Among many other things, crime fiction shows us how society changes over time. It also gives readers a look at really interesting social phenomena. For instance, from the turn of the last century until the 1960s, the dance hall was an important fixture in the social life of many communities. Before the nightclub was introduced, dance halls were the places people went to on a Friday or Saturday night. Some dance halls were of course seedy and dangerous. Others were more respectable places where young people could meet. Either way, they were places where a diverse group of people got together, where romance blossomed, where liquor was sometimes served and conflicts sometimes erupted. Yes, they were perfect contexts for a mystery. Here are a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s short story The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Maria Packington is fed up with her life and with her husband George, who has been paying far more attention to his secretary than business requires. At the end of her tether, she answers a cryptic personal ad:
Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.
Intrigued, she does just that. Pyne takes her case and that’s how she meets Claude Luttrell. Luttrell is pleasant, attractive and debonair. The two begin to go out to meals and to dance halls. For George’s part, he’s pleased that Maria is much less grumpy and jealous, and hopes that means she’ll leave him freer to pursue his own interests. Then one night, the Packingtons and their respective escorts end up at the same dance hall, The Red Admiral. That evening changes everything.
Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin series will know that Goodwin and his sometimes-girlfriend Lily Rowan go out dancing in several of the stories. In Death of a Dude for instance, Rowan has invited Goodwin to be part of a house party at her ranch in rural Montana. Goodwin plans to return to New York after a short holiday, but his plans change when Philip Brodell is shot and Lily’s ranch manager Roger Dunning is accused of the murder. Lily is quite sure he’s innocent, and she wants an initially-reluctant Goodwin to investigate. He doesn’t feel quite at home in this rural atmosphere, but this is Lily Rown, so he agrees. He also writes to Nero Wolfe explaining what’s happened and why he won’t be back to New York until much later than he’d thought. Wolfe takes an interest in the case; in fact, this is one of the few Rex Stout stories in which Wolfe leaves his famous New York brownstone in the course of an investigation. He travels to Montana where he and Goodwin find out who shot Brodell and why. And part of the answer lies at Woodrow ‘Woody’ Stephanian’s Hall of Culture, which serves as a Saturday night dance hall, and where Goodwin and Lily go out more than once.
In Kerry Greenwood’s The Green Mill Murder, Phryne Fisher and her date Charles Freeman are dancing at the Green Mill, a popular upmarket dance hall. A dance marathon has just ended when one of the contestants Bernard Stevens slumps to the floor, stabbed to death. Phyrne gets involved in the investigation, but before she can get very far, Charles Freeeman disappears. His mother hires Phryne to find him, and what she discovers leads back to Freeman’s past and to the end of World War I. It’s also tied in with the solution of the mystery.
And then there’s Victoria Thompson’s Murder on St. Mark’s Place. New York City midwife Sarah Brandt is called to the home of one of her patients Agnes Otto, who is due at any time to give birth to her third child. Thinking she’s been called to assist at the delivery, Brandt arrives to find that Agnes’ sister Gerda has been beaten to death and her body found in an alley. Gerda had recently come from Germany to live with her sister and start a new life. She was working at a shirt factory and so far as anyone knew, didn’t have any enemies. Agnes is sure that the police won’t bother investigating the murder of a poor German immigrant, and that’s what upsets her the most. Brandt agrees to contact Detective Sergeant Frank Malloy, whom she knows from another case, and ask his help. Together she and Malloy begin to look into the matter. It turns out that Gerda spent her fair share of time at Harmony Hall, a rather disreputable dance hall. They soon learn that several girls, known as Charity Girls, went to the dance hall to get the things in life that they couldn’t begin to afford on their own. In exchange for ‘services rendered,’ they could get clothes, good meals, and so on. It turns out that Harmony Hall is key to finding out what really happened to Gerda.
Vicki Delany’s Klondike Mystery series takes place at the end of the last century in Yukon Territory, and features Fiona MacGillivray, owner of Dawson’s Savoy Dance Hall. At that time, Dawson is a gold-rush boom town, and many different people from all over the world have come to make their fortunes. The Savoy is of course one of the social hubs in the area, so Fiona and her son Angus often find themselves involved when there are conflicts and of course, murders. For example, in Gold Digger, the first novel of the series, the stage at Savoy is the scene of a murder when American news reporter Jack Ireland is killed. There’s no lack of suspects either, since he’d managed to make plenty of enemies even in the short time he’d been in Dawson. Since Fiona herself falls under suspicion, she works to find out who the killer really is.
Now that nightclubs have more or less replaced them, we don’t really see dance halls any more. But they were an important part of social history for many cultures. And they can be very effective settings for crime novels.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Kinks’ Come Dancing.