And They Sit at the Bar and Put Bread in My Jar*

Bar and Pub ScenesBars and pubs come in all shapes and sizes. There are very posh bars in resort hotels; and seedy places where only the locals go, and then only when they don’t have enough money to go anywhere else. There are very dangerous drinking places and places that are quite safe. And of course there’s an endless variety of bar/pub themes, too.

When it comes to crime fiction, bars and pubs make for near-ideal backdrops. One reason is that they are so varied. Wherever the author sets a novel, in whatever context, there’s probably some kind of licensed establishment. And all sorts of scenes can take place at a drinking place. Business deals, romantic trysts, meetings between old friends…well, you get the idea. There’s nothing like a bar or pub for interactions among characters. That’s probably why there are so many scenes in crime fiction that take place in bars and pubs. I couldn’t possibly name them all, so I’ll content myself with just a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy heiress Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is murdered during a trip on the famous Blue Train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and gets involved in the investigation. One of the more likely suspects is the man the victim was going to meet, Armand de la Roche, who calls himself a Count. Another suspect is the victim’s estranged husband, Derek Kettering. At one point, the Comte de la Roche hears of evidence against Kettering and thinks he can make a profit by charging for his silence. He waits in the salon/lounge of the hotel where Kettering is staying. When he tries blackmail, Kettering lets him know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him. It’s a taut scene that also shows some interesting character traits of both men.

Perth Superintendent Frank Swann uses pubs for quite a different purpose in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. He’s investigating the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine, who owned a brothel. He faces several challenges in this investigation, not the least of which is a group of corrupt police officers, called ‘the purple circle.’ They’ve marked Swann because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into their activities. And now, he’s convinced that somehow, one or more of them is behind the murder. Few people will talk openly to Swann because most fear ‘the purple circle. But he finds ways to meet up with people who have information. In one scene for instance, he goes to the Grosvenor Hotel, which,

 

‘…looked like a shaky drunk under escort.’

 

Despite its less-than-inspiring exterior, it’s an upmarket place that professionals use to discuss business they don’t want to deal with in the office. That’s where Swann goes to look for a lawyer named Cooper, who handled Ruby Devine’s business. The meeting is tense, because in this case, they’re on opposite sides, so to speak. He is, in fact, a suspect in the murder. But as Cooper says, they were both Ruby’s friends. And he figures into the story in a few places.

There’s another case of a bar being used for a business deal in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. He’s got a reputation for being good at finding people who don’t want to be found, and he speaks both Thai and English. So when Clarissa Ulrich visits Bangkok to find someone who can look for her missing uncle, Rafferty is a natural choice. She leaves word at the Expat Bar, one of Rafferty’s regular stops, and he gets the message that she wants to talk to him. When they meet at the Expat, she tells him that she hasn’t heard from her uncle in a few months and is worried about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter, and is soon drawn into a case that goes far deeper than a man who simply wanted to take off for a bit.

Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney also finds bars to be good places to follow up on leads and find people. In The Half Child, for instance, Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. The police report stated that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe it was suicide. Keeney looks into the case, which at one point leads her to a place called the B-52 Bar. Her skill at playing pool turns out to be very useful as she goes after the information she wants. And so, in another bar scene, are her skill at speaking Thai and her understanding of the Thai culture.

Of course, bars and pubs are also effective settings for romantic meetings. But not all of them work out well. In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, for instance, Eva Wirenström-Berg is devastated when she learns that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. One night she goes out just to get away for a bit, and ends up at a pub. That’s where she meets Jonas Hansson, a man who has his own serious issues. Their meeting ends up having disastrous consequences, and as the story goes on, things spiral out of control for both of them.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House introduces us to Petra Westman, junior member of an investigating team that’s looking into a strange group of murders. One night, she and a colleague Jamal Hamad go out for a friendly drink. While they’re at the bar, she meets Peter Fryhk. A conversation leads to several drinks and to flirting. The next morning, she wakes up in a house she doesn’t know. Very soon she concludes that she’s been ‘date raped.’ She manages to get home, and one of the plot threads in this story is her search for the proof she needs to have her attacker brought to justice.

And of course, I don’t think I could do a post on bar and pub scenes in crime fiction without mentioning The Red Pony. That’s a bar/restaurant/poolroom owned by Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear. It’s one of Durant, Wyoming’s few gathering places, and it’s a regular haunt of Johnson’s sleuth Sheriff Walt Longmire. It may not be upmarket, but it’s comfortable and ‘down home,’ and lots of scenes, both funny and tense, take place there.

There are of course lots of other bar and pub scenes in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus). And it’s not at all surprising. They’re perfect for all kinds of meetings that can end in all kinds of ways. Which ones have stayed with you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Oh, come on, was there ever any doubt? 😉

31 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Carin Gerhardsen, Colin Dexter, Craig Johnson, David Whish-Wilson, Ian Rankin, Karin Alvtegen, Timothy Hallinan

31 responses to “And They Sit at the Bar and Put Bread in My Jar*

  1. It seems like every mystery series set in the UK has one or more scenes in a pub. I don’t remember them in Carolyn Graham’s Inspector Barnaby series but they show up all the time in the Midsomer Murders TV series.

    • They sure do, Tracy. I think the pub culture is integral in the UK, so pub scenes are natural fits there. There are some pub scenes in the Graham novels, but you’re right: not nearly as many as are in the TV episodes.

  2. And you have succeeded in tempting me again – you’re the second person to recommend Karin Alvtegen today, so I’ve just ordered her book. I’ve fallen heavily off the TBR Double Dare waggon, so I might as well drown my sorrows in drink at the pub…

    • 😆 I know all too well the feeling of falling off the literary wagon, Marina Sofia! But actually, I think Alvtegen is quite talented, and writes solid psychological suspense. I’ll be interested in what you think of her work when you get the chance to read it.

  3. You and Tracy are right – pubs are a gift to UK crime writers. What a place to mix with the suspects, hear gossip from the landlord, flirt with a barmaid, observe a drunken row – what would the average copper do without them?

    • Moira – I’d be hard-put to think of a better place when it comes to character interactions. And the great thing about pubs is that they’re so varied that the author can create just about any ambiance s/he wants. Rural, posh, ‘just the locals,’ touristy, whatever fits with a story is probably out there. And as you say, lots and lots of different kinds of characters too. Little wonder coppers go there…

  4. I don’t drink at all but now that in the UK smoking in pubs is banned I really quite enjoy going there if they’re not too noisy. They make a great background for episodes in the series by Colin Dexter and Edmund Crispin not to mention Pomeroy’s Wine Bar in the Rumpole books by John Mortimer – great topic Margot 🙂

    • Thanks, Sergio. And yes, the atmosphere in pubs is a lot nicer for us non-smokers now the air’s been (literally) cleared. And they are great contexts in the stories you’ve mentioned. So happy too that you’ve mentioned Pomeroy’s – where else would Rumpole get his drop of the plonk? 😉

  5. Nice post, and thanks for the shout out, Margot. I have to admit, Thailand’s bars often inspire scenes for me: I knew I had to set a scene in Chiang Mai’s Riverside bar in Behind the Night Bazaar, for example, before even knowing what action would take place, as a homage to the venue and the Freddie Mercury look-/sound-alike lead singer in the house band.

    I think you can tell a lot about a person/PI from their choice of local watering hole!

    • It’s a pleasure to mention your work, Angela. And I can well imagine that the Riverside would’ve inspired you. It certainly comes across beautifully in …Night Bazaar. And I think that Thai bars must be so full of life and atmosphere of all kinds that it’d be hard not to have that seep into one’s writing.
       
      You make a well-taken point too about the kind of place a person haunts. People do tend to gravitate towards places where they feel comfortable, and that shows a lot about them.

  6. Pub culture is absolutely central in Glasgow, and was even more so in the recent past when there was very little other choice of entertainment. So I’ll mention two where the pubs have stuck out for me – William McIlvanney’s great ‘Laidlaw’ which was set in the period of my own youth and where the pubs he mentions were real places which I had also frequented from time to time. And for the same reason Gordon Ferris’ ‘Douglas Brodie’ series, where Brodie’s pub of choice is the Horseshoe Bar, an institution in the city from way before my time and still going strong and popular in the present day.

    • I’m really glad you mentioned those authors, FictionFan. Both are such excellent examples of the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. And how great for you that the pubs in those stories are places that you know. I think that gives a person an even stronger and deeper connection with a story. As that weren’t enough, you’ve reminded me that I’ve been meaning to spotlight both of those authors. I really need to do that. Soon.

    • I remember you used to be able to get a very good cheap filling meal in the Horseshoe, FF – even if it was a little like school dinners! And the bar Rebus (and apparently Rankin himself frequents!) is called The Oxford Bar – I always mean to go when in Edinburgh, but never do. Next time…A book which occurred to me, which is set pretty much entirely in a bar, is Dennis Lehane’s The Drop. It’s basically a front for all sorts of other dodgy deals, and most of the action takes place in it. There’s an attempted robbery, by a local wannabe hardman (Mr C would call him a cardboard gangster!), and there’s a wonderful twist. I reviewed it sometime last year – I do enjoy Lehane, and I suspect you may too, Margot! There’s a bar in Mystic River, too.

      • I do indeed like Lehane’s work, Crimeworm. And you’re quite right that he uses bars really effectively. There’s a great scene for instance in Gone, Baby, Gone where a sleazy working-class bar serves as the backdrop for some very tense scenes in the novel. Thanks for reminding me.

  7. Margot, it occurs to me that I can’t let a post on pubs in crime fiction go past without mentioning Welsh writer John Williams’s wonderful Cardiff Trilogy, the first installment of which is called Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub. Williams documents a city in transition, largely by mapping the demise of the old (and largely dodgy) waterside pubs in the push towards gentrification. His work is compelling, not least of all for its insights into how a population is affected by urban development and economic change.

    • Angela – That’s a really interesting premise for a series of books: the impact of development/socioeconomic change on the people of an area. In fact, I think I need to reflect on that and maybe do a post on it. It runs throughout crime fiction, and of course, through other genres too. And I’m glad you’ve mentioned the Cardiff Trilogy. Pubs are one place where you really see those changes reflected; and although I confess I’ve not read the trilogy, I can certainly see how a look at pubs and bars would fit in with Williams’ points. Thanks for filling in the gap.

  8. I loved the song from the title.

  9. As you mentioned, Inspector Morse spent a lot of time there. 🙂 Nice post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. And yes, I couldn’t imagine a post about bar/pub scenes in crime fiction without bringing in Inspector Morse. Where would he be without his local? 🙂

  10. Funny how pub scenes are more prevalent in UK crime fiction than US. I also noticed you read a lot of books that take place on trains, which I think are great places for murder. The atmosphere alone is creepy. New post idea?

    • Oh, trains are great contexts for murder, Sue! No doubt about that at all. I’ve done a couple of ‘crime fiction and trains’ posts, and it’s always interesting to think about that sort of setting. There’s just something about trains… And it is interesting how we see so many pub scenes in UK and some Australian crime fiction, but less perhaps in US crime fiction.

  11. Ian Rankin pops into my mind immediately, Margot. And thanks for getting back to Billy Joel!

  12. Col

    I’m reminded of Block’s Matt Scudder and the bar he frequents…..mind blank – Grogan’s maybe?

    • Good memory, Col! I should have mentioned Last Night at Grogan’s, so I’m glad you’ve filled in that gap. And Scudder actually knows a lot of the different bars. I like that he uses bars as a sort of office.

  13. Pingback: Falling Off the Wagon (Books, Not Alcohol) | findingtimetowrite

  14. Really interesting post! I’ve noticed that most of the crime fiction I read have a dependence on pubs as settings. In my studies we looked at Ian Rankin and I wrote a short paper on the use of pubs in the Rankin universe, and it was a really interesting topic. I’m currently reading Stuart MacBride’s Logan McRae series, where I actually know more about the pubs the characters frequent than the characters themselves!

    • Becks – Oh, I’m sure your paper was fascinating. There certainly is a lot there. And I’m glad that you mentioned the Logan McRae series too, as it’s another example of the way that the pub atmosphere can be effectively woven into stories.

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