We Gotta Get Out of This Place*

suspects-who-cannot-leaveI 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Christianna Brand, Marla Cooper, Peter James, Swati Kaushal

24 responses to “We Gotta Get Out of This Place*

  1. Interesting topic Margot. I think a lot of Christie’s are like this. Another one involving snow is The Sittiford Mystery , if I’ve remember correctly. You’re right it does create tension and in other ways increases the suspects as no one can be discounted. They were all there!

  2. I think that’s why I like the country house style of mystery – everyone has to stay and interact with each other, plus the detective is usually in the house too. It’s not so easy in contemporary crime to make it realistic, though I’ve noticed quite a few cruise ship novels recently which have the same kind of cut off from the rest of the world feeling…

    • That’s quite true, FictionFan. I’m sure the cruise lines aren’t happy about it, either… And it’s an advantage that those ‘country house murders,’ especially from the Golden Age, really have. It’s certainly easier to make it credible that everyone would have to stay in one place.

  3. We had a state-wide power outage here a few months ago and I was “trapped” for about 2 hours in a 3-room annexe at work because the locking mechanism was electric and we were awaiting assistance from technicians. There were 7 of us sitting around chatting in the gloom (it was getting on to dusk and very dark & stormy outside so very little natural light). Someone (I swear it wasn’t me) brought up the subject of it being the perfect situation for a murder mystery (the annexe has lots of hidey-holes and old medical equipment stashed around the place – perfect for murdering and hiding bodies). Titles other than those you’ve mentioned that got discussed included Georgette Heyer’s A Christmas Party (I don’t know that one myself), Ann Holt’s 1222 (everyone is snowed into a ski lodge when murder is committed) and maybe Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone although none of us could remember if people were forced in some way to stay in the house in that one. I also think Cyril Hare’s An English Murder would qualify but can’t really remember if there is anything other than it being Christmas time that keeps everyone stranded in the house as it’s been ages since I read that one.

    • Oh, that must’ve been quite a situation for all of you, Bernadette! Two hours doesn’t sound like long – unless you’re the one trapped. I’m glad you were able to get free without further complications! And whoever it was that said it was a great setup for a murder mystery had a point. I can just picture it. Thanks also for adding those titles. All of them are great examples. Well, I confess I’ve not read the Hare. But the others – most definitely. You do get into interesting conversations at work! I tried bringing up a similar topic once at a large meeting, where there were several speakers. My point was how easy it’d be to put something in the speaker’s water. The reaction? ‘Your mind goes to some dark places!’

  4. So much enjoying this discussion as I love this kind of ‘locked room’ story. So much so that I am setting my next mystery on a remote research station in Artarctica where no-one can get in or out once the winter has begun.

  5. Margot, “Murder on the Orient Express” was the first Agatha Christie novel I read, and I absolutely enjoyed it. She creates such vivid imagery with Poirot’s investigation and the train journey. I must reread the book.

  6. Ah yes, when the investigator says ‘no-one must leave here for the time being, you aren’t going anywhere’, I prepare to settle in for a proper story…

    • So do I, Moira. There’s often such a great sense of claustrophobia, to say nothing of the tension. You know you’re going to get quite the story when that happens.

  7. Tim

    And, of course, there is _And Then There Were None_! What a fine dinner party and weekend getaway!

  8. There are so many possibilities, Margot – and I’m glad someone mentioned And Then There Were None. Among others:

    ++Hake Talbot’s Rim of the Pit, set in a blizzard near the Canadian border;

    ++T. Jefferson Farjeon’s Mystery in White, another snowstorm setting, as a group of travelers leave a stranded train in mid-blizzard, seek shelter in a curiously deserted nearby house, and encounter murder;

    ++Ellery Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery, in which the Queens find themselves trapped with a group including a murderer in a house at the top of a mountain, prevented from leaving by a gigantic forest fire;

    ++and then there’s Arthur Upfield’s Man of Two Tribes in which – let me be vague to avoid spoilers – DI Napoleon Bonaparte is trapped in Australia’s barren Outback with a group of people including at least one murderer, and he must find that killer and figure out how to help the whole group escape back to civilization.

    There are so many more out there…thanks for reminding me!

    • There are, indeed, a lot of uses of this plot setup, Les. And you’ve mentioned so many excellent ones. That’s the thing about blog posts, isn’t it? There’s never enough spacer to talk about all of the great books out there. That’s what I love about comments. I appreciate your suggesting all of these titles. Folks, you do want to give ’em a try if you haven’t.

  9. tracybham

    This year I read three country house mysteries set at Christmas. In two of them, the occupants were snowed in and could not leave. In one, the snow is not that bad but the authorities require all the guests of a house party to stay until the crime is solved. It does create tense situations.

    • It really does, Tracy. And it’s interesting how the country house setting just lends itself to that sort of story. It’s just a natural fit, I think. There’s definitely something about the country house…

  10. kathy d

    1222 is a good example of people snowed in during a Norwegian blizzard and no one can leave because of the weather and the investigation.
    Also, Hans Lahlum’s The Human Flies: No one can leave the building until the murderer is caught. It’s someone who lives in a house with several apartments and one of the tenants did it.

  11. Wow. Between your examples and the comment section I think you’ve all just about covered it. I enjoy “locked-in” mysteries, both in books and film.

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