In a few of her excellent posts, Moira, at Clothes in Books, has mentioned something very interesting that happens in some classic and Golden Age novels: wandering around at night. And she has a well-taken point. In several novel, you find characters getting up and ‘going for a glass of water,’ or ‘getting a book I’d forgotten,’ or ‘going outside for a breath of air.’
With so many characters up and around at night, it’s easy to see how they can all become suspects when there’s a murder. Moira’s comments about this have gotten me thinking about the ‘wandering round at night’ phenomenon. It does happen in the genre. Here are a few examples; I know you’ll think of more.
In Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase, we meet Rachel Innes. She’s a practical, no-nonsense type of person who’s decided to take a summer holiday at a large country house she has rented, called Sunnyside. With her will be her grown nephew, Halsey, and his sister, Gertrude, whom she’s raised since their father died when they were little children. Also in the group is the family maid Liddy Allen. It’s not long before some strange things begin to happen. There are weird noises, and the shadow of someone who may be lurking near the house. Other strange things happen, too. Then, one night, a shot is heard. Everyone rushes to the card room to find the body of Arnold Anderson, son of the owner of Sunnyside. The police are called in, and, of course, begin their investigation. That’s when we find that nearly everyone has been up doing something. In fact, both Halsey and Gertrude become suspects on that count. It turns out that the strange events at the house, and Anderson’s murder, are all connected.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Clouds of Witness involves some odd wandering round at night. In it, Lord Peter Wimsey’s brother, Gerald, Duke of Denver, takes a shooting lodge in Yorkshire. Naturally, his family members, including his sister, Mary, and her fiancé, Captain Denis Cathcart, visit the lodge. Very late one night during one such visit, Cathcart is found shot outside the conservatory. The Duke of Denver becomes a prime suspect, and Mary comes in for her share of suspicion, too. Both were up and out late at night with no really plausible explanation for what they were doing. And they aren’t the only ones, This confuses the investigation, but Lord Peter and his friend, Inspector Parker, find the right clues, and discover the truth about Cathcart’s death.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories involve people wandering around – or at least being up – at night. I’ll just give one example. In Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot takes a cruise of the Nile. On the second night, a newlywed bride, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle, is shot. The most likely suspect is her former friend, Jacqueline de Bellefort. But it’s soon shown that she could not have committed the murder. So, Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also on the cruise, have to look elsewhere for the killer. They soon find that several of the passengers were up that night, in different places on the boat. They all have different reasons for not being asleep, and part of Poirot’s task is to sift through everyone’s explanations to work out who was where at the time of the murder.
Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley introduces her sleuth, Albert Campion. But really, the main character in the novel is Dr. George Abbershaw. He’s part of a house party at the home of a young mathematician named Wyatt Petrie, who took over the property from his uncle, Gordon Coombs. Abbershaw wasn’t exactly eager to attend the weekend party, but he’s infatuated with one of the other guests, Margaret ‘Meggie’ Oliphant. For her sake, he’s decided to stay for the weekend. After dinner on that first night, everyone goes into the drawing room, where attention soon falls on a large, carved dagger that’s displayed over the fireplace. Petrie tells the group about a family legend concerning the dagger, and a sort of ritual that the family has developed about it. The ritual involves turning the lights down, and then passing the dagger around, with the aim being to avoid being the last one holding the weapon. As you can imagine, the guests all decide to play the game, and there’s a good bit of wandering around in the dark. Later that night, Abbershaw is wakened and asked to attend to Gordon Coombs, who, it seems, has died of a heart attack. Abbershaw is suspicious because there seems to be a big rush for him to sign a death certificate. And it turns out, he’s right to be suspicious. Someone has murdered Coombs. Campion is one of the other guests, and, although Abbershaw is the main character, Campion is helpful in figuring out the truth about the murder.
There’s a really interesting example of wandering around at night in Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop. Rupert Sedleigh, village squire of the village of Wandles Parva, disappears. Later, he is found dead, and parts of his body discovered in the local butcher’s shop. The case is going to be difficult for the police. For one thing, it’s not clear at first that the body is Sedleigh’s (although that is later shown to be the case). For another, he was the type of person who’d made more than his share of enemies. So, there are plenty of suspects. Mitchell’s sleuth, Mrs. Bradley, has a house not far from Sedleigh’s so she takes an interest in the case. It turns out that the last time Sedleigh was seen alive, he and his cousin had a violent argument in a local wood. But Mrs. Bradley discovers that most of the villagers were in the wood that night, for one reason or another. From their stories, she’s able to piece together the sequences of events. And that helps her work out who killed Sedleigh and why.
See what I mean? Moira was right. There’s a lot of wandering around at night in some crime novels. Perhaps it’s just better to stay in bed and forego that glass of water. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Folks, if you’re not already following Moira’s excellent blog, you’ll want to pay it a visit. A treasure trove of discussion about fashion and culture in books, and what it all says about us, awaits you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s River of Dreams.