Any 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.