Bars and pubs come in all shapes and sizes. There are very posh bars in resort hotels; and seedy places where only the locals go, and then only when they don’t have enough money to go anywhere else. There are very dangerous drinking places and places that are quite safe. And of course there’s an endless variety of bar/pub themes, too.
When it comes to crime fiction, bars and pubs make for near-ideal backdrops. One reason is that they are so varied. Wherever the author sets a novel, in whatever context, there’s probably some kind of licensed establishment. And all sorts of scenes can take place at a drinking place. Business deals, romantic trysts, meetings between old friends…well, you get the idea. There’s nothing like a bar or pub for interactions among characters. That’s probably why there are so many scenes in crime fiction that take place in bars and pubs. I couldn’t possibly name them all, so I’ll content myself with just a few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy heiress Ruth Van Aldin Kettering is murdered during a trip on the famous Blue Train. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and gets involved in the investigation. One of the more likely suspects is the man the victim was going to meet, Armand de la Roche, who calls himself a Count. Another suspect is the victim’s estranged husband, Derek Kettering. At one point, the Comte de la Roche hears of evidence against Kettering and thinks he can make a profit by charging for his silence. He waits in the salon/lounge of the hotel where Kettering is staying. When he tries blackmail, Kettering lets him know in no uncertain terms what he thinks of him. It’s a taut scene that also shows some interesting character traits of both men.
Perth Superintendent Frank Swann uses pubs for quite a different purpose in David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight. He’s investigating the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine, who owned a brothel. He faces several challenges in this investigation, not the least of which is a group of corrupt police officers, called ‘the purple circle.’ They’ve marked Swann because he called for a Royal Commission hearing into their activities. And now, he’s convinced that somehow, one or more of them is behind the murder. Few people will talk openly to Swann because most fear ‘the purple circle. But he finds ways to meet up with people who have information. In one scene for instance, he goes to the Grosvenor Hotel, which,
‘…looked like a shaky drunk under escort.’
Despite its less-than-inspiring exterior, it’s an upmarket place that professionals use to discuss business they don’t want to deal with in the office. That’s where Swann goes to look for a lawyer named Cooper, who handled Ruby Devine’s business. The meeting is tense, because in this case, they’re on opposite sides, so to speak. He is, in fact, a suspect in the murder. But as Cooper says, they were both Ruby’s friends. And he figures into the story in a few places.
There’s another case of a bar being used for a business deal in Timothy Hallinan’s A Nail Through the Heart. Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American travel writer who now lives in Bangkok. He’s got a reputation for being good at finding people who don’t want to be found, and he speaks both Thai and English. So when Clarissa Ulrich visits Bangkok to find someone who can look for her missing uncle, Rafferty is a natural choice. She leaves word at the Expat Bar, one of Rafferty’s regular stops, and he gets the message that she wants to talk to him. When they meet at the Expat, she tells him that she hasn’t heard from her uncle in a few months and is worried about him. Rafferty agrees to look into the matter, and is soon drawn into a case that goes far deeper than a man who simply wanted to take off for a bit.
Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney also finds bars to be good places to follow up on leads and find people. In The Half Child, for instance, Jim Delbeck hires her to find out what happened to his daughter Maryanne. The police report stated that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck doesn’t believe it was suicide. Keeney looks into the case, which at one point leads her to a place called the B-52 Bar. Her skill at playing pool turns out to be very useful as she goes after the information she wants. And so, in another bar scene, are her skill at speaking Thai and her understanding of the Thai culture.
Of course, bars and pubs are also effective settings for romantic meetings. But not all of them work out well. In Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal, for instance, Eva Wirenström-Berg is devastated when she learns that her husband Henrik has been unfaithful. One night she goes out just to get away for a bit, and ends up at a pub. That’s where she meets Jonas Hansson, a man who has his own serious issues. Their meeting ends up having disastrous consequences, and as the story goes on, things spiral out of control for both of them.
Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House introduces us to Petra Westman, junior member of an investigating team that’s looking into a strange group of murders. One night, she and a colleague Jamal Hamad go out for a friendly drink. While they’re at the bar, she meets Peter Fryhk. A conversation leads to several drinks and to flirting. The next morning, she wakes up in a house she doesn’t know. Very soon she concludes that she’s been ‘date raped.’ She manages to get home, and one of the plot threads in this story is her search for the proof she needs to have her attacker brought to justice.
And of course, I don’t think I could do a post on bar and pub scenes in crime fiction without mentioning The Red Pony. That’s a bar/restaurant/poolroom owned by Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear. It’s one of Durant, Wyoming’s few gathering places, and it’s a regular haunt of Johnson’s sleuth Sheriff Walt Longmire. It may not be upmarket, but it’s comfortable and ‘down home,’ and lots of scenes, both funny and tense, take place there.
There are of course lots of other bar and pub scenes in crime fiction (I know, I know, fans of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus). And it’s not at all surprising. They’re perfect for all kinds of meetings that can end in all kinds of ways. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. Oh, come on, was there ever any doubt? ;-)