One 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.