I have read few country-house mysteries.

    The closest trio for me come from P.D. James. In The Skull Beneather Her Skin there is a gathering on a small island where the play, The Duchess of Malfi, is to be performed. In The Lighthouse she has chosen an even smaller island with a lighthouse the prominent geographical feature. In The Private Patient the mystery takes place in a Manor which is now a medical clinic.

    The shift from private home to clinic for the country-house in The Private Patient probably reflects an ongoing change in country-houses of English society.

    • Bill – You’ve mentioned some excellent novels here. To me it’s interesting how James creates that feel of a country-house mystery even with slightly different settings. The clinic and the islands all give that slightly isolated feel to the stories and of course, there’s the disparate group of people who gather. It’s very effective in my opinion. And you have an interesting point about the setting of The Private Patient. Many of those country homes are now being used for other purposes like that.

  4. kathy d.

    I haven’t read many English country house murder books, although I read Hercule Poirot’s stories in my teenage years, several centered in English manors.
    And although not a manor house, the house(s) in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice feature quite largely in the plot.

  5. I think the only country house books I have read are the Agatha Christie ones and that was many many moons ago. I think having the book set in such a small location gives a writer a lot to play with in terms of emotion of the people within that house. A great setting for a crime novel.

    • Rebecca – I think it’s a terrific setting too. There are so possibilities there for the author, and it does allow for the buildup of suspense. I’ve always wondered what it would really be like to stay in one of those places…

  6. I’m writing a country house mystery now, so your post was particularly interesting to me. :) I think even “And Then There Were None” could qualify as a country house mystery, although the setting isn’t exactly the *country*, but an island.

    • Elizabeth – Wow – talk about your timing! I’ll be really interested in reading your story (well, I was anyway of course). And it’s funny you’d mention And Then There Were None. I almost included that one but simply didn’t. I’m glad you mentioned it. As you say, it’s an island house but it’s still a big old house…

  7. I am straining to think of an American one right now. So less common here. A beach house perhaps?

    • Patti – Interesting point! There are a few mysteries I’ve read that take place at what you might call country homes but it’s definitely not as common a theme in U.S. crime fiction. I’m going to have to think about the beach house motif

  8. An intriguing post, Margot. Country-house mysteries do draw us in. For some strange reason I keep thinking about the movies CLUE and REBECCA as I was reading the post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thank you :-) – And yes, that house in the film Clue is a great setting, and so is the premise of those people being brought together. And most definitely Manderley is one of those atmospheric houses too. Thanks for the reminder. And now you’ve put me in mind of the film Murder By Death, which also features a group of people brought together for an ill-fated visit. There are a lot of those kinds of films out there and I hadn’t thought of that before…

  9. Margot, i must read the Ngaio Marsh you recommended, because I love the Christie country house mysteries. Philip Kerr with his latest Bernie Gunther gives us an evil twist on the country house mystery, but the guests are almost as unpleasant as the host Reinhard Heydrich. And although the setting is Czechoslovakia the plot seems almost a tribute to Devon’s own Agatha Christie.

    • Norman – I love the Christie country house mysteries myself, and now that you’ve made a comparison between Philip Kerr’s latest and Christie’s work, I’m even more keen to read it (as though I hadn’t been already). A country-house plot and some unpleasant guests make for an intriguing book. I must catch up with Bernie Gunther!

  10. Hello and thanks for this really interesting article. Love all the authors you listed and adore the song as well…..the original version was in the late 1960’s and was performed by Pythagoras Theorem – do check it out. I am now following you so look forward to many more enjoyable posts from you.

    • Jane – Hello and welcome :-) – Thanks for the kind words too, and the follow. And I will definitely look for that original version of Our House. I love that song myself. Don’t tell anyone will you, but that song was the ‘final dance’ song at my wedding.

      • Hi, well I won’t say a word if you don’t! It is a lovely song and I’ve been singing it ever since I red your blog. It brought back so many memories of my teenage years and listening to Luxemburg and Radio London and British Forces Radio when I lived in Germany for a while….also my husband’s band had records out around the same time so as well as listening for his songs I would get to hear all the latest tracks from England at the same time and we both loved The Hollies, Pyth. Th. and of course Crosby Stills Nash and Young….such a great time back then. I had to read to entertain myself in Germany as I was the eldest by a long way of ‘kids’ with their parents over there and so nothing much to do or places to go…music and books kept me sane. That and writing. Thanks for the reply, I shall visit again soon. Enjoy the rest of your day. x

        • Jane – It was a lovely time for music wasn’t it? I have a lot of fond memories of the era too actually. And how terrific that your husband had a band. As you’ll soon see, I love music, so that got my attention right away. It sounds as though you had some great years at the time and that’s wonderful. Interesting isn’t it how the music of our teen years resonates with us in the way that little other music often does. Hmmmm… ‘food for thought’ for which thanks.

        • Margot, you are so right. I have lived with music since we married long ago now….and worked within the music business with him up until recently when we retired. I now write, something I have longed to get a chance to do…and now I spend my days scribbling (well, typing) away….I write Crime and some character-driven ‘gentle humour’ – that is what I call it anyway. But music features in it all for some reason. That era was the best though I have to say my artists were great as well – just in case they read this and think I don’t like their music….I loved their music too. And still do. I look forward to the music in your material (I think that is what you meant), and will be back to check. Lovely to chat here. We must do it again. x

        • Looking forward to it, Jane :-)

  11. I missed this post when I was on vacation. I love country house mysteries. There are three humorous country house mysteries by James Anderson, starting with The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy. My favorite of all time is an alternate history mystery by Jo Walton called Farthing. That one sent me looking for country house mysteries. Most of the ones mentioned here I have already read… not all though.

    • Tracy – Thanks for coming back and checking this post out. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Country house mysteries can be fabulous, and Anderson’s written some good stuff. It sounds as though I must read that Jo Walton, too.

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