Do you belong to a hobby or interest club, like a book club, a gardening club or perhaps a film club? With the ease of access to the Internet, our social life is going increasingly online, but there are still an awful lot of local face-to-face clubs. And any time you get a group of people together, even people with a common interest, you get disparate personalities. What’s more, each club member has a personal life with all sorts of ‘baggage,’ so it’s no wonder at all that we see a lot of clubs in crime fiction.
There’s a crime club in Agatha Christie’s collection The Thirteen Problems (AKA The Tuesday Club Murders). That set of stories is bound together by the overarching theme of a regular gathering to discuss crime. Here’s how Joyce Lemprière, one of the members, describes the club:
‘How would it be if we formed a Club? What is today? Tuesday? We will call it the Tuesday Night Club. It is to meet every week, and each member in turn is to propound a problem. Some mystery of which they have personal knowledge, and to which, of course, they know the answer.’
The group agrees to form in that way, and the stories are based in part on that group’s meetings and on the mysteries each member shares.
There’s a different sort of angle on the ‘crime club’ theme in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Mason & Sons, a chocolate manufacturer, has developed a new variety of chocolates. A box of these is sent to Sir Eustace Pennefather, presumably as a gift to induce him try them and then buy the chocolates. But Pennefather is a chocolate hater, so he passes the candy on to a fellow member of his social club Graham Bendix. Bendix shares some of the chocolate with his wife Joan and both are soon taken very ill. Graham survives but his wife dies of what turns out to be poison. The police can’t get any leads or really plausible suspects, so the case hasn’t been solved. The only theory they have developed is that Joan Bendix was poisoned accidentally because the intended victim was Pennefather. That’s logical too as Pennefather had made a lot of enemies. DCI Moresby, who investigated the case, is invited as guest speaker to the Crimes Circle. That’s a discussion group for those interested in crime, run by sometime newspaper columnist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. Once Moresby outlines the known facts of the case, each member of the Crimes Circle offers a theory as to who committed the crime and why. And in true ‘Golden Age’ style, Berkeley saves the truth for the end of the novel…
The Manhattan Flower Club is featured in Rex Stout’s novella Disguise for Murder (AKA The Affair of the Twisted Scarf). Nero Wolfe has been persuaded to invite the members of the club to his brownstone to see his prize orchids. Archie Goodwin is posted in the orchid room to mingle with the guests and ensure that the orchids themselves remain unharmed. It’s not Goodwin’s sort of afternoon, so at one point he sneaks out of the party to relax in his office. That’s when he gets a visit from one of the guests. She calls herself Cynthia Brown and tells Goodwin that she needs Wolfe’s help. Her story is that she recognised another guest who has committed a murder and who knows that she knows about it. She wants Wolfe to bring the murderer to justice, but to leave her out of it. Goodwin is finally persuaded to get Wolfe, but by the time they return to Goodwin’s office, the young woman’s been murdered. Now Wolfe and Goodwin have to find out which of the other guests is the killer.
There’s more horticultural mayhem in M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener. In that novel, PI Agatha Raisin returns to her home in Carsely after a prolonged holiday only to find out that there’s a new resident Mary Fortune. The newcomer is an avid gardener and a member of the local horticultural society. She’s also got the attention of Raisin’s next-door-neighbour James Lacey, whom Raisin herself fancies. So Raisin decides to join the horticultural society although gardening is most definitely not her forte. Still, she resolves to try to do something for the upcoming Garden Open Day, when the villagers are invited to visit each other’s gardens. Raisin finds other things to occupy her on that day though, because Mary Fortune is found hung upside-down and buried head first in a gardening pot. It turns out that there are several suspects, as the victim had her share of enemies. In the end, Raisin finds that village life can breed a lot of resentment…
You wouldn’t think that book clubs would be dangerous, but they can be. In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Progressive Dinner Deadly, retired teacher Myrtle Clover decides to try to get the local book club to read books other than ‘blockbuster’ best-sellers. Unfortunately her suggestion gets misunderstood and taken out of context so that before she knows it, the idea has morphed into a progressive dinner club. The idea of a progressive dinner is that the club members will visit each other’s homes on a given night, with each host providing one part of a meal. So the members will visit one host’s home for soup, one for the main course, another for dessert, and so on. Myrtle is not exactly a gifted cook and has no interest in a progressive dinner club. But she grumpily goes along with the plan. On the night of the club’s first dinner, the group makes a stop at the home of member Jill Caulfield. To everyone’s shock she’s been murdered by a blow to the head from a heavy pan. Her husband Cullen is the most likely suspect, but Myrtle soon finds that he’s far from the only one. Craig also writes the Southern Quilting series which features the Village Quilters, another club in which disparate personalities and histories can lead to murder.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, Jodie Evans Garrow becomes a social outcast when questions are raised about her past. She and her husband Angus were considered practically model citizens of the small town of Arding, New South Wales. In fact Angus was even being spoken of as a good candidate for the upcoming mayoral election. But then a secret from Jodie’s past comes to light. Her daughter Hannah is in an accident and is taken to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and when she asks about the baby, Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption. But there turn out to be no records of that adoption and no evidence that the baby grew up. Very soon people begin to believe that Jodie might have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance and she’s ostricised. Then one day Amber, an acquaintance from the gym, invites Jodie to join her book club. Jodie’s so pleased that there’s at least one group that hasn’t shut her out that she agrees to come to the club’s meeting. That’s when she learns that she was actually invited almost as a curiosity because the group is reading a book about the Lindy Chamberlain case, another case of a mother whose baby disappeared and who has been accused of being responsible. Angry and humiliated, Jodie leaves the meeting. What she doesn’t know at the time is that one member of that book club is a friend from long ago – a friend who turns out to be Jodie’s psychological salvation.
A ladies’ bowling club is the focus of Ellen Mary Wilton’s Hysteria at the Wisteria. The Wisteria Ladies’ Bowling Club of Sydney is getting ready to play one morning when they find the body of a dead man on the green. It turns out that he has more than one connection to the club; he is the son of a former member and it seems that he was on his way to meet a current member when he was killed. The club’s vice-president Lucy Law decides to investigate the murder. I have to confess I’ve not (yet) read this one, but it was just too good an example of a club not to mention it. Want to know more? Check out this excellent review at Fair Dinkum Crime, which is the place for information and reviews relating to Australian crime fiction. It’s well worth a prominent place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.
Clubs like book clubs, dinner clubs and so on unite members with common interests, and they can be an important source of support. They can also be a source of tension, the clash of disparate personalities and worse. No wonder they’re great contexts for murder mysteries…
On Another Note…
Speaking of clubs, author and fellow blogger Rebecca Bradley has organised a terrific online book club, which will meet once a month. Want the details? Check them out right here. And while you’re at it, her blog is a great source of inspiration for writers, as well as a fine source for interesting book reviews.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Welcome to the Club.