In a Room Where You Do What You Don’t Confess*

Secret RoomsSecret rooms and passages have been standbys in crime fiction for a very long time. They’re extremely useful and convenient for the author, and there really are plenty old places that have them. And let’s face it; they can be fun.

Of course, as with just about anything else in crime fiction, secret rooms and passages are tricky. Too much dependence on them and you lose credibility. In fact, one of the traditional rules for writing crime novels is that there can be no more than one such place in any given story. That’s a fairly wise idea. But there are places and situations where they can be extremely useful.

Anna Katherine Green’s short story Missing: Page 13 features her sleuth, New York debutante Violet Strange. In this story, she is hired to solve the mystery of what happened to a crucial page of an academic paper. A group of people had met for dinner; one of them was a certain Mr. Spielhage, who had just completed a paper which included a formula that might shed a whole new light on a certain industry. He was challenged about his ideas and determined to go over his paper word by word and find out where he might be wrong. The paper had been locked away, and Mr. Spielhage himself was sitting in the private room where the paper was, so that no-one could get at it. But when Mr. Spielhage read his paper, he found that the most important page – Page 13 – was not there. It’s one of those ‘impossible but not really’ cases, and when Violet makes an interesting discovery about the house, she determines what happened to the page.

Agatha Christie used hidden rooms and passages in more than one of her stories. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hercule Poirot is present at a cocktail party when the Reverend Stephen Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be pure nicotine poisoning. There seems no motive for the murder; Babbington was well-liked and certainly not wealthy. The investigation is underway in that case when there’s another death. This time, the victim is well-known mental health specialist Dr. Bartholomew ‘Tollie’ Strange. He, too, dies of nicotine poisoning. The two cases seem to be closely connected, especially since some of the same people were present at both occasions. But it’s hard to see exactly how; it’s even harder to see what the motive in the first death is. After a third murder, Poirot is able to work out who the killer is and what the motive is. It’s not the cause of the murders, but I can say without spoiling the story that a secret passage plays a role in this story. I hear you, fans of The Seven Dials Mystery…

In one plot thread of Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we meet Joakim and Katrine Westin, who sell their home in Stockholm and take a home at Eel Point, on the island of Öland. They tell themselves, each other, and everyone else that they plan to renovate their new home and get away from the noise and haste of the city. Soon, though, tragedy strikes the family. Police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and learns that the Westins’ home has a dark and tragic history. That history has a lot to do with the present-day tragedy, and a particular room in a particular building plays an important role in getting to the truth.

Steve Robinson’s In the Blood introduces readers to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In this novel, he has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift. Tayte has discovered that one branch of the family moved south and then died out. The other, led by James Fairborne, went to England in 1783 with a group of Loyalists. So Sloane sends Tayte to Cornwall to follow up on that branch. When Tayte arrives, he discovers that the modern-day Fairborne family is not particularly disposed to help him. Still, he presses on with his quest. Meanwhile, we meet Amy Fallon, who lives in Cornwall. She is learning to face life again after the death two years earlier of her husband Gabriel. Before his death, Gabriel told her he’d made a discovery in their house, but never told her what it was. Now, some home renovations have revealed a hidden staircase leading to a secret room. In that room is a very old writing box. It turns out that this box is related to Tayte’s investigation, and it’s interesting to see how secret rooms figure into this story.

And then there’s William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, the third in his series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. In this novel, he and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. It’s a very delicate case, because Azarov was working on a high-level, classified project. Nevertheless, Korolev and Slivka get to work on their investigation. They find a suspect, and at first, it seems the case is solved. But then that suspect is killed. Now the team has to start again. This time, the trail leads them to a much bigger case than they could have imagined. And there are all sorts of secret rooms and places that figure into the story.

And that’s the thing about secret rooms and hidden passages. They add to suspense and they can help a story along. They actually exist, too. Where would crime fiction be without them? I know I’ve only mentioned a few cases: which have you liked best?


*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anna Katherine Green, Johan Theorin, Stever Robinson, William Ryan

41 responses to “In a Room Where You Do What You Don’t Confess*

  1. I remember seeing some of these secret passages and hidden rooms (priestholes and some bigger than that) at mansions and castles in England and France. I’ve always been fascinated by them. Not so sure I would like them in a suburban home in Austria, though, for instance. It’s amazing what unpleasantness sometimes emerges from houses that are not even very isolated.

    • That’s quite true, Marina Sofia *Shudder.* It is absolutely fascinating to see them built into old mansions and castles, though. Makes you wonder about the people who had the place, and about the people who hid there.

  2. I know it’s not a crime novel, but I love Mark Z Danielewski’s House of Leaves where the house actually grows rooms, passages and stairways that can’t reasonably be there!

  3. It’s not a secret room – but a room that has been sealed off for 20 years – that plays a key role in Elizabeth Daly’s Somewhere in the House. The room was sealed after the death of the family matriarch; now the house is about to be sold and Henry Gamadge is asked by one of the residents to come witness the opening of the room. The family thinks a valuable button (yes, button) collection may be in the room. They find…something quite different. As always, Daly provides a great many unexpected twists – but that sealed room and its contents are central to the events.

    • Ooh, that’s a great example, Les! Thank, as ever, for sharing the classic/GA perspective. And for the reminder that I need to get back to reading Daly’s series. It’s terrific, and I do like Henry Gamadge a lot.

  4. Kathy D.

    The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne is based on a real house in Salem, Mass. Apparently, an owner installed secret passages after reading the book, which tells of such things.
    I visited that house with my family when I was a child and found it fascinating.

    • I honestly diidn’t know anyone had re-created it ‘live,’ Kathy. That’s really interesting! I’m sure it must have been fascinating to see. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I love the idea of secret rooms. Wouldn’t it be fun to have one where we could steal away to write?

    The first story I thought of was a Nancy Drew mystery called The Hidden Staircase. I think it was one of the first ND books I read.

    • Oh, I Remember that Nancy Drew story, Pat! Thank you for the reminder. Nancy Drew was definitely a part of my childhood, and it’s nice to be reminded of her. And yes, I’d love a secret room like that for writing. I might get more done 😉

  6. Secret rooms always make me think of The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, where Holmes reveals the secret by smoking umpteen cigarettes and dropping the ash all over the floor. Now there’s a method of detection I doubt you’d get away with today… 😉

    • 😆 I daresay you’re right, FictionFan! But yes, The Golden Pince-Nez has a masterful use of a secret room, doesn’t it? I’m very glad you shored up that gap!

  7. Margot: I found a secret place in A Door in the River by Inger Ash Wolfe (Michael Redhill) not only did not work it led the story into such unreality the plot was no longer credible.

    In real life I was excited during my first tour of Casa Loma in Toronto to learn there was a secret passage from the master bedroom and we could walk down it!

    • Oh, that does sound like fun, Bill! And thanks for the reminder of A Door in the River. It’s a really effective example to show that secret doors and passageways and so on do not necessarily add to a plot. They really have to be handled effectively.

  8. Kathy D.

    Here is a list of wonderful houses with secret rooms and passageways, including the House of the Seven Gables:

  9. Margot, the Hardy Boys stories were full of hidden rooms and secret passages. It always amazes me that fictional characters venture alone into these places without a thought for their safety. Of course, you know the author is only dramatising the scene for the reader’s benefit. Still, it sounds scary. What if the door shuts and no one knows you are trapped (or entombed) inside?

    • You know, that’s quite true, Prashant. If you do get trapped in a secret room or passageway, and no-one knows you’re there, how do you get free? And you’re right; the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew series had more than one secret room and passage. A nice touch for young mystery enthusiasts, I think.

  10. JJ

    Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness has a secret room at the end of a secret passage…it should be a little hoary, but Afford is having too much fun for it to affect matters – he’s already got a burglar dressed as an owl stealing valuable jewellery, and a scientist who’s made a ground-breaking discovery (rather like Missing: Page 13, by the sounds of it) so the secret passage is all part of the fun by the time it pops up.

    • Oh, that sounds delightful, JJ. Secret rooms and passages can add to the fun in that sort of story. And you’ve given me a great mental picture of a burglar dressed as an owl. I may have to read this one!

  11. I grew up in a house (built by my grandfather) with secret rooms in walls, behind closets, and a side attic with an escape route to the outside. Makes me wonder who he was hiding.

  12. I so enjoy stories that have hidden rooms and/or secret passageways. It makes the stories intriguing when done correctly. Also, makes me want to visit a house with such rooms.

  13. Secret rooms and passageways always remind me of the Famous Five (possibly a forerunner in my love of crime fiction)

    • Enid Blyton certainly did include plenty of secret passages and rooms, didn’t she, Cleo? And I’d suspect you’re far from the only one whom she got started on crime fiction…

  14. Kathy D.

    In real life, the abolitionists’ Underground Railroad which enabled enslaved people to escape from the Southern states to the North was full of houses and barns and other structures which were full of hidden rooms, passageways and tunnels.
    I wonder if mystery authors who write about that period mention that aspect.

  15. Col

    Digressing, the closest I’ve come in my reading has been the Cu Chi Tunnels used by the Viet-Cong during the Vietnam War.

  16. TH White’s Darkness at Pemberley has an old house with a killer on the loose – he is rambling round using passages and the chimney system to creep up on people. It is preposterous, you have to admire the writer’s cheek…

    • You do have to give White credit for taking that kind of risk, don’t you, Moira? And it’s a good example of how an old house can serve as a backdrop for that kind of novel. You might not think it’s at all credible, but it can be done.

  17. I *love* secret passageways. As Pat said, it brings me back to my Nancy Drew reading days. 🙂 Nice post, as always, Margot.

  18. First thoughts – “panic rooms” Margot – and I am sure these must feature in crime fiction?

  19. Great post on an always fun topic. Does Poe’s The Black Cat count as a secret room example? Also, I recall the secret passage from Myra Rutledge’s mansion to the barn in Fern Michaels’ Sisterhood series.
    Digressing: though it’s not quite the same thing as a secret room or passage, and I can’t think of specific examples right now, I always liked mysteries (movies too!) which include scenes which explore the catacomb-like environs of old libraries and bookstores.

    • Digression or not, Bryan, old libraries and bookshops are really effective places for mysteries, both in print and on film. There’s just something about their atmosphere, don’t you think? And thanks for mentioning The Black Cat. Poe did such an outstanding job of combining horror, crime and psychological thriller, and that story really shows it.

  20. tracybham

    In the Blood sounds very good and my husband keeps suggesting that I read that. There just isn’t enough time.

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