There’s something about cemeteries and graveyards that has a certain kind of mystique. Sometimes people visit them to remember loved ones, or to commemorate a tragic event such as a war. They are also of course where the final parts of funeral and burial rites are held in many cultures. And they can provide a lot of information for historians and genealogists. There are a lot of spooky myths about graveyards and cemeteries too; after all, the dead are buried there.
A terrific post by Moira at Clothes in Books on The Guardian Book Blog has got me thinking about how cemeteries and graveyards fit in with crime fiction. And of course it makes perfect sense that we’d see a lot of them, since so much crime fiction has to do with murder. Here are a few stories that came to my mind after reading Moira’s post.
Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford find more than one clue during walks through graveyards and cemeteries. For example, in By The Pricking of My Thumbs, the Beresfords visit Tommy’s elderly Aunt Ada, who lives at Sunny Ridge, a rest home. While they’re there, Tuppence hears of a strange mystery and about something ‘behind the fireplace.’ She decides to find out what’s behind the ramblings of the woman who has mentioned the fireplace. At the same time, Tuppence has a strange sense of familiarity about a picture she finds among Aunt Ada’s possessions, although she has never seen the picture before. As it turns out, the two mysteries are related. Both have roots in a very sad story from the past. At one point, the trail leads Tuppence to a graveyard, where she is searching for a particular tombstone. The visit turns out to be very dangerous for her…
Dorothy Sayers uses a cemetery to add a fascinating plot twist in The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a trip one New Year’s Eve when they have a car accident. Stranded in East Anglia, they are taken in by Rector Theodore Venables of the nearby village of Fenchurch St. Paul. Venables offers them lodging while they wait for the car to be repaired, and the two accept. Wimsey is able to return the rector’s kindness when he fills in as a New Year’s Day change-ringer for Will Thoday, who is ill. That day, news comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire Sir Henry Thorpe, has died. Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral and then, their car having been fixed, they go on their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry died, and preparations were made for his burial. But when the gravediggers opened the family grave where Lady Thorpe was already buried, they found another body already there. Venables asks Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and investigate. Wimsey agrees and he and Bunter go back to the village. They find that the unexplained corpse is related to a long-ago robbery and some valuable missing emeralds.
There’s a startling cemetery scene in Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas’ son disappeared during World War II, but she never gave up hope that one day he would come back. In fact, she’s made a will leaving all of her considerable fortune to her son, so long as he returns before 2015. If not, her money is to be divided among three charities. When she dies, her family and others gather at the cemetery for the final burial rituals. An unknown man shows up, calling out ‘Mama!’ and claiming to be her son. Now it looks as though he will inherit everything. But before the will can be sorted out, he is found dead in his car. Now Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his assistant Peter Pascoe have to look through the motives of a number of people to find out who killed the victim. They also have to establish whether he really was Geraldine Lomas’ son.
Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs introduces readers to Maisie, a former World War I nurse who’s returned to England and set up shop as a private investigator. Christopher Davenham hires Maisie to find out whether his wife Celia has been unfaithful. Maisie takes the case and begins to follow Celia to learn her daily patterns. One day, she follows her quarry to a cemetery. She strikes up a conversation with Celia under the pretense of visiting a cousin’s grave. Slowly, she finds out why Celia visited the cemetery and what’s behind her troubling behaviour. She is able to reassure her client that his wife has been true to him, but the cemetery visit leads to another mystery. Several of the soldiers buried there (including the soldier whose grave Celia Davenham visited) had been living at The Retreat, a home especially designed for badly injured WWI veterans. The idea is that they will have a safe place to live, among others who understand what they’ve gone through. In fact, James Compton, son of Maisie’s former employer, is considering moving there, as he is having a great deal of difficulty adjusting to life after the war. But Lady Rowan Compton is concerned about that decision and asks Maisie to look into the place. Maisie agrees and finds out that there are some unsettling things going on at the home.
The real action in Paul Cleave’s Cemetery Lake begins in a Christchurch cemetery. There, cop-turned-PI Theodore Tate is following up on the case of a man who’s died of arsenic poisoning. His wife is suspected of murdering him, and questions have been raised about the death of her first husband. So it’s agreed to exhume that body and test it for poison. Tate is on hand when the exhumation team comes in to do the job, but it’s far from an ordinary exhumation (as if there really is one). As the team is working, several bodies start rising from the lake by the cemetery. What’s more, when the coffin the team is looking for is opened, there’s a real question of the identity of the person in it. In this case, the cemetery holds a lot of secrets…
Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte is a genealogist, so he is accustomed to visiting cemeteries and graveyards as he tracks down information on people’s ancestries. In In the Blood, Tayte has been hired by wealthy businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s genealogy as a gift to her. Tayte has so far learned that one branch of the Fairborne family, his client’s wife’s forbears, settled in the American South. But that line died out. The other branch, beginning with James Fairborne, went to England in 1783 with a group of other Royalists. Sloane wants to find out everything about the family, so Tayte goes to England to follow up on that branch of the family. He begins with the Cornish church nearest where the modern-day Fairbornes live. There he encounters Reverend Joliffe, who shows him round the churchyard. But to Tayte’s disappointment, there are no records of Fairbornes buried in the churchyard. Instead, says Joliffe, those ancestors are probably buried on the modern-day Fairborne estate Rosenmullion Hall. Joliffe makes it clear that the Fairbornes have a lot of local clout, and their co-operation will be needed if Tayte is to get any answers. So Tayte visits Rosenmullion, only to find that no-one in the family is interested in sharing their history with him. Still, Tayte has a paying client and he’s now curious himself as to what happened to the family. So he goes on with his search, although he’s warned off. In the end, he finds out the truth, and I can say without spoiling the story that there’s a very spooky graveyard/cemetery scene in it.
Cemeteries and graveyards really are full of myth, history, and the personal stories of those in them. Little wonder they’re so often mentioned in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City). Thanks very much, Moira, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Flower Kings’ Silent Graveyards.