Tawdry Secrets of a Select Few*

Closed Places and Few SuspectsWhen 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Holt, Christianna Brand, Ellery Queen, Michael Innes, Minette Walters, P.D. James

32 responses to “Tawdry Secrets of a Select Few*

  1. My first thought was Murder on the Orient Express, but I see you have that. As I read I was also reminded of mystery dinner theatre. Here in New Hampshire we also have the mystery train rides, which I understand are a lot of fun. A while back I read a mystery about a murder in a mansion, but the title escapes me. It was so many books ago.

    • Oh, I think Murder on th Orient Express is a great example of that sort of ‘closed in’ mystery with just a few suspects, Sue. And you’re fortunate to have a mystery train ride where you live. I’ll bet it’s fantastic. I’ve heard of mystery cruises, too. And you’re right about ‘mansion mysteries.’ They, too, can be terrific contexts for that sort of ‘closed in’ story.

  2. Keishon

    Hmm, wondering if the Heyer I read would qualify as it wasn’t a locked room per se but a study, but no. I need to try one of these in your post, preferably Ellery Queen. That is so cool to have the killer be among the guests in a closed space like that. It really does narrow down the list of suspects. Which is better for intrigue: locked room or having the killer be among the suspects in a closed space? I don’t think I’ve read one.

    Aside, Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island comes to mind for some reason since the crime takes place on an island. I think that one is locked room (been awhile so not sure) mystery but so many people hated it and thought the author cheated. I loved it.

    • That’s an interesting question, Keishon! Is the ‘locked room’ murder more suspenseful, or is the murder story where one of a small group of people is the killer more suspenseful?? Hmmm.. I think the latter, really. The former can be intellectually fascinating and puzzling, and my hat is off to the author who can create a good ‘locked room’ mystery. But I think being in a small group of people, one of whom is the killer, is more suspenseful. At least it is for me. And about Shutter Island, you’re right. That one did create quite a debate, didn’t it?

  3. Great examples of this Margot – I would add Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (island) and Queen’s SIAMESE TWIN MYSTERY (mansion boxed in by a forest fire) as classic examples. And I really admired Carr’s BLACK SPECTACLES for having a really restricted setting, a really small cast of suspects, and still pulling off a surprise villain!

    • Thanks, Sergio. And trust Carr to have all of those elements in the same story! I could never come close to doing that. Thanks for your additions, too. I think you’ve offered some great examples where we have small casts of suspects and closed-away places. Deliciously eerie!

  4. Kathy D.

    I liked Anne Holt’s 1222, murders in a hotel which is isolated due to a terrible blizzard.
    Another closed-in mystery takes place in Lahlum’s Human Flies. Eight people live in a big house or small apartment building. One person is murdered. There are seven suspects. One more is killed, so six suspects.
    The book is set in 1968, with flashbacks to WWII.
    I like this format, having spent much of my adolescence ensconced with the Belgian detective who rounds up all the usual suspects into one room and solves the murders. They have not all been in one enclosed space, but that roomful of suspects is a very compelling format.

    • It is a great format, isn’t it, Kathy? And thanks for reminding me of Human Flies. That’s exactly the kind of story I had in mind when I was planning this post. And as to 1222, I thought that was quite well done. There’s lots of solid atmosphere and that hotel is deliciously isolated.

  5. This is probably my preferred kind of mystery – I know it’s less realistic than the more modern could-be-anybody type of mystery where it’s all done by DNA and closed-circuit cameras, but I find it more satisfying. Recent examples that come to mind are Peter Helton’s ‘Indelible’ where the crime takes place in a small art college, and Jane Casey’s ‘The Last Girl’ which I felt had real shades of the traditional country house mystery about it.

    On a side note, ‘Green for Danger’ has the distinction of being the book that has languished on my physical TBR pile longest – almost three years now! It would almost be a pity to spoil its record by actually reading it… 😉

    • 😆 We can’t be having that, can we, FictionFan? If you ever do actually read it, though, I’d love to know what you think of it. And you’re right; this kind of mystery, where there is a limited pool of suspects, really does have a lot to offer. It’s good to know that authors such as Casey and Helton are still doing this sort of story. When it’s done well, there’s such a delicious feeling of suspense building.

  6. Margot: I actually think P.D. James almost used ‘closed’ places as a formula for Adam Dagleish stories. In Death in Holy Orders it was a murder in a small Anglican seminary. In The Black Tower he travelled to a small institution for the permanently disablled. Death of an Expert Witness sees the investigation in a laboratory. The Private Patient takes place in a manor converted to a clinic for cosmetic surgery. The most ‘closed’ is The Lighthouse where the murder takes place on an island.

    • You have a well-taken point, Bill. She certainly did use closed places an awful lot. In fact, it’s funny you’d mention Death of an Expert Witness. I almost used that as an example in this post. The others that you mention are just as reflective both of James’ writing an of the ‘closed place/few suspects’ motif.

  7. Christie did so many of these, my favourites being Murder on the Orient Express and the magnificent And Then There Were None but despite racking my brains and knowing that I must have some examples I’ve come up empty today.

    • You’re quote right, Cleo. Christie used this sort of setup a lot, didn’t she? And And Then There Were None is a great example. It’s one that I understand she particularly liked herself, too.

  8. I do rather like these kind of murder mysteries – there is something so satisfying about them, appeals to the puzzler inside us all. You’ve all mentioned so many good ones there – I agree with Bill that PD James excelled at that in nearly each one of her books. Perhaps just add Dorothy Sayers with her Murder Must Advertise – not exactly a closed room, but certainly seems to have been an inside job at the advertising agency, hence Peter Wimsey sneaking in undercover. Another on that comes to mind is Louise Penny’s A Beautiful Mystery – which I am still searching for – which takes place in a monastery.

    • If you read A Beautiful Mystery, Marina Sofia, I hope you’ll like it. That one and Murder Must Advertise are interesting examples of how the setting sort of works to narrow down the list of suspects. Like you, I think that stories like this do invite the reader to solve the riddle, and when you do, it really is satisfying, isn’t it?

  9. Margot, ‘closed door’ mysteries are quite entertaining to me. You know the clues are right there and you try to solve them before the writer reveals the killer or at least at the same time. In a way, it makes you feel more a part of the story.

    • Oh, you’re right, Mason. The clues are right there, and it’s such an interesting challenge to see if you can work them out before the author reveals all. That’s part of the appeal of these stories, to me.

  10. Col

    Nothing really from my own reading springing to mind readily. I have GREEN FOR DANGER to get to at some point.

  11. Kathy D.

    Nero Wolfe also rounded up all the suspects into his office similarly to Hercule Poirot. And Rex Stout often used a small group of characters as possible murderers at a publishing company or within a family or any number of settings. And the possibilities would revolve around a few people who knew each other. Then Wolfe would reveal the killers in his office while all the suspects were there and yelling at each other, provoked by the “genius.”
    If there is a discussion of the locked-room genre, Sjowall and Wahloo’s “The Locked Room” is among the most brilliant. They must have worked out the solution over many hours. It is a zany book with a few plots, but that locked-room solution is really something.

    • You have a well-taken point, Kathy, about the Nero Wolfe stories. Quite often there is limited pool of suspects, and the suspense builds as Wolfe learns about each one. And some of the murders do take place in closed areas where not very many people had access. You wouldn’t think an author could do that in a large-city setting, but Stout made it work.

  12. I thought Green for Danger was a particularly good example of the ‘small cast of suspects’ murder story – the tension Brand creates is excellent, as the doctors and nurses have to stick together: no-one else in the hospital wants to have anything to do with any of the potential murderers….Excellent book.

    • Oh, I think Green For Danger is absolutely terrific on those scores, too, Moira. The tension is built quite effectively, and there’s a sense of claustrophobia that permeates the novel. That, too, builds the suspense. It’s one of Brand’s fine ones, I think.

  13. Kathy D.

    Then I just remembered and posted on the “bedroom” post section the exciting “Adventure of the Speckled Band,” one of the first mysteries I’d read with Holmes and Watson. It’s a locked-room mystery set in a mansion, but only a small number of possible perpetrators come to light. What a fun story.
    I was a teenager when I read it and it just delighted me that a writer could come up with such a creative murder method.

  14. Dame Agatha did so many of these, and did them so well: the classic small pool of suspects, a closed group either geographically or socio-economically. It’s probably my favorite type of Golden Age mystery. She of course was so good at the ingenious plot twists and such, but I think she’s underrated in her portrayal of things like character, motivations, etc. I have a special fondness for Evil Under the Sun.
    It also occurs to me that Lillian Jackson Braun’s Cat mysteries, though American and far away from the GA, may well fall into this category because they are always set in a small town and thus a limited number of viable suspects.

    • Now that’s an interesting point, Bryan, about Lilian Jackson Braun. Certainly she would focus her stories on just a small number of characters. And her stories took place within geographically small areas, too. I hadn’t thought about her work in quite that way, but you make sense. And yes, Christie was a genius at the closed-place-closed-group mystery. And I think she did explore motivation really effectively.

  15. tracybham

    Both of the Peter Dickinson books I read this week were in closed settings in one sense or another, and I found I enjoyed that aspect a lot. I want to reread the Cordelia Gray novels. Would be third time for me, but they are so good.

    • They are that good, aren’t they, Tracy? And I think that sort of closed setting can really add to the suspense of a novel. I’m glad you enjoyed the Dickinson stories.

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