Have 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.