Going to the cinema has been a deeply ingrained part of many cultures for a very long time. I’ll bet you have memories of going to the cinema as a child. Or of going there on a date – and not actually watching much of the film. Perhaps you still go. There’s no doubt that the advent of the internet, streaming films, and other technology has changed people’s cinema habits dramatically. But the cinema’s still a part of our lives.
It’s little wonder, then, that it’s also woven into crime fiction. For instance, there are dozens of crime novels where a suspect claims to have been at the cinema. And, there are sometimes important scenes – even murders – that take place there.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp and local police detectives to solve a series of murders that seem to be connected. Each killing is preceded by a cryptic warning to Poirot. And an ABC railway guide is found next to each body. Still, there’s not much else linking the killings, and even Poirot isn’t making a lot of headway. Then, Poirot gets a warning that there will be a murder in Doncaster. The police do their best to prepare, but there’s a major horse race on the same day, so it’s going to be very hard to keep track of what happens. And, in fact, the murderer takes advantage of the situation and kills another victim. The murder takes place at the Regal Cinema, Doncaster, during a showing of Not a Sparrow. It’s a very effective setup for the killing, too. The room is dark, everyone’s watching the film, and no-one’s watching who comes in our out. Everyone’s so intent on leaving at the end of the film that nobody sees the stabbing take place. In the end, Poirot works out who the killer is, and what the motive is. And it’s interesting to see how the murderer has managed to get away with it.
In Colin Dexter’s The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis work to find out who poisoned Nicholas Quinn, the newest member of the Oxford Foreign Exams Syndicate. This group oversees exams given in other (non-UK) countries that follow the British system of education. It’s a tight-knit group, and as Quinn became involved with the members, he found out some things that it wasn’t safe for him to know. This means that all of the members are suspects, and Morse and Lewis look into their alibis, their relationships with Quinn, and the like. Interestingly enough, an afternoon spent at a pornography cinema turns out to figure importantly into people’s alibis.
There’s also a look at pornographic cinema in Leigh Redhead’s Peepshow, which introduces her sleuth, Simone Kirsch. Kirsch is a newly-licensed Melbourne PI and occasional stripper, who works at a cinema called the Shaft. One day, her best friend, Chloe Wozniak, who also works at the Shaft, asks for her help. Wozniak also works at a table dance place called the Red Room. She had a major argument with the owner, Francisco ‘Frank’ Parisi, and the next morning, he was found dead. Now she’s a prime suspect. Kirsch hasn’t investigated a murder case before, but she agrees to see what she can do. And it’s not long before she’s given extra ‘motivation.’ The victim’s brother, Sal Parisi, decides to take matters into his own hands, and abducts Wozniak. Then, he tells Kirsch that Wozniak won’t be released until the real killer is found.
Cinemas were once large, sometimes ornate buildings of their own. Then, during the ‘mall culture’ of the 1970s and 1980s, many of them moved to (or opened in) malls. They became part of the ‘mall experience’ for people. We see a bit of that in Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost. In that novel, which begins in 1984, we are introduced to ten-year-old Kate Meaney. She wants very much to be a detective. In fact, she’s already opened her own agency, Falcon Investigations. She spends a great deal of time at the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she is sure that she’ll find plenty of suspicious activity to investigate. And right across the parking lot from the mall is a cinema (that’s actually been the setup for a lot of malls). Kate’s grandmother, Ivy, thinks she’d be better off going away to school, so she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams for the exclusive Redspoon school. When Kate doesn’t come back from her exams, there’s a massive search for her, but she’s never found – not even a body. Years later, a mall security guard named Kurt begins to see some strange things on his camera: a young girl who looks a lot like Kate. One night, he meets Lisa Palmer, who works at a mall shop called Your Music. The two form an awkward sort of friendship, and, each in a different way, go back to the past, as we find out what really happened to Kate. And, although the cinema isn’t the reason for Kate’s disappearance, it’s a part of the mall culture that O’Flynn explores in the novel.
And then there’s Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence: Or, Murder on Steep Street. The novel takes place in 1950’s Prague, where the state controls everything, and no-one can really trust anyone. After all, anyone might by a spy, or report an activity to the police. So, people generally keep their secrets to themselves. Against this backdrop, we meet a group of people who work at the Horizon Cinema. The political and social systems are set up so that these people, who are supposed to support each other, actually end up being forced to mistrust each other and even betray each other. When eight-year-old Josef Vrba is murdered in the cinema’s projection booth, it seems clear that the killer is the projectionist. But then, the investigating officer is killed. The ensuing investigation brings to light a great deal of what these employees have been hiding.
See what I mean? Cinemas have played all sorts of roles in our culture and in crime fiction. They’re even, sometimes, murder scenes. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin.