I’m sure you know the feeling. A moving van pulls up to a home near yours and you start wondering. What will the new people be like? Will they have a dog that barks at all hours? Will they have loud parties? Will they be pleasant? It’s quite natural to be curious about new people, especially if you live in a place that’s not particularly transient. Sometimes, the new people who move in turn out to be terrific folks who become your friends. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, it’s enough to get people thinking.
That tension and curiosity about new people can also add a layer of interest and suspense in a crime novel. For instance, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd takes place in the small village of King’s Abbot. Dr. James Sheppard is the local GP, who lives with his sister Caroline. They’ve recently had someone new move into the house next door. Sheppard is not one to pry a lot, but Caroline is insatiably curious. Despite her best efforts, though, she hasn’t been able to find out very much about their new neighbour. One afternoon, though, Sheppard is doing some gardening when he has his own encounter:
‘I was busily exterminating dandelion roots when a shout of warning sounded from close by and a heavy body whizzed by my ears and fell at my feet with a repellent squelch. It was a vegetable marrow!
I looked up angrily. Over the wall, to my left, there appeared a face. An egg-shaped head, partially covered with suspiciously black hair, two immense moustaches, and a pair of watchful eyes. It was our mysterious neighbour, Mr Porrott.’
This isn’t the friendliest way to begin an exchange, but Hercule Poirot gushes out his apologies, explaining that he lost his temper with the vegetable and threw it without thinking. Before long, he and Sheppard get to talking. And when Sheppard’s friend, retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, is murdered, he and Poirot investigate.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, former school principal Thea Farmer has to deal with new people when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington move in next door. She has nothing but contempt for them, referring to them as ‘the invaders’ Getting used to these new people is even harder for her than it is for most of us, because they’ve bought the house that Thea had had built for herself. A combination of bad luck and poor financial planning meant that she wasn’t able to take possession of ‘her’ house, and had to settle for a smaller home nearby. All of this means that she’s not particularly disposed to like Frank and Ellice. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in. At first, Thea is sure this will make things even worse. But she ends up developing a sort of awkward friendship with the girl. That’s why she’s so upset when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Thea learns that the police aren’t going to do much about it without more direct evidence. So she makes her own plans…
William Ryan’s The Holy Thief introduces readers to Captain Alexei Korolev of the Moscow CID. This series takes place in the years just before World War II, when Stalin is firmly in charge in the then-Soviet Union. In one plot thread of the novel, Korolev has just been assigned new (and better) housing. Instead of having to share his room, he will have his own room in an apartment. It may not seem like much, but at that time, and in that place, it’s a definite step up. Korolev soon learns that he will be sharing the new apartment with Valentina Nikolaevna Koltsova and her young daughter, Natasha. It’s a little awkward at first, since they are complete strangers to each other. And it doesn’t help matters that during this time, it’s not uncommon for people to denounce each other to the authorities. So both Korolev and Koltsova are understandably very cautious about what they say to each other and what they do. Still, they gradually learn to like and trust each other.
In Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests, we meet Emily Wray and her daughter Frances. It’s the early 1920s in London, when women don’t have many options for earning a living. Certainly women of ‘the better classes’ aren’t prepared to get jobs and have careers. So when Emily’s husband (and Frances’ father) dies, the two women are left without much money. They decide that they have no option but to take in lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism they use – to make ends meet. After a short time, Len and Lilian Barber answer the Wrays’ advertisement and take rooms in their house. It’s all awkward to begin with because of the Wrays’ embarrassment at having to take in boarders. But it’s also awkward because the Barbers and the Wrays don’t know each other, and don’t know what it will be like to be at close quarters. Frances isn’t particularly impressed with either Barber at first. But bit by bit, everyone gets used to the arrangement. It’s not long, though, before things begin to spin out of control. In the end, having new people around has disastrous consequences.
Of course, it’s no less awkward if you’re the new person moving in. That’s what science fiction writer Zack Walker finds out in Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move. Walker decides that his family would be safer if they moved from the city where they’ve been living to a new, suburban home. He finds what he thinks will be the right place in Valley Forest Estates, where the lower cost of living means that he’ll be able to write full time. The family moves in, and they feel the awkwardness of being ‘the new people.’ It’s not long, too, before Walker begins to suspect that something is not right about this housing development. In the end, the Walkers discover that living in suburbia is hardly a tranquil existence. It all ends up in fraud, theft, and murder.
And that’s the thing about having new people move in (or being those new people). Sometimes it works out very well indeed. Sometimes it doesn’t.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dan Hill’s Proposal.