It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

Apartment BuildingsFlats, apartments, whatever you call them, can be an attractive alternative to home ownership, especially if you don’t have a whole lot of money. Even if you are doing well financially, living in an apartment often means you don’t have chores such as house painting, grass cutting and the like. And, depending on where you live, you’re not responsible for most repairs, either.

Of course, the experience of living in an apartment can be miserable if your landlord/lady or the management company isn’t professional and responsible. And you live at close quarters with other people, not all of whom may be pleasant.

But apartment buildings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction. People get to know things about each other when they live in the same building. And some apartment communities are more transient, which makes for all sorts of possibilities for hidden pasts and other secrets. It’s little wonder, then, that we see apartment buildings going up all over the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick, a young woman who shares a London flat with Claudia Reece-Holland and Frances Cary. One day, she visits Hercule Poirot, telling him that she may have committed a murder. However, she leaves before she even gives him her name, since she says he’s ‘too old’ to be of help. Poirot finds out that his friend, detective story author Ariadne Oliver, knows the young woman; and, armed with her name, Poirot tries to find her to learn more about this possible murder. So does Mrs. Oliver. But before they can find out the truth about it, Norma disappears. Neither of her flat-mates knows where she is, and her family isn’t any more helpful. Eventually, though, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver learn the truth about the murder and Norma’s part in it. And it turns out that the apartment building in which she lives holds important clues.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow) introduces readers to Smilla Jaspersen, who lives in a Copenhagen apartment building. As the novel begins, she is attending the funeral of ten-year-old Isaac Christiansen, who, so the police say, tragically fell from the building’s roof. Like Smilla, Isaac was a Greenlander, so she felt a sort of bond with him, and is drawn to the roof where he fell. As she looks at the patterns in the snow, Smilla begins to wonder just how accidental the fall really was. So she starts to ask questions. Her search for the truth leads Smilla back to Greenland, and to something much bigger than just the death of one young boy.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlings owns three Los Angeles apartment buildings, including the Magnolia Street Apartments. Even though he’s the actual owner, he does the maintenance work in the building, and keeps a very low profile, letting someone else collect the rent. That way, he can have time for his other work, which we learn in A Red Death is

‘…the business of favors.’

He doesn’t have an official PI license, but he does have a good reputation for being able to solve problems and find people who don’t want to be found. And he knows everyone in the building, too. Most people there think of him as the handyman, and that’s how he likes it.

At the beginning of Val McDermid’s A Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar and fledgling academic Jane Gresham is living in a London council flat – not a luxurious place to be. It’s what she can afford, though, and she’s doing her best to move on in her academic career. She’s made a sort of friend in thirteen-year-old Tenille Cole, who lives in the same building. That’s what living at close quarters can do. Tenille is extremely bright, and Jane sees in her true potential in literature and writing. But Tenille has a terrible home situation. The first part of this novel has a strong focus on life in council flats. Then, Jane hears that a body has surfaced in a bog in her native Lake District. It is possible that the body may be that of Fletcher Christian, of H.M.S. Bounty fame. If it is, then it’s possible that he didn’t die on Pitcairn Island as has always been believed. And if that’s true, he may have told his story to his good friend Wordsworth, which could mean there’s an unpublished manuscript out there somewhere. If it exists, that manuscript could be exactly what Jane needs to get her career going, so she goes to stay with her parents in their Lake District home to look into the matter. Meanwhile, one night after a tragic incident, Tenille leaves her home, too, and ends up in the Lake District. Her presence there plays an important role as Jane gets involved in a web of murder and false leads to try to find the manuscript she is convinced must exist.

There’s an interesting use of an apartment building in Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Waldemar Leverkuhn finds out that a lottery ticket he went in on with friends has come out the big winner. So he goes out with those friends to celebrate. Late that night, he is murdered in his own bed. Intendant Münster and his team investigate. Of course, the victim’s wife Marie-Louise comes in for her share of suspicion, but she claims she wasn’t home the night of the murder. The team members also speak to the other people who live in the same apartment building as the Leverkuhns, and it’s interesting to learn how much they know about each other. People know who’s been in and out, who does what, and so on. Despite that, though, the investigating team doesn’t get very far at first. Eventually, though, they link Leverkuhn’s death to the events that led to it.

Of course, no discussion of apartment buildings in crime fiction would really be complete without a mention of Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series. Chapman is a baker, who lives and has her shop in a large Melbourne apartment building called Insula. As the series goes on, we get to know the other people who live in the building. They each contribute to the atmosphere of the place, and they all care about each other. They may not be related to the other residents, but the people of Insula have formed a sort of family of their own.

Apartment buildings can have that sort of effect. Of course, they can also be eerie places. That’s why we see so many of them in crime fiction – much more than I can show in one post (I know, I know, fans of Robert Rotenberg’s Old City Hall). After all, do you really know what the person living next door, above you, or below you is really like?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s One Man’s Ceiling is Another Man’s Floor.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Håkan Nesser, Kerry Greenwood, Peter Høeg, Robert Rotenberg, Val McDermid, Walter Mosley

29 responses to “It’s Just Apartment House Rules*

  1. Tim

    With such a compact living environment, you have a built-in assortment of potential witnesses (and suspects). However, as Dupin understood in Poe’s story, the neighbors might be nearly useless in solving the monkey-business in the house on Rue Morgue.

    • Well, that’s true enough, Tim! But you’re absolutely right about the possibilities for witnesses and suspects when you have several people living in the same small(ish) living environment.

  2. Apartment blocks have great potential in movies as well – I’m thinking of Rear Window in particular, one of my favourite films.

  3. I am always amazed at the reticence people in apartment buildings have about getting to know their neighbors. Good story there, you’re right.

    • It is interesting how ‘apartment people’ tend to keep themselves to themselves, as the saying goes, Patti. And that, of course, makes for lots of possibilities…

  4. What an interesting subject – here in Jersey we have lots of apartment blocks (because of the lack of space) and but I’ve never really considered the potential for crime fiction!

    • Very glad you enjoyed the post, Cleo. I can well imagine that space is at a premium where you live. And it’s interesting about apartments. You never really do know who might live in the same building. With all of those disparate people in a small space, it’s a natural context, I think, for a crime story.

  5. Great topic, Margot. When I think of apartment buildings in the mystery fiction context my mind always conjures up Poirot’s Deco residence in London, so memorably depicted in the TV series – though I don’t recall the apartment itself specifically as having a role in any of the Poirot novels as to the committing or solving one of the murders.

    • Oh, I love that scenery for the series, Bryan! I know just exactly what you mean. There are some tense meetings and conversations and the like in Poirot’s apartment in the stories, but not the tension you see in other stories that don’t feature his own place. Still, it is a fantastic setting as reconstructed in the series. And thanks for the kind words.

  6. A.M. Pietroschek

    After bumdom I moved into a former hotel, now managed apartments, as it was the only option I had. I like it, and I remember a French Serial Movie, within which the Serial talked about the constant change of people who rent it making it extra easy for him. One factor for crime fiction, hard to notice someone missing, if it is normal to see strangers today where yesterday a known neighbor had lived.

    The type of people is different folks, too. I wouldn’t expect our dopeheads to be quick-reacting during an emergency. Especially not after witnessing them stumble zombie-like during last fire alarm. Real alarm btw.

    Further those smaller apartments mean ‘the victim’ is limited in the amount of angles to move by, easy for backstabbers & throat-cutters, or electrocute-sneaky.

    Then the ‘managed’ means loads of unknown people in working clothes get access to the entire house. Who could say that in crime fiction the electrician who fixed my door bell didn’t move up to next level and raped some student, or knife-stabbed a granny? 😉 Crime Fiction, not diary.

    I am a bit spooked by knowing you already have contemplated even more on it. 😉 Have a nice day, Margot!

    • It’s true, André, that people who live in apartment buildings very often don’t stay in one place for a very long time. And depending on the building, there could be all sorts of different kinds of people, both safe and not so safe. What’s more, because people tend to come and go, it can be hard to trace someone once she or he has left.

  7. Jane Casey’s latest Maeve Kerrigan novel, ‘After the Fire’, is based on a fire in a block of flats. While three people die and others are injured, the police can’t be sure who the intended victim was, so as well as investigating the murder they have to look into the backgrounds of the survivors to see if they could still be at risk. It turns out several of them have murky secrets that could mean they were the target…

    • Oh, FictionFan, that’s a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post! I’m very glad that you filled in that gap. And that’s the thing, about places like blocks of flats. You don’t always know who has what in her or his background or private life.

  8. Kathy D.

    Yes, an apartment building is a good place for a murder. In my building, I’m constantly seeing people I don’t know going into the elevator. It’s like a revolving door here between new tenants, guests and delivery people. So, a potential murderer might be able to get away with the crime.
    It’s true how impersonal apartment living can be. I know all of my neighbors on my floor, but have no idea who lives below me.
    It’s fun though, mostly nice people, kids, dogs. I get the benefit of playing with the dogs and enjoying the children.
    And, I would love to live in Insula and mingle with all of the interesting characters — and enjoy that bakery, too, and Heckle and Jeckle.

    • I’d love that, too, Kathy. Kerry Greenwood has really created an interesting and inviting place, I think. And you’re right about apartment buildings. People are always coming in and out, and one never really does know who’s there, who’s not, who ‘officially’ lives there and who’s a visitor, and so on. So it would be awfully easy to sneak into a building, even one with a card-key or other security feature at the entrance.

      As you say, there are some benefits to getting to know the other people who live in the building if that happens. You get the benefits of dog companionship without the responsibility, and you get to know other people. Sometimes, it really can work out well.

  9. I lived all of my early life in apartment blocks and know exactly what you mean by dubious neighbours, hearing strange arguments, getting suspicious about people – or even making friends. Not crime fiction but certainly disquieting is Ballard’s High Rise, with the film coming out imminently, which shows that even the residents in a luxury apartment building have primitive behaviours. And Denise Mina is excellent at portraying abandoned apartment buildings in The Red Road and other crime novels.

    • She is, indeed, Marina Sofia. I’m glad that you mentioned her work. And stories like High Rise< certainly show that even in luxury buildings, you never do completely know about the people who live in the same building. Apartment buildings can draw all kinds of types…

  10. GLad you mentioned Old City Hall – it was the first example I thought of.
    And there’s always that investigative scene where our detective goes and talks to the other tenants of an apartment building – no-one has seen anything important about the murder, but they do remember some arguments, and a strange visitor or two, oh, and there was that time that shouty man turned up late at night… what would we do without that scene?

    • Old City Hall is a great example, Moira, isn’t it? And no, I don’t know what we’d do without those conversations with tenants, or that chance meeting on the stairs or the lift, or those voices shouting at two in the morning. They all add spice, don’t they?

  11. Anne Raynaud

    Is there a big cultural gap between the US and Europe?
    I have owned my apartment in a suburb of Paris since 1987, and as there are codes and Vigik passes on the building doors , do not live in this ambiance of paranoia.

    • There are different sorts of apartment buildings in the US, Anne. Some, like the one you live in, are, indeed, well-secured, and residents own their apartments. So there’s less coming and going, and more security in knowing who’s there and who isn’t. Others don’t have codes, and residents rent, rather than own. And there different sorts of apartments for different levels of income, too. So there’s a great deal of variety.

  12. So true, Margot. At night, my husband and I binge watch true crime (love the ID Channel), and there are SO many homicides in apartment buildings. It’s incredible how many tenants murder their neighbors. But they’re also prime real estate for drive-by shootings, where innocent people get shot in the crossfire. It’s no wonder, then, why crime fiction mimics true life in this regard.

    • You know, Sue, I hadn’t thought about the ‘innocent victim’ sort of tenant, but that definitely happens. And you never do know what may happen between people who live in the same apartment building. So I’m not surprised there are a lot of real-life murders of people by the person next door/above/below, etc.. And as for fiction, there is so much possibility when you have a group of disparate people gathered together like that…

  13. Margot, I don’t remember novels set in apartments though I’m sure I have read a few of them, especially in noir/hardboiled fiction, including those by Harold Robbins whose protagonists usually grew up in tiny apartments in seedy neighbourhoods.

    • That’s a really interesting point, Prashant. I wonder if there are more apartment building settings in more hardboiled/noir fiction. I’ll have to think about that!

  14. I remember a lot of British TV detective shows with the detectives going to blocks of flats. And also The Wire set in Baltimore featured young people who lived in huge apartment complexes. So my experience of this in crime fiction seems to come mostly from TV.

    • Oh, goodness, Tracy, I’d forgotten about The Wire! So glad you mentioned it. And you’re right; that sort of scene, where the detective goes from door to door in a building does happen a lot in film and TV. Perhaps it’s because it has a powerful visual effect.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s