And Nothing’s as Precious as a Hole in the Ground*

MineAs any crime fiction fan can tell you, a murder can happen just about anywhere. That said though, some settings just lend themselves to crime fiction in ways that others might not.  Take mines as an example. You probably don’t think about mines very often unless you come from a mining town or family. But they really are terrific settings for a crime novel. For one thing, there’s the mine shaft itself. That’s a very effective place to commit a crime or at least hide a body. And there’s mining in many, many different countries, so there’s a lot of flexibility in terms where the story can take place. Mining communities can be close-knit and insular too, and that can lead to all sorts of motives for murder.

Mining turns out to be a deadly industry for Wu Ling, whose murder Hercule Poirot investigates in Agatha Christie’s short story The Lost Mine. He is the head of a Chinese family that owns valuable documents relating to some Burmese mines. He’s willing to sell them (and the mining rights) to a British syndicate, but only if he can meet with the principals. So it’s arranged that he’ll travel to London and attend a board meeting of the company that’s going to buy the documents. He makes the journey without incident, but when his body is later found in a seedy district of East London, Inspector Miller is assigned to the case. Not long afterwards, Charles Lester is arrested for the crime. He was known to be in debt, and the papers were worth a lot of money. What’s more, he’d made the acquaintance of the victim on the trip to England, and was the last person to have been seen with the victim. Hercule Poirot’s been hired by the company to find the papers so he gets involved in the investigation. And as you can imagine, he’s not satisfied with the case against Lester…

Much of the action in Reginald Hill’s Under World takes place in the coal mining town of Burrthorpe. Several years earlier, a young girl Tracey Pedley disappeared. The police thought that she was a victim of Donald Pickford, who had already admitted to being a child molester and has since committed suicide. But others thought Tracey was killed by Billy Farr, a Burrthorpe miner who disappeared. When Farr’s skeleton is found in the mine, it looks as though he either had a tragic accident or committed suicide, and Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe and their team investigate. Billy’s son Colin has come back to the UK to take over his father’s mining job. He’s angry and bitter and has never really believed the stories about his father, but he settles back into life in Burrthorpe. Tragedy strikes again when Harold Satterthwaite is killed in the mine. And Colin Farr is the main suspect, since he and Satterthwaite were both romantic rivals and enemies. As Dalziel and Pascoe and the team look into this new murder, we see how it relates to the disappearance of Tracey Pedley and the death of Billy Farr. We also get a look at life in a mining town, and at the network of relationships that develop there.

Several of the novels in Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series take place in the small town of Pickax, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ As you can guess from the name of the town, it was originally a mining town, and in fact there are still stories told of mining explosions, ghosts of miners and so on. And in The Cat Who Smelled a Rat, those abandoned mines are used for a modern-day murder. There’s been a series of suspicious fires in some of the abandoned mines and columnist James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is looking into them. Then, one of the volunteer firefighters Ralph ‘Ruff’ Abbey is shot at the Big B Mine. It turns out that he witnessed one of the fires being set and was killed because of what he’d seen. Qwill and Police Chief Andrew Brodie look into the case and find out that these events are connected with the murder of a local book dealer and the destruction of his business.

Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth shows us just how useful mines can be for hiding bodies. In that novel, journalist Tony di Venuto plans to do a ten-years-on retrospective on the disappearance of Emma Bestwick, who went off on her bicycle one day and never returned. When di Venuto gets a tip that Emma is dead, and a clue as to where her body can be found, her case is re-opened. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team find Emma’s body in The Arsenic Labyrinth, a series of underground tunnels that were used to mine arsenic and remove it from ore. What’s even more shocking is the team also finds a skeleton that’s been buried for fifty years. Now they’ve got two murders to investigate and as it turns out, the two are related. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett and her team trace the deaths to local family histories and long-held secrets.

An abandoned mine shaft figures strongly in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow, too. Detective John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) police department is called in when the body of thirteen-year-old Katie Pine is discovered in an abandoned mine shaft on Windigo Island. At first, everyone had believed that Katie had run away from home, but Cardinal never believed that. So now that the body’s been discovered, he and Detective Lise Delorme re-open the investigation. They find that Katie’s death is connected to two other deaths. Then, they get word of another disappearance and now they know that if they don’t catch the killer, there’ll be yet another murder…

Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders takes place in mostly Laughlin and Oatman, Nevada. When retired judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother’s travel group on a sightseeing tour to that part of Nevada, she’s hoping all will go smoothly. But it’s not long before tragedy strikes. First, the body of an unknown man is found in the hotel bathroom shared by two of the group members. Then another tour group member disappears and her body is later found in an old mine. Thorn gets drawn into the murder investigations mostly because she wants to keep her mother and the remaining members of the tour group as safe as she can and in the end, she finds that the deaths are related to greed and to secrets that someone’s been keeping.

There’s also a climactic scene at an old mine in Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin. In that novel, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper investigate the discovery of two sets of remains at Pity Wood Farm, near Rakesdale in the Peak District. The deaths turn out to be related to Pity Wood Farm’s background and to a later, related murder. At one point in the novel, Cooper and Fry connect what’s been happening at the farm with the old Magpie Mine, a former lead mine. Saying much more about what happens at the mine would come closer to spoiling the novel than I want, but the mine itself is a suitably eerie place and does figure in this novel.

Mines are unique. They foster a special kind of community and the settings themselves are fascinating – and dangerous. I don’t wonder at all that there are so many of them in crime fiction.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Blue Sky Mine.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Giles Blunt, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martin Edwards, Patricia Stoltey, Reginald Hill, Stephen Booth

28 responses to “And Nothing’s as Precious as a Hole in the Ground*

  1. My godfather was a miner in Yorkshire years and years ago. As a child I always thought it a dangerous job, but now, even moreso . . .

    • Susan – It is a dangerous job. In fact mining’s consistently rated as one of the most dangerous jobs there are. And crime fiction really does just add to that danger doesn’t it…

  2. Hmm, I can’t recall reading any crime fiction that featured this type of setting – the small town mining community. I would love to read it, too. Other than watching and enjoying the autobiographical film, Coal Miner’s Daughter with Sissy Spacek, I’m afraid my knowledge about mining towns is slim to none. Other than knowing that it’s dangerous. I am off to check out these titles. Thanks Margot!

    • Keishon – What’s interesting is that I wasn’t even thinking about Coal Miner’s Daughter when I first put this post together It didn’t occur to me at all but I remember liking it very much when I first saw it. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. I had not thought about it for awhile, but there were a lot of coal mines in Alabama. The job was hazardous to the health because of the environment, but I don’t remember a lot of accidents.

    Underworld was the most recent Reginald Hill I read, and it was a very good picture of a mining town.

    • Tracy – I grew up in Pennsylvania, where there are a lot of mining towns, and as you say, although there were accidents, the environmental threat was the real danger. And it’s interesting isn’t it how mining communities develop into singular kinds of places. Miners all over the world understand what it’s like.
      I’m glad that you thought Hill depicted the mining life accurately in Under World. I have to confess that I’m not from a mining family or town, but I always had the feeling it was an authentic depiction too.

  4. I grew up in a mining community and was there during the miners strikes (UK). I didn’t have family in that business but I saw first hand the mining community spirit and also the violence. I was only a child and didn’t understand much but it seeped into everything. It’s a unique job going underground like that. I certainly couldn’t do it and I wouldn’t fancy investigating a murder down a mine either!

    • Rebecca – I don’t fancy it either. It must be very hard to go underground like that to earn one’s living, and it isn’t a safe job. I’d say investigating a murder in a mine would be pretty unsafe too. As you say, miners develop a real sense of community and a particular spirit because of the way they live. And I can only imagine the impression that that spirit, as well as the violence, made on you during the strike. It really is a fascinating kind of community.

  5. Margot: An interesting post. I cannot think of any mining mysteries but do recall a thriller in which a mine played an important role. In The Burning Shore by Wilbur Smith the French heroine, Centaine de Thiry, finds diamonds in an unexpected place in South Africa. It is one of my favourite Smith books. I have not been as excited about some of his later books.

    • Bill – Thank you. And thanks for mentioning The Burning Shore. I need to read that one. And your comment has made me remember how important a role mining plays in South Africa’s history. There’s a touch of that in Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, in which Mma. Precious Ramotswe tells of her father Obed’s experiences in the South African mines.

  6. This piece by my other favourite blogger may be of interest, Margot 😉

  7. Not strictly speaking a crime novel, although it features plenty of suspense and adventures, is a book I loved when I was growing up: ‘King Solomon’s Mine’. It doesn’t, of course, depict a mining community, but it shows the beauty and grandeur of Africa and (at least if I remember it correctly) – the corruption and greed of colonial powers as well.

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, thank you for the reminder of that one. And there’s no doubt that where there’s valuable ore in the ground, there’s greed above it, and the colonial powers had plenty of that. This book does explore that.

  8. I think the only stories revolving around mines and mining that I’ve read are in westerns, Frontier fiction, where wealthy mine owners usually edge out the small miners often with brute force, much as they do with land and ranches. I have read some fascinating stories about the mining community, about triumph amidst adversities, in the American West.

    • Prashant – There are definitely some excellent examples of mining towns, the mining life and so on in westerns. In fact you’ve reminded me that an old mine plays a role in Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, which takes place of course in the American Southwest. Thanks for that reminder.

  9. Oh, Margot, thanks for mentioning The Desert Hedge Murders. After I toured the old gold mine many years ago, I knew it had great potential for hiding things, and it’s mighty creepy in a mine when they turn off the lights, much like the caves I’ve toured over the years.

    Seems I remember an Anna Pigeon mystery that had a great scary scene in a cave. Yep, I just popped over to check Nevada Barr’s list of books., The gripping cave scenes are in Blind Descent. I couldn’t think of another mining story…so I strayed a bit. I hope you don’t mind. 😀

    • Pat – I don’t mine – er mind 😉 – in the least bit. Caves are definitely dark and creepy places, just as mines are. I don’t wonder you thought of them. And Blind Descent is a good example of what they’re like. In fact, now you’ve inspired me. At some point I’m going to have to do a post on caves. Thanks for making me think of that.
      And it’s my pleasure to mention The Desert Hedge Murders. You depict that old mine very effectively – I really felt how eerie it must’ve been in there. It’s a good story, too.

  10. Mining does seem to be a recurring theme in AC’s books. The Blackbird mine, for example, in ‘A Pocket Full of Rye’. There is something mysterious about them isn’t there?

    • Sarah – Good point about the Blackbird Mine. And what’s interesting is that although there are a lot of mentions of mines (oh, now I’ve thought of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – mines matter there, too), Christie doesn’t write about mining towns or families. And yes, there is something mysterious – even eerie – about mines.

  11. Margot, Clyde B. Clason’s 1937 “Blind Drifts” is set in a Colorado Gold Mine. It’s a nice “impossible crime” story, too: deep in the mine, someone is shot in front of a group of witnesses – none of whom see the shot fired – and the gun promptly disappears. There is more mayhem within the mine before Clason’s rather unlikely protagonist – Roman historian and amateur sleuth Theocritus Lucius Westborough – solves the case.

    • Les – Oh, trust you to come up with a perfect example of an ‘impossible mystery’ that fits this theme. And a mine really is a great place for a crime like that to occur. Lots of opportunities for the author to make a crime look impossible even if it’s not. Thanks.

  12. kathy d.

    How about A Darker Domain by Val McDermid, which hails back to the 1980s British miners’ strike? The authors’ grandfathers were miners, and she knew well the backdrop to the mysteries.

    • Kathy – Thank you! I love it when folks like you fill in the gaps I’ve left. That’s an excellent example of the kind of story I had in mind, so I’m glad you mentioned it.

  13. Col

    David Peace’s GB84 reflects on the miner’s strike in the 80’s. I have it on the pile but I’m unsure if any action takes place underground. I read a book recently – Dogs of God, by Pinckney Benedict where some caves in the Appalachian’s figured fairly prominently.

    • Col – Oh, I’d heard of the Pearce, but hadn’t read it. If you get the chance to read it I’ll be interested in what you think of it. And thanks for mentioning The Dogs of God. That’s not one I’m familiar with as yet. Sounds as thought I ought to try it.

  14. (A bit late, but catching up). I recently read Elizabeth Speller’s The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton, and there was some rather creepy stuff in underground tunnels and passages connecting the church, a large hill, and the big house. I always find such elements compelling but scarey, because I can’t imagine anything worse than being trapped underground. I remember reading Tom Sawyer as a child and being horrified by the scenes where Tom and Becky (I think) get lost in some underground caves…

    • Moira – Oh, yes, of course! Tom Sawyer! That is a very creepy underground scene isn’t it? Someday I’m going to have to do a post just on caves. They really are creepy. And thanks for reminding me about The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton. I’ve been wanting to read that since I read your excellent post about it. Now I’m even more keen to do so.

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