I had a very interesting comment exchange with Tim, who blogs at The Short Story Reader’s Digest. Tim made the point – and it’s a good one – that there are crime novels that are, if you will, a sort of variation of the ‘locked room’ sort of story. Instead of the victim being in the locked room, the suspects are the ones who can’t leave until the mystery is solved.
As I thought about it, it occurred to me that there are stories like that. The suspects are all in one place, and they need to stay there, or the law requires they stay there, until the mystery is solved.
The story Tim and I were discussing is Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. In that novel, a group of people are en route across Europe on the famous Orient Express train. On the second night of the journey, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed to death. Hercule Poirot is aboard the train, and he is prevailed upon to find out who the killer is before the train crosses the next frontier That way, the murderer can be handed over to the police. Poirot agrees, and begins by interviewing the passengers. Those interviews, plus some other clues and conversations, lead Poirot to the truth about the murder. As it happens, a terrible snowstorm has stopped the train. And, in any case, the train is nowhere near a station. This means that the passengers cannot leave, and the situation adds an interesting sense of claustrophobia to the story’s atmosphere.
There’s a similar sort of claustrophobia in Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger. Heron Park Hospital has been converted for (WWII) military use. Seven people – the seven major characters in the story – have received some sort of hospital assignment. One day, postman Joseph Higgins is brought to Heron Park with a broken femur. His leg will require an operation, but it’s not anticipated that it’ll be a terribly risky undertaking. Tragically, Higgins dies during the surgery. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is sent to the hospital to prepare what he thinks will be a cursory report of this tragic, but accidental death. When he begins to ask questions, though, Cockrill starts to wonder whether Higgins’ death really was an accident. Then, one of the other characters, Sister Marion Bates, has too much to drink at a party, and blurts out that she knows Higgins was murdered. What’s more, she says she knows how it was done. Later that night, she, too, is killed. Now it seems clear that Higgins was murdered, and Cockrill looks into the matter more deeply. The only logical suspects are those who were in the room during the surgery, so those are the people Cockrill considers most carefully. And they slowly find themselves cut off from the rest of the hospital staff, and quite restricted in their movements. This adds a lot of tension to the story as Cockrill works to get to the truth.
Swati Kaushal’s Drop Dead introduces her sleuth, Shimla Superintendent of Police Niki Marwah. She and her team are called to the scene when the body of Rakesh ‘Rak’ Mehta is discovered in a valley not far from the ultra-luxurious Lotus Resort. At first, Mehta’s death looks like a terrible accident. But there are little clues that it might have been something else, and before long, it’s called a ‘suspicious death.’ This means that Marwah and her team now have to stay at the scene and investigate further. They soon learn that the victim was the CEO of Indigo Books, Ltd., and had brought his senior staff to the resort for a retreat. As details of that retreat come out, it becomes clear that several of Mehta’s colleagues had reasons for wanting him dead. He could be malicious, even cruel. And he was both arrogant and overbearing. It turns out, too, that several of those staff members are keeping secrets. The Lotus is extremely upmarket, and the staff members want for nothing. But none of them wants to stay there, even those who are innocent. Still, Marwah and her team have to insist that they not leave until the investigation is complete.
There’s also Marla Cooper’s Terror in Taffeta, in which San Francisco-based wedding planner Kelsey McKenna travels to the small Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, to take charge of a destination wedding. Her clients, Nicole Abernethy and Nick Moreno, want a romantic wedding in a unique location, and San Miguel seems like the perfect spot. It doesn’t turn out that way, though. At the end of the wedding ceremony, one of the bridesmaids, Dana Poole, collapses and suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The police soon take charge, and it’s not long before they settle on the bride’s sister, Zoe, as the prime suspect. Zoe claims that she’s innocent, and asks Kelsey to help clear her name. And, in any case, Kelsey’s been hired to complete the job, and the bride’s mother insists that she ‘fix this problem.’ So, Kelsey starts to ask questions. It only adds to the tension that the bridal party cannot leave San Miguel during the investigation, especially since Zoe really could be innocent. After all, if she is not guilty, then someone else at the wedding is. In this case, it isn’t so much the police who require that everyone remain (they’re willing to let people leave once they’ve arrested Zoe). Rather, it’s the sense of not leaving Zoe alone that keeps everyone there. But not everyone is happy about it…
There’s a different sort of twist on this plot point in Peter James’ Not Dead Yet. One plot thread of that novel concerns superstar entertainer Gaia Lafayette. Originally from Brighton, she moved to the US, but is returning to her home town to star in an on-location historical film. There’s already been one attempt on her life, and of course, the local reputation will not be served if anything happens to her during her visit. So, Brighton and Hove Superintendent Roy Grace has been assigned to ensure her safety. His department is not exactly overstaffed, but he’s told to do what it takes to keep her safe. One measure the team decides on is to ask Gaia and her entourage to remain in the hotel unless they are actually filming. It’s very difficult, especially for Gaia’s son. But that’s the best way to protect her. Then, there’s a death. Now, the film team has to stay in Brighton until matters are cleared up. It’s difficult for them all, especially those who stand to lose money if they don’t return to Hollywood. And it adds tension to the novel.
And that’s the thing about that plot point. When characters involved in a murder have to stay in one place until the mystery is solved, this adds a great deal of tension and suspense to a story. Thanks, Tim, for the inspiration. Folks do check out Tim’s interesting discussion of short stories on his blog!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil.