Category Archives: Patricia Stoltey

Rainbows in the High Desert Air

DesertLas Vegas is a major tourist attraction with lots to do. Because of that it’s easy to forget that it’s located in the middle of a desert. There are deserts in lots of different places in the world, and they can be beautiful. But deserts can be very harsh and inhospitable places if one’s not prepared. They’re lonely places, too, where it’s a long time between people. Deserts can be effective settings for stories just because of the danger; it can add a layer of suspense to a story. So it’s not surprising that we see deserts in crime fiction.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are called to the scene of the unusual murder of Enoch Drebber, an American who was staying in London boarding house with his friend Joseph Stangerson. At first, Stangerson is suspected of the murder, but when he himself is killed, it’s clear that someone else is responsible. It turns out that these murders have their roots in the American desert of Utah. Years earlier, John Ferrier had been stranded in the desert with a young girl Lucy whom he had more or less adopted. They were rescued and the events that followed that rescue led directly to the murders of Drebber and Stangerson.

Since several of Agatha Christie’s stories take place in the Middle East, it’s no surprise that the desert plays a role in her work. Just to give one example, in the short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, Sir John Willard discovers and excavates an ancient tomb that’s said to be haunted and cursed. Not long after the tomb is opened, Sir John dies. Then, there are two other deaths. Willard’s widow is not a fanciful, hysterical person, but she is beginning to wonder whether there might indeed be some kind of curse. So she visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to travel to Egypt and investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings go to the site of the excavation and look into the matter. What they find is that there is a very prosaic reason for the deaths, and that someone has been using the curse to cover up murder.

Many of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels are set in the desert of Australia’s Outback. Let me just give one example. In The Bushman Who Came Back, life at the Wootton homestead is turned upside down when Mrs. Bell, who serves as housekeeper, is found shot. What’s more, her daughter Linda has disappeared. Everyone is especially fond of Linda, so a massive search is launched. It’s suspected that a bushman named Yorkie killed Mrs. Bell and took Linda, Bony is sent to investigate and to try to rescue Linda if he can. There are several scenes in this novel that depict just how harsh the desert in that part of the world can be, and in fact, that’s part of the reason for which there’s such a sense of urgency to Bony’s search. In the end, Bony finds out the truth about Mrs. Bell’s murder and as you imagine, it’s not at all what it seems to be at first.

More recently, Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels depict life in the Outback desert. Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) who is assigned to Moonlight Downs, an aboriginal encampment that’s,

 

‘…miles from nowhere. The nearest town, Bluebush, was four hours of rough roads away, Alice Springs another five beyond that.’

 

Because Tempest was brought up there, she knows the land and is prepared for the harsh climate. But that doesn’t mean she’s safe from desert danger…

Fans of Tony Hillerman will know that his Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee novels are set in the American Southwest. The intersection of the US states of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado is often called Four Corners, and is the home of several Native American Nations, including the Navajo. The desert there is unforgiving, but both Chee and Leaphorn have always lived in the area and have learned how to adapt to the climate. Novels such as The Blessing Way and The Dark Wind give readers vivid portraits of life in the desert.

So does Betty Webb’s series featuring Scottsdale, Arizona PI Lena Jones. Together with her partner Jimmy Sisiwan, Jones owns Desert Investigations.  Jones is familiar with living and working in a desert climate, and she’s well aware of the dangers. But even she comes almost fatally close to those dangers in Desert Noir. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling the novel; suffice it to say that the desert is not a safe place to be if you’re at all vulnerable.

And then there’s Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders. Former Florida judge Sylvia Thorn grew up in Illinois and has lived in Florida for some years. But she gets more than a taste of the desert experience when she accompanies her mother’s travel club the Florida Flippers on a sightseeing tour of Laughlin, Nevada. The group hasn’t been settled in their hotel very long when one of the group members finds the body of an unknown man in her hotel room’s bathtub. Then, another group member disappears and is later found in an abandoned mine. Thorn wants to keep her mother and the rest of the group safe, so she begins to investigate. With help from her brother Willie Grisseljon, Thorn finds out who the murderer is and why the Florida Flippers seem to be the focus of so much mayhem.

As you can see, the desert is not the kind of place you want to be unless you are thoroughly prepared. And sometimes even then, it’s not all that safe. And I haven’t even mentioned the Arctic deserts…

 

ps.  The ‘photo is of the sunrise over the Nevada desert. It only looks peaceful and safe…

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Hearts and Bones.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Betty Webb, Patricia Stoltey, Tony Hillerman

And Nothing’s as Precious as a Hole in the Ground*

MineAs any crime fiction fan can tell you, a murder can happen just about anywhere. That said though, some settings just lend themselves to crime fiction in ways that others might not.  Take mines as an example. You probably don’t think about mines very often unless you come from a mining town or family. But they really are terrific settings for a crime novel. For one thing, there’s the mine shaft itself. That’s a very effective place to commit a crime or at least hide a body. And there’s mining in many, many different countries, so there’s a lot of flexibility in terms where the story can take place. Mining communities can be close-knit and insular too, and that can lead to all sorts of motives for murder.

Mining turns out to be a deadly industry for Wu Ling, whose murder Hercule Poirot investigates in Agatha Christie’s short story The Lost Mine. He is the head of a Chinese family that owns valuable documents relating to some Burmese mines. He’s willing to sell them (and the mining rights) to a British syndicate, but only if he can meet with the principals. So it’s arranged that he’ll travel to London and attend a board meeting of the company that’s going to buy the documents. He makes the journey without incident, but when his body is later found in a seedy district of East London, Inspector Miller is assigned to the case. Not long afterwards, Charles Lester is arrested for the crime. He was known to be in debt, and the papers were worth a lot of money. What’s more, he’d made the acquaintance of the victim on the trip to England, and was the last person to have been seen with the victim. Hercule Poirot’s been hired by the company to find the papers so he gets involved in the investigation. And as you can imagine, he’s not satisfied with the case against Lester…

Much of the action in Reginald Hill’s Under World takes place in the coal mining town of Burrthorpe. Several years earlier, a young girl Tracey Pedley disappeared. The police thought that she was a victim of Donald Pickford, who had already admitted to being a child molester and has since committed suicide. But others thought Tracey was killed by Billy Farr, a Burrthorpe miner who disappeared. When Farr’s skeleton is found in the mine, it looks as though he either had a tragic accident or committed suicide, and Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe and their team investigate. Billy’s son Colin has come back to the UK to take over his father’s mining job. He’s angry and bitter and has never really believed the stories about his father, but he settles back into life in Burrthorpe. Tragedy strikes again when Harold Satterthwaite is killed in the mine. And Colin Farr is the main suspect, since he and Satterthwaite were both romantic rivals and enemies. As Dalziel and Pascoe and the team look into this new murder, we see how it relates to the disappearance of Tracey Pedley and the death of Billy Farr. We also get a look at life in a mining town, and at the network of relationships that develop there.

Several of the novels in Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series take place in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ As you can guess from the name of the town, it was originally a mining town, and in fact there are still stories told of mining explosions, ghosts of miners and so on. And in The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, those abandoned mines are used for a modern-day murder. There’s been a series of suspicious fires in some of the abandoned mines and columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is looking into them. Then, one of the volunteer firefighters Ralph ‘Ruff’ Abbey is shot at the Big B Mine. It turns out that he witnessed one of the fires being set and was killed because of what he’d seen. Qwill and Police Chief Andrew Brodie look into the case and find out that these events are connected with the murder of a local book dealer and the destruction of his business.

Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth shows us just how useful mines can be for hiding bodies. In that novel, journalist Tony di Venuto plans to do a ten-years-on retrospective on the disappearance of Emma Bestwick, who went off on her bicycle one day and never returned. When di Venuto gets a tip that Emma is dead, and a clue as to where her body can be found, her case is re-opened. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team find Emma’s body in The Arsenic Labyrinth, a series of underground tunnels that were used to mine arsenic and remove it from ore. What’s even more shocking is the team also finds a skeleton that’s been buried for fifty years. Now they’ve got two murders to investigate and as it turns out, the two are related. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett and her team trace the deaths to local family histories and long-held secrets.

An abandoned mine shaft figures strongly in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow, too. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) police department is called in when the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. At first, everyone had believed that Katie had run away from home, but Cardinal never believed that. So now that the body’s been discovered, he and Detective Lise Delorme re-open the investigation. They find that Katie’s death is connected to two other deaths. Then, they get word of another disappearance and now they know that if they don’t catch the killer, there’ll be yet another murder…

Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders takes place in mostly Laughlin and Oatman, Nevada. When retired judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother’s travel group on a sightseeing tour to that part of Nevada, she’s hoping all will go smoothly. But it’s not long before tragedy strikes. First, the body of an unknown man is found in the hotel bathroom shared by two of the group members. Then another tour group member disappears and her body is later found in an old mine. Thorn gets drawn into the murder investigations mostly because she wants to keep her mother and the remaining members of the tour group as safe as she can and in the end, she finds that the deaths are related to greed and to secrets that someone’s been keeping.

There’s also a climactic scene at an old mine in Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin. In that novel, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate the discovery of two sets of remains at Pity Wood Farm, near Rakesdale in the Peak District. The deaths turn out to be related to Pity Wood Farm’s background and to a later, related murder. At one point in the novel, Cooper and Fry connect what’s been happening at the farm with the old Magpie Mine, a former lead mine. Saying much more about what happens at the mine would come closer to spoiling the novel than I want, but the mine itself is a suitably eerie place and does figure in this novel.

Mines are unique. They foster a special kind of community and the settings themselves are fascinating – and dangerous. I don’t wonder at all that there are so many of them in crime fiction.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Giles Blunt, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martin Edwards, Patricia Stoltey, Reginald Hill, Stephen Booth

He Met a Girl Out There With a Tattoo Too*

TattoosIn the past few decades, tattoos have become more and more ‘mainstream.’ Of course as we’ll see, they’ve been around for a very long time, but it wasn’t really until more recent years that a lot of ‘regular’ people have been getting them. One of the things about tattoos is that they can be distinctive. Whether you like them or you don’t, they can give very clear clues as to a person’s identity, so it’s no wonder that when someone goes missing, one of the first things the police ask is whether that person has a tattoo or some other distinguishing mark. That’s also the case when someone is attacked; the cops almost always ask whether the assailant had a tattoo. Because tattoos have been woven into our culture for quite some time, it’s no surprise that we see them quite a lot in crime fiction. And sometimes they can be very useful.

For instance, a few of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories hinge on Sherlock Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos. In The Red-Headed League, we meet Mr. Jabez Wilson, a pawn-shop owner who’s had some odd things happen to him. He decided to earn a little extra money by responding to an advertisement for an open position. The job, as he found out, involved copying the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it was easy enough. Then one day he found his new employer’s business had abruptly closed. He wants Holmes to find out what’s going on, and Holmes is intrigued enough to agree. It turns out that Wilson has been used by a group of thieves who wanted to use his shop as a base for digging a tunnel into a nearby bank. In the scene where we meet Wilson, Holmes notes that Wilson has been in China. He knows that by the look of a tattoo just above Wilson’s wrist – it’s made in a way that Holmes knows is distinctively Chinese. There are other stories too (I’m thinking, for instance of The ‘Gloria Scott’) in which Holmes’ knowledge of tattoos comes in handy.

In Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons, liquor store owner John Li is shot and LAPD cops Harry Bosch and Ignacio Ferras are called to the scene. Li’s wife doesn’t speak English, and Bosch and Ferras are not thoroughly familiar with the Chinese culture of that part of Los Angeles. So Detective David Chu, who’s associated with the LAPD’s Asian Gangs Unit (AGU) is called in to assist. He proves to be very useful in helping Bosch and Ferras make sense of the culture and of the payments that Li had been making to a member of a triad – a ‘protection’ group. When Bosch shows Chu a video of one of Li’s payoffs to the triad member, Chu notices something else about the man: a tattoo. The tattoo gives Chu some interesting information that leads the police to suspect that Li might have been shot by a member of a particular triad with connections in Hong Kong. Then everything changes when Bosch gets a call from his daughter Maddie, who lives in Hong Kong. She says she’s been kidnapped and Bosch is sure that it has something to do with his current investigation. He goes as quickly as he can to search for his daughter. In the end, Bosch finds out what happened to John Li and to Maddie, and how the two are connected.

Inspector Salvo Montalbano makes effective use of a tattoo for identification in Andrea Camilleri’s The Wings of the Sphinx. A young woman is found dead near a local landfill. She has no clothes or other identification, so no-one knows who she is. The only identifying feature that’s really distinctive about her is the tattoo of a sphinx moth on her left shoulder. Montalbano doesn’t recognise the tattoo, but he asks his friend Nicolò Zito, who works for Vigatà’s Free Channel, to help. Zito broadcasts the picture of the tattoo and before long, Montalbano and his team are able to link the victim to a group of young Eastern European women who’d come to Sicily to find jobs. He also links the case to corruption in a social service agency and to some odd thefts.

Peter Lovesey’s Bath CID chief Peter Diamond has a similar challenge in The Tooth Tattoo. The body of a young woman is found in a canal in Bath. Oddly enough, there’s a sense of déjà vu for Diamond; he and his partner Paloma Kean have recently been in Vienna where they saw a memorial to another young woman who was also killed and dumped in a canal. Both were Japanese music students, too. The second victim – the one found in Bath – has only one identifying feature: the tattoo of a musical note on one of her teeth. It’s also discovered that she was a fanatic ‘groupie’ of Staccati, a string quartet. Bit by bit, Diamond and his team trace the relationship between the string quartet and its mysterious history and the deaths of the two victims.

In Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos, we learn that tattoos can also tell stories. This one is about a woman who’s recently been released from prison after serving time for murder. She and her dog Sully are settled into an apartment not far from a child care facility where one day, she gets into an argument with one of the parents. When a complaint is later lodged against her for keeping a restricted-breed animal (Sully is a pit bull), the woman blames her antagonist at the child care facility and plots her revenge. As she does so, we learn exactly what happened that sent her to prison. We also learn what the meaning is of her teardrop tattoos.

Peter Robinson’s Cold Is the Grave is the story of what happens to Emily Riddle, daughter of Chief Constable Jeremiah ‘Jimmy’ Riddle. Emily has left home, and her parents become alarmed when her younger brother Benjamin discovers pornographic ‘photos of her on a website. Riddle is now desperate to find his daughter and he asks DCI Alan Banks to help. The idea is that if Banks goes as a civilian, he’ll draw less attention to a personal matter that Riddle wants very much to stay private. Riddle and Banks have had a rancourous relationship in the past, but Banks is a father too. So he reluctantly agrees to look into the matter. Banks’ search for Emily takes him into some very seamy parts of London and one of the things that helps him find out what happened to her is the fact that in the ‘photos Benjamin saw, she has a spider tattoo.

And that’s the thing about tattoos. They can be very helpful in identifying a person. So they often cut down on the time it takes to find out who an unknown victim is. And they can be very interesting personal statements. That’s part of why sleuths such as Robinson’s Annie Cabbot and Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn have them. No wonder we see them in crime fiction.

Oh, did you notice one very famous tattooed sleuth I didn’t mention? Oh, come on -  too easy! ;-)

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tom Petty’s Into the Great Wide Open.

   

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Filed under Andrea Camilleri, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Michael Connelly, Patricia Stoltey, Peter Lovesey, Peter Robinson

All I Wanna Do is Have Some Fun*

When Writing is FunIt’s not easy to write a novel. Any writer will tell you that creating characters, developing the plot, providing closure and all of the other elements of storytelling can be challenging. And that’s not to mention things like editing and revising. But don’t let any writer (including this one) fool you into thinking there’s no enjoyment in it. There are some scenes, characters and events that are fun, or at least enjoyable to write. And that enjoyment can definitely come through in a story.

For instance, of all of the books and plays she wrote, Agatha Christie is said to have most enjoyed writing Crooked House. As she put it,

 

‘Writing Crooked House was pure pleasure…’

 

It’s clear from the novel too that she took special enjoyment in creating the story. In this novel, wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides and his much-younger wife Brenda live with several members of their family in Three Gables, the family home. When Leonides’ grand-daughter Sophie returns to Three Gables after World War II, she finds that her grandfather has been poisoned with his own eye drops. Sophie’s fiancé Charles Hayward knows that she will not marry him until the matter of who killed Leonides is settled. So Hayward is strongly motivated to do some sleuthing. As he gets to know the various members of the family, he discovers that several of them had a good reason to want Leonides dead. This novel (in my opinion, so do feel free to differ with me if you do) has all of the ingredients that made Christie’s work so well-regarded. It’s easy to see how much she enjoyed writing it.

In Michael Connolly’s The Lincoln Lawyer, we are introduced to attorney Mickey Haller, who works out of his automobile and travels to visit his clients. In this case, the client is Hollywood playboy and real estate dealer Louis Roulet, who’s been arrested for rape and murder. On the surface of it, the case looks clear-cut, but the more Haller digs into it, the more possibility there is that, as unlikeable as he is, Roulet is not guilty. Connelly has said that he enjoyed writing Haller’s two ex-wives. One is deputy district attorney Maggie ‘McFierce’ McPherson. The other is Lorna Taylor, who works as Haller’s assistant. According to Connelly, the fact that these two women still like Haller, maybe even love him, shows that he’s got some redeeming qualities. And it’s clear that Haller respects them too. The marriages may not have been successful, but the relationships have, and it’s obvious from the way Connelly has developed these characters that he likes them.

In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn is reluctantly persuaded to go on a sightseeing/gambling trip with her mother Kristina’s travel group the Florida Flippers. The group has plans to visit Laughlin, Nevada, and all goes well enough at first. Then, the dead body of an unknown man is found in the bathtub of the hotel room shared by two of the Flippers. Shortly afterwards, another member of the group disappears and is later found dead in an abandoned gold mine. Partly to protect her mother and the rest of the Flippers, Thorn looks into the case and together with her brother Willie, she finds out how the two deaths are connected and what’s behind them. In one scene in the novel, Thorn, her mother and the Flippers have arrived at the Oatman Hotel in Oatman, a famous ghost town near the gold mine. They’re getting off the tour bus from Laughlin when Thorn suddenly finds herself surrounded by a group of the burros that make Oatman their home. She has another encounter with the burros later in the novel. No, the burros don’t attack, and they don’t have anything to do with the murders, but they add to the story, and I’m pretty certain it was fun to write about them.

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client Daniel Guest. Guest is being blackmailed because of some secret relationships he’s had with other men. He hires Quant to find and stop the blackmailer and Quant begins to look into the case. The trail leads to New York, where Quant crosses paths with another PI Jane Cross, who lives and works in Regina. Neither is particularly enamoured of the other but as it turns out, the cases they are working on are related. So like it or not, Quant has to interact with Cross. In the end, and after a murder, Quant works out who blackmailed his client, who killed the murder victim and how Jane Cross fits in. Here is what Bidulka had to say about Jane Cross:

 

‘I enjoyed writing her character, especially as a foil for Russell.’

 

And that’s clear from the novels in which she appears. Cross is smart, interesting and absolutely unafraid. The interactions between her and Quant are sometimes tense and unpleasant, but they are engaging and sometimes really witty.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Half Child. That’s the second in her series featuring  PI Jayne Keeney, who lives and works in Bangkok. In that novel, Keeney investigates the death of Maryanne Delbeck, who jumped (or fell, or was pushed) from the roof of the Pattaya hotel where she was living. The official police report is that Maryanne was suffering from depression and committed suicide. But her father doesn’t believe it and wants Keeney to look into the matter. Keeney travels to Pattaya and goes undercover at the orphanage/child care home where Maryanne volunteered to try to get some answers. Along with finding out what really happened to Maryanne, Keeney also finds out some very ugly truths about the child care facility. In her personal life, Keeney has begun a relationship with Rajiv Patel, who manages his uncle’s Bangkok bookshop. Throughout this case, Patel proves to be very helpful, so much so that Keeney re-thinks her relationship with him as well as her view of her work. At the end of this novel, Patel finds a way to surprise Keeney. That scene is not just fun, it’s moving, too, and I have it on very good authority that it was

 

‘…great fun to write…’

 

And that’s clear when one reads it.

Part of the reason that writers keep doing what they do is that despite the challenges, it can be a lot of fun. And when an author enjoys particular characters, scenes and so on, that comes through clearly in the story. Do you see that too? Can you tell when an author is enjoying himself or herself? If you’re a writer, which scenes or characters have you had the most fun writing?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheryl Crow’s All I Wanna Do.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Michael Connelly, Patricia Stoltey

I See the Place Lives*

Old MainAny crime fiction fan can tell you that a good, atmospheric setting can add a lot to a novel. And a well-written post from Annette Thomson has got me thinking of the way that old buildings can be rich with history and character. Annette’s blog, by the way, is an excellent writing blog and Annette is a talented poet and writer. Check it out. Old buildings like the one Annette describes have their own stories to tell, and when they’re woven into a crime novel, this can add layers of atmosphere to a story.

There’s a building like that in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral. When wealthy family patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family gathers for his funeral and the reading of the will. At this gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone is quick to discount what she says and Cora herself asks everyone to forget she’s said anything. But privately, everyone wonders whether she might have been right. After all, Richard Abernethie had a fortune to leave and a family full of relations who are eager for their shares of it. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day it seems more and more likely that she was right. Family lawyer Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. As part of his search for answers, Poirot visits Enderby Hall in the guise of a representative of a foundation that wants to buy the old house. During his visit, he hears some important conversations and remarks, and gets some vital clues as to what really happened to both Richard Abernethie and Cora Lansquenet. The house itself has a rich history and we see that mostly through the eyes of the family butler Lanscombe, who’s been there for decades. As he goes about his duties we get a sense of the way an old building like this one can have memories.

There’s a very atmospheric, history-laden building featured in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first in his Gideon Fell series. Tad Rampole has just completed his university studies and has decided to travel a bit. On the advice of his mentor, he seeks out Dr. Gideon Fell, who lives in Chatterham. On his way to visit Fell, Rampole meets and becomes smitten with Dorothy Starberth. When he meets Fell, Rampole hears the story of the Starberth family. Beginning with Anthony Starberth, two generations of Starberths were governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison then fell into disuse and hasn’t housed any convicts for a hundred years. And yet the Starberth family still maintains a prison-related tradition. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday each Starberth heir spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. While there, he opens the safe in the room and follows the instructions in a note left in the safe. Now it’s the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother Martin to follow the ritual and he duly prepares for his stay. Sometime during the night Martin Starberth dies from what looks like a fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. But it’s soon clear that he was murdered. As Fell, Rampole and Chief Constable Sir Benjamin Arnold investigate, we get a real sense of the rich and eerie history of the prison building. The old building adds much to the story in terms of atmosphere.

So does the Palace Theatre in Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House.  When Arthur Bryant of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) decides to write his memoirs, he makes a shocking discovery about the first case the unit solved. He’s following up on this finding when a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices and takes Bryant with it. Bryant’s police partner John May decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, he’ll have to revisit the 1940 case that Bryant was reviewing. Through flashbacks we learn that in that case, the PCU investigates the murder of dancer Tanya Capistrania, who was part of the cast of Orpheus, which is scheduled to open at the Palace Theatre. As the team looks into what happened to the victim, preparations continue for the production, but they are marred by another murder, followed by a disappearance. It turns out that there was one question about that case that was not resolved. Bryant found out the answer to that question and when May does too, we find out how that 1940 case is connected to the modern-day blast. Throughout this novel, the Palace Theatre provides a rich, atmospheric and history-laden setting for much of what happens. Just the building itself adds much to the story.

We also see that sense of atmosphere in Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders. Retired Florida circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn reluctantly agrees to accompany her mother Kristina Grisseljon’s travel club the Florida Flippers on a sightseeing and gambling tour of Laughlin, Nevada. Everyone settles in and all begins well enough. But shortly afterwards the body of a man no-one seems to know is found in the bathtub of the hotel room that two of the club members are sharing. Then one of the tour group members disappears. She is later found dead in the abandoned Lone Cactus gold mine. With help from her brother Willie and from the other members of the Florida Flippers, Sylvia finds out what the connection between the deaths is, and how they relate to some nasty secrets that someone has been hiding. One part of the story takes place in Oatman, Nevada, a ghost town near the mine. There are a few very effective scenes there, especially in the Oatman Hotel, which is full of history and character. As a matter of fact, there’s talk that a ghost haunts the hotel. The ghost town setting and the old mine really add atmosphere to this novel. Oh, and so do the burros.

And then there’s the Löwander Hospital, which features strongly in Helene Tursten’s Night Rounds. This private hospital has been in the Löwander family for a few generations and is now directed by Sverker Löwander. One night there’s a blackout at the hospital during which a nurse Marianne Svärd is killed. Another nurse Linda Svensson disappears and is later found dead. Eerily enough, her body is discovered in the same place where fifty years earlier, another nurse Thekla Olsson hung herself. Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and her team are called in to investigate the nurses’ murders and another death that occurs. Since the three deaths all seem to be connected to the hospital in some way, the team spends its share of time there. The place is full of history and stories and that atmosphere adds to the novel.

There’s only room in this one post for a few examples of the kind of rich atmosphere and history that old buildings can add to a story (I know, I know, fans of Johan Theorin’s Öland novels). They can either provide an interesting contrast to a light story, or add a real layer of eeriness and mystery to a darker one. Which old buildings do you wish could tell you their stories? If you’re a writer, do you use old places as an inspiration?

Thanks, Annette, for the post that inspired me. And thanks, Elizabeth Spann Craig, for another post with a ‘photo of a great atmospheric Southern Gothic building. That inspired me too.

ps. The ‘photo is of Old Main, the heart of the campus of Knox College, Galesburg IL.  It is a building full of history and all sorts of stories. Among other things, the building is the site of one of the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates of 1858. Oh, and the winsome model on the steps is my daughter when she was a few months shy of her seventh birthday.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Mount Eerie’s The Place Lives.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Christopher Fowler, Helene Tursten, Johan Theorin, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Stoltey