Livin’ it Up When I Hit the Ground*

ElevatorsYou 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Anya Lipska, Kate Rhodes, Ngaio Marsh, Rex Stout

24 responses to “Livin’ it Up When I Hit the Ground*

  1. I never thought of this before. Bookmarking for future use. Thanks, Margot!

    • A pleasure, Sue. And thanks for the kind words. To me it’s amazing how everyday things like elevators, parking structures, and so on can really offer interesting contexts in fiction.

  2. There’s a Father Brown story, The Eye of Apollo, where a very rich woman falls down an elevator shaft soon after writing her will…

    • You’re absolutely right, Moira! I should have put that one in and simply didn’t. It’s a great story, too, folks – recommended. Thanks for filling in the gap.

  3. tracybham

    There is a similar occurrence in A Case for Mr. Crook by Anthony Gilbert, with a woman’s body at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Which I had forgotten entirely until I saw Moira’s comment.

  4. I’m always a bit dubious about lifts myself and it’s only really my laziness about stairs that tempts me into them. There’s the small, enclosed space thing, the snapped cable plunging to a horrible death thing, the who knows who’ll get in with you thing, and as for the lift made of glass thing – argh! The second in John Gaspard’s Eli Marks series, ‘The Bullet Catch’, finds Eli left with a fear of heights after his previous adventure, and there’s a heart-thudding description of him going up in a glass lift… I empathised!!

    • FictionFan – Oh, those glass ones! I was once in the one that takes you from the first floor of Auckland’s Sky Tower to as far as you’re allowed to go – 328m up. And you can just look down and see what you’re leaving behind as you go up. Not for those who aren’t keen on the glass… You’re right too about who gets into the car with you. I’ve had a couple of times where I’ve been very glad to get out when the ride was over. I’m honestly not scared about them, but I really wish you hadn’t mentioned those cables snapping… 😉
      And thanks very much for suggesting the Marks series. That’s one I keep hearing about, but haven’t (yet) tried. Never enough time to catch up on it all.

  5. Col

    I don’t recall the use of them in any books I have read, though I have seem them used to good effect in film.

    • Col – They can be used really effectively in film. Now you’re reminding me of an episode of Ellery Queen (with Jim Hutton in the role) where a man’s body turns up in an elevator…

  6. I was stuck in an elevator once and haven’t trusted them since! Some great examples here, Margot, as always.

  7. I prefer that to escalators.

  8. Margot I really don’t know how you manage to alight on your prompts but they are fantastic. For the record I use a lift several times a day at work, it is one of those that you can see out of and has huge mirrors inside (not great on a wet and windy day!) I thought I’d mention it because that would be an excellent vantage point to spot things from! I’m so glad you featured AC’s One, Two, Buckle My Shoe as one of the things that struck me was the fact that someone was employed just for the lift, it seems extraordinary now… and the Alice Quentin and her phobia of lifts.

    • Cleo – Oh, that sort of mirrored type that you can see out of is a perfect spot! Now you’re giving me all sorts of ideas (always dangerous 😉 ). It’s funny, too, about One, Two…. We don’t see those attendants any more, although years ago, that was a bona fide way to start a career. I’d guess a few very luxurious hotels have them and so on, but by and large they’ve disappeared. As you say, it seems odd now, but no self-respecting building would’ve gone without an attendant in days gone by. And as to Alice Quentin, I sort of like that phobia. Or, to be more accurate, it makes a lot of sense to me. Not only is it not an unusual phobia, but in her case, it makes some sense.

  9. Margot: In I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes there is a secret elevator. How can I say more? It took me a day of debating myself whether to speak of the elevator. With Monday’s post now up I thought I would not be spoiling to mention it. The secret elevator did not work well for me in the plot.

  10. I’m always slightly suspect when it comes to lifts. I always check them out properly before I get in one. I think I’m worried about getting trapped. Glad Bill mentioned ‘I am Pilgrim.’ I love that book.

    • Sarah – I must read I Am Pilgrim. In some ways I’m woefully behind! And I’m not surprised you’re a bit suspect; getting trapped is no joke, really. To me it makes sense that some people are really afraid to get in and let those doors close. If you let the possibilities overwhelm you, it is enough to make sweat break out…

  11. There’s a wonderful impossible crime book – a collaboration between John Dickson Carr and Cecil Street (writing as Carter Dickson and John Rhode) called Fatal Descent: a man enters his private elevator – alone – on the fifth floor. The elevator, a six feet square by eight feet high, closed compartment with steel walls, starts down without any intermediate stops. A shot is heard. When the elevator arrives at the first floor, the man – still alone – is found shot to death. No weapon is found…

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