You can tell a lot about people from the kinds of homes they have. For example, people who are fond of art deco may have homes that are furnished with geometric-patterned carpets and furniture with spare lines. People who love gardening may very well have as ‘open’ a home as they can, with a sun room or something like it. When authors use that match between character and home setting, they can show (not tell) readers quite a lot. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.
Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is a neat, orderly person. Symmetry matters to him and it shows in the way he lives. Here’s a description of his home from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead:
‘The lift took him up to the third floor where he had a large luxury flat with impeccable chromium fittings, square armchairs, and severely rectangular ornaments. There could truly be said not to be a curve in the place.’
It’s an interesting way of letting readers know a little about Poirot. His home is in keeping too with his way of looking at life. It really suits him and adds harmony if I may put it that way to the stories in which he features.
The same might be said about the New York brownstone home where Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe lives. Fans will know that Wolfe is passionate about orchids. His home reflects that in that he has an entire area set aside for his prized plants. Stout didn’t have to go on and on about the way Wolfe feels about orchids; the orchid room shows us that. Readers also can see without having to be told that Wolfe is fond of ‘creature comforts.’ The furniture (at least the furniture he uses) is luxurious and comfortable. His kitchen and dining areas are large and well-appointed. And then of course there’s the custom-made elevator. The house is made to suit the needs of a large person, too, so although Archie Goodwin likes to remind readers of how large Wolfe is, he really wouldn’t have to; the size of the house and its rooms and furnishings show us that. I honestly couldn’t see Wolfe in a rustic country cottage. It would be jarring. As it is, Wolfe’s home and surroundings are, you might say, an extension of himself.
Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway also has a home that’s very well-suited to her particular needs, tastes and lifestyle. She and her daughter Kate share a small home in a rural part of North Norfolk, not far from the Saltmarsh. The house is small, with comfortable but certainly not luxurious furnishings. And although Galloway isn’t slovenly, it’s the kind of house that doesn’t need a lot of attention, tidying or heavy-duty cleaning. And that suits Galloway just fine, as she isn’t the ‘home conscious’ type. Galloway’s home also reflects her more or less solitary nature. She has a few close friends, and she works well enough with other people, but she’s no extrovert. She enjoys her own company and she is passionate about her work. So her small house out in the back of beyond suits her quite well. I couldn’t imagine her ‘fitting in’ in a flat in the middle of a large city.
Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa has a home that reflects his tastes and personality. He’s a bibliophile. Or, to be more precise, he’s a person who loves stories. So he has a large collection of books and quite a lot of space in his home is devoted to them. But he is devoted to his work, and since he’s single, he doesn’t feel a powerful urge to spend all of his evenings at home. So the books remain stacked in various places rather than put onto bookshelves. His home is comfortable enough, but he hasn’t dedicated a lot of time to choosing a particular décor or style of furniture. And that makes sense given the fact that he isn’t married, doesn’t have children and spends a lot of time on the job.
And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. When we first meet her in The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), she’s living in a small Stockholm apartment. But circumstances in that novel and later novels take her back to her home town of Kiruna. There, she lives in the house previously owned by her grandparents, and she can still feel her grandmother’s presence at times. As time goes on, Martinsson learns (or re-learns) that she belongs in that part of Sweden, close to nature. Her emerging personality is reflected in her home too. It’s in a rural area, away from people, which is just how she likes it. It’s comfortably-enough furnished, but Martinsson is not one for luxuries or a lot of ‘creature comforts,’ so her home doesn’t have them. It’s interesting to see how her home and surroundings provide sanctuary for her, too.
There’s a strong example of personal investment in a home in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s decided to have a home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream house built exactly the way she wants it, and she’s pleased that it’s ‘away from it all.’ She’s not fond of her fellow human beings and is happy not to have anyone living nearby. The house exactly reflects her personality and tastes, and she’s preparing to enjoy life there. Then some financial setbacks and mistakes leave her no choice but to sell the house. Devastated at being forced to give up the home that so perfectly suits her, she has to settle for the house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, her perfect home is bought by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, people she considers ‘invaders.’ In her perception, they’ve taken over her home and therefore, taken a piece of her if I may put it that way. As if that’s not enough, they invite Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim to live with them. Against odds, Thea and Kim form an awkward kind of friendship though, and when Thea finds out that Frank may not be providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to deal with it.
There are a lot of other examples of the way a home can reflect its owner and show the reader what that person is like. It can be an effective strategy to reveal a character’s personality without going into a lot of verbal detail. Now, I’ve had my say. Your turn. Do you notice home surroundings in your crime fiction? If you’re a writer, did you consciously plan your protagonist’s home?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Two of Us.