That’s When the Fog Rolls In*

FoggyHave you ever seen a thick fog roll in? Or waked to find that the fog had already settled in? There’s just something about fog that can make anything seem a little eerier. Things don’t show up clearly, so it’s easy to imagine things that aren’t there, or misunderstand things that you do see.

Fog can be dangerous, too. People get lost, drivers can get into accidents, and so on. With all of that eeriness and danger, it’s little wonder there’s so much fog in crime fiction. Space permits only a few examples here, but I know you’ll think of a lot more of them than I could, anyway.

One of the classic examples of crime-fictional fog adding to the atmosphere is in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles. The story has always gone that the Baskerville family is haunted by a curse brought on them by long-ago ancestor Hugo Baskerville. The story is that he sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was badly smitten. Ever since then, the curse has taken the form of a phantom hound that haunts the family. The most recent victim is Sir Charles Baskerville, and now, the new heir, Sir Henry Baskerville, may be at risk. At least that’s what family friend Dr. Mortimer tells Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is busy with another case, and sends Watson to the family home, Baskerville Hall, in Dartmoor. Later, Holmes joins him. Here’s a bit of one of their experiences out on the moor:

‘So as the fog-bank flowed onward, we fell back before it until we were half a mile from the house, and still that dense, white sea, with the moon silvering its upper edge, swept slowly and inexorably on.’

The fog certainly makes it hard for Holmes and Watson to really see well. But in the end, they discover the truth about the Baskerville curse and the death of Sir Charles.

Dartmoor fog also plays its role in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. Mary Yellan keeps a deathbed promise to her mother and goes to stay with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience at their property, Jamaica Inn. From the first, it’s an eerie and unpleasant place, and Mary soon finds that it hides some awful secrets, including murder. Without spoiling the story, I can say that at one point, Mary finds herself in grave danger, and a thick fog just makes things worse.

‘And then, in front…barring…progress, rolled a great bank of fog out of the night, a white wall that stifled every scent and sound.’

If you’ve ever been out in that sort of fog, you know that it can make moving around nearly impossible.

London fogs are, of course, legendary. And Marie Belloc Lowndes used the fog to great atmospheric advantage in The Lodger. In that novel, we meet Ellen and Robert Bunting, who have recently retired from domestic service. They’ve opened their home to lodgers as a way to add to their income, but haven’t had much luck. Then one day, a man calling himself Mr. Sleuth comes to the house asking about a room. He’s willing to pay well, and he seems to be a man of quiet habits, so the Buntings take him in quickly. He’s eccentric, but all goes well enough at first. Besides, everyone’s attention is caught up with a series of awful murders committed by a man who calls himself The Avenger. Then, first subconsciously, then with more awareness, Ellen Bunting begins to wonder if there is something truly wrong about her new lodger. He goes out in all kinds of weather, including the worst fogs, and behaves strangely in other ways, too. Gradually, she begins to suspect that he may be The Avenger that everyone is seeking. There are mentions of fog in several places in this story. It makes it hard for witnesses to see the killer as he leaves crime scenes. It makes it difficult, too, for anyone to pursue him. And in a literary sense, it adds a great deal to the atmosphere of the story.

Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez stories take place in Shetland, where fog can make travel to, from or among the islands impossible. That’s what happens, for instance, in White Nights. In that novel, Perez and his new girlfriend Fran Hunter are attending an art exhibition at which some of her work is being displayed. Unexpectedly, one of the other attendees breaks into tears and claims he doesn’t know who he is. Perez does his best to help the man, but the next day, he’s found dead in a beachside storage shed, apparently a suicide. But Perez begins to suspect that this man was murdered. Then, there’s another murder, and Perez has to re-think everything. And he has to do his share of it alone, too. The fog is so thick that at first, the Inverness police can’t send anyone to support him. In the end, though, Perez finds out the truth about the deaths and about the secrets that several people are keeping.

And then there’s John Meany’s In The Fog. An elderly couple, Frank and Dora Parker, are fishing one morning near their Oregon home. Then a thick fog rolls in, obscuring almost everything. Through it, Frank sees what looks like a young woman coming out of the fog with a knife.  She starts to clean it, and Frank thinks she looks as though she needs help. But she doesn’t answer when he calls to her. Next, he sees a young man come out of the nearby woods dragging a body. Soon, Frank is convinced he’s seeing the immediate aftermath of a murder. But the trouble is, Dora hasn’t seen anything. All she sees is fog and shoreline. It doesn’t help matters that Frank has dementia. It hasn’t completely incapacitated him, but how much can one rely on what he says he sees? If Frank is going to prove he’s not crazy, he’s going to have to find out the truth about what he thinks he saw.

But that’s the thing about fog. It can make you think you’re seeing things that you’re not. Or are you? Little wonder it rolls in on all sorts of crime novels.

ps. The two ‘photos you see were taken on the same day, of exactly the same scenery. See what a difference fog makes??


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Train’s When the Fog Rolls In.


Filed under Ann Cleeves, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne du Maurier, John Meany, Marie Belloc Lowndes

44 responses to “That’s When the Fog Rolls In*

  1. Col

    Bill Pronzini makes great use of the fog from San Francisco bay in his books.

  2. This is an interetsing one margot. Weather can make such a difference to a scene and is so important. Fog is an excellent example as it dulls all the senses and makes cuts sounds short. Some great examples here, thanks Margot.

    • Thanks or the kind words, D.S.. And you’re right; that’s the thing about fog. It does dull the senses and distorts perception, doesn’t it? And that can make for a really effective context for a scene or a part of a story.

  3. Your reading list might be just the tonic I need to escape/mitigate the fog in which I find myself. Thanks! I’m off to Baskerville Hall and elsewhere.

  4. Living on a small island (although sunnier than Shetland) we suffer terribly with the fog – no planes means no papers or post although in the days of the internet and emails this isn’t quite as isolating as it used to be. The office I work in overlooks the sea and it’s definitely dramatic when you see it rolling in. I do like the stories which illustrate the way the London smog incapacitated life at that time

    • Oh, I’m sure it must be quite the sight, Cleo, to see the fog rolling in. As beautiful as it is, though, and dramatic, I can certainly see how it can also be isolating. Even with today’s technology, if one’s expecting a parcel or wants to go somewhere, etc., one’s at the mercy of the fog. And I agree; the London ‘pea soupers’ must have been dreadful.

  5. It is somewhat rare in Michigan. But not totally unknown.

  6. Ooh, that image from The Hound of the Baskervilles, of a small dog coming through the fog, and as it gets closer, it grows bigger. The image is one of the most frightening that sticks in my mind.
    On fog, we do have some in Melbourne, but it’s not too frequent. As a young child, I lived with my parents in York, England, for a while. I remember my dad saying that sometimes to get to work in the pitch black and fog in the middle of winter, so bad he had to drive at a crawl following the centre line of the road, and sometimes open the car door to check where it was.
    When I visited London in the late 1990s in mid-winter, I couldn’t believe it when it started to get dark at about 3.45pm, and in rolled the fog. By 4.30 it was well and truly ‘night time’.
    It’s interesting how bad weather features in crime stories. Actually, I read that crime statistics are much lower during bad weather as criminals prefer to stay home then, too!

    • I’m not surprised about that statistic, Caron. Still, I do think people feel more vulnerable when the weather is bad. Certainly the fog makes you feel that way. I can only imagine your dad’s feeling trying to get anywhere in patch black plus fog. We get our share of fog here, but it’s nothing like what you saw, I’m sure, in York! And yes, that scene in Hound of the Baskervilles is memorably eerie!!

  7. mudpuddle

    sam spade with collar turned up, ciggy hanging from the lip, stepping carefully into a fog shrouded alley… i always envision bogey, although the description in the maltese falcon says he has a vee shaped mouth and a devilish look…(correct me if i’m wrong…)

  8. Living near a lake surrounded by mountains, we sometimes get fogs which settle on us for days, even weeks. But usually, if you escape to the mountain-tops, you can rise above it and find beautiful sunshine. At other times, it’s the mountains which are shrouded in cloud and fog. I once went skiing with my OS and we got completely lost in such a dense fog, that I thought we would leave our bones on that mountain. It really made me aware how even a familiar landscape can become alien and threatening when shrouded in fog. A very handy prop for atmosphere, particularly in crime fiction. I seem to associate it with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as well, or am I mistaken?

    • Oh, you’re quite right, Marina Sofia. Fog plays quite a role in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And it certainly adds to the atmosphere of the story. I can only imagine that trip you made to the mountains, and how hard the going must have been in that fog. It really is amazing how quickly the fog can change everything. It can be beautiful and mysterious to look at from afar, but getting through it is quite another matter.

  9. tracybham

    We have had some very foggy mornings here the last few days, Margot. The worst fog I can remember was at night riding from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham; could not see two feet ahead of us. Some interesting examples of fog in mysteries here.

    • That Tuscaloosa-to-Birmingham ride must have been scary, Tracy. Driving in a really dense fog is dangerous and frightening. And there’s been quite a lot of fog here, too, lately. It adds atmosphere, if you don’t have to drive through it…

  10. A.M. Pietroschek

    First of all the fog really rolled in, for our host did a splendid job of assuring that it will! Very nice reading, and classic sources summarized in an enticing and informative minimalism. I couldn’t be envious, as I was happy for you.

    The Hound of the Baskervilles, in several books, and even in some movies aka films, is one good example of atmospheric writing.

    What I remember is the maturity level of the readers being a factor to consider. I chose Dracula, as it is well-known and Vampires of the classic Bloodline can turn into Mist, which is actually much like fog. 😉

    When Gary Oldman told it in the movies, and when it was mentioned in the books that ‘the wolves howling’ is neither dreadful nor noise, for he had learned to listen to the musical in it that was much about atmosphere like the fog. To a minor degree it really depends on us having weather-protection and in what role we are. The sneaky killer or vampire who makes use of the fog is certainly different from the valiant solitary detective impaired by the fog, still both parts can be greatly atmospheric even within one consistent story.

    On The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes I was very surprised that it is freely available at because I only remember the unskilled and clumsy TV movies inspired by it. Your summary made me check for an extensive synopsis, and I may even read the original once again.

    And to take up the bum-point from the last comment about Sea Haven: If you ever find the need to quick-draw your anti-bacterial spray and wipe me off the site, then do it with my blessing. I know you didn’t mean it disrespecting, but I am author enough never to burden the responsible alike the irresponsible. Like I told Sue Coletta: Some people evidence by their own deeds and attitudes that they have earned a certain degree of respect, and sometimes I, as in even I, have the clear mind to recognize it.

    Thanks for the effort you invested!

    • Thank you, A.M., and I’m glad you mentioned that The Lodger is free at Gutenberg. It’s a nice piece of classic suspense, and it’s not long. Well worth the read. You’re right, too, that although the fog may be seen one way or another, depending on whether one’s the sleuth or the antagonist, it adds atmosphere. And it can add a layer of suspense to a story, too. It’s true, too, that The Hound of the Baskervilles is one fine example of the fog being used for just that purpose.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        While I only read 45 pages of the book by now I found this Wiki LINK a helpful summary on ‘The Lodger’.

        • Thanks for sharing, A.M. Folks, if you’re interested in a solid summary of the story, check out this link.

        • A.M. Pietroschek

          Oh! I forgot my manners, notorious flaw in my social class, it’s Andrè Michael, but calling name is just Andrè.

        • Thank you, Andrè 🙂

        • A.M. Pietroschek

          Nah, I really enjoyed the temporal escape from a proletarian hood & the bank loan trouble I face. Reading the classics is of a quality, albeit antiquated, which reminds of a much more civilized idolization of our way. Plus Mr. Sleuth turned out to be the good weirdo…

        • I’m very glad you thought his character interesting, Andrè .

        • A.M. Pietroschek

          Isn’t he? A man of his age, a bible-reading sissy, goes out into the night to face the serial killer who murdered his sister? I do not think that the new generation of therapist-couch-whiners would ever dare to risk half as much for a loved one. Or that too many have loved ones beyond the own ego, and maybe, their therapist. And my apologies, but down here in the underclasses an absence of manners does create a certain longing for genteel, cultivated surroundings. Plus a greater one for hidden weapons, but that is a topic I discuss with Benjamin Sobieck, weapon expert for crime fiction. Blessed be.

        • There certainly aren’t a lot of characters such as Mr. Sleuth around in today’s crime fiction, Andrè, that’s quite true.

        • A.M. Pietroschek

          It may be a notch harder for you, but see the motivated, positivist, and competent dedication of Margot Kinberg, to give an example.

          An educated lady not afraid that a smile or an opinion reduces her academic knowledge, and a host with a really great list of worthy readings, plus transparent articles of above average quality for sure.

          Mr. Sleuth reminded me of the saying that ‘God leaves the toughest battles to his finest (or most worthy) soldiers…’ Until I fumbled the role-definition. x-)

        • You’re awfully kind, Andrè – thank you. And I can see why Mr. Sleuth reminded you of that saying.

        • A.M. Pietroschek

          Credit where it is due isn’t completely unknown here. Thank you.

  11. I didn’t realize the photo were in fact two photos. That’s how observant I am today.
    Fog does add a creepiness to the area, doesn’t it. I really need to read an Ann Cleeves novel. They sound so good.

  12. The Lodger is slowly creeping up the TBR – which sounds quite frightening actually! I love fog, both in real life and in fiction. I think my favourite description of it is the opening of ‘Bleak House’ – sets the whole atmosphere for the book.

    • Oh, it does, indeed, FictionFan! Dickens set that atmosphere so effectively, didn’t he? And I hope you’ll like The Lodger when you get to it. It’s quite atmospheric, too.

  13. I do love a good pea-souper and the suffocating silence and claustrophobia that goes with one. Ripe for imaginings.

  14. I’ve occasionally had to drive or ride in a car on a foggy day and it really is scary. There’s the risk of accident, of course, but also if the fog is swirling, I imagine seeing all kinds of things that aren’t there. My vivid imagination works overtime!

  15. Margot, I plan to re-read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” this year. I’m looking for an old, dusty edition of the book. It is one of the favourite stories, thanks to the introduction in school..

  16. Kathy D.

    I can’t think of fog in books but it surely is an element of many movies set in London. How many times has Peter Lorre appeared out of the fog?
    In the fantastic classic “The Third Man” I recall someone stepping out of the fog. But what a great cover for murderers, blackmailers, robbers, etc.

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