Food, games, rides, competitions…yes, festivals and fêtes offer fun for the whole family, don’t they? Sometimes they’re charity events, and sometimes they’re held at holiday spots in order to drive tourism. Either way, those events bring together a lot of disparate people and there’s often a lot going on in the background, so to speak. What’s more, it’s easy to ‘hide’ in the anonymity of the big crowds of people that often attend fairs and festivals. So it’s no wonder they’re such an interesting context for mystery novels. Even when they’re not the main plot point, fairs, festivals and fêtes can add to mystery plots.
Agatha Christie writes about such events in a few of her stories. For example in Dead Man’s Folly, preparations are underway for a charity fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. This year, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as one of the events. She begins to suspect that something more is going on than just a fête, and persuades Hercule Poirot to investigate. Sure enough, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed the girl, and their task is made more complicated by the fact that hundreds of people have come to the fête, and few people can be really sure of where they were at particular times. Then it becomes clear that Lady Hattie has disappeared. In this novel, Christie gives readers a close look at this style of fête, from first preparations to the actual event. And Poirot wins a large doll at a ‘guess-the-weight-of-a-pig’ stall.
In Earlene Fowler’s State Fair, folk art museum curator Benni Harper Ortiz is gearing up for the annual Mid-State Fair in San Celina, California. There are plans to exhibit a very special quilt along with other art from the museum. All goes well enough at first, but there are ‘behind the scenes’ problems. For one thing, this year the fair has its first non-White director, and there is resentment about that. For another, this is a small community in that everyone knows everyone and a lot of the people have a history together. So there are several simmering conflicts. Then, the focal point of the exhibit, a special quilt that’s a replica of a very famous one, is stolen. Then there’s a murder. The people involved in the case are friends and acquaintances that Benni’s known for some time, so she is determined to find out what really happened.
In Shelly Reuben’s The Boys of Sabbath Street, we are introduced to Maggie Wakeling, press aide and assistant to Angus Ackerman, who is mayor of the small town of Calendar. The town is preparing for its annual Founder’s Day festival, which is important for bringing in tourism and convincing businesses to set up shop there. As the preparations are getting underway, there’s a fire on one of the local streets. Two local boys Jubilant ‘JuJu’ McBean and Deacon Spry manage to rescue some of the occupants of the building and it’s decided to give them a special award on Founder’s Day. Then there’s another fire. And another. Now it looks as though there’s an arsonist at work. This threatens not only the Founder’s Day celebrations, but also Mayor Ackerman’s plan to turn a disused theatre into a museum of magic. What’s more, there’s now a real sense of fear and suspicion in the town. Maggie works with Fire Marshal George Copeland to find and stop the arsonist before anyone else’s life is put at risk.
In Nelson Brunanski’s Burnt Out, fishing lodge owner John ‘Bart’ Bartowski and his wife Rosie face a terrible crisis when their business Stuart Lake Lodge is destroyed by fire. The Bartowskis face the awful prospect of having to start all over again, and they’re not in their twenties any more. What’s worse, the fire is a definite case of arson, and Bart is of course a person of interest. It doesn’t help his case that he was at the lodge at the time of the fire. When a body is discovered in the ruins of the fire, it looks even worse for the Bartowskis. Gossip and accusations start spreading in their small town of Crooked Lake, and Bart knows that he’ll have to find a way to get to the truth about this case if he and his family are to clear their names. All of this takes place against a backdrop of preparations for Crooked Lake’s centenary celebration, complete with floats, baking, and all of the rest of the ‘trimmings’ you’d expect. In this novel, the murder doesn’t occur at the festival, but it’s an important part of town life.
And then there’s Alan Bradley’s A Red Herring Without Mustard. In that novel, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce is attending a church fête. She decides to visit a Gypsy fortune-teller’s tent but to say the least, the experience goes badly. Flavia feels a sense of responsibility for what happened and wants to do something to help the Gypsy. Then she learns that the Gypsy and her husband were once forced off the property of Buckshaw, where the de Luce family lives. Against her better judgement Flavia invites the Gypsy to return to Buckshaw and stay as long as she likes. She knows she’ll be in big trouble with her father and older sisters for such a rash invitation, but she extends it anyway. As if that decision doesn’t have enough consequences, the Gypsy is later found murdered. Now Flavia decides to find out who the killer is, and it turns out that there are several suspects since the victim may have been responsible for a past abduction.
Chris Grabenstein’s Ceepak and Boyle mysteries take place in the holiday town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. Sea Haven has an amusement park complete with rides, games and unhealthy food. It also has a boardwalk with arcades, souvenir shops, food booths and other ‘tourist traps.’ Although Sea Haven is of course busiest during the North American summer, it’s the kind of place where there are rides and amusements most of the year. People are always coming and going, and events are always being planned, so it’s quite an effective context for a murder mystery. Officers John Ceepak and Danny Boyle find themselves mixed up in plenty of them, too. In novels such as Tilt a Whirl, Whack a Mole and Fun House, Grabenstein shows how the combination of locals and visitors, the crowds and the behind-the-scenes chaos of carrying off events can hide some very well-planned murders.
So do be careful, please, if you plan to attend a fête, a festival or a fair. You never know what can happen! Roll up and give it your best shot! C’mon, try for a prize! Everyone a winner, guaranteed! ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Waits’ and Kathleen Brennan’s Jersey Girl. Yes, I know I’ve used this one before. I’m homesick and it’s my blog. ;-) – Besides, it’s a great song, so you’re welcome. ;-)