Flats, 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.