In Silent Graveyards – They Look For Saviors*

GraveyardThere’s something about cemeteries and graveyards that has a certain kind of mystique. Sometimes people visit them to remember loved ones, or to commemorate a tragic event such as a war. They are also of course where the final parts of funeral and burial rites are held in many cultures. And they can provide a lot of information for historians and genealogists. There are a lot of spooky myths about graveyards and cemeteries too; after all, the dead are buried there.

A terrific post by Moira at Clothes in Books on The Guardian Book Blog has got me thinking about how cemeteries and graveyards fit in with crime fiction. And of course it makes perfect sense that we’d see a lot of them, since so much crime fiction has to do with murder. Here are a few stories that came to my mind after reading Moira’s post.

Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford find more than one clue during walks through graveyards and cemeteries. For example, in By The Pricking of My Thumbs, the Beresfords visit Tommy’s elderly Aunt Ada, who lives at Sunny Ridge, a rest home. While they’re there, Tuppence hears of a strange mystery and about something ‘behind the fireplace.’ She decides to find out what’s behind the ramblings of the woman who has mentioned the fireplace. At the same time, Tuppence has a strange sense of familiarity about a picture she finds among Aunt Ada’s possessions, although she has never seen the picture before. As it turns out, the two mysteries are related. Both have roots in a very sad story from the past. At one point, the trail leads Tuppence to a graveyard, where she is searching for a particular tombstone. The visit turns out to be very dangerous for her…

Dorothy Sayers uses a cemetery to add a fascinating plot twist in The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet/assistant Mervyn Bunter are on a trip one New Year’s Eve when they have a car accident. Stranded in East Anglia, they are taken in by Rector Theodore Venables of the nearby village of Fenchurch St. Paul. Venables offers them lodging while they wait for the car to be repaired, and the two accept. Wimsey is able to return the rector’s kindness when he fills in as a New Year’s Day change-ringer for Will Thoday, who is ill. That day, news comes that Lady Thorpe, wife of the local squire Sir Henry Thorpe, has died. Wimsey and Bunter stay on for her funeral and then, their car having been fixed, they go on their way. A few months later, Wimsey gets a letter from Venables. Sir Henry died, and preparations were made for his burial. But when the gravediggers opened the family grave where Lady Thorpe was already buried, they found another body already there. Venables asks Wimsey to return to Fenchurch St. Paul and investigate. Wimsey agrees and he and Bunter go back to the village. They find that the unexplained corpse is related to a long-ago robbery and some valuable missing emeralds.

There’s a startling cemetery scene in Reginald Hill’s Child’s Play. Wealthy Geraldine Lomas’ son disappeared during World War II, but she never gave up hope that one day he would come back. In fact, she’s made a will leaving all of her considerable fortune to her son, so long as he returns before 2015. If not, her money is to be divided among three charities. When she dies, her family and others gather at the cemetery for the final burial rituals. An unknown man shows up, calling out ‘Mama!’ and claiming to be her son. Now it looks as though he will inherit everything. But before the will can be sorted out, he is found dead in his car. Now Superintendent Andy Dalziel and his assistant Peter Pascoe have to look through the motives of a number of people to find out who killed the victim. They also have to establish whether he really was Geraldine Lomas’ son.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs introduces readers to Maisie, a former World War I nurse who’s returned to England and set up shop as a private investigator. Christopher Davenham hires Maisie to find out whether his wife Celia has been unfaithful. Maisie takes the case and begins to follow Celia to learn her daily patterns. One day, she follows her quarry to a cemetery. She strikes up a conversation with Celia under the pretense of visiting a cousin’s grave. Slowly, she finds out why Celia visited the cemetery and what’s behind her troubling behaviour. She is able to reassure her client that his wife has been true to him, but the cemetery visit leads to another mystery. Several of the soldiers buried there (including the soldier whose grave Celia Davenham visited) had been living at The Retreat, a home especially designed for badly injured WWI veterans. The idea is that they will have a safe place to live, among others who understand what they’ve gone through. In fact, James Compton, son of Maisie’s former employer, is considering moving there, as he is having a great deal of difficulty adjusting to life after the war. But Lady Rowan Compton is concerned about that decision and asks Maisie to look into the place. Maisie agrees and finds out that there are some unsettling things going on at the home.

The real action in Paul Cleave’s Cemetery Lake begins in a Christchurch cemetery. There, cop-turned-PI Theodore Tate is following up on the case of a man who’s died of arsenic poisoning. His wife is suspected of murdering him, and questions have been raised about the death of her first husband. So it’s agreed to exhume that body and test it for poison. Tate is on hand when the exhumation team comes in to do the job, but it’s far from an ordinary exhumation (as if there really is one). As the team is working, several bodies start rising from the lake by the cemetery. What’s more, when the coffin the team is looking for is opened, there’s a real question of the identity of the person in it. In this case, the cemetery holds a lot of secrets…

Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte is a genealogist, so he is accustomed to visiting cemeteries and graveyards as he tracks down information on people’s ancestries. In In the Blood, Tayte has been hired by wealthy businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s genealogy as a gift to her. Tayte has so far learned that one branch of the Fairborne family, his client’s wife’s forbears, settled in the American South. But that line died out. The other branch, beginning with James Fairborne, went to England in 1783 with a group of other Royalists. Sloane wants to find out everything about the family, so Tayte goes to England to follow up on that branch of the family. He begins with the Cornish church nearest where the modern-day Fairbornes live. There he encounters Reverend Joliffe, who shows him round the churchyard. But to Tayte’s disappointment, there are no records of Fairbornes buried in the churchyard. Instead, says Joliffe, those ancestors are probably buried on the modern-day Fairborne estate Rosenmullion Hall. Joliffe makes it clear that the Fairbornes have a lot of local clout, and their co-operation will be needed if Tayte is to get any answers. So Tayte visits Rosenmullion, only to find that no-one in the family is interested in sharing their history with him. Still, Tayte has a paying client and he’s now curious himself as to what happened to the family. So he goes on with his search, although he’s warned off. In the end, he finds out the truth, and I can say without spoiling the story that there’s a very spooky graveyard/cemetery scene in it.

Cemeteries and graveyards really are full of myth, history, and the personal stories of those in them. Little wonder they’re so often mentioned in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City). Thanks very much, Moira, for the inspiration!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Flower Kings’ Silent Graveyards.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Dorothy Sayers, Jacqueline Winspear, Paul Cleave, Reginald Hill, Steve Robinson

42 responses to “In Silent Graveyards – They Look For Saviors*

  1. Another fascinating post about graveyards. I’m especially pleased to see so many of my favourite authors highlighted in this one; Reginald Hill (Child’s Play was a fantastic read) and Steve Robinson with his first genealogical mystery In the Blood. In Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion the pet cemetery becomes the focus when the police find bodies of a woman and a child buried there, the mystery is who are they and how did they end up there.

    • Cleo – Thanks for the kind words. I agree that Child’s Play is an excellent novel. Of course, Like you I love that series. Still! And I think Robinson’s series is turning out to be quite good too. Thanks also for mentioning A Fatal Inversion. Definitely an example of what I had in mind with this post. I appreciate your filling in that gap.

  2. Thanks for the shoutout Margot, and thanks for adding such expertise to the subject – murder stories really are the place to go for good graveyard scenes…

    • Moira – Oh, always a pleasure to plug your excellent blot and Guardian posts. And it was a great bit of inspiration. As you say, crime novels and graveyards just kind of go together…

  3. How about a tiger in a mausoleum in The Tigress by Carter Brown

    • Oh, that’s a good one, Scott! And now you’re making me think of Agatha Christie’s short story The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, in which an excavation team is dogged by all kinds of tragedy that people say is a curse on anyone who disturbs a certain pharaoh’s tomb…

  4. A couple of my favourites in there, Margot. Tommy & Tuppence (of course) in one of Agatha Christie’s spookier stories, and the Reginald Hill. I’ll add in my newest favourite, Michael Robotham, whose first book, ‘The Suspect’, starts off when the protagonist Joe O’Loughlin visits his aunt’s grave as he does every year to tip autumn leaves over it in memory of her love of kicking through them… little expecting that at the same time a fresh body will be discovered very close to her grave…

    • FictionFan – Your timing in mentioning the Robotham is perfect (and yes, isn’t he talented?). Not only is that graveyard scene a terrific example of what I had in mind with this post, but….The Suspect is in the spotlight tomorrow on my blog. 🙂
      And I think you’re right that the Christie is a little spookier (at least that graveyard scene is) than she usually gets. As for the Hill? A great story I think.

  5. Margot the new Lisa Unger Crazy Love You features a cemetery.

  6. Col

    Mark Pryor’s Crypt Thief uses the setting of a Parisian cemetery to good effect in his book. Jim Morrison is buried there.
    Switching genres I remember reading Stephen King’s Pet Cemetery back in the day.

    • Col – I almost mentioned the Pryor – Thanks for filling in that gap – and for the reminder that Morrison is buried in that cemetery. And yes, for horror readers, Pet Cemetery is another good example of effective use of the graveyard scene.

  7. tracybham

    Years ago I read a series of mysteries by Sarah Stewart Taylor, about a female art historian who specializes in cemetery art (or something like that). They are actually my husband’s books. He loves cemeteries and seeks them out for taking photos.

  8. I’m rather fond of cemeteries myself – particularly Pere Lachaise & Montparnasse in Paris or Highgate in London or Bellu in Bucharest. All very photogenic.
    But yes, crime fiction and cemeteries are just natural companions, aren’t they?
    A recent example of a cemetery in crime fiction – although not quite the kind you had in mind, perhaps – is The Cemetery of Swallows by Mallock. It ends up there are more bones there than just swallows, of course…
    And David Hewson also has a book called The Cemetery of Secrets set in Venice – which is perhaps the most funereal town you can imagine.

    • Moira – Some of those cemeteries really are beautiful aren’t they? And even the smaller churchyards can have unique personalities. As you say, cemeteries and crime fiction just do go together.
      Thanks for mentioning Cemetery of Swallows. That’s one I’ve not (yet) read. But I should, as I don’t read enough fiction that takes place in the Dominican Republic. Thanks also for the mention of the Hewson. Both of these great examples of how cemeteries figure into the genre.

  9. I do think Block’s Walk Among the Tombstones is a great title Margot 🙂 My favourite scene from a crime novel with that kind of setting though is definitely from Willrich’s Black Alibi.

  10. PS or even Woolrich! Sorry about the typo …

  11. Mary Shelley used to visit her mother’s grave to commune with her. Her mother was Mary Wollstonecraft (Vindication of the Rights of Women) who died after giving birth to her. And look where that led eventually? Frankenstein!

    • Vicky – You’re absolutely right of course about Mary Shelley’s success. I didn’t know she’d visited her mother’s grave regularly; that’s really interesting. And it shows how people can feel connected with loved ones when they visit cemeteries and churchyards.

  12. My contribution isn’t fiction but a movie: the post makes me think of the graveyard scene in Hitchcock’s Vertigo: elegantly creepy and beautifully photographed with all that mist and hazy sunlight.

    • Yes, indeed, Bryan! That’s a terrific scene and I’m glad you mentioned it. Sometimes those visual depictions are at least as creepy as, and sometimes even creepier than, literary depictions…

  13. Graveyards: just love them. As a family history researcher I’d be lost without them. The words on some of the headstones I’ve come across have had me in stiches laughing or crying with sorrow at what fate had befallen the occupants. Such fonts of knowledge. A recent murder not far from me involved a churchyard. A young girl went missing after telling her boyfriend she was pregnant. Police searched for her for days and were running out of ideas of where she might be. Grave diggers (locally) preparing a grave for a new burial noticed an older grave seemed to have been disturbed (earth looked newer that expected) and decided to take a closer look. It seems that the boyfriend killed her alongside a river and had planned to leave her there but panicked she’d be found too soon, so enrolled the help of his younger brother to move and conceal the body. The police found the missing girl buried on top of the grandfather of the boyfriend. If the grave diggers hadn’t needed to prepare a grave that day, the following two weeks of non-stop rain would most likely have settled the disturbed earth and the girl might never have been found. You just never know if your loved one has a lodger!

    • Jane – Oooh, what a story *shudder.* It’s true that graveyards and cemeteries can hide lots of secrets like that. I’m glad for the poor girl’s family that the police found her, so the family could at least get some closure. And you’re right too about the information one can get from what’s written on gravestones. There’s also sometimes interesting information in church records. Certainly those are fascinating ways to learn about the history of a family or of a place.

  14. Cemeteries with old, old tombstones engraved with messages inspire all kinds of stories, and not just the creepy kind.

  15. They are very atmospheric. When I was at junior school I used to walk through one every day to and from classes. I remember being particularly affected by the small children’s graves from the Victorian era.

    • Sarah – Oh, I can well imagine that experience would affect you. You can’t help but wonder about those children…. And yes, I think cemeteries and graveyards are just full of atmosphere.

  16. I like how you take an idea and develop a theme which evolves into an essay with several examples backing up your theme/idea, et al.

    🙂 I love graveyards.

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