Come to My House*

Rooms and HousesWhen we have the option, most of us have a way of imprinting our personalities on the places where we live. For instance, bibliophiles tend to devote a lot of space to their books. People who are neat, orderly types tend to leave things tidy. In real life, detectives rely on this because it gives them a portrait of a person. That can be helpful in tracking down a missing person or trying to find out why someone was killed. That’s why real and fictional cops and other investigators almost always want a look at someone’s possessions and room. It’s not just to get physical evidence (if there is any). It’s also to find out about the kind of person the victim or missing person is/was.

Agatha Christie uses that plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner. She is the wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, and has accompanied her husband and his dig team on an excavation a few hours from Baghdad. When she’s found bludgeoned in her room one afternoon, Poirot is persuaded to interrupt his travels in the area to look into the matter. It turns out that she’d been in fear for her life, and had reported hearing hands tapping at windows and seeing strange faces looking into her room. Nurse Amy Leatheran, who was hired to look after Louise, works with Poirot to find out who killed the victim and why. One important source of information for Poirot is Louise’s room. From it he learns quite a bit about her personality and her interests. That information helps him sort out what people say to him about her, so that he can distinguish who’s telling lies (or not seeing things clearly) and who’s got a solid perspective on the victim.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police has two related cases on his hand. One is the murder of Albert Gorman, a transplanted Los Angeles Navajo. The other is the disappearance of sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi, who hasn’t been seen since she left the residential school she attends. At one point early in the novel, Chee traces Gorman to the hogan of Ashie Begay, who is distantly related to Gorman. Chee can tell just by looking around the hogan that it is the home of a traditional Navajo who observes the ways of his people. And that’s what makes him all the more suspicious when shortly after his arrival, he finds Gorman’s body. The body is prepared for burial but not exactly in the traditional Navajo way. So it wouldn’t have been Begay who prepared the body and not likely Begay who killed Gorman. But Chee can’t ask Begay because he’s disappeared…

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone is the story of the execution-style murder of an unknown Senegalese immigrant. He was killed one morning while he was preparing his wares for sale at an open-air market, and no-one seems to know who he was or anything about him. In fact, it takes Commissario Guido Brunetti quite a lot of time to even find out where the man lived. He finally succeeds though, and he and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello go to the house that the victim shared with several other immigrants. The room he occupied is sparsely furnished and has little in the way of ‘personal touches.’ But the two detectives can tell from it that the victim probably didn’t cook, since he had no kitchen implements. So why does he have a box of cooking salt? Brunetti also gets a clue as to the man’s nationality from a piece of a statue that he finds in the man’s room. Those small pieces of information are very helpful as Brunetti and Vianello try to find out who the man was and why anyone would want to kill him.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food, Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman tries to find out what could have poisoned her two employees Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge. The two young women share an apartment in the same building where Chapman lives and works, so she’s gotten to know them rather well. One day, they both behave very oddly – in fact, so oddly that Chapman and her lover Daniel Cohen wonder if they’re using a new kind of drug. Their behaviour doesn’t resemble what Cohen has seen in other drug users though, so neither he nor Chapman can tell at first exactly what’s happened. With help from another friend Miriam Kaplan, who goes by her Wiccan name of Meroe, Chapman gets the two girls settled in their home and then goes on a hunt among their things to find out what could have poisoned them. As she does, we get to see how much their environment reflects their personalities. They’re both interested in TV careers, so there’s plenty of makeup, nail varnish and the like. Neither is much of a one for cooking or housekeeping either, and that’s clear too from Chapman’s search. Then she finds a new kind of weight loss tea in their kitchen, and she and Meroe deduce that it’s the tea that’s poisoned them. Now Chapman has to find out who gave them the poisoned tea and why.

Katherine Howell’s New South Wales police detective Ella Marconi often uses what she finds in victims’ homes and rooms to get a sense of what the victim was like. In Silent Fear for instance, she and her team are looking for the murderer of Paul Fowler. He and some of his friends were tossing a football around one afternoon when he was shot, execution-style. Of course Marconi and the team start with the victim’s ex-wife and close friends, as they’re the most likely suspects. That’s how Marconi learns that Fowler had been laid off from his job and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When Marconi goes to their shared apartment, she finds that unlike Garland, Fowler was not a neat person. They’re very different in their personal habits. Marconi uses that to deduce that Fowler and Garland might have had a falling-out. If so, that could be a motive for murder. It doesn’t turn out to be quite that simple, but it’s interesting to see how much Marconi can guess just from a look around a room.

We also see this in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. Paris CID (La Crim’) detective Nico Sirsky and his team are faced with the brutal murder of Marie-Hélène Jory. The killer has been very careful, so there’s not much to go on at first. Then there’s another murder and this time, the killer has left a message: seven days, seven women. Now the team knows that they’re up against a dangerous enemy. At first, it’s very hard to learn anything about the killer. But in looking around each victim’s home, the team learns something about that person. And that tells them something about the killer. Just as one example, they find that one of the victims was rather sloppy. And yet, a pair of the victim’s slippers was found very neatly placed by the bed. That tells them that the killer is very neat and methodical, and gives them a start to finding out who the murderer is.

You really can find out a lot about a person just from looking at that person’s room or home. And detectives often find that information very useful. It’s helpful to authors too, as it lets the crime writer show not tell about the victim’s personality. These are only a few examples, though. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s Welcome. 


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Frédérique Molay, Katherine Howell, Kerry Greenwood, Tony Hillerman

20 responses to “Come to My House*

  1. I love searches and lists of belongings in crime books. I think Christie overdid it in Death in the Clouds, where she lists the possessions of everyone on the plane, and you have to spot the clue amongst them!

    • Moira – Yes, that search in Death in the Clouds is a bit much isn’t it? But in general I’m with you about searches. We learn so much about characters’ personalities when the sleuth does a search of a room or home.

  2. God, I’d hate to think what would happen if someone looked at my place as it is at the moment as most of my books are on the floor awaiting shelving to be assembled – really like the sound of Molay’s The 7th Woman – thanks as always Margot.

    • Sergio – I know what you mean. I don’t think I’d want sleuths looking over my place either. And I hope that if you get the chance to read The 7th Woman you’ll enjoy it. Parts of it are not for the faint of heart, but it’s a good look at a solid team of detectives facing a very difficult case.

  3. Margot, does your interest in this topic ever extend to wondering how a PI or cop would think of you based on the appearance of your room? Being someone who subscribes to the belief that a tidy desk is the sign of an unoccupied mind, I fear being assessed as ‘slovenly’ ;-)

    Stuart MacBride’s character DI Logan McRae in Close to the Bone finds little of interest in a missing teenager’s bedroom, but plenty of clues in the room beneath the stairs that is her preferred haunt — prompting a wry aside about a certain boy wizard having a lot to answer for. The clues include remnants of medication used to treat mental illness and references to the occult, which may link the girl to a novel being filmed at the time in Aberdeen, if not to a gruesome murder…

    • Angela – Yes, I’ve wondered more than once about what a sleuth would think of my home office. I shudder to think… ;-)
      And thanks for the mention of Logan McRae. I like his character and yes, he does get a sense of victims from what he finds out about their haunts. And as your example shows, It’s where the victim spends the most time that matters most. And that’s not necessarily the victim’s own, say, room. The more detectives learn about victims, the more they can find out where those ‘special places’ are. Interesting perspective, for which thanks.

  4. Col

    I don’t think I want anyone going through my stuff – better stay on the right side of the law then!

  5. Margot: Jill Edmonston’s sleuth, Sasha Jackson, keeps on breaking into properties to explore a character’s life. She always learns something significant.

    Having had the real life experience of having to go into the home of someone who had died unexpectedly was sad enough I hope never to repeat the event.

    • Bill – I’m glad you mentioned Sasha Jackson. She does indeed have a way of learning a lot when she goes through people’s homes and offices. She’s quite observant that way.
      I’m sorry you had the task of having to go into the home of someone who’d died. It must have beeen very sad and quite frankly I wouldn’t want that job myself.

  6. I love the sort of voyeuristic look that we get as readers into these suspects’ homes. Helps us to know more about them, too, and what makes them tick. Very interesting.

    • Elizabeth – Thanks. And you’re right; those looks into suspects’ and victims’ homes really does help readers get to know the characters. And I think it’s a really good way for the author to show not tell what they’re like as peopel.

  7. I’m with the rest – shuddering at the thought of what my less than tidy house would say about me! I always find that bit of books quite sad, really, especially when the victim has left the place messy or unclean. It seems so intrusive – though necessary, I suppose.

    • FictionFan – That’s a good point. Going into someone’s home uninvited, even when that someone is dead, does feel a bit intrusive. I like your choice of wording. And it can be heartbreaking, especially when the detective has to go through things when loved ones are around. I’m thinking of several novels in which a widow(er), parent, child, etc.. has to give permission to the detective to go through someone’s things. So painful I always think.

  8. I love finding out about other’s belongings and how they are kept. Isn’t it the voyeur in us that makes us read? Even fictionalized people are snoop-worthy. So much fun to be had!

    • Jan – You know, you’re right. I suppose we book lovers do have a bit of the voyeur in us. I hadn’t thought about it that way, but you’ve got a well-taken point. Little wonder we love well-developed characters. They’re more interesting and snoop-worthy (love that term!)

  9. Well, our house shows that we are book lovers. We have a tiny condo but every room (except the tiny kitchen) is filled with bookshelves and some have stacks of books (intentional, not too messy). We are not neat … right now I still have stacks of books in the dining room to be cataloged from the book sale.

    Moving on to books with this element, I think in Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear that Maisie spends some time in the bedroom of a missing girl whose father wants her found. I think she was looking for both physical clues and psychic ones… the psychic bit is not my favorite part of the Maisie Dobbs novels.

    • Tracy – It sure does sound as though you’re bibliophiles. As you could probably guess, we are too. There are books in most of the rooms in our home, and I know there’d be more if we had the space. There’s just something about having books around that means ‘home’ to me…
      Thanks too for mentioning Birds of a Feather. Maisie Dobbs really is good at getting a sense of people and part of that is getting a look at their spaces. The psychic parts of that series don’t move me as much as Maisie’s personality and her ability to make people feel comfortable, I’ll admit. And she is a very smart detective. I like that aspect of her personality better I think.

  10. Hi Margot – Another great topic so relevant to the crime novel, and another Chandler example from me. I think of the scene in The Big Sleep when Marlowe calls on General Sternwood: the grandiose but rather empty quality of the house, and even more so, the greenhouse where he meets the General and the oppressive, sinister, heavy atmosphere which overlays all and anticipates the direction the story takes.

    • Bryan – Thank you. And that is an absolutely pitch-perfect example of the way our homes and rooms reflect us. I’ve always thought Chandler was quite good at capturing the sense of a setting, and that’s a great illustration of it.

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