Very often, young people don’t have the means to purchase or even lease a place to live by themselves. So they room with another person (sometimes more than one person). In fact, rooming together is a lot more common at universities (especially for undergraduates) than is having a place to oneself.
The roommate relationship is a very unusual one, if you think about it. In a lot of cases, roommates are not relatives or family members. And yet, they may know more about one another than family does. And there are all kinds of things that can happen between roommates, too. If you’ve seen Barbet Schroeder’s Single White Female, you know some of what can happen. Even if you haven’t seen it, I’m sure you have your own ‘roommate stories.’
Roommates also figure into crime fiction. That makes sense, simply because of the relationship. Here are just a few examples.
Of course one of the best-known set of fictional roommates is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. For many of the stories in that series, they share rooms at perhaps crime fiction’s most famous address, 221B Baker Street. They’re very different people, but they manage to make it work.
Agatha Christie’s Third Girl is in part the story of three young women who share a London flat. Claudia Reese-Holland and Frances Cary share with Norma Restarick, who’s been brought in as a ‘third girl:’
‘The main girl takes a furnished flat, and then shares out the rent. Second girl is usually a friend. Then they find a third girl by advertising if they don’t know one…First girl takes the best room, second girl pays rather less, third girl less still and is stuck in a cat-hole.’
Norma pays a cryptic visit to Poirot, and then changes her mind, saying he’s ‘too old.’ Shortly thereafter, she disappears. Poirot’s friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, knows who Norma is, and is interested in the mystery. So she works with Poirot to find out what happened to Norma and what it all may have to do with a murder that may have occurred. It’s an interesting look at taking a place together in London in the 1960s.
In Edward D. Hoch’s short story The Oblong Room, we meet university roommates Ralph Rollings and Tom McBern. Connecticut police detective Captain Leopold is sent to the local university campus when Rollings’ body is found with stab wounds in it. McBern is in the room (which is locked), and apparently has been for two days. At first, no-one says anything about what happened – not McBern and not the young woman both roommates admired. Without any background, it’s hard to pinpoint a motive, but in the end, Leopold gets there. In this case, the motive is as unusual as the ‘locked room’ nature of this crime is.
Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers introduces readers to his sleuth Matthew Scudder. In this first novel, Scudder hasn’t yet got his PI license, but he does occasionally do a little very informal work for people. Successful businessman Cale Hanniford has heard about Scudder and want to hire him. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter Wendy has been murdered, and all of the evidence points to her roommate, twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel. In fact, Hanniford doesn’t even want Scudder to investigate the murder. Rather, he wants to know more about the daughter from whom he’d become estranged. He’s hoping Scudder can help him understand the kind of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. Rather reluctantly, Scudder agrees and asks some questions. As he does, he begins to wonder whether her roommate was actually responsible. In the end, he finds that Wendy’s murder is not as simple as it seems.
Neither is the murder of Kate Sumner, which we read about in Minette Walters’ The Breaker. Two young boys who out exploring find her body on the beach near Chapman’s Poole, Dorset. The alarm is raised and PC Nick Ingram begins to investigate. In the meantime, a toddler, who turns out to be Kate’s daughter Hannah, is found wandering around the nearby town of Poole. Gradually, the police trace the victim’s last days and weeks, and narrow the suspect list down to three people. One is Kate’s husband William. Another is a local schoolteacher Tony Bridges. A third is Bridges’ roommate, actor Stephen Harding. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that all three men had a motive, and that Kate’s complicated personal life and psychology have everything to do with her murder.
A group of college roommates features in Lisa Unger’s In the Blood. Lana Granger is a college senior who’s done everything possible to hide the darkness in her past. She’s managing, with difficulty at times, to function and is currently finishing her degree. As the story opens, she shares a dormitory suite with Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller and a third roommate, Ainsley. Then, Lana’s mentor recommends her for an after-school nanny job supervising Luke Kahn. Luke’s had severe psychological/emotional problems; even on his best days, he can be difficult. Lana takes the job, although she’s a bit reluctant about it. Things begin to go downhill, as the saying goes, when Lana suspects that Luke is manipulating her. Then one terrible night, Beck disappears. It’s not long before she’s officially reported missing, and Lana becomes the chief suspect, since she had an argument with Beck that evening. Lana claims that she doesn’t know what happened to her roommate, but the police aren’t ready to take her word for it. And the more they learn about that night, the more they question what she says. The truth about what happened isn’t nearly as straightforward as it seems. Without spoiling the story, I can say that one of the things we see in this novel is college campus ‘roommate life.’
Living with someone who’s not a family member and not a romantic partner can be odd at times. In its way, it’s a very intimate relationship; yet, most of the time, roommates aren’t related. It’s certainly an interesting dynamic, so it’s no wonder it pops up in crime fiction. Got any ‘roommate war stories’ you’d like to share?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones’ She Just Happened.