He Sees Angels in the Architecture*

ArchitectureFor an author, it’s sometimes a challenge to decide how much detail to give the reader. On the one hand, painting a verbal picture can place the reader in a particular setting or context, and that can invite the reader to engage in the story. On the other, too much detail can slow a story down, and many readers will tell you they just skip over that information and move on to ‘the good stuff.’

Architecture is one example of the kind of detail that can add to a story or really detract from it depending on how it’s handled. And there really is a lot of architecture in crime fiction. That makes sense, if you think about it. For one thing, architecture can add context and even character development to a story. For another, architecture can play a role in mysteries, too.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Speckled Band, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Helen Stoner. She’s very much worried that her life may be in danger, and she wants Holmes’ help. Here is the story she tells. She and her sister Julia lived at the family home Stoke Moran with their stepfather Dr. Roylott. Julia began to hear strange noises at night, and started to be afraid. Then one night, she suddenly died after saying something about a speckled band. Shortly after that, Roylott insisted that Helen move her things into Julia’s room and use it as her own. Now, Helen is hearing the same strange noises that her sister heard right before her death. Holmes takes his client’s case seriously and he and Dr. Watson travel to Stoke Moran. There they discover that the danger to Helen is very real. As Holmes works out the truth, we learn how important architecture is in this story. Conan Doyle fans will know that architecture plays a role in other stories too (I know, I know, fans of The Red-Headed League).

Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly takes place at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is visiting Nasse House to plan a Murder Hunt as one attraction for the upcoming annual fête to be held there. On the surface it seems that she’s simply been commissioned to plan clues, ‘red herrings,’ a ‘victim’ and so on. But she suspects there’s something more going on. So she asks her friend Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he travels to Nasse House to look into the matter. On the day of the big event, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was chosen to play the part of the victim, is actually killed. Now Poirot works with Inspector Bland and P.C. Hoskins to find out who the murderer is. One of the ‘interested parties’ is an architect Michael Weymouth, who’s on hand to build a small ornamental building – a folly – on the property. Weymouth’s profession is not the reason for the murder, but he has some interesting things to say about wealthy clients who don’t have any architectural knowledge or taste. And as it turns out, architecture does play a role in the story. Like Conan Doyle, Christie used architecture in more than one of her stories actually (I know, I know, fans of Three Act Tragedy).

Architecture plays a pivotal role in the plans of Mike Daniels, a professional thief whom we meet in Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank. He and his team mates have decided to try to pull off a major heist: the robbery of the City Savings Deposit Bank. But as you might expect, the bank boasts the latest in security, so it’s not going to be easy to get the job done. One night Daniels meets a man he think can help the group. He takes a ride in a cab that’s driven by out-of-work architect Stephen Booker and the two strike up a conversation. Over time, Daniels takes more rides in Booker’s cab and they begin to get to know one another. Finally Daniels feels comfortable enough to invite Booker to lend his skills to the group in exchange for a share of the loot. At first, Booker’s reluctant; after all, Daniels and his team are thieves and what they want to do is, of course, both illegal and dangerous. But he’s getting desperate for money, so he agrees. With Booker’s skills, the team plans the tunneling and other preparations they’ll need. Finally, the day of the robbery arrives, and everything looks to be going well. Then, a sudden and unexpected storm blows up that changes everything.

In Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we are introduced to Joakim and Katrine Westin. They’ve moved to a run-down manor house near Eel Point on Öland, with the goal of getting away from big-city life. They tell themselves and everyone else that they want to raise their children in a healthier environment, and are looking forward to the less-frenetic pace of life on the island. One of their major tasks will be to renovate their home. That project becomes a the subject of a feature in a local news magazine, and a reporter visits the Westin home to get ‘photos and background for the story:


Katrine and the reporter followed him [Joakim] up the crooked wooden staircase to an upstairs corridor. It was gloomy up here despite the fact that there was a row of windows facing the sea, but the panes were covered with pieces of chipboard that let in only narrow strips of daylight.’


When tragedy strikes the family, police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and we learn that this particular house has a dark history.

Catherine O’Flynn’s The News Where You Are sheds an interesting light on architecture. Television presenter Frank Allcroft has reached a sort of crossroads in his life. He’s got a happy marriage and a good relationship with his eight-year-old daughter Mo. But he’s trying to search out the direction his life should take. He’s also devastated by the death of his predecessor, friend and mentor Phil Smedway. Smedway was jogging one day when he was hit by a car. It’s been regarded as a tragic accident, but Allcroft is drawn to the scene of the accident as he works through his grief. He notices that the road there is straight and wide, so it would have been easy for even a tired or drunk motorist to see Smedway. What’s more, the road was dry at the time of Smedway’s death. So Allcroft starts to ask some questions. Along with this search for the truth about his friend’s death, he’s also dealing with the loss of his architect father, and his complicated relationship with his mother. Allcroft’s father was passionate about his work, and although he was distant from his family, he created some imaginative and forward-thinking plans. So Allcroft has been working very hard to preserve the last of the buildings his father designed. Here’s Mo’s observation about it when the preservation approval comes through:


‘I think in four hundred years, people will be coming here for day trips. They’ll have question sheets to fill in about the name of the man who built it and the shape of the windows like we had to do at Aston Hall…I bet loads of them will look at the building and say, ‘Wow! What a great building. I wonder if he had any grandchildren.’ And they’ll try to imagine me, but they won’t be able to because I’ll be so long ago and mysterious.’


Architecture really can take on a life of its own, so to speak.

There isn’t space to mention all of the ‘impossible-but-not-really’ mysteries that rely on details of architecture. Nor is there space to mention authors such as P.D. James, who integrate a powerful sense of architecture into their novels. You’ll be better able than I anyway to fill in those gaps. Which architectural stories have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s You Can Call Me Al.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Catherine O'Flynn, Johan Theorin, P.D. James, Robert Pollock

15 responses to “He Sees Angels in the Architecture*

  1. One of the best locked room mysteries ever written is John Dickson Carr’s (as Carter Dickson) The Judas Window. How’s this for a nightmare situation: you wake up, aware that you have been drugged, to find yourself alone in a room with a dead man. He appears to have been stabbed with an arrow that had been hanging on the wall. The window is securely shuttered and locked. The door is locked and bolted on the inside. There is no way in or out of the room – and there is nobody else in the room. And someone is knocking on the door. Fortunately for the young man in that room, Sir Henry Merrivale takes on his defense. As he explains, the crime was committed through use of a “Judas window.” And what might that be? It’s not a spoiler to point out, as H.M. observes repeatedly throughout the story, that you will find a Judas window in just about every room you enter. The trouble, as he says, is that so few people even notice it…

    • Les – That’s exactly the sort of ‘locked room’ architectural mystery I had in mind when I wrote that last bit of my post. The Judas Window is a terrific example of the way authors have woven architecture into their stories. It’s one of Carr’s good ‘uns, too.

  2. Val McDermid’s new one. ‘The Skeleton Road’, begins with a surveyor inspecting a derelict school. Despite his fear of heights he has to go up to examine the roof, where he discovers a skeleton. The question is, how did it get up there…?

  3. Reblogged this on sweatingthewriting and commented:

  4. The House at Seas End by Elly Griffiths talks a lot about architecture and the effects of sea errosion on houses built on sea cliffs.

  5. I recently read TH White’s Darkness Comes to Pemberley (for Rich’s Books of 1932 meme at Past Offences) and the big house there has very important architecture. It’s a grand country house – pinched from Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice – and the chimneys, passageways and rooms play an important part in the plot….

    • Moira – I must read that; I’ve heard good things about it. And I’m not surprised that the architecture plays an important role there. Those big old houses are ideal for those kinds of contexts, I think.

  6. I like your reference to that Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Speckled Band. Phew, I REMEMBER the description of the two bedrooms, the house, and how Holmes paid attention to all that detail. What I thought was affectively chilling about the A&E Jeremy Brett portrayal of Holmes in that story, is that after the episode ended, there was a “bit” where it showed the snake coming down, and Holmes rising from the bed and “caning” the snake. It was affective because there was NO background music – as it should be when a snake is about to kill you!

    Thanks! That was a GOOD story. 🙂

  7. How much detail is too much? It’s a never-ending issue for writers. I confess to being an architecture buff and it creeps into my writing, maybe too much, especially those moderne structures of the Thirties in which I set most of my mysteries.
    It’s always a challenge to resist the temptation to throw in all sorts of (irrelevant) description, and I suppose the trick is to somehow make the descriptions either have something to do to character or the story.

    • Bryan – I think that’s just it. It’s important to ask the question of how a detail serves the story before putting it in. And sometimes, architectural detail is important. Even when it’s not crucial to solving a mystery, it helps to set the context and give some character depth. As you say, it’s a matter of how much one includes and to what purpose.

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