When there’s a murder, whether it’s real or fictional, the police work as quickly as they can to narrow down the list of probable suspects. All other things equal, the fewer the number of suspects, the easier it is for them to do their work.
In fiction, one way to narrow the list of suspects is to have the murder (or murders) happen in a closed place. I’m not referring here to the ‘locked room’ sort of mystery. That’s an entirely different category of crime story. Rather, I mean a place that’s either relatively closed-in, or relatively inaccessible, so that only a limited number of people would have access and be likely suspects.
Such a mystery isn’t as easy as it might seem to pull off. The characters have to be interesting (because there aren’t many of them). And the mystery itself has to be challenging, but not strain the limits of credibility too far. Still, when it works, it can work well.
Agatha Christie used that ‘closed place’ scenario in several of her stories. For example, in Cards on the Table, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana invites a group of people to a dinner party. Four are detectives (one is Hercule Poirot). The other four are people whom Mr. Shaitana suspects of murder. He believes that those people have gotten away with their crimes. Over dinner, he throws out hints as to what he suspects, and those hints are not lost on his guests. Later, when everyone is playing bridge, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four possible suspects: the four possible murderers who were playing bridge in the room where Mr. Shaitana was killed. Each one has a very good motive, and each one had the opportunity. So Poirot and the other sleuths have to look into each person’s past to see which of them really was a murderer, and which one killed Shaitana. I know, I know, fans of Death in the Clouds and of Murder on the Orient Express.
Michael Innes’ Death at the President’s Lodging introduces Scotland Yard Inspector Appleby. In this novel, Josiah Umpleby, President of St. Andrews College, is shot one night in his private study. His valet George Slotwiner and one of the Fellows, Mr. Titlow, discover the body. In order to preserve the school’s reputation, the school authorities don’t want this case to get a lot of press. So Appleby is asked to investigate as quickly and quietly as he can. He soon learns that the college was locked at the time of the murder, and the president’s home locked separately. What this means is that there are only seven possible suspects: the staff and Fellows who had access to the key to the Orchard Grounds, which adjoins the study. Appleby does discover the killer, but I think I can say without spoiling the story that limited access does not mean as much limitation of possibility as you might think. There’s a lot of manufacturing of alibis that goes on…
Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger begins as postman Joseph Higgins delivers letters to a group of people, informing them that they’ve been assigned to serve at Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for (World War II) military use. All seven take up their duties and begin their service. One day Higgins is brought into the hospital with a broken femur. An operation is immediately planned for the next day. Higgins dies during the procedure, and at first it’s put down to tragic accident. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is called in to ‘rubber stamp’ the death. But questions soon arise. For one thing, Mrs. Higgins insists that her husband was murdered, and she’s not a fanciful person. For another, one of the nurses, Sister Marion Bates, drinks too much at a party one night and blurts out that she knows who Higgins’ murderer is, and that she has proof. Later that night, she, too, is murdered, in the same operating theatre. At this point, there are only six possible suspects: the people who were involved in the original operation on Higgins (minus, of course, Sister Marion). So Cockrill has to use every trick in the proverbial book, including confining the suspects to quarters, to find out who the killer is. This one has some similarities to Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder in that in both cases, the murder takes place in a ‘closed’ medical environment, and there are fairly few suspects.
In Ellery Queen’s The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is invited for a getaway weekend at the guest house owned by wealthy playboy John Levering Benedict III. Queen accepts the invitation and settles in for what he hopes will be a peaceful time. Benedict has other guests, though. Staying at the house with him are his three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. Needless to say, this makes for a great deal of strain, and Queen spends as little time there as he can. Then one night, he’s in the guest house when he gets a frantic call from his host. Benedict tells Queen that he’s been murdered. He starts to tell Queen who the killer is, too, but can’t get the words out because he stammers. Queen rushes over to the main house, but by the time he gets there, it’s too late. His host has been killed by a blow from a heavy statuette. The only other clues are an evening gown, a wig, and a pair of gloves. Each item belongs to a different person, so it’ll be difficult, even with such a limited pool of suspects, for Queen to work out who the killer is.
And then there’s P.D. James’ The Skull Beneath the Skin, the second of her Cordelia Grey novels. Grey owns a not-overly-successful PI agency, so she is glad for the work when Sir George Ralston hires her. His wife, famous actress Clarissa Lisle, is to take part in a Victorian-dress play The Duchess of Malfi, to be presented at Castle Courcy, on the Isle of Courcy. The island is privately owned by wealthy Sir Ambrose Corringe. Lisle has been getting vague death threats, and Ralston wants Grey to help protect his wife and, of course, to find out who this enemy is. Grey and Lisle duly take a trip to the island, and join a group of other houseguests, including some of Lisle’s friends’ and relatives. When Lisle is killed, Grey feels a sense of responsibility, since it was her job to protect her client’s wife. So she looks into the murder. The list of suspects isn’t overly long, and the island isn’t the sort of place where just anyone can come in and out as a rule. But that doesn’t mean this case will be easy.
And that seems to be key to creating a well-crafted mystery that’s set in a more or less ‘closed’ place and has few suspects. There has to be something challenging about the mystery. And of course, the more interesting the characters (within the limits of credibility) the better. I’ve only mentioned a few such stories (I know, I know, fans of Anne Holt’s 1222 and of Minette Walters’ The Ice House). Which ones have you liked best?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rebecca Pidgeon’s Magazine.