If you think about it, most people have three major ‘places’ where they spend most of their time. That usually means three major social networks. One of them is, of course, home and family. Another is work.
It’s that third place that’s really interesting. It might be a pub or bar, or a sport club, or a religious group, or a group of people with a shared hobby or interest. Whatever it is, that ‘third place’ can help people unwind, and can put them in touch with others in a unique way. And, for the crime writer, the ‘third place’ offers all sorts of possibilities for plot threads, characters, tension, backstory, and more. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that we see a lot of ‘third places’ in the genre.
One of the classic ‘third places’ that people have is their local. Bars and pubs are often gathering places for ‘regulars.’ That makes sense, too. For plenty of people, there’s nothing like a drink and a chance to catch up with friends who go there, too. And, of course, they can be really effective places for character interactions, plot points, and more.
There are dozens of series with a bar or pub as the ‘third place.’ One of them is Peter Temple’s Jack Irish series. Irish is a sometimes-lawyer, who is also good at finding people. So, he does his share of PI work, too. Besides his work, Irish also has a ‘third place’ – the Prince of Prussia pub. His father’s ‘football friends’ all gather there, and they all know Irish. They may not help him solve mysteries, but that ‘third place’ is very important to Irish.
The focus of Ray Berard’s Inside the Black Horse is a pub on New Zealand’s North Island called the Black Horse Bar and Casino. It’s owned by Toni Bourke, a recently-widowed Māori who’s doing the best she can to support her children. She isn’t getting rich from the pub, but she makes ends meet, usually. It’s not an upmarket or famous place, but the local people gather there. Toni knows most of them, and they know her. Everything changes when a young man named Pio Morgan targets the Black Horse. He’s in debt to a ruthless local pot grower, and the only way he can think of to get money quickly is to rob the pub. Unfortunately, he picks a time when a drugs dealer, Rangi Wells, happens to be there, so that deal is interrupted, and there will be consequences for that. The robbery goes horribly wrong, and there’s a murder. Pio gets thousands, though, and flees, leaving Toni with a large debt she now owes to the betting authorities. Toni’s insurance company isn’t about to pay up without an investigation, so they send PI Brian Duncan to look into the matter. Little by little Brian and Toni get to the truth about the theft and murder, but they have to go up against two nasty gangs and an insurance company that suspects Toni of being a thief.
Another traditional ‘third place’ is the club. Club memberships are a major part of several cultures, and have been for a long time. Just ask Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. His brother, Mycroft, is a member of the Diogenes Club, and rarely goes anywhere but there or his home. Everyone there knows him and vice versa. What’s interesting, too, is that he can put together clues and make solid deductions on cases without ever leaving his club.
In Dorothy L. Sayers, The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, Lord Peter Wimsey investigates two murders, one of which takes place in his own club. Old General Fentimen dies while sitting in his usual chair at the club. His sister, wealthy Lady Dormer, also dies. The question of which died first becomes extremely important, because of the terms of Lady Dormer’s will. Under those terms, if Lady Dormer dies first, her considerable fortune passes to Fentimen’s grandson. If Fentimen dies first, the money goes to Lady Dormer’s distant cousin, Ann Dorland. Matters get complicated when it’s discovered that Fentimen was poisoned. Now, Lord Peter and his friend, Inspector Parker, have to discover not just which person died first, but also, who killed Fentimen. Among other things, it’s an interesting look at the club setting.
Agatha Christie used that setting in several of her novels and stories, too. For instance, in Taken at the Flood, Hercule Poirot first hears about the small town of Warmsley Vale, and the Cloade family that lives there, from a fellow club member named Major Porter. The story comes back to haunt, as it were, when a murder takes place in Warmsley Vale, and the Cloade family is involved in it.
For many people, their local church or other house of worship is that ‘third place.’ It’s not just a matter of religion. It’s also about social interaction. We see that, for instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies. In that novel, retired teacher Myrtle Clover is ‘volunteered’ by her son to volunteer at her church. She’s not happy about that, but she goes to the church. Then, she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in the church. Myrtle’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet, and she decides to prove that by finding out who the murderer is.
A Toronto-area mosque serves as a ‘third place’ for the transplanted Bosnian Muslim community in Ausma Zehanat Khan’s The Unquiet Dead. In that novel, Inspector Esa Khattak and Sergeant Rachel Getty of the Community Policing Section (CPS) of the Canadian federal government investigate the death of Christopher Drayton. It comes out that he may have been Dražen Krstić, a notorious war criminal known as the butcher of Srebrenica. So Khattak and Getty have to consider those who might have known him in that capacity. They make contacts within the mosque, and get to know some of its members. But at the same time, they don’t overlook the victim’s family members. There are other possibilities, too, and this case becomes more complicated than either thought it would be.
Some ‘third places’ are sport or hobby groups. Just ask the surfers we meet in Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol. This group of San Diego surfers meets just about every morning for a pre-work surf session. And it’s much more than just fun for them. They are passionate and very knowledgeable about the water, about surfing, and about weather conditions, too. They have their differences, but surfing is part of the glue that holds them together. For former cop-turned-PI Boone Daniels, the Dawn Patrol is very much his ‘third place.’ In fact, he’d probably say that it’s more important than his work. That’s the impression we get when he’s hired to find a missing stripper named Tamera Roddick. Then, her best friend, who goes by the name of Angel Heart, is murdered. Daniels and his friends get drawn into the case, and Daniels is forced to face his own past.
Almost all of us have a ‘third place.’ Certainly, fictional characters do. What’s yours?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo’s Where Everybody Knows Your Name.