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.