I was reading an excellent review by Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, when I was struck by a comment she made about the setting of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. As you’ll see if you read her review (which you should!), the post itself wasn’t about that novel. It wasn’t even, really, about setting. But in the course of it, Bernadette mentioned that,
‘Insular settings can provide a powerful sense of place in their own right (I’m still having nightmares about the house in Dame Christie’s And Then There Were None) …’
She’s right. Settings such as that house can add a great deal to the tension in a story. In this particular novel, knowing that the people on the island can’t escape makes the story that much eerier. So I can see how that house would stay with a reader.
There are plenty of other crime-fictional novels, too, where we see the impact of the insular setting. Here are just a few that have stayed with me. I know you’ll have your own selection.
In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, Inspector Cockrill travels to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WWII) military use. Local postman Joseph Higgins has died, apparently a tragic, but accidental, death on the operating table. But Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered. Cockrill starts asking questions, particularly of the seven people most closely associated with Higgins during his hospital stay. He soon learns that this case isn’t at all as it seemed on the surface. As he starts to home in on the killer, he insists that all of his suspects stay together as much as possible. That, plus the fact that two people end up dead in the same operating theatre, makes the hospital a really insular setting that gets creepier and creepier as the story goes on – at least for me. There’s something about that sort of setting, isn’t there, fans of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder?
In John Alexander Graham’s Something in the Air, Columbia University Professor of Law Jake Landau is on a flight from Boston to New York when a bomb goes off (this novel was written before today’s careful screening of passengers). Landau’s friend and attorney Martin Ross is killed in the tragedy, and of course, Landau wants answers. But the airline people aren’t very forthcoming. And, since he’s not a police officer, neither is anyone else, including the police who are investigating the incident. So Landau starts asking questions on his own. His questions get too close for comfort for the powerful international drugs ring that’s connected to this bombing, so they target Landau. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that there’s a really memorable scene at New York’s Grand Central Station that’s stayed in my mind. As it is, the station has a long history (it was built about 1871). It’s large, with lots of different passageways and so on. It can feel very creepy, and Graham takes advantage of that.
P.D. James’ Death of an Expert Witness has as its focus Hoggatt’s Laboratory in East Anglia. It’s a private forensic laboratory that performs different sorts of tests in cases of unnatural death. As such, it’s used by both sides when a murder case is tried in court. One night, Dr. Edwin Lorrimer, one of the senior staff at the laboratory, is working late on a recently-opened case when he is bludgeoned. Commander Adam Dalgliesh is assigned to the investigation. One thing he and DI John Massingham quickly learn is that Lorrimer had very strict security procedures, especially after normal working hours. So it’s unlikely that anyone ‘on the outside’ could be the killer. That leaves Lorrimer’s colleagues and subordinates, and that’s a wide field. Lorrimer was much disliked, and for good reason. As Dalgliesh and Massingham look into the matter, the lab itself comes under plenty of scrutiny (how many entrances, where are the windows, etc.). It takes on a sort of eerie personality of its own, especially at night.
There’s also Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island. In that novel, U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels travels to Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane, which is located on Shutter Island, in Massachusetts’ Outer Harbor. With him is his assistant, Chuck Aule. They’re there because one of the patients, Rachel Solando, has escaped, and is loose somewhere on the island. She’s a dangerous person, and that alone is reason enough to want to find her. But as Daniels and Aule soon discover, there’s much more at stake here than just one escaped prisoner, and all sorts of things are going on in the ward from whence she escaped. Then a storm comes up, which makes the investigation even more difficult. Throughout the story (and the film, if you saw it), the hospital compound is depicted in a very eerie way. It’s a former wartime hospital, converted for postwar use. It’s old and, since it’s on an island, it’s isolated. And there’s the fact that it’s psychiatric facility for the most dangerous of criminals. It’s the sort of place that stays with many readers. And so does the island.
Of course, I couldn’t do a post on eerie, insular places without mentioning the Bates Motel, vividly depicted in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho. The medium Hitchcock used to tell the story is especially effective at evoking that isolated, creepy place. It’s definitely not a welcoming stop for the night. I know, I know, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn…
Bernadette’s right about some places in crime novels. They really can be insular, eerie, and frightening. And that can make them stay with the reader long after the novel’s finished.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Eagles’ Hotel California.