Why Not Come Dancing, It’s Only Natural*

DancingDo you like to go dancing? What’s interesting about dancing is that most cultures (‘though certainly not all of them) have some form of dance whether it’s sacred or secular. And for a very long time dances were one of the few socially acceptable places for couples to meet. That’s one of the reasons they’re so popular among high school students. Dances and evenings that include dancing are also events that draw all sorts of disparate people together. Add alcohol to that mix and you have – yup, a very effective context for a crime fiction novel or at least a scene in one.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s short story Finessing the King, Prudence ‘Tuppence’ Beresford notices a personal ad in the newspaper. The ad refers to an upcoming ball called the Three Arts Ball and to an agreed meeting of some sort at a restaurant/club called Ace of Spades after the ball. Tuppence is curious enough about it to persuade her husband Tommy to take her dancing and to a late supper at the Ace of Spades. The booth next to them is occupied by Lady Vere Merivale, who’s has obviously just come from the Three Arts Ball; she’s dressed as Alice’s Queen of Hearts. With her is a man dressed in newspaper. When the man leaves, the Beresfords find that Lady Merivale has been stabbed but she gives them cryptic clue before she dies. Inspector Marriot investigates the murder but it’s Tuppence who really links the crime to the criminal.

In Rex Stout’s Champagne For One, one of Archie Goodwin’s friends persuades him to attend a dinner and dance hosted by Louise Robilotti. The not-so-hidden agenda for the evening is to support the young women who live at Grantham House, a temporary home for unwed mothers and their children. The idea of the dinner/dance is that the young ladies will get some exposure to how things are done in the ‘better’ social circles and perhaps even meet a young man. During the evening Goodwin is introduced to several of Grantham House’s residents, including Faith Usher. Goodwin is told that Faith has brought cyanide with her and intends to kill herself while she’s at the dinner/dance. During the dancing that follows the dinner Faith does in fact die from what turns out to be cyanide poisoning. Everyone is convinced that she followed through on her threat and that there’s nothing to investigate. But Goodwin isn’t sure and as time goes by he’s more and more convinced that she was murdered. So, despite intense pressure from the police and from the Roibletti family, Goodwin pursues his suspicion and we learn who killed Faith Usher and why.

In Kerry Greenwood’s Cocaine Blues, socialite Phryne Fisher agrees to take on an unusual challenge. Colonel Harper and his wife are concerned about their daughter Lydia, who has moved to Melbourne. They believe she may be in danger and want Fisher to go to Melbourne and find out whether Lydia is all right and whether her husband (whom neither Harper trusts) is up to no good. Fisher returns from London to her home town of Melbourne and begins circulating among the ‘set’ that includes Lydia. One evening Fisher’s invited to an evening of dinner and dancing at the home of Melanie Cryer and that’s where she first meets Lydia and her husband. During the evening Fisher gets the chance to show off her tango skills, meet up with a handsome Russian dancer and get some valuable background information on Lydia, her husband and a few other members of Melbourne’s elite. That information helps Fisher solve the case when Lydia’s husband John is murdered.

Dancing plays an important role in M.C. Beaton’s The Deadly Dance. In that novel, recently-established PI Agatha Raisin is hired by Mrs. Laggat-Brown when her daughter Cassandra receives a threatening letter. Cassandra Laggat-Brown is shortly to be engaged to Jason Peterson and the letter threatens her life if she does so. Mrs. Laggat-Brown wants Raisin to attend a dinner/dance at their home the following evening to see if she sees any suspicious characters. Raisin attends the dance and at first, all seems in order. Then, some planned fireworks are set off prematurely. Raisin glances up and sees what she swears is a gun. Now she begins to think that someone really is trying to kill Cassandra Laggat-Brown and she wants to know why. Despite Mrs. Laggat-Brown’s fury at Raisin’s ‘ruining the party,’ Raisin goes in search of the person responsible. And then Jason Peterson’s father Harrison dies, apparently a successful suicide. Raisin doesn’t think so though and it turns out that she’s right. That death and the attack on Cassandra Laggat-Brown are connected to each other and to an IRA cell.

And then there’s Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, in which successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to stop a blackmailer. When the blackmail case turns deadly, Quant has to put the pieces of the puzzle together before his client is murdered. Guest is vulnerable to blackmail because he’s had a few secret relationships with men and isn’t yet ready to ‘come out.’ And he has some money. It’s possible that the blackmailer is someone with whom Guest was involved so one night, he, Quant and some friends go to Diva’s, a gay bar with plenty of dancing. Since Guest has dressed in drag for the evening he’s sure that nobody will know who he is. All goes well until Guest spots the person he thinks is his quarry – and it turns out to be a very surprising person whom Quant is loathe to pursue. The scenes at Diva’s do have plenty of humour in them but they also show how useful dances and dancing can be in a crime fiction novel. They’re great places for finding clues, following people and of course, stirring up the tension.

I’ve only touched on a few examples of dances and dancing in crime fiction. There is after all only so much space in this one post. So help me out please and fill in the gaps I’ve left. Which novels have you enjoyed where dancing waltzes through the story? 😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Kinks’ Come Dancing. Do you know how many songs there are about dancing? It was hard to choose from among them!


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Kerry Greenwood, M.C. Beaton, Rex Stout

20 responses to “Why Not Come Dancing, It’s Only Natural*

  1. I think one of the most memorable dance scenes in a classic mystery, Margot, is the masked ball in Dorothy L. Sayers’s “Murder Must Advertise.” Lord Peter Wimsey – trying to infiltrate a group of “bright young people” obviously involved with drugs – goes to the ball dressed as a Harlequin, performs some breathtaking acrobatics, and, by doing so, achieves his goal of meeting a key player involved in the drug ring. It’s a beautiful and rather haunting scene, because of later plot developments in the novel, and the dance itself is a pivotal point in the book.

    • Les – This is what I mean by filling in the gaps I’ve left. You’re 100% right about that scene and its effect in the novel. And yes, the dance does matter. I’m so glad you brought that up.

  2. kathy d.

    Interesting topic. I remember the dance scenes in Champagne for One and in Flight of Aquavit. Is there a dance going on at the start of Last Will by Liza Marklund at a Noble Prize dinner when someone is shot?
    Gosh, it’s a tough call. Brunetti, Montalbano and Adamsberg don’t frequent dances nor do Millhone, McCone, Warshawski, Huss or Bengtzon.
    But it is a good location for a murder: lots of activity and people to hide the killer’s identity.

    • Kathy – Oh, good memory! There is indeed a dance in Last Will. I’m glad you mentioned it as it’s a great example of what I had in mind when I wrote this post. You’re right that there are some favourite fictional characters who don’t do a lot (or any) dancing, but it is an interesting premise for a book I think or at least for a scene in one. As you say, there’s usually a lot of activity and movement. So sleuths can hear gossip and so on that give them clues, and a murderer can hide what s/he does.

  3. I couldn’t think of any dance scenes from mysteries I’ve read, but there’s a Ballroom Dance Mystery series by Ella Barrick which I have not sampled yet. The titles are interesting — (Quickstep to Murder, Dead Man Waltzing, Homicide Hustle). Ella is also known as Lila Dare and Laura DiSilverio, her pseudonyms for the series I’m more familiar with. .

  4. Margot: In Gail Bowen’s book, Kaleidoscope, and Nelson Brunanski’s book, Frost Bite, there are traditional rural Saskatchewan weddings which include dances. They are fun events where the bands play some old time rock and roll, waltzes, two steps and other actual dances. Anyone can dance with anyone. Young and old dance together. I have not enjoyed city wedding dances as much as country dances.

    • Bill – Wedding dances can be fun and the best ones are those where people can dance with anyone. Thanks for mentioning both Kaleidoscope and Frost Bite. You know, sometime I’m going to have to do a post on weddings…

  5. I can’t recall reading any dance scenes that stand out either, though agree its a perfect setting for some forward movement in a story.

    I do have to say though, I do love the names Agatha Christie came up with in her books. Naming characters is something I struggle with and hers are wonderful!

    • Rebecca – Oh, Christie did give her characters terrific names didn’t she? I like them too. And I think you’re right; dancing can indeed move a story forward.

  6. I’ve just been reading The Dying Light by Alison Joseph – part of her series with Sister Agnes – and at one point our nun heroine goes to a rather shady nightclub in pursuit of her investigations. The club owner, also rather shady but very attractive, persuades her to dance. She abandons herself to the feeling of the dance… It’s quite overt, telling us about both characters, and making it clear that Sister Agnes is very much part of the world of emotions. Several times later in the book there are comments on her dancing… Was it Quentin Tarantino (of all people) who said that every great film has a good dancing scene in it? I think of that often. (Slightly OT, but the 1955 film Picnic has the best and sexiest dance scene EVER between William Holden and Kim Novak.)

    • Moira – Oh, I’d forgotten about that scene in Picnic. Thanks for reminding me of it. It is a terrific dance scene. And I can’t honestly say whether it was Tarantino who said that about dance scenes but I sure understand the logic. Dance numbers when they’re well done can add a lot to films. It’s funny; now you’ve got me thinking about it, there really are a lot of good dance numbers in film, even films that aren’t musicals…
      Oh, and thanks for mentioning The Dying Light. I hope you’ll find a way to profile it on your blog as I’d be interested to know what you think of it.

  7. Great examples here, Margot. You always amaze me with the interesting topics you introduce–and the examples you have. You’ve got a fantastic memory!

  8. Makes me think of the song ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ by Sophie Ellis Bextor. I’m not sure if it was released in the US – here’s the youtube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsISfQAXE60
    There’s a great scene in a Reginald Hill book ( I can’t remember which one) about Dalziel on the dancefloor. He seems to have been a bit of a mover!

    • Sarah – Oh, thanks for sharing that video! How cool! And I can’t help it – I love those stilettos she’s wearing. I’d heard of Sophie Ellis Baxter but not heard this one, so thanks.
      And about the Hill book…were you perhaps thinking of Death Comes For the Fat Man? That’s the one where Dalziel is thinking back to when he used to dance at the Mecca Ballroom with his date Tottie Truman? That’s not the main plot (In the main plot, both Dalziel and Pascoe have been injured in an explosion that seems to have terrorist connections). If that’s what you’re thinking of it’s a great example of exactly what I mean, so thanks.

  9. I don’t remember that much dancing in mysteries, except in Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe novels (as in your example). I remember that Archie enjoyed dancing with Lily Rowan (and other women) a lot, and that kind of social life in New York City seemed so foreign to me when I initially read the books … as a teenager in Alabama.

    • Tracy – I always liked Archie’s relationship with Lily and yes, he does do his share of dancing. I didn’t grow up with a social life like that either and sometimes I think that’s what part of the appeal of reading about it is. There’s something elegant about going out for drinks and dancing at this or that ballroom, club or other place.

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