Can You Picnic?*

PicnicsThe weather is finally beginning to warm up a bit in the Northern Hemisphere; and in the Southern Hemisphere, the worst of summer’s heat is over. For a lot of people, that delightful ‘warm-but-not-hot’ weather is perfect for having picnics. If you enjoy picnics, you know how delightful it can be to take off for the beach, a hill, or just your garden and enjoy the outdoors as you eat. It’s a popular thing to do. Little wonder then that we see picnics crop up as they do in crime fiction. Let me if I may just share a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie features picnics in a few of her stories. In one of them, Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Also staying at the hotel are Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena Stuart Marshall, and his daughter (and Arlena’s step-daughter) Linda. It’s soon obvious that Arlena is carrying on a not-too-well-hidden affair with another guest Patrick Redfern, so when she is found dead one afternoon, her husband becomes the obvious suspect. But he can prove his whereabouts, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. The investigation takes a toll on everyone, and at one point, Poirot suggests that they all go on a picnic. At first no-one is in the mood for a light-hearted adventure like a picnic, but everyone finally agrees. And that picnic proves informative for Poirot…

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is the story of a group of schoolgirls at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, an exclusive private boarding school in Victoria. On Valentine’s Day of 1900, they go to Hanging Rock for a picnic. Mmlle. De Poitiers, the French mistress, and Greta McCraw, who teaches mathematics, go along as chaperones. During the picnic, three of the students, plus Miss McCraw, go missing. One of the students is later found, but she is dazed and cannot remember anything that happened. A thorough search of the area turns up nothing. Then, other strange events happen, and parents start pulling their daughters out of the school. Ultimately, things end tragically for the school. This is one of those unusual stories that doesn’t give readers an explanation for what happens. Lindsay later published a chapter that had been removed from the original text; in it, she provides the explanation for the events. But the story itself leaves readers to work out what happened.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional account of the 1900 arrest and trial of Maggie Heffernan for the killing of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie is brought up in rural Victoria by ‘respectable’ parents. One day she sees a newcomer, Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney staying with relatives. The customs of that era don’t allow Maggie to be ‘forward,’ as the saying used to go, but she’s smitten. Not long after she first sees Jack, she learns that he’ll be joining the local cricket team in a match coming up soon. So she eagerly goes along with her family for a ‘cricket picnic.’ After the meal, she finally gets a chance for a few words with Jack, and it doesn’t take long before they begin to see one another regularly. In fact, they become secretly engaged. Then, Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When he does, he tells Maggie, he’ll send for her. In the meantime, Maggie learns that she’s pregnant. She writes to Jack several times to tell him, but gets no answer. She knows that her parents will not accept her, so she decides to leave to find work in Melbourne. The baby is duly born, and for a short time, Maggie moves to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she learns that Jack has come to Melbourne and tracks him down. When she does, he rejects her, calling her ‘crazy.’ With little other choice, Maggie and the baby go to six different lodging houses, and are turned away from each one. That’s when the tragedy occurs. Before long, Maggie finds herself imprisoned and sentenced to execution. Vida Goldstein, the first woman to stand for Parliament in the British Empire, takes an interest in Maggie’s case. She and her protégée of sorts Elizabeth Hamilton work to get Maggie released.

In Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, we are introduced to Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, Chief of Police for the small town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The main plot of the novel concerns the brutal murder of Mustafa al-Bakr, who emigrated years ago from Algeria. As dedicated as Bruno is to his job (and he is), he doesn’t let it consume him. In fact, a sub-plot of the novel features his developing relationship with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale. She’s been sent to St. Denis to work with Bruno on this case, since it may involve the Front Nationale, a far-right group that’s not afraid to use terrorism to achieve its goals. At one point, he takes Isabelle out for a dinner picnic near the ruins of a castle. Bruno’s prepared the picnic carefully, and his date is most impressed:

‘’My toast is to you and your wonderful imagination. I can’t think of a better evening or a better picnic, and there’s no one I’d rather enjoy it with.’’

The picnic may not be the entire reason the two begin a relationship, but it doesn’t hurt!

Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men includes a few of Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s cases. For instance, there’s Mr. Molefelo, who wants to make amends for some wrongs he did. There’s also some competition from Satisfaction Guaranteed, a newly-established detective agency. And there’s the case of Mma. Selelipeng, who believes her husband is being unfaithful to her. As you can imagine, Mma. Ramotswe and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi don’t have a lot of spare time. To add to everything, Mma. Makutsi has decided to offer typing classes for men, who wouldn’t have been taught how to type in school. So life at the detective agency does get a bit hectic. When matters are finally settled, Mma. Ramotswe, her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Mma. Makutsi arrange for a picnic at a dam not far from where they live. They make a fire where they cook chicken, sausages, rice and maize pap. And they’re not the only group there. Other families have also gathered for picnics, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two apprentices are delighted to find some pleasant young girls to flirt with as they eat and relax. It’s a pleasant end to the story.

And it’s true that picnics can be very pleasant and relaxing. But sometimes, the insects aren’t the only things you need to worry about as you eat! 😉


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s Stone Soul Picnic, made famous by The Fifth Dimension.



Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Joan Lindsay, Martin Walker, Wendy James

28 responses to “Can You Picnic?*

  1. You’ve done it again, Margot – you find the most unusual topics and common threads in crime fiction. I would never have thought of picnics – although I remember the ones you mention in McCall Smith, Martin Walker, Agatha Christie and Hanging Rock quite clearly.

    • Marina Sofia – Not much else rattling round in my brain, so there’s plenty of room for crime fiction themes, etc… And I do like the way those authors weave picnics into their stories.

  2. Oh, I would love to see her explanation for PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK. It has always haunted me.

  3. Picnic at Hanging Rock – haven’t thought of that for years, the film and book were both very much of my era, and I did NOT know that about the missing chapter – going to have to hunt that down… thanks for the tipoff.

  4. I loved the film of ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and have been meaning for years to get around to reading the book sometime. Thanks for the nudge!

  5. Picnic at Hanging Rock is the stand out for me, too, though I recently re-read Evil Under the Sun.

    What an interesting topic to write about. I enjoyed reading this.

  6. I used to love these as a kid of course but now I tend to fixate on the mess 🙂 The only other mystery example I can think of would be the Fourth of July Picnic Nero Wolfe novella from AND FOUR TO GO (1958)

  7. We can’t wait to take bean out for picnics. Let’s hope there’s no murderous wasps or poisoned quiches 😉 xx

    • Well, I certainly hope there won’t be, D.S.! But I’ll bet you could get lots of inspiration for a new Blake Heatherington story… 😉 And in all seriousness, I’ll bet Bean will love picnics.

  8. Gosh, I’d forgotten Picnic at Hanging Rock…great example. I need to revisit it. 🙂

  9. I’ve never thought of using picnics in crime fiction, and now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything with one in it. It IS a great idea. So glad you shared some examples of how they can work as yet another great too for building suspense. Great post, as usual, Margot!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Sue – Glad you enjoyed the post. There are definitely lots of possibilities when it comes to picnics; isolated locations, all sorts of poisoning possibilities, the whole thing… a festival for crime writers 😉

  10. Margot: It is not about crime fiction but the story of a picnic that came to mind involving a Minnesota teenager, Zach Sobiech, dying of cancer in 2013. Here is a link to a video -

  11. Oh, I do love Alexander McCall Smith – he makes me feel all is well with the world! Although the Isabel Dalhousie series is my favourite, and I do love Scotland St, and Bertie and his awful mother!

    • I’m a fan of McCall Smith too, Crimeworm, for exactly the same reason. You feel that everything will be all right and that the world is a good place. And now you’ve reminded me I must catch up on Scotland Street (I follow the No. 1 Ladies… most closely).

  12. Picnics in crime fiction. Seems like a perfect opportunity for murder, where food can go bad and….

  13. Col

    Not familiar with any of the examples. I did try McCall Smith but didn’t get on too well, so bailed..maybe not my cup of tea!

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