I’m Filling the Cracks That Ran Through the Door*

RenovationsHave you ever had a room or a home renovated? On the one hand, it’s exciting, and there’s the promise of a beautiful new place ahead. But of course, it involves plaster, paint, drywall, and lots of inconvenience and money. So most people don’t renovate on a whim.

Renovations are actually very useful plot devices for crime writers. For one thing, they can add an interesting sub-plot to a story. For another, renovation is a good reason for a character to stay elsewhere temporarily, and that opens up several possibilities. And there’s no telling what might be found when an older building is torn down or taken apart. So it should come as no surprise that we see painting and renovation in many different crime novels. Here are just a few.

Agatha Christie uses that theme in a few of her novels. For example, in Death on the Nile, we are introduced to beautiful and wealthy Linnet Ridgeway. She’s purchased Wode Hall from its former owner, and as the novel begins, she’s in the midst of making it her own:

‘Ah, but Wode was hers! She had seen it, acquired it, rebuilt and redressed it, lavished money on it. It was her own possession – her kingdom.’

Linnet’s life changes dramatically when her best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort asks her to hire Simon Doyle (Jackie’s fiancé) as land agent. She unexpectedly falls in love with Doyle and the two marry. On the second night of their honeymoon cruise of the Nile, Linnet is shot. Jackie is also on the cruise, so she is the natural first suspect. But it’s soon proven that she couldn’t be the killer. So Hercule Poirot, who’s also aboard, has to look elsewhere. I know, I know, fans of After the Funeral and Dead Man’s Folly…

Renovation plays an important role in Ian Rankin’s Set in Darkness. Queensberry House was originally the property of a wealthy landowner, but has also served as a military barracks and a hospital. Now it’s being completely renovated to house the new Scottish Parliament. In fact, it’s one of several major demolition/renovation projects in that area. To everyone’s shock, the renovation uncovers a long-dead body hidden behind a blocked-up fireplace. The body has been there for a few decades (i.e. the house is much older), so Inspector Rebus looks for answers in the building’s more recent history. In the meantime, there are two more deaths: an aspiring Member of Parliament and a homeless man with a surprising amount of money. It turns out that these three deaths are connected, ‘though not as you might think (this is Ian Rankin, after all).

There’s also an interesting case of renovation in Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as far back as possible. The trail leads to James Fairborne, who left America with his wife Eleanor and their children in 1783 with a group of Royalists. With Sloane’s support, Tayte travels to England to trace that branch of the Fairborne family. He discovers that James Fairborne married again shortly after his arrival in England. What’s more, there is no more information on Eleanor or the children. Now Tayte is curious and begins to look into the matter. In the process of looking for the truth, Tayte meets Amy Fallon, whose husband Gabriel was lost in a storm two years earlier. Just before he died, Gabriel had told his wife that he’d found out a secret, but he didn’t get the chance to tell her what it was. However, new construction on their home has uncovered an old hidden staircase and room. That’s where Amy finds a very old carved writing box with a love letter in it. Gradually, she and Tayte, each in a different way, connect that letter to his genealogical mystery.

Renovation doesn’t always have to be sinister of course. But it always involves a certain amount of stress and a lot of decisions. For instance, in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn and her partner Zack Shreve are planning to get married. One of the things they’ll have to decide is where to live. For Zack to move into his bride’s two-story house will mean renovation, since he uses a wheelchair. And it isn’t practicable for Joanne and her daughter Taylor to move in with him. So they decide to purchase a new home. The new home and the renovations made to it aren’t really the main plot point of this novel. But they go on in the background and add a layer of interest to the novel.

Fans of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series will know that it features James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, a journalist who moved from a large city to Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ At the beginning of Qwill’s life in Moose County, he lives in a few different places. But none of them is exactly what he’s looking for as a permanent residence. Then he hits on an ideal solution. He hires interior designer Fran Brodie to renovate an old apple barn to meet his needs. Together with building contractor Dennis Hough, she creates a custom-made home for Qwill and his two Siamese cats. In The Cat Who Knew a Cardinal, Qwill finds himself hosting an impromptu house-warming/cast party for the local repertory theatre group. The festivities are interrupted when the body of Hilary VanBrook, one of the cast members and the local high school principal, is found in his car on Qwill’s property. Not exactly an auspicious beginning to the ownership of a renovated home…

Renovations don’t always have such deadly aftermaths. But there’s no end to the havoc they can wreak. And I haven’t even mentioned the many novels that include excavations of old homes… Got any ‘war stories’ of your own??


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ Fixing a Hole.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Lilian Jackson Braun, Steve Robinson

26 responses to “I’m Filling the Cracks That Ran Through the Door*

  1. Plenty of them. How long do you have? LOL My husband and I owned a 1810 cape for twelve years. It was awful, but we bought it mainly for the land. I swear, the entire time we lived there we were under construction– and I still never liked the place. It was a happy day the day we moved out. The new owners ended up tearing it down and building new. In retrospect, that’s what we should have done. Now that I think about it, I wonder if the ghosts moved to the new building?

    • Oh, that’s a good question, Sue! And there is something about those old houses. Sometimes they are just perfect choices for a place to live. Sometimes they are more ‘lists of projects to do’ than they are places to really live and have a home. I know some people buy such places, ‘flip’ them and that’s how they earn their living. But that wouldn’t likely be something I’d consider.

      • No, me neither. We’d always intended to build a log cabin on the four acres. My husband said, “We’ll just fix it up to make it more comfortable– for now.” Twelve years later…
        Life has a funny way of destroying plans. But it all turned out the way it was supposed to because we would have never moved farther north, to the mountains, and settled in a home we love.

        • I’m glad you found the right home for yourself, Sue. Sometimes those things that work out best come about in ways we wouldn’t have imagine. And I know exactly what you mean about ‘just for now…’ Interesting how ‘just for now’ can last for a long time.

  2. Great post, Margot. IN THE BLOOD sounds like it would make a great movie. Do you know if it’s been optioned?

    Not so much a renovation as a full-scale development, your post reminds me of PM Newton’s novel, THE OLD SCHOOL, which opens with the discovery of a body in the foundations of a building site.

    As you say, renovation and (de)construction present the crime writer with a world of places to hide a body/clue.

    • Angela – In the Blood actually is a very interesting story and I can see how it’d make for a good film. I don’t know whether it’s been optioned, but I’d certainly see it if it were.
      Thanks, too, for reminding me of Newton’s work. I would like to know it better, and I simply don’t (yet). I supposes it’s the usual explanation of ‘never enough time to read all you want to read.’ The Old School certainly has exactly the kind of premise I had in mind when I put this post together, so I’m glad you filled in that gap. There’s nothing like a construction or renovation context for hiding a body, a clue, a murder weapon, or a motive…

  3. Having undergone a kitchen remodeling some years ago, I would say it’s a wonder that more contractors, invariably late on delivery and heavy on inconvenience, don’t wind up as murder victims…

    That said, most of the renovations I’ve encountered in my reading are usually excuses to find dead bodies. Catherine Aird’s A Late Phoenix, for example, deals with the discovery of a dead body in a bombing site several decades old. It is assumed the victim was trapped by the bomb – until police find a bullet lodged in the body. And nobody had been reported missing at the time, according to the records. Sort of the ultimate “cold case,” I suppose.

    • Les – I had to laugh in empathy when I read the first part of your comment. We’ve had work teams in too, and even when the team itself is competent and courteous, there are always, always delays. Sometimes it’s because primer or something else doesn’t dry as quickly as it should. Sometimes it’s because certain pieces of a project aren’t available and have to be ordered. The list goes on… And that’s to say nothing of the noise, dust, inconvenience, and so on. On the other hand, there are a lot of such projects that we don’t have the skills to do ourselves, so sometimes you have to call in professionals.
      Thanks also for mentioning A Late Phoenix. Aird really is very talented (delighted at her Dagger win!). As you say, a very good example of a ‘cold case,’ and an interesting ‘de/re/construction site’ context.

  4. I am glad Les mentioned A Late Phoenix. It is a perfect fit for this post, and I would never have remembered it… even though I read it recently. I never would have thought of all these mysteries related to renovations.

    • Tracy – I’m glad Les mentioned A Late Phoenix too. It’s one I should have included – a great fit for the post, as you say – but didn’t. I you know, I was surprised too when I really thought about how much of a role renovation/construction plays in mysteries.

  5. Darn, I thought this would be about victims being buried or walled alive. 🙂

  6. The joy of living in a new build is that I can be confident there are no skeletons behind the walls or in the loft… can’t I?? Though I suspect the cats may have secreted a victim or two that might turn up the next time the renovators are in… 😉

  7. Christie again – Sleeping Murder, when the young Gwenda unknowingly stays in a house she knew as a child. She has a feeling for a door that should be there, but now can’t be seen. An awful lot is going to be uncovered once those workmen, and Miss Marple, get going.

    • Thanks, Moira, for mentioning this one. It is a good example of how houses can have all sorts of secrets, and it’s a great fit for what I had in mind with this post.

  8. It’s good to see an expansion on your DIY post earlier this week Margot. I am very pleased to see In The Blood featured, an excellent book and a mystery renovation!

  9. Patti Abbott

    Not exactly renovations but the unfinished community in BROKEN HARBOR has stayed with me ever since. So eerie to live among half-built houses.

  10. Col

    Recently read Christina James – Sausage Hall, no renovations as such, but buried bodies discovered in a cellar after 100-odd years

  11. Am going through a renovation at the moment after a flood. Urgg. I need some escapism from my crime fiction not reality!

    • Oh, Sarah, how annoying and frustrating! I can well imagine that you’d like to escape in crime fiction, rather than let it remind you of what’s going on in real life.

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