Secret rooms and passages have been standbys in crime fiction for a very long time. They’re extremely useful and convenient for the author, and there really are plenty old places that have them. And let’s face it; they can be fun.
Of course, as with just about anything else in crime fiction, secret rooms and passages are tricky. Too much dependence on them and you lose credibility. In fact, one of the traditional rules for writing crime novels is that there can be no more than one such place in any given story. That’s a fairly wise idea. But there are places and situations where they can be extremely useful.
Anna Katherine Green’s short story Missing: Page 13 features her sleuth, New York debutante Violet Strange. In this story, she is hired to solve the mystery of what happened to a crucial page of an academic paper. A group of people had met for dinner; one of them was a certain Mr. Spielhage, who had just completed a paper which included a formula that might shed a whole new light on a certain industry. He was challenged about his ideas and determined to go over his paper word by word and find out where he might be wrong. The paper had been locked away, and Mr. Spielhage himself was sitting in the private room where the paper was, so that no-one could get at it. But when Mr. Spielhage read his paper, he found that the most important page – Page 13 – was not there. It’s one of those ‘impossible but not really’ cases, and when Violet makes an interesting discovery about the house, she determines what happened to the page.
Agatha Christie used hidden rooms and passages in more than one of her stories. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Hercule Poirot is present at a cocktail party when the Reverend Stephen Babbington suddenly dies of what turns out to be pure nicotine poisoning. There seems no motive for the murder; Babbington was well-liked and certainly not wealthy. The investigation is underway in that case when there’s another death. This time, the victim is well-known mental health specialist Dr. Bartholomew ‘Tollie’ Strange. He, too, dies of nicotine poisoning. The two cases seem to be closely connected, especially since some of the same people were present at both occasions. But it’s hard to see exactly how; it’s even harder to see what the motive in the first death is. After a third murder, Poirot is able to work out who the killer is and what the motive is. It’s not the cause of the murders, but I can say without spoiling the story that a secret passage plays a role in this story. I hear you, fans of The Seven Dials Mystery…
In one plot thread of Johan Theorin’s The Darkest Room, we meet Joakim and Katrine Westin, who sell their home in Stockholm and take a home at Eel Point, on the island of Öland. They tell themselves, each other, and everyone else that they plan to renovate their new home and get away from the noise and haste of the city. Soon, though, tragedy strikes the family. Police officer Tilda Davidsson investigates, and learns that the Westins’ home has a dark and tragic history. That history has a lot to do with the present-day tragedy, and a particular room in a particular building plays an important role in getting to the truth.
Steve Robinson’s In the Blood introduces readers to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In this novel, he has accepted a commission from wealthy Boston businessman Walter Sloane to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift. Tayte has discovered that one branch of the family moved south and then died out. The other, led by James Fairborne, went to England in 1783 with a group of Loyalists. So Sloane sends Tayte to Cornwall to follow up on that branch. When Tayte arrives, he discovers that the modern-day Fairborne family is not particularly disposed to help him. Still, he presses on with his quest. Meanwhile, we meet Amy Fallon, who lives in Cornwall. She is learning to face life again after the death two years earlier of her husband Gabriel. Before his death, Gabriel told her he’d made a discovery in their house, but never told her what it was. Now, some home renovations have revealed a hidden staircase leading to a secret room. In that room is a very old writing box. It turns out that this box is related to Tayte’s investigation, and it’s interesting to see how secret rooms figure into this story.
And then there’s William Ryan’s The Twelfth Department, the third in his series featuring Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. In this novel, he and Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are asked to investigate the murder of noted scientist Boris Azarov. It’s a very delicate case, because Azarov was working on a high-level, classified project. Nevertheless, Korolev and Slivka get to work on their investigation. They find a suspect, and at first, it seems the case is solved. But then that suspect is killed. Now the team has to start again. This time, the trail leads them to a much bigger case than they could have imagined. And there are all sorts of secret rooms and places that figure into the story.
And that’s the thing about secret rooms and hidden passages. They add to suspense and they can help a story along. They actually exist, too. Where would crime fiction be without them? I know I’ve only mentioned a few cases: which have you liked best?
*NOTE: the title of this post is a line from Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown.