To the Backroom, the Alley, or the Trusty Woods*

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings are discussing what they would want for ‘the perfect crime.’ Poirot asks:

‘‘If you could order a crime as one orders a dinner, what would you choose.’’
He and Hastings discuss the sort of crime (murder, of course!). Then, Hastings says,

‘‘Scene of the crime – well, what’s wrong with the good old library? Nothing like it for atmosphere.’’ 

Hastings has a point. Libraries can be very atmospheric places for scenes of crime or for discovering a body. And Christie uses the library to that effect, too, right, fans of The Body in the Library? When Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife, Dolly, learn that the body of a young woman has been found in their library, they’re drawn into a strange case of multiple murder.

Of course, the library is by no means the only atmospheric place for a murder scene, or for leaving a body. The place the author chooses depends a lot on the story, the characters, and so on. And that place can add quite a lot of atmosphere, even creepiness, to a story.

For instance, if you’ve ever walked down a street at night, and happened to peek down an alley, you know how eerie that sort of place can be. And, in Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People, that’s where the body of Liverpool attorney Harry Devlin’s ex-wife, Liz, is found. A few days before her death, she unexpectedly visits Devlin, and he hopes this means she might want to reconcile with him. That’s not her purpose, though. She says that she’s escaping her current lover, Mick Coghlin, and needs a place to stay for a few days. Devlin agrees, but the next night, she is stabbed. Devlin knows he isn’t guilty, but of course, he’s an obvious ‘person of interest.’ Along with wanting to clear his name, he wants to find out who killed Liz. So, he starts to ask questions. He finds that Liz’ life was a lot more complicated than he’d thought, and there are several possible suspects for her murder. There are plenty of other novels, too, in which bodies are found in alleys behind buildings, or between two buildings.

Woods can also be eerie, atmospheric places to find a body. For instance, in Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, the body of Dora Binns is found in a wood near the village of Littlebourne. Inspector Richard Jury has to cancel his holiday plans and travel to Littlebourne to investigate. He and his friend, Melrose Plant, discover that the victim’s death is connected to a robbery, some missing jewels, and an attack on another resident of LIttlebourne. Fans of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola will know that the body of a young woman is found in wood near the town of Kingsmarkham. At first, Inspector Reg Wexford thinks it’s the body of Melanie Akande, who’s been missing for several days. It’s a different young woman, though, so now, Wexford and his team have two major cases on their hands.

Moors are also wild, often desolate places that can be very atmospheric places for murders and bodies. And Belinda Bauer makes use of that setting in Blacklands. That’s the story of twelve-year-old Steven Lamb, who lives with his working-class family in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. The family is haunted by the nineteen-year-old disappearance of Steven’s uncle, Billy Peters. It was always suspected that he was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other child murders. Steven has been searching for Billy’s body on the moor, hoping that finding it will help his family. But he has no idea exactly where the body is. Then, he gets the idea of contacting Avery to find out from him where Uncle Billy’s body is. He takes the chance and writes, and he and Avery start a correspondence that turns into a very dangerous game of cat-and-mouse.

Minette Walters’ The Ice House makes use of another very atmospheric sort of place for a body. In the novel, Chief Inspector George Walsh is assigned an eerie case. A gardener has discovered the decomposed body of a man in the ice house of remote Streech Grange. That’s the property of Phoebe Maybury, who lives there with two friends, Anne Cattrell and Diana Goode. Ten years ago, Phoebe’s husband, David, went missing, and never returned. Walsh investigated at the time, but there were no clues as to where the man might have gone. Now, it appears Maybury’s body might have been found. But there’s a question as to whether the body is Maybury’s. If it is, then one of the three women living at Streech Grange is very possibly guilty of murdering him. If it’s not, then who is the man? And is one of the women guilty?

There are plenty of other atmospheric, even creepy, places authors use as murder scenes or as places to ‘dump’ a body. And when those places are chosen well, they can add quite a lot of tension to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s Night Moves.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Belinda Bauer, Martha Grimes, Martin Edwards, Minette Walters, Ruth Rendell

21 responses to “To the Backroom, the Alley, or the Trusty Woods*

  1. I know Ellery Queen is a mixed bag for you, Margot, but some of his body placements are wonderfully chilling. There are the crucified victims of The Egyptian Cross Mystery, the woman found in the mannequin’s window of her own department store in The French Powder Mystery, and creepiest of all in The Greek Coffin Mystery: the dead body found atop another dead body in the latter’s own coffin!! And I’m just warming up!! 🙂

    • I think the ‘Queen team’ did choose some deliciously creepy places to have a body turn up, Brad. And I’m glad you mentioned The French Powder mystery. An innovative approach to body placement if ever there was one! And you’re right about the other two you mentioned as well: they are eerie and effective places for bodies to turn up…

  2. Aha! I have just started reading Death on Dartmoor by Bernie Steadman, where two headless corpses have been found in a bog on the moor – the ideal place for murder and nefarious goings-on! I’ve also been enjoying the British Library’ anthologies of vintage short stories over the last couple of years, which have been collected under categories like country house murders, village murders, London murders and so on – it’s fun seeing how the different authors play on similar locations…

    • Ooh, yes, indeed, FictionFan! A bog on a moor is the perfect place for the scene of a crime, and for some bodies to show up. I hope you’ll post a review of Death on Dartmoor when you’ve finished it. It sounds deliciously creepy. I’m glad you mentioned those anthologies, too. I love it that the British Library and some other groups are giving new life to some of those vintage stories. Some of them are terrific. Even those that aren’t offer some fascinating looks at the times, and the sorts of writing that went on.

  3. As you say, a location can play a key roll in any good murder mystery, Margot. They can even go as far as to add atmosphere, as in on a moor, or up a mountain, or in Antarctica. But yes, I guess the library still has it’s place in a nod to the GA of crime fiction. I even had a death in an airlock (sealed) up on a Moon base. There are some fun places you can choose.

    • Oh, now that is an interesting place, Alex – an airlock! That’s inventive. You’re right, too, about the importance of where the body’s found in a good mystery. It really can add to the atmosphere and suspense, in my opinion. And there are plenty of places to choose from, aren’t there?

  4. And don’t forget Harriet Vane finding a body on the beach in Dorothy L Sayers’ Have His Carcase – the tide is coming in, and she knows will wash away all the evidence, and the body is marooned on a big looming rock formation. The story takes a sunny day and a lovely empty beach and turns it into something very sinister… a clever move by Sayers.

    • Oh, I think that was very clever, too, Moira. And it is a very well-drawn scene, isn’t it? I’m so glad you brought this one up, as it’s a fine example of what I had in mind with this post, and I left it out. Thanks for filling in the gap.

  5. An interesting post, Margot. The location can become a character. 🙂 — Suzanne

  6. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on atmospheric settings for crime fiction

  7. Office buildings at night after everyone has left strike me as creepy places suitable for murder – or underground garages. I’m sure I’ve seen plenty of instances of these two locations on TV but perhaps less so in books.

    • That is a creepy setting for a murder or for finding a body, Marina Sofia. Those places are dark, abandoned, and often don’t have a lot of personal warmth as it is. You make an interesting point about TV, too. I sometimes think it’s easier to portray that sort of creepiness visually than with words.

  8. Col

    I’ve just read something by Cornell Woolrich where a body was interred behind a newly built wall in a house. Quite intriguing how the crime was uncovered. An architect with a keen eye for detail eventually figured something was off about the lay out of the room.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Col. And it sounds like a clever way to discover that there’s been a crime, too. Not sure I’d want to live in a house where there was a body behind one of the walls…

  9. Alleys stand out as a place for bad things to happen in a lot of TV crime shows. And in Cutter and Bone, a body is dumped in an alley and a lot of the plot is related to that event.

    • Oh, that’s a good example, Tracy, of what I had in mind here. Thanks. And you’re right about alleys; they are really effective places for general creepiness. And bodies.

  10. kathy d.

    Park ranger Anna Pigeon in Nevada Barr’s series finds bodies all over various locations in different states — in caves, bodies of water, forests, secluded houses, etc. It makes the books interesting.
    What about Tana French’s book In the Woods based on a backstory of several boys going into the woods and one is missing when the others come out. This was never solved.
    It’s a great topic, but I think the big city is safer than rural areas, forests, waterways, etc.

    • You’re right, Kathy, about Anna Pigeon, and I’m glad you’ve brought her up. She does find bodies in lots of different places, doesn’t she? And it does add to the suspense in the novels. It’s credible, too, since she’s so often out in nature. Tana French’s In The Woods also, as you say, features a body found in a very atmospheric place. Thanks for adding that in, too.

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