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.


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

27 responses to “I See the Place Lives*

  1. Thank you so much for the lovely compliment, Margot. I am constantly in awe of your encyclopaedic knowledge of crime fiction.
    You are right, of course: done properly, an atmospheric building can be an extra character in your story. In fact, in many horror stories, the house is often the embodiment of whatever evil is rearing its head. Another excellent post.

    • Annette – It’s my great pleasure to share your terrific blog with others. I love the way you weave stories together, ranging from outrageously funny to really creepy and everywhere in between. And I’ve been so enjoying learning about Glasgow from the point of view of a genuine ‘Weegie.’ You make a well-taken point that a house or other building can really take on a life of its own in a story. If it’s a horror story of course the building can add to the horror of it all. IF it’s a romance, the house (or church, or shop, or restaurant) can be a welcoming crucible for love. I like it when authors use settings that way.

  2. I am ashamed to say it, but I don’t pay enough attention to descriptive details and buildings just don’t make an impact on me (in a book). My husband, on the other hand, loves such details and loves old buildings.

    The only building I can call to mind from mystery novels is Nero Wolfe’s brownstone, but that is because I have read every novel and novella in that series and each room is described in various books.

    • Tracy – No need for shame. We all notice different things about books. You notice some things; your husband notices others. You make a well-taken point about Nero Wolfe’s brownstone actually. That home is essential to the stories and the characters. It’s an intrinsic part of the series. Little wonder it’s made an impact on you.

  3. A great description of how important settings are. I like a classic old house, or stately home, as much as anyone, but I’d say that one of the most memorable settings was the nurses’ home in PD James’s Shroud for a Nightingale – a very atmospheric book, with the nurses tucked away at the edge of the hospital grounds, living and studying and working together in that claustrophobic way… that big old house seemed real to me, with its lino floors, the students’ bedsitter rooms, the Matron’s flat, and the classrooms – where that spectacularly horrible murder takes place: the victim has a toxic liquid introduced into her stomach during a teaching session….

    • Moira – Thank you for reminding me of that novel. You’re absolutely right that the nurses’ home in a very effective setting. The building itself is so full of atmosphere and foreboding. It just seems to take its own role in the mystery and that makes the story that much more deliciously eerie.

  4. Skywatcher

    In Margery Allingham’s TIGER IN THE SMOKE, London itself becomes an important character. Shrouded in smog it becomes a sort of timeless ‘no-place’, which the villains can slide through vampire-like. It’s at the end, when they emerge from London and into the brilliant sunlight of the countryside that their power begins to wane. Sense of place is always important in Allingham, from the marshy, cut off village in MYSTERY MILE, to the metamorphosing post-war London of the later novels.

    • Skywatcher – Yes, indeed. Allingham uses London, the cut-off village, the eerie cut-off old manor house (from The Crime at Black Dudley) and other places too. She was quite good at evoking suspense with her choice of buildings and other places.

  5. Margot, thanks for your mention of the setting for The Desert Hedge Murders. I’ve been in that old historic hotel many times now, but still haven’t met the ghost. Maybe someday…

  6. Great post, Margot.
    When I think settings, the book that springs to mind is Five Little Pigs. While that story could not have taken place anywhere else, it is somehow the laboratory with the jasmine tree that really creeps me out.

    • Natasha – You’re right. Handcross Manor and that laboratory are terrific old places, and just right for the story. There’s something about that laboratory that is indeed a little eerie. Thanks for filling in that gap I left.

  7. Margot: In Before the Poison by Peter Robinson the lead character, Chris Lowndes, returns to England from Hollywood and buys a large rural house. After moving in he finds out that the husband of Grace Fox died in the house over five decades earlier and she was hung. Every time I read or hear of a house where murder was committed I wonder how I would cope with living there.

    A more inviting place is the B & B and bistro owned and operated by Olivier and Gabri in the fictional village of Three Pines in the Inspector Gamache series of Louise Penny. I defy a reader to not start dreaming about heading for the Eastern Townships of Quebec to spend a weekend with Olivier and Gabri.

    • Bill – I completely agree with you about houses where murder was committed. I don’t know what I would do if I lived in one. And your mention of Gabri and Olivier’s B & B (Folks, do check out Louise Penny’s series if you don’t know what I mean) reminds me of a house in that same series that has a history and eeriness about it. For reasons we find out in Still Life and which carry through into other novels, that house is just…kind of creepy. I almost mentioned it, but at the last minute I didn’t. So I’m glad you brought up this terrific series.

  8. I love reading about old buildings. I think it’s my housing background. The best one I read recently was Louise Welsh’s ‘The Girl on the Stairs’. As you say, when it’s done we’ll if can create a great atmosphere.

  9. col

    Margot, I think I’m more interested in people than places to be honest. Just call me a people person!
    I did enjoy Fowler’s FDH and the setting did add to the book.

    • Col – You’re not alone. I think a lot of people pay more attention to characters than to physical surroundings, but sometimes, as in Full Dark House, the physical building adds a lot to the story.

  10. I wanted to be an architect when I was younger – before I worked out I didn’t have the particular spatial intelligence one needs and changed direction. But I still love buildings – old ones, new ones…well designed ones. I like the Fowler book and Barry Maitland is another writer who sets each novel in a different part of London, often with a historical building featuring prominently.

    • Bernadette – I didn’t know you’d thought of being an architect. I haven’t much spatial intelligence at all, so architect was never on my list of careers-I’d-excel-at. But like you, I really do love interesting buildings. And you have reminded me to dip back into Barry Maitland’s work, so thanks. He really does do a skilled job of weaving buildings into his stories.

    • I did not realize that Barry Maitland’s books were set in various parts of London. It has been a long time since I read the first one, and I have been wanting to get back to the series. This provides some motivation.

  11. kathy d.

    I think I also notice characters rather than settings. However, athough it’s not old and creepy, I love the building in which Corinna Chapman lives in Kerry Greenwood’s series. That building is a character in the books!

  12. How cute your daughter was. Setting is so important in books. I know books where the setting takes over though and the plot gets lost somewhere.

    • Clarissa – You’re right about that balance between setting and plot. Setting, including buildings, matters a lot in stories, but if there isn’t a good plot and solid characters, the story suffers.

  13. Pingback: Berlin trip 1 | The Vagrant Mood

  14. Pingback: Place and atmosphere : who needs it? | The Vagrant Mood

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