I’ve Found a Paradise That’s Trouble Proof*

RetreatsLet’s face it: life gets a bit much sometimes. When that happens, it’s nice to have a sort of retreat – a special place to go to get away from it all. An interesting post from author and fellow blogger D.S. Nelson has got me thinking about how many fictional characters have those kinds of special places. Pop culture fans will know for instance that Superman has his famous Fortress of Solitude. And if you look at crime fiction, you see that there are plenty of characters who have special retreats like that. Here are just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we meet James Sheppard, doctor for the village of King’s Abbot. Even in a peaceful village, life can get busy, especially for a doctor, so Sheppard has a special retreat in his house. He’s built a workroom where even the maid


‘…is not allowed to wreak havoc with a dustpan and brush.’


Sheppard gets drawn into a case of murder when his friend, retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd, is stabbed in his study one evening. The prime suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton. Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd is convinced that he’s innocent, so she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot is impressed with Flora’s sense of conviction so he agrees to look into the matter. In the end, Poirot finds that Ackroyd knew more than was safe for him to know about one particular villager.

Scott Young’s Murder in a Cold Climate is the story of the shooting murder of Native activist Morton Cavendish. Matthew ‘Matteesie’ Kitologitak of the RCMP is a witness to the killing, and happened to know Cavendish anyway. So he’s determined to find the killer. He’s even more fixed on the investigation when it turns out that Cavendish’s death could be related to another case Matteesie’s working on: the disappearance of a Cessna with three men aboard. One of the people of interest in this case is Cavendish’s son William. William may or may not be involved in either or both incidents. But it’s likely that he has a lot of information no matter how innocent he may be. So Matteesie wants to find him. It turns out that William has a special place – a retreat he’s had since adolescence – where he goes sometimes just to be by himself. That retreat turns out to play a key role in the story.

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn is shocked and in grief when her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during a political speech at a community picnic. It’s bad enough that Boychuk was a friend, but what makes things worse is that this brings back the murder of Kilbourn’s husband Ian, whose loss she still mourns. As a way of dealing with her loss, Kilbourn decides to write a biography of Boychuck. As she gathers material for her book, Kilbourn also finds herself investigating the murder. As it turns out, Boychuk’s death had nothing really do to with his political views, and everything to do with his past. Kilbourn’s home has a ‘granny flat’ above the garage, and she uses that both as an office and as a retreat. She spends her share of time in the granny flat and in this book, that fact plays an important role in what happens.

Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice introduces us to retired school principal Thea Farmer. She bought what she intended as a retreat in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, and was planning it as her dream home. She’s not much of a one for people, and what she wants most of all is to be away from as many of them as possible. But financial issues and poor decisions mean that she has to give up her dream home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Thea’s perfect retreat is soon purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington. Thea refers to these new neighbours as ‘the invaders;’ not only have they purchased the home she considers her own, but they have also taken away her sense of retreat and privacy. Despite her intentions to have nothing to do with ‘the invaders,’ Thea finds herself getting involved in their lives when Frank’s niece Kim moves in. Thea reluctantly warms up to Kim and sees that she has real promise as a writer. So when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea decides to do something about it. Special places and retreats play an important part in this story.

Many other sleuths also have retreats and special places they go when they want to get away. Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he spends his share of time in his orchid room. And everyone in his life knows better than to disturb him when he’s communing with his plants. He does love the orchids, but he also uses to the time to get away.

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux has his share of difficult times and trauma, both because of his personal life and because of his job as a New Iberia, Louisiana cop. He gets away from it all by taking his boat out and going fishing. It’s his escape – his special place.

And then there’s Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman. She has her home and bakery in a large Melbourne building called Insula. Although she doesn’t go looking for mysteries to solve, they seem to find her. And even when they don’t, she’s kept quite busy with her business, her relationship with her lover Daniel Cohen, and her duties as servant to three cats. So sometimes Chapman likes to get away and relax. When she does, she doesn’t have far to go. Insula has a lovely rooftop garden where Chapman takes a glass of wine or a drink and enjoys the view. The rooftop is also the scene of some terrific get-togethers of the building’s residents.

And of course, there’s D.S. Nelson’s own Blake Heatherington. As the series featuring him begins, he’s a milliner whose family has been in the business for a long time. He understands hats and the kinds of personalities that are best suited for different kinds of hats. You might say that hat-making is in his blood. So even when he’s no longer involved in the day-to-day business of millinery, Heatherington enjoys creating hats. And he’s got a special retreat for just that purpose. He goes there to try new creations, to think over his cases and to be alone with his thoughts.

Do you have a special sort of retreat like that? If you’re a writer, does your protagonist?

Thanks, D.S., for the inspiration! Folks, now that you’ve been kind enough to stop here, please consider making your next stop D.S. Nelson’s terrific site. It’s got good conversation about writing and some terrific collaborative short stories, among lots of other great things.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s Up On the Roof, made popular by the Drifters.


Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Scott Young, Virginia Duigan

23 responses to “I’ve Found a Paradise That’s Trouble Proof*

  1. I’m blushing here Margot. Wonderful post, it’s lovely to think I inspired it, thank you for your lovely comments and for mentioning Blake and his shed 😀

  2. I’m a fervent believer in garden sheds (or tree houses) for all.
    Or, as in the case of Travis McGee – a houseboat. I’m still waiting for a detective to retreat to a tree house. If anybody knows of one, please let me know.

    • Marina Sofia – A sleuth in a tree house – I love it! I don’t know of one straight off, but what a great idea. Thanks too for mentioning the great Travis McGee. You’re quite right that very often his houseboat is also his sanctuary. And it would be nice wouldn’t it for all of us to have a shed/tree house/some sort of haven.

  3. I think it was when I first read GATSBY that this theme started to seem real to me as a teenager – now that I am fast approaching middle-age, sanctuary seems to be constantly on my mind – thanks as ever Margot!

    • Sergio – I hadn’t thought about it before, but you do have a point about sanctuary becoming more valuable as one gets olders. Perhaps it’s because one’s got more responsibilities? Either way, it’s a well-taken point. And trust you to mention Gatsby, such a great example of that theme.

  4. When you mentioned the Gail Bowen it reminded me of the pleasure I felt when I read that book – the first one of hers I read, and I think the first in the series? That great feeling when you realize that here is a wonderful writer, a great mystery story – and a good-ish series ahead of you. Joanne is a compelling heroine/investigator. I am a couple behind (it’s not always easy to get her books in the UK, which is crazy) and must catch up.

    • Moira – Isn’t it a lovely series? It’s not just well-written (which it is!) and with good characters (which it has!) but it maintains interest. Pity that it’s hard to get some of the books in the UK. Each is worth hunting down in my opinion.

  5. kathy d.

    OK, I admit it, my retreat is virtual. My escapes to France, Scotland, Iceland, Sweden, Italy, Denmark, in Canada to Ellesmere Island, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, and here to Maine, California and even Chicago, are all in books.
    But that’s fine with me — no visas, expensive airline tickets, dinners and hotels, no long lines, no language barriers (well, sometimes), and no hassles. Just make tea, get snacks and open a book.
    Now I know why I’m in a bad mood — have had to do Internet research and write for over a week, with no time to read Mari Strachan’s Bones over a Dead Man’s Embers. I was in Wales in 1921 until all this work began. I must get back to it, and restore my inner calm.

    • Kathy – There’s nothing at all wrong with seeking your haven in books. Writers everywhere are grateful to you. And as you point out, you don’t have to deal with the logistical hassles of travel. The price of escape is some tea, a snack, and a book – a low price for such pleasure if you ask me. Sorry to hear you’ve had ONE Of THOSE WEEKS. Hope it gets better.

  6. Col

    I loved Burke’s Robicheaux books. Just a shame he’s carried the series on too long, in my opinion.

    • Col – The series is an excellent one isn’t it? You’re not alone in thinking it’s gone on for too long, but it’s definitely won some well-deserved praise.

  7. Margot: I thought of a real life mystery with a retreat. The conservationist, Grey Owl, settled at Beaver Lodge, his cabin at Ajawaan Lake in the Prince Albert National Park in north central Saskatchewan. There he worked with beavers who had a beaver house inside his cabin. An iconic photo can be seen at https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/cool/002027-2108-e.html. After he died it was determined he was an English emigrant, Archibald Belaney. He also left a complicated legacy of marriages that resulted in a major court case. He could retreat from the world to Beaver Lodge but could not hide. The cabin is still accessible.

    • Bill – Oh, that is an absolutely fascinating story! And thanks very much for sharing the ‘photo. It’s true, too, as you say: a person can retreat, or even run, but not hide. What an interesting person Grey Owl/Belaney must have been too. I love those intriguing real-life stories that are at least as interesting as fiction.

  8. Does anyone escape in a caravan I wonder???

  9. Margot – Could one say the whole cozy gestalt is built around the notion of the fortress of paradise in the form of the quaint village. In contrast, the American take seems to be the paradise lost concept and all that flows out of that, a la Chandler and the whole harder edged, urban American tradition. I’m also reminded of Morse reclining in his easy chair at home as Mozart wafts from the photograph.

    • Bryan – Oh, now that is a fascinating concept! There are definitely cosy mysteries both in the British tradition and in the American tradition that take place in ‘haven’ type environments, either in the village (e.g. M.C. Beaton) or the American small town (e.g. Susan Wittig Albert). And yes, those mysteries do offer a sort of refuge if you will from real life. I hadn’t thought it about it that way but it makes sense. So does Morse’s use of music and Scotch as an escape.
      As to the concept of ‘paradise lost’ or at least ‘paradise unfounded on reality,’ I think you’ve got a solid point there too. Certainly Chandler (and he’s not the only one) takes an unvarnished look at what’s supposed to be the safe and protected life of the rich. As we know, such authors depict that life as neither. Lots to think about, for which thanks.

  10. In the Inspector Espinosa series by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, he seems to take refuge in reading and book stores. He spends a lot of time organizing his books, at least in the first book in the series.

    • Tracy – That’s quite true about Espinosa. For him, books and bookshops really do provide a haven. He loses himself in fixing his shelves and books when he needs respite.

  11. philipcoggan

    I recommend Timothy Hallinan’s Junior Bender series – Junior is an LA burglar, the go-to man for big-time crooks who need a PI but don’t want to bother the police. Hallinan is very witty and has a wonderful ability to convey voice. As for Junior, his line of work makes it a bit dangerous to stay too long in any one place, so he lives in a series of very funny, but very real LA motels.

    • Phillip – Oh, I like Hallinen’s work quite a lot. And although I’m more familiar with the Poke Rafferty novels than with the Junior Bender novels, I agree that Hallinan does a fantastic job with wit. Thanks for the link, too. Folks, do please check it out!

  12. Pingback: Escapist Friday: Tree Houses | findingtimetowrite

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