In Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock, Hercule Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who killed one of the residents of a hostel. As a part of the investigation, Sharpe interviews the various residents. This is what one of them has to say:
‘‘There’s a lot of spite about here, Inspector.’
The Inspector looked at him sharply.
‘Now what exactly do you mean by a lot of spite about?’
But Nigel immediately drew back into his shell and became noncommittal.
‘I didn’t mean anything really – just that when a lot of people are cooped up together, they get rather petty.”
And there’s something to that. In this case, the hostel’s residents aren’t trapped. But there is a certain lack of privacy. That, plus the fact that they’re disparate people, adds tension to the story, and creates an interesting atmosphere.
Of course, Christie isn’t the only crime writer to make use of that strategy to build suspense. Put a group of people together, even if they are free to leave, and you’re bound to have differences. Reduce their privacy, and there’s an even bigger likelihood of petty and not-so-petty differences that can have all sorts of consequences.
We see that sort of atmosphere in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael series. Those novels take place in 12th Century England, at Shrewsbury Abbey. The monks and others who live there are not prisoners; they are free to leave (although it is complicated). But they are in a situation where they have little personal privacy. They are also at close quarters with very different sorts of people. Monks come from a variety of backgrounds, and have, of course, many different sorts of personalities. Through it all moves Cadfael, who became a monk after a career as a soldier. He’s spent plenty of time in the larger world, and it’s impacted his perceptions. That means he doesn’t always agree with his more sheltered fellow monks. But they are all Benedictine monks, and all expected to work together. There’s an interesting layer of tension in some of the novels as these differences, even pettiness, come up.
Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes takes place mostly at Leys Physical Training College, a physical education college for women. The college principal, Henrietta Hodge, has invited Miss Lucy Pym to give a lecture on psychology to the students. Miss Pym has recently written a major bestseller on the topic, and she is much in demand. She agrees to give the lecture, but it’s not long before she wonders about her decision. The early-morning wakeups, the unpalatable (to her) food, and so on are all unpleasant. Still, she goes through with her agreement. Then, she gets drawn into a case of murder when one of the students is killed in what looks like a terrible accident – or was it? One of the sources of tension in the story is disparate set of personalities, all cooped up together. The students and faculty are not trapped at the school, but the lack of privacy, and the different sorts of personalities, make for some very tense moments.
Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel is the story of the small town of Zwinderen. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone. People are in the habit of leaving their curtains open, and it’s thought odd at best, and suspicious at worst, to claim any sort of real privacy. A series of vicious anonymous letters wreaks havoc in the town, causing two suicides and a mental breakdown. The local police haven’t gotten very far in finding out who is responsible for the letters, so Amsterdam detective Piet Van der Valk is seconded to Zwinderen. Part of the tension in this novel comes from the friction among some of the residents, and from the fact that people don’t really have very much private space.
Alison Gordon’s The Dead Pull Hitter features the Toronto Titans professional baseball team. None of the players is trapped on the team (at least, not in the physical sense), but they are expected to work together. Games aren’t won unless everyone works as a team. But they are different people, with different backgrounds and perceptions. And that can lead to some tension, especially when the team is on an ‘away trip’ where they have even less privacy than usual. Sports writer Kate Henry has a special interest in baseball. She travels with the team, she knows the team members well, and she has a solid sense of who gets along well, and who doesn’t. That ‘inside knowledge’ becomes useful when two of the team members are murdered. Staff Sergeant Lloyd ‘Andy’ Munro investigates the killings, and he finds Henry’s perspective to be helpful. For her part, she’s getting an exclusive set of stories. Each in a different way, the two find out what happened to the players, and who’s behind it all.
It’s not easy to be cooped up, as the saying goes, with little privacy. That’s especially true when there’s a disparate group of people. Tensions rise, and even if the people involved are not trapped, there can be all sorts of consequences, from petty spats to much, much worse. These are only a few examples. I know you’ll think of more.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Room of Our Own.