Doesn’t Seem To Be a Shadow in The City*

Summer in the CityThe weather is heating up in the Northern Hemisphere. In some places, people are already using their air conditioning, pulling out beachwear and fans, and looking through those recipes for cold drinks.

In the days before air conditioning, anyone who had the means at all would get out of the city as soon as possible. Some would spend the summer at the beach; that’s how many coastal towns got their start. Others would go to the country; in fact, there’s a long tradition of wealthy families who have both city places and country homes. Even today, it’s not uncommon for people who can afford it to beat the heat by getting out of the city.

We certainly see that in crime fiction. And it’s surprising how often that custom ends up getting a character involved in a case of murder. I’ll bet you’re already thinking of examples; here are just a few of my own.

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase begins when Rachel Innes and her maid, Liddy Allen, travel to Sunnyside, a country home that she’s rented for a summer holiday. The idea is to get away from the heat of the city for a while. Rachel’s also looking forward to spending some time with her nephew, Halsey, and niece, Gertrude, whom she’s more or less raised since their father (and her brother) died. If Rachel had only known that taking that house would get her and her family involved in a case of theft, murder and fraud, she might have made different summer plans…

In Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, rare book dealer Henry Gamadge is spending some time at the Ocean House resort at Ford’s Beach, Maine. At the time this book was written, it wasn’t uncommon for people from New York or Boston (and sometimes even cities such as Philadelphia) to spend the summer in Maine. During Gamadge’s visit, he makes friends with Colonel Harrison Barclay and his family, who are staying nearby. So he’s on the scene when the Cowdens (relatives of the Barclays) arrive for their own summer getaway. Eleanor Cowden has brought her daughter Alma, her son Amberley, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson. Amberley has a very serious heart condition, but he’s insisted on this trip, so that he can support a cousin of his who has a theatre group in nearby Seal Cove. On the night of the Cowden’s arrival, Amberley dies, and his body is found the next morning at the foot of a cliff. Then there’s another death. And two attempts at another murder. Gamadge works with local police detective Mitchell to find out who’s behind all of these events.

In Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, we are introduced to Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey. A heat wave has arrived, and they’re planning to escape it by taking a trip to their summer cottage on Cape Cod. They’ve gotten a sheaf of letters and telegrams from potential guests, but have narrowed down the list to two, and the holiday begins. One night, Prudence’s cat Ginger escapes; while chasing after the cat, Prudence discovers the body of Dale Sanborn, a famous writer who’s staying in the   cottage next door. A family friend of the Whitsbys, Bill Porter, is the most likely suspect. He was in the area at the time of the murder, he can’t account for himself, and he has a motive. But his employee and ‘man-of-all-work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t believe he’s guilty. Together, Asey and Prudence set out to prove that Bill Porter is innocent.

As anyone who’s ever lived there can tell you, Delhi can get extremely hot in the summer. So in Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quite Holiday, Justice Harish Shinde is happy to escape the heat. He accepts an invitation from an old friend, Shikhar Pant, to take a holiday in Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. With him, the judge brings his law clerk, Anant.

‘In Delhi, it was that time of summer when cool days are difficult to recollect and impossible to imagine.’

So Anant is delighted to be included in the trip. The pair arrive, settle in, and soon meet the rest of Pant’s guests. Trouble soon starts, because two of those guests, Ronit and Khamini Mittal, run a controversial NGO. Its purpose is AIDS education and prevention in the rural areas, and there are plenty of people who oppose both the NGO and its pamphlets. One afternoon, Kailish Pant, the host’s cousin, is found murdered. He was a strong supporter of the Mittals’ work, so this presents one important avenue for investigation. But as Shinde and Anant soon learn, it’s by no means the only possibility.

Donna Leon’s sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti, tries to escape the Venice summer heat in A Question of Belief. He, his wife, Paola Falier, and their children Chiara and Raffi, are planning a trip to the mountains, and everyone is excited about it. The family is on the train, on the way to their destination, when Brunetti gets a call from a colleague. Araldo Fontana, a clerk at the local courthouse – the Tribunale di Venezia – has been bludgeoned in the courtyard of the apartment building where he lives. Now Brunetti has to get off the train at the next stop, return to Venice and the heat, and try to find out who committed the murder and why.

And in Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat, Inspector Salvo Montalbano doesn’t even get the opportunity to make plans to beat the Sicilian summer heat. His second-in-command, Mimì Augello, has had to change his own summer travel plans, so Montalbano has to stay in sweltering Vigàta. When he explains the situation to his longtime lover, Livia, she has the idea of renting a beach house near Montalbano. And, since Montalbano is likely to be busy with work, she’ll bring some friends to stay with her and keep her company. Montalbano’s not happy with the idea, but the plan’s put in motion. It doesn’t work out to be a good solution, though. When the son of Livia’s friend disappears, that’s bad enough. He’s found, unharmed, in a secret tunnel that runs underneath the house. But so is an old trunk that contains a corpse…

See what I mean? Sometimes it seems there’s no escaping trouble. Even when you try to escape the heat…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.


Filed under Aditya Sudarshan, Andrea Camilleri, Donna Leon, Elizabeth Daly, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Phoebe Atwood Taylor

25 responses to “Doesn’t Seem To Be a Shadow in The City*

  1. I really enjoyed reading Robert Barnard’s Scandal in Belgravia last year – although the heat wasn’t a major player in the plot, I thought he created a marvellous atmosphere of a long hot summer in London – the dusty streets, the light evenings, the feeling of inertia and being young and in your first job and enjoying yourself…

    • Oh, that does sound like a great atmosphere for a story, Moira. And I do like Barnard’s writing. I actually need to spotlight one of his books, now I think of it. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Ha! In Scotland, we don’t rush to get away from the heat in summer – we go to hot places to get away from the cold and rain! I’m currently trying to convince myself that I really don’t need to put the heating back on! 😉

    One of my favourite books of last year was John Theorin’s ‘The Voices Beyond’, which involves a seemingly unconnected group of people all arriving on the island of Oland off the coast of Sweden for the summer months. This is one of those books where the main crime comes at the end, so what we get is the build-up to it and seeing how it relates back to events that happened decades earlier in Stalinist USSR. A great book!

    • Ha! Perhaps I’ll do a post on that cold sort of rain that goes down your neck and chills you to the bone, FictionFan! 🙂 – And thanks for mentioning the Theorin. I’ve liked his Öland series quite a lot; and particularly, I’ve liked his Gerlof Davidsson. What a great character!

  3. One of Ellery Queen’s best novels, IMHO, is Cat of Many Tails, a story of a serial killer (back then, they weren’t called that) on the loose in a sweltering Manhattan long before air conditioning became so widespread. The heat wave, as I recall, plays a significant part in spreading the nightmarish feeling of the story.

    • Oh, nice example, Les, for which thanks. And it’s a great instance of the way heat can add to the tension and atmosphere in the story. That was a gap that needed to be filled.

  4. tracybham

    I read almost all of the Henry Gamadge series years ago, but I would love to reread some of them. Thanks for the reminder. I have also read Canadian mysteries where the opposite happens, they go south to Florida when it gets cold.

  5. kathyd

    I’ve read A Question of Belief and August Heat; both are good. I remember August Heat as a good one by Camilleri when Montalbano is in top form.
    But I want to see the mysteries about the murders that occur when people who can’t afford summer homes bump each other off in their apartments or on the streets in the hot weather. Summer heat in big cities makes people quite irritable – and some go overboard.
    There must be mysteries with this backdrop.

    • There are, indeed, Kathy. The first one that came to my mind was Ed McBain’s Cop Hater. In that one, a heat wave has struck, and it certainly does get people irritable. It’s a solid context for the murders that occur.

  6. Col

    I was trying to think of a book I’ve read where the heat was a factor in the plot, I’m sure there’s something somewhere….. a city setting, no break in the weather, the temperature’s oppressive, everyone’s getting irritated and cranky and someone snaps!

  7. Seem no matter where we go, a murder mystery is sure to follow. Great examples and more books to check out, Margot.

  8. Having just come back from Cuba where the weather was heavenly hot – I think I’ll pick up a few Cuban mysteries at the library. Know of any good ones Margot?

    • I hope you had a wonderful time, Jan! As far as Cuban mysteries go…Mayra Montero wrote Dancing to ‘Almendra’, about pre-Castro Cuba. And Leonardo Padura has a short series featuring Lt. Mario Conde. That series is set beginning in the late 1980s. I can recommend both as far as portraying Cuba goes. If you try them, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  9. Today is the first day we’ve come out of our cold spell (even had the woodstove burning). It’s such a refreshing change, but we’re in the country. I can’t imagine the heat in the city. Surely enough to drive people to murder. LOL

    • You’re lucky, Sue, that it hasn’t been too beastly hot for you. And I think you’re absolutely right. Sometimes the heat in the summertime is enough to drive someone to murder…

  10. I love books set at summer resorts. Just watched a George Gently on netflix set at a family summer camp. It made wonderful use of the location.
    My grandmother grew up with a country house outside Doyelstown, a summer house in Wildwood New Jersey and a rest of the time house in Philly. And they were not all that rich. Or so she says.

    • I can just picture the country house and Wildwood home, Patti! I think a lot of people had that sort of thing. And you’re right; the summer resort/camp can be a great setting for a mystery. I’m glad you mentioned the George Gently series, too. I’ve watched a few episodes, and enjoyed them. But I haven’t watched it lately; I appreciate the reminder.

  11. Tim

    I’m sure someone can respond and cure my ignorance: I cannot think of hot weather being a factor in the Holmes stories. Have I missed something?

    • Interesting question, Tim. Summer heat is mentioned a few times in the Holmes stories (I’m thinking, for instance, of The Adventure of the Cardboard Box). But I don’t recall, either, a story where a heat wave is, if you will, a major player in the plot. If anyone remembers one, please, put me right.

  12. Margot, if Delhi is hot, the desert state of Rajasthan is a furnace, with summer temperatures going up to as much as 50 C (122F). It’s one of the hottest states in India. I owe thanks to you for regularly introducing me to Indian fiction like Aditya Sudarshan’s “A Nice Quite Holiday.”

    • I’ve read that Rajasthan was hot, but that really sounds like terrible heat! I can’t imagine what it must be like to live there and have no escape from those temperatures. I hope that, if you get the chance to read Sudarshan’s work, you’ll enjoy it.

  13. kathyd

    Just saw that Phoenix hit 118 degrees. Any mysteries set there in the summer heat?

    • It is awfully hot there, Kathy! And there are several Phoenix-based mysteries. One that came to my mind is John Talton’s Concrete Desert. There are plenty of others, too.

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