I Was Running For the Door*

Creepy PlacesI was reading an excellent review by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, when I was struck by a comment she made about the setting of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As you’ll see if you read her review (which you should!), the post itself wasn’t about that novel. It wasn’t even, really, about setting. But in the course of it, Bernadette mentioned that,

‘Insular settings can provide a powerful sense of place in their own right (I’m still having nightmares about the house in Dame Christie’s And Then There Were None) …’

She’s right. Settings such as that house can add a great deal to the tension in a story. In this particular novel, knowing that the people on the island can’t escape makes the story that much eerier. So I can see how that house would stay with a reader.

There are plenty of other crime-fictional novels, too, where we see the impact of the insular setting. Here are just a few that have stayed with me. I know you’ll have your own selection.

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill travels to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) military use. Local postman Joseph Higgins has died, apparently a tragic, but accidental, death on the operating table. But Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. Cockrill starts asking questions, particularly of the seven people most closely associated with Higgins during his hospital stay. He soon learns that this case isn’t at all as it seemed on the surface. As he starts to home in on the killer, he insists that all of his suspects stay together as much as possible. That, plus the fact that two people end up dead in the same operating theatre, makes the hospital a really insular setting that gets creepier and creepier as the story goes on – at least for me. There’s something about that sort of setting, isn’t there, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?

In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Columbia University Professor of Law Jake Landau is on a flight from Boston to New York when a bomb goes off (this novel was written before today’s careful screening of passengers). Landau’s friend and attorney Martin Ross is killed in the tragedy, and of course, Landau wants answers. But the airline people aren’t very forthcoming. And, since he’s not a police officer, neither is anyone else, including the police who are investigating the incident. So Landau starts asking questions on his own. His questions get too close for comfort for the powerful international drugs ring that’s connected to this bombing, so they target Landau. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that there’s a really memorable scene at New York’s Grand Central Station that’s stayed in my mind. As it is, the station has a long history (it was built about 1871). It’s large, with lots of different passageways and so on. It can feel very creepy, and Graham takes advantage of that.

P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness has as its focus Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. It’s a private forensic laboratory that performs different sorts of tests in cases of unnatural death. As such, it’s used by both sides when a murder case is tried in court. One night, Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff at the laboratory, is working late on a recently-opened case when he is bludgeoned. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is assigned to the investigation. One thing he and DI John Massingham quickly learn is that Lorrimer had very strict security procedures, especially after normal working hours. So it’s unlikely that anyone ‘on the outside’ could be the killer. That leaves Lorrimer’s colleagues and subordinates, and that’s a wide field. Lorrimer was much disliked, and for good reason. As Dalgliesh and Massingham look into the matter, the lab itself comes under plenty of scrutiny (how many entrances, where are the windows, etc.). It takes on a sort of eerie personality of its own, especially at night.

There’s also Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. In that novel, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels travels to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is located on Shutter Island, in Massachusetts’ Outer Harbor. With him is his assistant, Chuck Aule. They’re there because one of the patients, Rachel Solando, has escaped, and is loose somewhere on the island. She’s a dangerous person, and that alone is reason enough to want to find her. But as Daniels and Aule soon discover, there’s much more at stake here than just one escaped prisoner, and all sorts of things are going on in the ward from whence she escaped. Then a storm comes up, which makes the investigation even more difficult. Throughout the story (and the film, if you saw it), the hospital compound is depicted in a very eerie way. It’s a former wartime hospital, converted for postwar use. It’s old and, since it’s on an island, it’s isolated. And there’s the fact that it’s psychiatric facility for the most dangerous of criminals. It’s the sort of place that stays with many readers. And so does the island.

Of course, I couldn’t do a post on eerie, insular places without mentioning the Bates Motel, vividly depicted in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The medium Hitchcock used to tell the story is especially effective at evoking that isolated, creepy place. It’s definitely not a welcoming stop for the night. I know, I know, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

Bernadette’s right about some places in crime novels. They really can be insular, eerie, and frightening. And that can make them stay with the reader long after the novel’s finished.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Eagles’ Hotel California.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alfred Hitchcock, Christianna Brand, Daphne du Maurier, Dennis Lehane, John Alexander Graham, Ngaio Marsh, P.D. James

35 responses to “I Was Running For the Door*

  1. Wow. So many possibilities, it’s hard to know where to begin! Perhaps with Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham, a Golden Age classic set in a remarkably creepy village where just about every resident appears to know a secret about the town that is jealously guarded from outsiders. How about John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, set in and around an old and frightening prison with what appears to be a death trap of a tower room? And then there’s the isolated, snow-bound lodge in Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, where people are trapped by a blizzard which is the perfect setting for highly unpleasant seances and what appears to be a case of demonic possession? I suspect we could go on all night like this… 😉

    • I suspect so, too, Les. I actually almost mentioned the Carr (that prison is deliciously creepy!), but didn’t. So I’m very glad you did. And of course, the Talbot and the Burton are also great examples. There’s just something, isn’t there, about the way that GA/classic authors depict certain places…

  2. Thanks for the kind words Margot. I was trying to think of other houses/places that offered great insular settings when I wriote that review. I wasn’t as sold on the book as some are but Manderley in du Marier’s REBECCA is a great setting as is the voluntarily closed off village in Geraldine Brooks’ YEAR OF WONDERS come to mind. Hans Olav Lahlum also did a neat job with his murder in a Norwegian apartment building in THE HUMAN FLIES

    • Always a pleasure to plug what you have to say, Bernadette. And thanks for those other examples of insular places. I admit I’ve not read the Brooks, but from what I’ve heard, it’s a great examples. And so, of course, are the Lahlum and the du Maurier. Delicious creepiness!

  3. Wonderful subject – there are so many settings which give me the shivers that come to mind! Some crime fiction, some not (horror fiction of course is rife with them: the hotel in The Shining, the lonely house in the marshes in The Woman in Black).
    PD James excelled at those settings: The Black Tower (a nursing home), Devices and Desires (a nuclear power station in Norfolk), The Lighthouse (Cornwall). I believe she once said she always starts a book based on the setting, rather than plot or characters.

    • Really well-written horror fiction (like The Shining) does include some wonderful creepy places, doesn’t it, Marina Sofia? And sometimes those places just take on personalities of their own, I think. I agree with you, too, that P.D. James was especially gifted at creating such places. You’ve given some terrific examples, too!

  4. kathyd

    Can’t contribute here. I avoid creepy and scary settings. Never saw Psycho or The Shining nor will I read the books.
    I’ll take Venice, Copenhagen, Paris, Glasgow, or Chicago, New York, San Francisco as locations, but not weird locations.
    While a teenager, my cousin, who had seen Psycho, told me about the shower scene. I didn’t take a shower for a week — and I hadn’t even seen the movie. (Well, I was a young teenager, but I still won’t see the movie.!)

    • You’re not alone, Kathy. There are plenty of people who, like you, prefer their settings not to be creepy. That’s particularly true in film, where a creepy location can have even more of an impact. And I think that shower scene in Psycho has stayed with a lot of people…

  5. Col

    Shutter Island’s an amazing book and the film’s none too shabby.

    Shock Corridor from Michael Avallone (albeit a novelisation of a film) is set inside a mental institution. A journalist feigns madness to get inside and solve a murder. The setting creeped me out when reading it.

    • Oh, Shock Corridor does sound intriguing, Col. And I can see how the setting got to you. And yes, Shutter Island is one of those books that, I think, really stays with you.

  6. These are really my favorite crime fiction novels. 🙂 I love these types of settings. The cozier manor house mysteries (isolated by bad weather or just distance) can also fall in this category.

    • Oh, creepy places can really be effective settings, can’t they, Elizabeth? And I think you have a point. A cosy novel can have a very creepy setting (and bad weather can add to that!) if it’s done well.

  7. Margot, in Lee Child’s KILLING FLOOR, Jack Reacher is briefly sent to a state prison some of whose inmates try to murder him. It’s only a small scene in the book yet it evokes scary notions of life inside a prison unfit for lesser mortals. Reacher, a former marine — 6 feet 5, well-built, and fearless — wards off the murderous attack. How many can? That setting was unsettling.

    • Thanks, Prashant, for mentioning that Lee Child. I think you’re absolutely right about that prison scene. As you say, it’s not a major part of the book, but it’s tremendously effective nonetheless.

  8. Tim

    Oh, I don’t know. The house creeps me out more than the motel in _Psycho_. But I guess it’s not much of a choice: take a shower or go upstairs.

  9. Ooh, yes, Shutter Island! What a great book! And I felt the whole blackout thing really added to the creepiness in Green for Danger. Most recently, Sharon Bolton built up a great sense of creepiness around the isolated house of Rose, the ‘heroine’ of her latest novel, Daisy in Chains. I spent the first half of the book silently screaming at her to get out of the house and go stay in a hotel… and then in the second half, things got worse…

    And I must plug Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land, a literary thriller. The house in that book is a major character in its own right, a house built on swampland just before the economic crash, and rapidly decaying. Some of the things that go on in that house still make me shiver…

    • You’re not the first, FictionFan, to call Fallen Land to my attention. It sounds like a very good read, so I’m glad you reminded me of it. And yes, both Shutter Island and Green For Danger have terrific creepy settings, blackouts and all. As to Daisy in Chaines? Bolton rarely disappoints. Folks, if you haven’t tried her work yet, please do.

  10. Setting are so important to me, both as a reader and a writer, and I love them to be creepy. I have recently being reading Ethel Lina White and she excels at creepy settings: lonely old houses at dusk, a waxworks museum . . . Bring them on!
    Fog can be a wonderful isolating device (perhaps worth a post of its own sometime, Margot?) I’m thinking of my favourite Allingham: Tiger in the Smoke.

  11. One of my favourites of recent years is Tom Vowler’s That Dark Remembered Day which isn’t quite so insular encompassing as it does an entire small town, but did it give me the creeps? It sure did! The town itself made me feel that there was actually no possible other outcome to the story which links it to your excellent examples.

  12. Oh, you’re so right about Shutter Island and Psycho. Both settings made me shiver, which isn’t an easy thing to do. I’m not one who scares easily.

  13. Keishon

    I couldn’t agree more….insular settings can increase/add tension. I loved Shutter Island so I’m glad to see you listed it as one of your memorable novels. I remember it well. Isolated island inside an insane asylum. Very gothic in atmosphere and I loved every bit of it.

    • Lehane certainly created a creepy atmosphere in Shutter Island, didn’t he, Keishon? I thought that setting was especially well-crafted. And you’re right: that can be so important to a story.

  14. Looks like we’re all agreed on Shutter Island – count me as another fan. And also Green for Danger – you can do a lot with a hospital. I’m not a big PD James fan, but Shroud for a Nightingale, like the one you mention, gave me the creeps. That long lonely walk from the hospital to the nurses’ home on a dark stormy night….

    • Yes, indeed, Moira! That is a creepy scene, isn’t it? And you’re quite right about Green For Danger, too, I think. Brand did a fine job with the hospital setting, too. As for Shutter Island, I think that setting is brilliantly creepy.

  15. Pingback: Reading Links…6/30/16 – Where Worlds Collide

  16. tracybham

    I just recently read Fire Will Freeze by Margaret Millar, which is mostly set in a large old house in rural Canada, where a group of skiers are stranded by a storm on their way to a ski lodge. I would have been terrified if I had been stuck there.

    • Oh, I would be, too, Tracy! Especially considering it’s Millar writing the story. That sort of stranded-at-a-ski-lodge plot point can add so much tension to a story; thanks for adding in this one.

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