The ‘photo you see shows the aftermath of a tree falling on a covered parking spot. In case you’re wondering, that’s not my car. But it did happen in the community where I live. And it shows just how strong and powerful trees can really be. If you’ve ever had tree damage from a storm (that’s what actually happened in this case), you know what I mean.
Tree damage plays a role in crime fiction, too. Hadn’t thought about it before? Nor had I. But if you do think about it, you can see how tree damage can be used quite effectively in a crime novel. It can get people involved in cases, it can cause all sorts of tension, and it can be used to cover up a murder (or sometimes even cause one). Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, we are introduced to Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie, who own Nasse House, in Nassecomb. It’s been the custom for a long time to hold an annual charity fête at Nasse House, and Sir George and Lady Hattie intend to continue that tradition. This year, they decide to include a Murder Hunt as one of the attractions, and they commission detective novelist Ariadne Oliver to create the hunt, the clues, and so on. But she suspects there’s more going on at Nasse House than just a charity event, so she asks Hercule Poirot to visit under the guise of handing out the prizes. Soon enough, he begins to wonder whether Mrs. Oliver might be right. Then, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim, is actually murdered. Now Poirot works with Inspector Bland to find out who killed a seemingly harmless teenage girl. In the process, he learns the Stubbs’ back story, including the story of the night George Stubbs brought his new bride Hattie to the house. That night, so Poirot is told, there was a terrible storm which knocked down a big oak tree. That fallen tree, and the damage the storm caused, plays a role in the story (I know, I know, fans of The Big Four).
Martin Edwards’ First Cut is the Deepest begins as Liverpool lawyer Harry Devlin agrees to a getaway weekend with his new flame Juliet May. They have to be careful, since she is married, and to a very dangerous person. But they do want to spend time together, so they arrange to borrow a cottage that belongs to Juliet’s assistant Linda Blackwell. A strong storm comes up, knocking a sycamore over on the cottage’s utility room. With no telephone service available, Juliet goes next door to the home of Carl Symons to ask if she can use his telephone to call Linda and tell her what’s happened. That’s when she discovers that he’s been brutally murdered. As fortune would have it, Symons is a Crown prosecutor whom Devlin’s known for a long time. That, plus the fact that he and Juliet will have to explain their presence, draws him into the case. That and the sycamore.
Monica Ferris’ Darned If You Do also begins with a serious storm. The small town of Excelsior, Minnesota is struck by a pocket of storm activity that causes an old elm tree to fall on Tom Riordan’s house, wounding him and trapping him in his bedroom. When Marianne Schultz, who lives next door, sees the damage, she gives the alert and Riordan is rescued. He’s injured, though, and is immediately taken to the nearest hospital. His cousin, Valentina Shipp, arrives to help, and soon sees that she’s not going to be able to clean up the damage alone. Betsy Devonshire, who owns Crewel World, a local needlework shop, is among several of the locals who volunteer to help clean up Riordan’s house while he recuperates. It’s not going to be easy, though, because Riordan is a hoarder. But the team gets started. Then, Riordan is murdered in the hospital. Valentina is the most likely suspect, since she is set to inherit everything. And in this case, ‘everything’ includes some valuable things that were hidden among her cousin’s vast collections. Valentina claims that she’s innocent, though, and it’s not long before Betsy begins to believe her. But if she isn’t guilty, then who killed Tommy Riordan and why?
In Paul Doiron’s Massacre Pond, Maine game warden Mike Bowditch is called to the scene when the bodies of ten moose are discovered on the property of Elizabeth ‘Betty’ Morse. The moose weren’t killed for food or sport, so it’s likely that they were left there to target Morse. An investigation begins, and it’s not long before Bowditch learns that there are several suspects. Morse was well-known as an ardent environmentalist and animal rights activist in this land of hunters and trappers. There’s also the fact that the lumber and building industries stand to lose if she has her way in converting a large chunk of land to a wildlife preserve. Things are dangerous enough as it is, but matters get far worse when Morse’s daughter Briar is killed. She’s driving on the property one night when she slams into a tree. On the surface it looks like a terrible accident, but Bowditch knows better. The victim was talking to him on her telephone when it happened, and she told him she was being chased by another vehicle. Now the question becomes, who would want to kill Briar and why? It’s a frightening case of a tree being used as a murder weapon.
And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington lives in the usually-peaceful village of Tuesbury. One day, the village is shocked by the news that local newsagent Harold Salter has been murdered. His body has been found in a local wood, and the evidence shows he was struck on the head, and died after he fell onto a tree stump. At first it looks as though this might be a hate crime, since it’s well known Salter was gay. But soon enough, Heatherington finds that to be very unlikely. No threats had been reported, and no-one really seems to have cared very much about Salter’s private life. So Heatherington has to look for another explanation. It turns out that this death (and others that occur) has everything to do with a secret from someone’s past. Oh, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that a tree also provides a very interesting clue…
And that’s the thing about trees. They’re vital to our ecosystem, they’re strong, they’re powerful, and they’re beautiful. But…they can also be quite dangerous.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kithkin’s Treefell.