You may not even remember the last time you used one, because we use them so frequently. And a lot of times we don’t even think about it when we do. I’m talking about elevators – lifts. No matter what you call them, they are extremely convenient, especially when the alternative is to take a lot of stairs.
You might not think about this, because they’re so mundane, but elevators are also really useful in crime fiction. They make very effective places for characters to interact. Also, in lots of modern public elevators, there are CCTV cameras that allow for helpful information about who goes in and out of a building. They can be dangerous places, too, so it’s little wonder some people don’t like them. They’re all throughout the genre, but space only permits me a few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot goes to his dentist Henry Morley for his regularly scheduled cleaning. Later, Chief Inspector Japp pays him a visit to tell him that Morley has been shot in his surgery. The official explanation is suicide, but Japp doesn’t agree. Poirot takes an interest in the matter, especially when the case is complicated by the death of one patient and the disappearance of another. One of the things that has to be established is who came to see Morley and at what times. For that information, Poirot and Japp rely on Alfred, the boy who answers the door and takes patients up in the elevator to see Morley or his partner Dr. Reilly. They hope Alfred will have a good memory of who came and went, and who went up and down in the elevator at the time in question. Alfred has a lot of trouble getting names right, but he provides Poirot with an important clue.
If you’re a fan of Ngaio Marsh’s work, you probably thought of A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer) as soon as you knew the topic of this post. Roberta Grey is more or less adopted by the very eccentric Lamprey family during their visit to her native New Zealand. When Roberta is left, as the saying goes, alone in the world, she travels to England and is immediately taken in by the Lampreys. She’s therefore mixed up in it all when the Lampreys have a case of murder in the family. They’re not particularly good at making wise financial decisions, and have traditionally gone to wealthy but unpleasant Gabriel ‘Uncle G’ Lord Wutherwood, the older brother of family patriarch Sir Charles Lamprey. Uncle G finally decides to stop supporting his brother’s family, and he and Sir Charles have a violent quarrel about it. Shortly after that, Uncle G is murdered in an elevator. Inspector Roderick Alleyn takes the case, and has to work through an odd assortment of family members and a variety of motives to find out who the killer is.
An elevator is also the scene of a murder in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief. One morning, semi-retired business executive Aurelio Lapècora is murdered in the elevator of his apartment building. Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate the case, which at first looks like a private murder. But the team is also investigating another case, the accidental (or was it?) killing of a Tunisian sailor who happened to be aboard an Italian fishing ship when he was killed. Montalbano comes to believe the two cases are related, and so they are (although not in the way you might think). One of the interesting aspects of this story is Montalbano’s attempt to find out exactly when Lapècora was murdered. Was he killed in his own home and then put in the elevator? If not, at which floor was he murdered? The answers don’t come easily, since the other residents of the apartment building have their various reasons for not telling everything they know.
An elevator also figures in Anya Lipska’s Death Can’t Take a Joke. DC Natalie Kershaw is investigating the case of a man who seems to have committed suicide by jumping off a building. As it turns out, the explanation for his death is quite different. In the meantime, Janusz Kiszka, Lipska’s other protagonist, is searching for the murderer of a friend of his, who was shot right on his own property. He and Kershaw find that the cases do have a link. At one point, Kiszka is on the trail of someone he thinks is key to the murders. In order to follow up on that lead, he attends a very posh party that takes place in an exclusive sort of apartment. When his quarry senses that Kiszka may be on to him, he and Kiszka go on the hunt for each other and there’s a very suspenseful scene involving the building’s elevator. Come to think of it, that elevator and the private key used to get into it play other roles in the story…
As an interesting side note, in Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard, we are introduced to psychologist Alice Quentin. One of her pastimes is taking long runs through London both to stay in shape and to exorcise her personal demons. When DCI Don Burns asks her to work with the police on a murder case, she agrees. The case looks a great deal like another series of murders from several years earlier, but on the surface of it, that seems unlikely. Yet Quentin sees enough similarities to keep asking questions. Her questions lead her into a great deal of danger when it turns out that there’s a new killer who seems to have learned from those older murders. For reasons having to do with her past, Quentin has a phobia about elevators:
‘It wasn’t the speed that got me, just the space itself. Tiny and airless, no windows to escape through.’
It’s an interesting perspective on something most of us take very much for granted.
But it’s not how Rex Stout ‘s Nero Wolfe feels about elevators. You didn’t think I’d do a post about elevators in crime fiction and not mention this very famous example, did you? As fans will know, Wolfe has a custom-made elevator in his brownstone that he uses to get from his bedroom to his office to the orchid room and back. He sees no reason to take the stairs when the elevator is right there. Of course, his co-sleuth Archie Goodwin sometimes wonders how long that elevator will be able to move Wolfe around…
See? You make not think about it much because we often take them for granted. But elevators really can be interesting contexts for all sorts of crime-fictional action. Which examples have I forgotten?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Aerosmith’s Love in an Elevator.