Buildings often have a lot of history to them, especially if they are older buildings. And it’s interesting to see how they change over time, and how our perceptions of them change as we get older. If you’ve ever returned to a home you knew as a child, you know the feeling, I’m sure.
A building with history can add much to a story, including, of course, a crime story. It can add atmosphere, tension, character development, and a lot more. There are a lot of them in the genre; here are just a few. I know you’ll think of more.
Interestingly enough, Agatha Christie uses such buildings in a few of her stories. One is Styles Court, in Styles St. Mary. This old family home makes its debut in The Mysterious Affair at Styles (incidentally, Hercule Poirot makes his first appearance in the same novel). In the story, Captain Hastings visits an old friend, John Cavendish, who now lives at Styles Court with his wife, Mary, his brother, Lawrence, and his stepmother, Emily Inglethorp. Also living there is Mrs. Inglethorp’s husband, Alfred, her protégée, Cynthia Murdoch, and her good friend, Evelyn ‘Evie’ Howard. When Mrs. Inglethorp is murdered, all of the other residents are suspects. Poirot feels a debt to the victim, since she sponsored him as a refugee. So, he investigates her murder. Years later, Styles Court features again in Curtain, the last Hercule Poirot novel. It’s now a Guest House, and an aged and ailing Hercule Poirot is staying there. He wants Captain Hastings to be his ‘eyes and ears,’ and help him catch a killer known only as X. According to Poirot, X has killed before, and he wants the murderer stopped. Then, there’s a murder at the Guest House, and it looks very much as though X has struck again. It’s a complicated puzzle, and it’s interesting to see the changes to Styles Court between these two novels.
Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House introduces his sleuths, Arthur Bryant and John May, both of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). As the novel begins, Bryant’s writing his memoirs, including the story of the first PCU case. Then, a bomb blast goes off at the PCU offices, taking Bryant with it. A grieving May wants to find out who is responsible, and decides to go back through that old first case to try to get some answers. He returns to the scene, London’s Palace Theatre. In that 1940 investigation, Bryant and May looked into some bizarre deaths and a disappearance, all connected with the theatre’s upcoming production of Orpheus. As the modern-day May re-examines the case, we learn that an important part of it was never solved. So, May picks up that piece and searches again for the truth. At the same time, we go back to 1940, and follow along as Bryant and May investigate. Both timelines feature the Palace Theatre. In 1940, it’s a vibrant place with plenty of innovation, new shows, and so on. The building still stands in the modern-day timeline, but of course, it’s much older. It may not have changed dramatically, since it’s not a private residence or a more typical business. But it’s got more ‘ghosts,’ including the people involved in the 1940 case. As May goes back to the past, as you might say, we see how much the Palace has and hasn’t changed.
Peter May’s Lewis trilogy features Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. As the first novel begins, he’s an Edinburgh police detective who’s investigating a bizarre murder. When another, very similar, murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis, MacLeod is seconded there. The idea is that if these two crimes were committed by the same person, it makes sense to join forces. If not, nothing’s been lost. For MacLeod, this is a homecoming, since he grew up on the island. But it’s not a joyful reunion with friends and family. MacLeod has his own past history, and some very good reasons for having left in the first place. As the trilogy goes on, we see several places on the island both as they were years earlier, and as they are now. And, we see how MacLeod’s perspective has changed, now that he’s an adult. It’s an interesting and distinctive use of the setting.
A great deal of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels takes place in a small Welsh village. In one timeline, it’s 1962, and we follow the fortunes of four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards. They don’t have much in common, but there aren’t many children in the village, so they spend their share of time together. And that fateful summer, they unearth several dark secrets that some people have been keeping. The other timeline is contemporary. In it, retired police detective Will Sloane returns to the village after several years in Spain. There’s one case he hasn’t solved yet – a missing child – and he wants some resolution before he dies. As Sloane returns to the village and interacts with people, we see how much (and how little) everything has changed. There are some new shops and businesses (and residents), and some old buildings that have fallen into disuse. There are other changes, too. At the same time, the rhythm of the village is much the same. It’s an interesting look at the pace of village life.
And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford series. These novels are set in the small Devon village of Little Dipperton. The main estate there is Honeychurch Hall, which has been owned by the same family for many, many generations. Today, it’s lived in by Lady Edith Honeychurch, her son, Rupert, his wife, Lavinia, and their son, Harry. The roots of the house and the village are very deep, and they include Stanford’s mother, Iris. In fact, in Murder at Honeychurch Hall, the first in this series, Iris has abruptly left London and taken a small house on the Honeychurch property. Her daughter goes to Little Dipperton to see what’s behind her mother’s sudden decision, and ends up staying. As the series goes on, we see the hall and the village as they are now. But we also see them as they once were, especially during the 1950s, when Iris was there as a teenager and young woman. It’s especially interesting to see how things have (but haven’t, really) changed.
And that’s the thing about those old buildings. They have a lot of history. On the one hand, they change, as everything does. On the other, in many ways, they may not. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Glenn Frey’s You Belong to the City.