The Call of the Mountains, the Call of the Alps*

alpsIt’s the time of year when a lot of people enjoy cold-weather sports. And what better place than the Alps? There’s stunning scenery, all sorts of hiking, skiing and skating activities, après-skis, and lovely places to stay. And, since the Alps extend to eight different countries, there are all sorts of languages spoken and cultural traditions.

But if you think that means the Alps are safe and peaceful, think again. If you look at crime fiction, you see all sorts of examples that prove otherwise. Warm clothes and a cheery hearth don’t always keep people safe…

In Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, we are introduced to Anne Meredith. During a winter trip to Switzerland, she meets an enigmatic man named Mr. Shaitana. As she puts it,

‘I didn’t know him well at all. I always thought he was a most frightening man.’

But he has a certain macabre appeal, and he does have very interesting parties. About nine months later, back in England, Anne is invited to dinner at Mr. Shaitana’s home. Also invited are seven other people. Four of them (including Hercule Poirot) are sleuths. The others are people Mr. Shaitana hints have committed murder. After dinner, everyone settles in to play bridge. During the game, someone stabs Mr. Shaitana. It’s now clear that he was right about at least one person in the group, and that person wasted no time keeping him quiet. Poirot works with the three other sleuths to find out who the killer was. And, in the process, they find out some truths about the other guests, too. In this case, that meeting in Switzerland ended up drawing Anne Meredith into a murder case.

Scotland Yard detective Henry Tibbett and his wife, Emmy, take a trip to the Italian Alps in Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski. They’re planning to stay at the Bella Vista Hotel in Santa Chiara for a holiday, which Henry is combining with a bit of investigating. Right from the time they arrive at the hotel, there’s tension among some of the guests. But everyone seems determined to have a good time. Then, one evening, several of the hotel guests are taking the chair lift from the village of Santa Chiara up to the hotel. On the way up, they see the other chair lift going down. In it is the body of one of the hotel guests, Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser. Capitano Spezzi and his team investigate the murder. Later, when he’s discovered Henry Tibbetts’ profession, Spezzi begins to work with him to find out who the killer is. Oh, and it’s not spoiling the story to say that there’s a very dramatic ski-escape scene here.

Fred Vargas’ Seeking Whom He May Devour takes place in the French Alps. The residents of the towns of Ventebrune and Pierrefor are unsettled when nine sheep are discovered with their throats slashed. At first, it looks like the work of a wolf. But then, a sheep breeder named Suzanne Rosselin is found murdered in one of her sheep pens. She’s been killed in the same way as the sheep were, and now, there are whispers that a werewolf is on the loose. Those who believe that story even think they know who the werewolf is: a loner named Auguste Massart. He seems to have disappeared, though, so the villagers decide to try to track him down so that they can find out the truth. But they’re not successful, and end up asking Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg to investigate. He travels to the Alps and looks into the matter. As you can imagine, there are no werewolves behind the deaths.

In Michael Dibdin’s Medusa, a group of Austrian cavers discover a decomposed corpse in a disused military tunnel in the Italian Alps. The body turns out to belong to Leonardo Ferrero, an Italian soldier who was said to have died in a freak air accident years earlier. The body is taken to the morgue, from whence it soon disappears. It doesn’t take long for it to be clear that there’s some sort of cover-up going on. The Interior Ministry suspects that something untoward may be going on, so they send Aurelio Zen to investigate. And it turns out that he has to peel back several layers of secrets and corruption to find out the truth about what happened to Ferrero, and how it’s related to a secret Italian military organization called Medusa.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. That novel begins in 1974 at a monastery in the Swiss Alps. An unnamed art restorer has come to the place to look at some frescoes in the chapel, with an eye to restoring them. During his stay, he meets an old man who’s living in the care home on the monastery’s property. One day, the old man promises to tell him a story – ‘a good story’ – in exchange for having it recorded. So, the art restorer buys some tapes and the old man begins his tale. The story concerns the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy to New York at the turn of the 20th Century. At first, the family did well. But then, patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco got into a bar fight and ended up killing Luigi Lupo, son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. The elder Lupo put a curse on the Franco family, saying that all three of Ben Franco’s sons would die at the age of forty-two, the age Luigi was when he was killed. The old man then relates the stories of the three sons and their fates as his listener records them. Years later, those recordings play a role in the story, which ends in modern times. And it all starts because of what’s supposed to be a harmless visit to the Alps.

See what I mean? The Alps are beautiful, and a visit there may seem wonderful, especially if you’re sweltering in summer heat or dying for a break from fog, cold rain or slush. But safe? I don’t know about that…

Thanks, Alpenwild, for the lovely ‘photo!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eluveitie’s The Call.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Fred Vargas, Michael Dibdin, Patricia Moyes

19 responses to “The Call of the Mountains, the Call of the Alps*

  1. If you want snowy remote mountains, “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn” by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky is a quirky and offbeat take on detective stories!

  2. I remember years ago really enjoying Margaret Yorke’s Silent Witness: a body in a chair lift, and an Austrian ski resort cut off by snow! What’s not to like?

    • What, indeed, Christine? All the elements there of a great mystery. And Margaret Yorke was very skilled at building psychological tension and creating suspense. Thanks for mentioning that one.

  3. Amazed once again at your wealth of knowledge–but NOT surprised, Margot! Wonderful post. 🙂

  4. Tim

    I just don’t understand. How on earth do you know all these things? Egads! I’m beyond impressed. I’m baffled.

  5. Margot, there’s a first rate series of mysteries from the 1950s and 1960s that is centered on mountaineering in the Alps and elsewhere, the second of which was “Murder on the Matterhorn.” The series features an amateur detective, an actor named Abercrombie “Filthy” Lewker, and the settings generally are on mountains – and they are “impossible” crimes at that. They’re great fun. The Rue Morgue Press reprinted several of them, but now – alas! – with the RMP gone, the books are harder to find. But they’re worth the search.

    • It is shame, isn’t it, Les, that RMP isn’t reprinting any other titles. There are so many series like this one that deserve new audiences and attention. Thanks for mentioning this particular series. It’s a perfect fit for what I had in mind with this post.

  6. Ellis Peters wrote a splendid book called The Will and the Deed (before she started on her Bro Cadfael mysteries I believe) – private aeroplane makes a forced landing in a snowy Swiss village, no-one can get away. It’s a most enjoyable mystery.

    • Oh, I must try it, Moira. I confess I’ve not read that one, but it sounds like a great read. And it fits in perfectly with what I had in mind with this post, so thanks.

  7. Margot: Over 40 years ago I enjoyed reading The Eiger Sanction by Trevanian. The mountain climbing scenes left someone uncomfortable with heights almost experiencing vertigo sitting in a chair. I did not think Clint Eastwood was a good choice for the movie hero.

    • Isn’t it interesting, Bill, how we get a mental image of the characters in novels. Then, when someone completely different is chosen for the role, it can be jarring. Thanks for mentioning The Eiger Sanction, too. That’s one I hadn’t thought of, but it’s a good fit.

  8. Oooh, Seeking Whom He May Devour sounds right up my alley. Adding it to the TBR. Thanks, Margot!

  9. Fascinating, Margot. I didn’t realise there was so much crime fiction set in the Alps, which are beautiful and treacherous at the same time.

  10. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 6…1/23 – Where Genres Collide

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