Thank You For Opening Your Door*

HouseguestsOne of many things people have to prepare for at this time of year is house guests. People often take time to visit friends and relatives, and those visits can be wonderful. But they also involve lots of logistics, from food, to where everyone will sleep, to things such as extra towels and bedding, and many other details. And then there’s the dynamics of people sharing a home when they’re not accustomed to it. With all of that going on, it’s no surprise that house guests can make a terrific backdrop/context for a murder mystery.

You’ll notice in this post that there won’t be a mention of the traditional ‘country house murder,’ where a group of people are gathered and one of them becomes a victim – too easy! And there are lots of other ‘house guest’ contexts. Here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective fiction writer Ariadne Oliver accepts an invitation to visit Judith Butler, a woman she met on a cruise of the Greek islands. During her stay, she helps out at a local children’s Hallwe’en party at another home. On the afternoon of the party, one of the guests Joyce Reynolds boasts that she’s seen a murder. Everyone hushes her up and no-one believes her. But that night at the party, Joyce is murdered. It’s certainly clear to Mrs. Oliver that there probably was a murder and that the killer overheard Joyce’s comments. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to travel to Woodleigh Common, where Judith Butler lives, and investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the case. He finds that this murder and another that occurs are linked to the town’s history. At one point, Poirot asks Mrs. Oliver if there is space in her London home to accommodate guests. Here is her response:

‘I never admit that there is…if you ever admit that you’ve got a free guest room in London, you’ve asked for it. All your friends, and not only your friends, your acquaintances or indeed your acquaintances’ third cousins sometimes….say would you mind just putting them up for a night? Well, I do mind. What with sheets and laundry, pillow cases and wanting early morning tea and very often expecting meals served to them, people come.’

In this case, though, Mrs. Oliver ends up making an exception.

One plot thread of Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls concerns an important Government Man who consults Mma. Precious Ramotswe on a private matter. He believes that his new sister-in-law is poisoning his brother and plotting to kill him. He wants Mma. Ramotswe to look into the matter and stop his sister-in-law before it’s too late. Mma. Ramotswe agrees to take the case, and travels to the Government Man’s home village, where his brother and sister-in-law live. There she gets to know the various members of the household. She feels a little uncomfortable exploring her client’s suspicions and still being treated as a guest, and matters are not made easier by the tension in the household. Then one afternoon, everyone, including Mma. Ramotswe, is sickened by what turns out to be poisoned food. As soon as she recovers a bit, Mma. Ramotswe pieces together what happened. She finds out some surprising truths about the household too.

Ernesto Mallo’s Needle in a Haystack introduces readers to Venancio ‘Perro’ Lescano, a Buenos Aires police officer at a time (the late 1970s) when it’s very dangerous to live in Argentina. One day, he and his team raid a brothel. They make a few arrests, but several people get away because they have ties to people who are in power. Lescano is making a final walk-through when he discovers a young woman Eva, who’s been hiding in the house. She looks eerily like Lescano’s dead wife Marisa, so almost as a reflex action, he shelters her in his home. Eva is grateful to be rescued (we learn as the story goes on why she was hiding). But she has no reason at all to trust Lescano. He’s a police officer and in her experience, the police are brutal and sadistic. But he asks nothing of her. Lescano finds himself drawn to Eva, at first because of her resemblance to Marisa. As time goes by though, he gets to know Eva just a bit (she is not forthcoming), and finds her own personality appealing too. Eva’s stay with Lescano certainly has its awkwardness. Neither really trusts the other, especially at first. But they become allies.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, fledgling psyciatrist Stephanie Anderson meets a new patient Elisabeth Clark. After several sessions, Elisabeth begins to open up just a little. She has had mental and emotional problems since the abduction of her younger sister Gracie several years earlier. Gracie was never found, and the experience still haunts the family. It also haunts Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister Gemma in a similar way seventeen years earlier. Little by little, Elisabeth starts to put her life together again, and Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who wrought this havoc on both families. She travels from Dunedin, where she’s been living and working, to her home town of Wanaka. As one of her stops, she is invited to stay with Elisabeth’s father Andy, who is deeply grateful for his daughter’s returning mental health. In fact, he’s so grateful to Stephanie that he insists she stay as long as she wants at the lodge he owns, free of charge, as his guest. Although she doesn’t really even know Andy, Stephanie finds herself beginning to relax for the first time in a long time, and the visit prepares her to face the devastation her family suffered.

One of the ‘Charles Todd’ writing team’s series features World War I nurse Bess Crawford. More than once, Bess becomes a guest in someone’s home as she investigates mysteries. In A Duty to the Dead for instance, she is invited to visit the Graham family at Owlhurst in Kent. She nursed Arthur Graham before his death from battlefield wounds; in the process, he came to know and trust her and the feeling was mutual. So he gave her a very cryptic message, insisting that she commit it to memory and that she deliver it in person to his brother Jonathan. Bess is reluctant, but an injury of her own gives her the opportunity to pass along the message during her convalescence in England. The visit to Owlhurst is a very difficult one. For one thing, there is a great deal of tension in the family. For another, Bess learns that this family has many secrets. Having delivered Arthur’s message, Bess would actually just as soon end her visit, but she’s drawn into an emergency situation. Before she knows it, Bess is also drawn into a larger case of past murder and present death, all relating to that message.

And then there’s Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear. One afternoon, Paul Fowler and some friends are tossing a football around when he suddenly collapses. It’s soon determined that he was killed by a sniper’s bullet, and New South Wales Police Inspector Ella Marconi and her partner Murray Shakespeare investigate. They look into the lives of Fowler’s ex-wife Trina as well as the lives of his friends, and make some interesting discoveries. One of them is that Fowler had been laid off from his job, and was staying with a friend Seth Garland. When the team visits Garland’s home, they find a stark difference between the two men’s lifestyles. Garland is neat and orderly; Fowler…was not. I can say without spoiling the story that that difference isn’t the reason Fowler was killed. But it’s that sort of thing that can make being (or hosting) a house guest a challenge.

Whether you’ve been one or had them, the house guest situation can be delightful. But it’s also got lots of logistical and other challenges. I’ve only mentioned a few examples here because I’ve got to go count towels and sheets and plan food shopping. Your turn…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Wiggly Tendrils’ Song of the Grateful House-Guests.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Charles Todd, Ernesto Mallo, Katherine Howell, Paddy Richardson

22 responses to “Thank You For Opening Your Door*

  1. Margot, Ariadne Oliver’s rant about unwanted house guests reminded me of Prudence Whitby, who owns a small cottage on Cape Cod in Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s first mystery starring Asey Mayo, The Cape Cod Mystery. It is a very hot summer, and Miss Whitby – like many other local residents – is beset by telegrams and letters from everyone she knows in Boston and New York, all hoping to escape the heat by visiting her tiny cottage. Resigned to her fate – sort of, anyway – she ultimately invites two acquaintances as house guests. And that will lead, eventually, to all of them becoming involved in the murder of a deeply disliked author who lives next door.

    • Les – Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo series is delightful, and I’m glad you mentioned it. That scene where they’re discussing who is and isn’t going to be invited to stay at the summer house is priceless! And of course, Prudence has no idea that anything but a peaceful summer awaits her…

  2. Those country houses seem to just invite guests, don’t they? Great topic.

  3. Do your guests know you’re looking at them and thinking of ways to kill them in their sleep? LOL Fun post, Margot. You always seem to able to relate great crime fiction to what’s going on around us. Great job!

    • Thank you, Sue 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the post, and I appreciate the kind words. And you know, I could tell my guests about my devious plans, but then, well… 😉

  4. Haha! Ariadne Oliver’s quote reminded me so much of when I lived in London. I swear half of Scotland trooped down to stay with me, and they all wanted to see the London Dungeon and Oliver! It was a standing joke that Euston train station was my favourite place in London – always delighted to see them arrive, and equally delighted to see them leave… 😉

    • FictionFan – Oh, I’m sure your number was the most popular in Scotland at that time! I can only imagine the number of requests you got for people to stay ‘just for a night or two…’ And yes, I’m sure that both greeting people and seeing them off were wonderful experiences. 😉

  5. Tamara Cohen, The Broken has a house guest. It’s a wonderful psychological thriller where you are immersed in that world of friendships and marriage breakdowns. And when one breakdowns, the other couple takes in temporarily, the male of the other pairing. It causes no end of issues and the whole situation just spirals out of control. It’s wonderful to read. 🙂

    • Rebecca – It certainly does sound like a great psychological thriller. I’ve heard good things about, but haven’t (yet) read it.And it is a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post. Thanks.

  6. Col

    Nothing much to add – I’m looking forward to “Needle” when I locate it!

    • Col – Oh, I think you’ll like it. It’s got some fascinating characters in a very well-depicted setting. If you do find/read it, I hope you’ll post about it. I’m keen to know what you think of it.

  7. Houseguests is a subject near to my heart – we have quite a few of them, and I’m always threatening to write a guide to good guest behaviour! I love the beginning of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, where Mary Yelland is in a coach and tells the other passengers that she is going to stay with her aunt at their eponymous home. Everyone is shocked and either mutters or goes silent, and moves away from her. A classic clichéd scene – but I think Du Maurier helped create the cliché… And true enough, there are some very bad moments awaiting her at the Inn.

    • Moira – There are, indeed. And that’s a great example of an unsuspecting house guest. I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing this post but you’re right; that scene is clichéd, but Du Maurier makes it work becauuse it’s one of her specialties. I’m very glad you mentioned that novel. Oh, and I’m very much looking forward to your Guide to Good Guest Behaviour. I’m sure it’ll be a best-seller!

  8. Kathy D.

    Beg, borrow or steal (not really) Hunting Blind by Paddy Richardson. It’s psychological suspense with an unusual plot, unputdownable.
    House guests, murder and mayhem, a good combination.

  9. Adding Hunting Blind to my reading list. Sound like my kind of story.

  10. Well I had a couple guests myself who left this morning and I’m glad to say they are still hale and hearty! I do like stories in which our investigator gets invited to a new environment, it’s a great device for introducing us to a cast of characters. Really like the sound of Katherine Howell’s Silent Fear, thanks Margot.

    • Sergio – It’s good to hear that you and your house guests are all fine. It’s true, too, that when the sleuth is invited to go somewhere, there’s a whole set of new possibilities for characters, plot and so on. And that can add to a story.

  11. I’ve just read Elizabeth Daly’s ‘Evidence of Things Seen’. Not house guests as such but a woman renting someone else’s house. Very spooky.

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