And Soon in the Gym With a Determined Chin*

One of the interesting things about crime fiction is the way in which it reveals and mirrors our values, assumptions and even lifestyles. As times and attitudes change, crime fiction reflects this and that lets us take a look at our society. Just as an example, consider the mushrooming gym and health club industry. Research has shown that regular exercise has a lot of health benefits and is associated with longer lifespans. While fitness clubs have been around for a long time, the fitness industry has grown considerably in the last three or so decades. We see that change in attitude in crime fiction. Today there’s an almost bewildering variety of fitness club options, and they’ve become more than just places for serious athletes to train. That setting brings all sorts of disparate people together simply because so many people are now aware of and interested in getting and staying fit. So not only do we see sleuths who practice physical fitness, but we also see the gym or health club as a setting for a murder.

Although there were health clubs in Agatha Christie’s day, her work doesn’t really include a lot of attention to physical fitness. Hercule Poirot, for instance, is more likely to take a walk to, as he would put it, reduce the figure than he is to consider a fitness regimen. In fact, he’s chided about it a little in Evil  Under the Sun in which he investigates the strangling murder of actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. The setting for that novel is the Jolly Roger Hotel, which is situated on Leathercombe Bay in Devonshire. One of the other guests at the hotel is Emily Brewster, a vigourous and athletic woman who goes out for a row every morning. She tells Poirot that if he rowed every day, he’d soon get rid of “a certain protuberance in his middle.”  Needless to say, Poirot doesn’t adopt her suggestion. It’s not a major plot point in this novel but it does serve to show a certain attitude about exercise: it’s something one does outdoors. Rowing, walking, swimming and tennis, for instance are ways that people keep fit at this time.

Today the fitness industry is an ever-present part of a lot of people’s lives. That’s as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. For instance, in Robin Cook’s Marker, we meet medical examiner Chet McGovern. He isn’t what you would call a “gym rat” but he does belong to Sports LA, a successful fitness club. His connection to the club proves to be critical when his office-mate Jack Stapleton and Jack’s wife Laurie Montgomery get involved in a series of unexpected deaths at Manhattan General Hospital that follow what are supposed to be routine surgeries. When they discover what’s behind the deaths, they also discover that the danger is a lot closer to home than they thought. McGovern doesn’t turn out to be the killer but Cook uses the gym effectively both as a setting in itself and as a believable way for Montgomery and Stapleton to find the truth behind the deaths.

There’s also an effective use of a fitness club in Rita Mae Brown’s Hiss of Death. In that novel, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen has a frightening health crisis that sends her to Central Virginia Hospital. Paula Benton, a nurse who works at the hospital, proves both helpful and supportive to Harry so when she’s killed, Harry has a strong motivation to find out what happened and how and why Paula died. Then there’s another death. It’s now clear that something is going on at the hospital. Meanwhile, as a part of Harry’s plan to return to good health, she goes to the Heavy Metal Gym and embarks on a training routine. As she begins to return to health, she learns quite a lot and gets an important set of clues as to what’s behind the two murders.

A gym proves to be very helpful to Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover too in Progressive Dinner Deadly. In that novel, what starts out as a book club morphs into a progressive dinner club. The idea is that members will visit each other’s homes, with each host offering a different dinner course (appetizer, salad, main dish, dessert and so on). Clover herself isn’t happy about this change since she is not famous for her gourmet cooking. But she grumpily goes along with the idea. Then on the night of the first progressive dinner, club member Jill Caulfield is murdered. There are a number of suspects too. Jill made a living cleaning houses and found out several people’s secrets that way. Clover discovers that one of the suspects in the murder is a member of Fit Life, a local gym. That gives her enough motivation to do what her doctor has been telling her to do – get regular exercise. So she joins the gym and ends up getting some important clues there. She also discovers that getting into the habit of going to the gym is actually not as onerous as she’d feared.

Sometimes a gym is even a murder scene. That’s what happens in Ann Cleeves’ Silent Voices. DI Vera Stanhope’s doctor has made it clear that she needs to lose weight and get into better physical shape. Stanhope knows she ought to be in better health, but at the same time, she’s somewhat self-conscious about her appearance, especially when she compares herself to the fit, slender young women who frequent health clubs. Besides, she doesn’t want her work colleagues to know what she’s doing. So she joins an out-of-town health club and begins to go there to swim. Early one morning, she goes to the steam room after her swim when she discovers the body of social worker Jenny Lister, who’s been strangled. At first no-one even knows who the woman is but when her identity is discovered, Stanhope and her team begin their investigation. Lister seems to have lived “a perfect life” and there seems no motive for the murder. But of course, things are not exactly what they seem and the gossip that always swirls around clubs helps Stanhope get to the truth about the murder.

Even when a gym or fitness club isn’t the focus of a murder, we often see sleuths who use gyms and incorporate them into their lives. Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss for instance is a judo expert. She runs to keep in shape but she also visits the local dojo where she practices and leads a judo class. And Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant likes to use the gym to keep in shape too. He’s not what you’d call obsessed with fitness but he does feel it when he hasn’t worked out.

It’s always interesting to see how phenomena like fitness clubs and gyms work their way into crime fiction. As much as a set of mystery stories and puzzles to solve, crime fiction shows us ourselves, and that includes our attitudes towards staying in shape. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for my workout. 😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s I Can Make You a Man.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Anthony Bidulka, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Helene Tursten, Rita Mae Brown, Robin Cook

20 responses to “And Soon in the Gym With a Determined Chin*

  1. I’ve always liked VI Wasrshawski’s jogging habits even though it’s not something I do myself ;-). There was a nice health spa/gym murder in a Sarah Dunant crime novel but i forget which one.

    • Sarah – I know what you mean about Warshawski’s running. It suits her personality and fits her somehow. Your comment about Sarah Dunant made me wonder if you’re thinking of Under My Skin. That’s the Hannah Wolfe story that takes place at Castle Dean spa where all sorts of nasty things are going on…

  2. Lovely post, Margot.
    The title just spoke to me, because the only thing that’s keeping me sane these days is the gym!!!!
    Strictly not the gym, but one book that definitely fits the bill is the lovely book I first read about on your blog- Laura Lippman’s “Baltimore Blues”. Loved the book, and thank you for recommending it.
    And I do not comment much, but I do read your posts religiously.

    • Natasha – Thank you 🙂 And I know exactly what you mean about the gym helping to keep you sane. I go to the gym three times a week and I am very jealous of that time; no-one encroaches on it. Thank you, too, for mentioning Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan. She’s a rower who gets a lot of benefits from her trips out onto the water. And you are welcome to comment whenever you want; I love hearing from you.

  3. Margot: Sometimes when I read Kinsey Milhone I feel guilty that I cannot convince myself to get up early in the morning and go running.

    Spenser was also pretty dedicated about staying in top shape. He gained considerable exercise at the gym hitting boxing bags (big and small).

    Nero Wolfe just shuddered at the word exercise.

    • Bill – I had to laugh at your mention of Nero Wolfe. Yes, indeed, the very thought of exercise is enough to make him exhausted! I know what you mean too about Kinsey Millhone. She has the self-discipline to get up early and go for a run. I couldn’t bring myself to run quite that early either. Does walking my dogs count? 😉
      Thanks too for the mention of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. He makes the gym a big part of his life.

  4. I too enjoyed those Sarah Dunant crime novels and think it is a pity she stopped writing them. It is interesting how many detectives spend lots of time keeping fit by running/going to the gym/other. Kinsey Millhone spends a lot of time running & in the books in which she meets her long-lost family she is a bit critical of the cousin her age who has never bothered with such things, and looks rather different to Kinsey herself. There is also a kind of “pecking order” to the keeping fit of detectives, I’ve noticed, with the ones who go running or take other outdoor exercise such as hiking, mountaineering, etc, looking down on the ones who merely go to the gym to tone up their muscles 😉

    • Maxine – I miss Susan Dunant’s crime novels, too. And you’re right about Kinsey Millhone; not only is she a dedicated runner, but she is rather proud of staying in shape. Among many other complicated feelings Millhone has about her family, it’s interesting that one comes out. And good spot about that exercise “pecking order” too. I hadn’t thought about it before but the serious outdoor athlete type detectives do have a kind of feeling of superiority over those who go to the gym. Interesting isn’t it 😉

  5. Skywatcher

    Our first introduction to Simon Templar (The Saint) is during an exercise session. In MEET THE TIGER (1928) he makes his first appearance doing some running, press-ups etc on a deserted beach. The work out ends with someone attempting to shoot him, this traumatic incident presumably explaining why he is never seen exercising in any of the remaining 40-something books!

    • Skywatcher – Oh, thank you for reminding me of Simon Templar. He’s an interesting character and I haven’t thought about him for a while. And yes, I can well imagine that being shot at is reason enough not to try a repeat of a beach workout!

  6. Ann Cleeve’s Vera book Silent Voices was televised the other week, and it was an excellent story and production. I noticed that in this series the episodes taken from her books are much better than those written by TV writers.
    My own weighty detective status has gone from Martin Beck to Morse to Andy Dalziel to Hercule Poirot, and now unfortunately Nero Wolfe is starting to loom in the mirror.

    • Norman – I’m glad that television adaptation of Silent Voices was well-done. Cleeves has a lot of talent and it’s good to see that her skills come through in the TV version.
      Your other comment reminds me of how envious I get of sylph-like characters such as Lisbeth Salander who can eat all the pizza and takeaway they want and stay rail-thin. I gain weight just looking at adverts for pizza *sigh.*

  7. I think that both food and fitness are interesting aspects of many mysteries. Food has long been a part of the scene – seems people who like to write crime also like to hang out in kitchens. I was reading a Louise Penney the other day and thought how fun it would be to cook everything mentioned in her book! Now that would make me look more like Poirot than I would like! My second (not quite finished) mystery ‘Earth Bound’ has a pilates teacher as one of the suspects. It is set in 2000 so I want to make sure that that exercise program would’ve made it to small town Nova Scotia – might have to change it to dancersize or yoga. hmmmm…

    • Jan – You know, you have a well-taken point. Food really is very basic, and there are a lot of eating and cooking scenes in crime fiction. It makes sense too when you think of how integral eating is to our lives. And I agree; I’d love to be able to make some of the delicious food that’s served in Gabriel and Olivier’s (Louise Penny) bistro :-).
      There really is a lot of emphasis on staying healthy in modern culture too, so you’re right; it’s not surprising (and it is interesting!) that we see it in crime fiction. I really like the idea of having that thread – and a pilates teacher – woven through your story. It’s wise of you to check to be sure that’d be plausible in Peggy’s Cove, but I hope it is; it’s a great concept!

  8. Jan Morrison mentioned food in mysteries. I could recall a few instances of sleuths snacking in between snooping but not a single one of a sleuth in a gym or out jogging. I think fitness is a fairly new element in crime-fiction. These are aspects I probably wouldn’t have noticed in the course of reading mysteries written by early-day writers. It didn’t really matter then. For instance, Holmes is known to have used his fists on one or two occasions but I doubt he ever went jogging. On the other hand, modern-day crime-fiction writers are fitness freaks, I would imagine, which might explain why they write about fitness and lifestyle in their novels.

    • Prashant – I’ve had a similar experience to you. I’ve found that in general a passion for fitness and especially for going to a gym or health club is a more recent development in crime fiction. That makes sense too since I think that it’s also a relatively recent development in popular culture.

  9. kathy d.

    I enjoy V.I. Warshawi’s runs to the lake with her dogs. And, yes, I think dog walking counts. Dog owners are reportedly fitter than those who don’t exercise because of their daily walks with Fido.
    I don’t notice too many detectives going to gyms regularly in Scandinavia or Italy (Can we imagine Guido Brunetti doing push-ups? Salvo Montalbano lifting weights? (he swims though) Martin Beck running on a treadmill? Harry Hole running a “Nordic Track”?)
    I think many of the “older” detectives get exercise by walking, especially Europeans. In the U.S. everyone drives. However, the younger detectives, especially women, work to stay in shape.
    My philosophy is that of Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr, “I once got the urge to job. But I laid down and let it pass.”

    • Kathy – LOL! I’ve heard that Lawrence Block quip before; it’s terrific. That’s why I don’t jog. 😉 In all seriousness, you have a very interesting point that the kinds of things we do to stay fit are probably culturally contextual. If you think about it, it only makes sense. Culture affects just about everything, so why not our views about staying in shape and exercise?
      I’m glad you mentioned that dog owners stay, as a rule, more fit than those who don’t get exercise. Yet another reason it’s nice to have a dog around :-).

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