Do you like to go dancing? What’s interesting about dancing is that most cultures (‘though certainly not all of them) have some form of dance whether it’s sacred or secular. And for a very long time dances were one of the few socially acceptable places for couples to meet. That’s one of the reasons they’re so popular among high school students. Dances and evenings that include dancing are also events that draw all sorts of disparate people together. Add alcohol to that mix and you have – yup, a very effective context for a crime fiction novel or at least a scene in one.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s short story Finessing the King, Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Beresford notices a personal ad in the newspaper. The ad refers to an upcoming ball called the Three Arts Ball and to an agreed meeting of some sort at a restaurant/club called Ace of Spades after the ball. Tuppence is curious enough about it to persuade her husband Tommy to take her dancing and to a late supper at the Ace of Spades. The booth next to them is occupied by Lady Vere Merivale, who’s has obviously just come from the Three Arts Ball; she’s dressed as Alice’s Queen of Hearts. With her is a man dressed in newspaper. When the man leaves, the Beresfords find that Lady Merivale has been stabbed but she gives them cryptic clue before she dies. Inspector Marriot investigates the murder but it’s Tuppence who really links the crime to the criminal.
In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, one of Archie Goodwin’s friends persuades him to attend a dinner and dance hosted by Louise Robilotti. The not-so-hidden agenda for the evening is to support the young women who live at Grantham House, a temporary home for unwed mothers and their children. The idea of the dinner/dance is that the young ladies will get some exposure to how things are done in the ‘better’ social circles and perhaps even meet a young man. During the evening Goodwin is introduced to several of Grantham House’s residents, including Faith Usher. Goodwin is told that Faith has brought cyanide with her and intends to kill herself while she’s at the dinner/dance. During the dancing that follows the dinner Faith does in fact die from what turns out to be cyanide poisoning. Everyone is convinced that she followed through on her threat and that there’s nothing to investigate. But Goodwin isn’t sure and as time goes by he’s more and more convinced that she was murdered. So, despite intense pressure from the police and from the Roibletti family, Goodwin pursues his suspicion and we learn who killed Faith Usher and why.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, socialite Phryne Fisher agrees to take on an unusual challenge. Colonel Harper and his wife are concerned about their daughter Lydia, who has moved to Melbourne. They believe she may be in danger and want Fisher to go to Melbourne and find out whether Lydia is all right and whether her husband (whom neither Harper trusts) is up to no good. Fisher returns from London to her home town of Melbourne and begins circulating among the ‘set’ that includes Lydia. One evening Fisher’s invited to an evening of dinner and dancing at the home of Melanie Cryer and that’s where she first meets Lydia and her husband. During the evening Fisher gets the chance to show off her tango skills, meet up with a handsome Russian dancer and get some valuable background information on Lydia, her husband and a few other members of Melbourne’s elite. That information helps Fisher solve the case when Lydia’s husband John is murdered.
Dancing plays an important role in M.C. Beaton’s The Deadly Dance. In that novel, recently-established PI Agatha Raisin is hired by Mrs. Laggat-Brown when her daughter Cassandra receives a threatening letter. Cassandra Laggat-Brown is shortly to be engaged to Jason Peterson and the letter threatens her life if she does so. Mrs. Laggat-Brown wants Raisin to attend a dinner/dance at their home the following evening to see if she sees any suspicious characters. Raisin attends the dance and at first, all seems in order. Then, some planned fireworks are set off prematurely. Raisin glances up and sees what she swears is a gun. Now she begins to think that someone really is trying to kill Cassandra Laggat-Brown and she wants to know why. Despite Mrs. Laggat-Brown’s fury at Raisin’s ‘ruining the party,’ Raisin goes in search of the person responsible. And then Jason Peterson’s father Harrison dies, apparently a successful suicide. Raisin doesn’t think so though and it turns out that she’s right. That death and the attack on Cassandra Laggat-Brown are connected to each other and to an IRA cell.
And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, in which successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to stop a blackmailer. When the blackmail case turns deadly, Quant has to put the pieces of the puzzle together before his client is murdered. Guest is vulnerable to blackmail because he’s had a few secret relationships with men and isn’t yet ready to ‘come out.’ And he has some money. It’s possible that the blackmailer is someone with whom Guest was involved so one night, he, Quant and some friends go to Diva’s, a gay bar with plenty of dancing. Since Guest has dressed in drag for the evening he’s sure that nobody will know who he is. All goes well until Guest spots the person he thinks is his quarry – and it turns out to be a very surprising person whom Quant is loathe to pursue. The scenes at Diva’s do have plenty of humour in them but they also show how useful dances and dancing can be in a crime fiction novel. They’re great places for finding clues, following people and of course, stirring up the tension.
I’ve only touched on a few examples of dances and dancing in crime fiction. There is after all only so much space in this one post. So help me out please and fill in the gaps I’ve left. Which novels have you enjoyed where dancing waltzes through the story?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Come Dancing. Do you know how many songs there are about dancing? It was hard to choose from among them!