Have 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.