If you’ve ever moved house (and most of us have), you know what a complicated, exhausting and sometimes thoroughly frustrating process it is. But there are plenty of people who make their living in that industry. Yes, I’m talking about house agents. The real estate business is a fixture in most places, and those who represent buyers and sellers can (when times are good and the property is of value) make a lot of money.
Real estate/house agents also play roles in crime fiction. After all, fictional characters buy and sell homes too. And sometimes those homes have secrets, and so do the people who move into them.
There are several house agents in Agatha Christie’s stories. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Littlegreen House in the village of Market Basing at the request of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s worried that someone in her family may be trying to kill her, and wants Poirot to find out who it is. But by the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. No-one in Miss Arundell’s family or household knows of her concern, so Poirot needs a pretext for visiting the house. He goes to the office of Messrs. Gabler and Stretcher, who have Littlegreen House on their books. Here’s what Mr. Gabler says about the property:
‘Ah! Littlegreen House – there’s a property! An absolute bargain. Only just come into the market. I can tell you, gentlemen, we don’t often get a house of that class going at the price…Yes, we shan’t have Littlegreen long in our books.’
Anyone who’s ever had dealings with real estate people will find this kind of patter familiar. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit.
In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science-fiction writer Zack Walker is increasingly concerned about the safety of his family. They live in the city, and Walker thinks they would be much safer in suburbia. So after being enticed by some attractive newspaper ads, Walker convinces his wife Sarah to at least look at Valley Forest Estates, a new housing development. When they get to the sales office, they’re even more drawn in by the sales representative, who gets them excited about the extra space, the ground-floor laundry room and more. It’s not long before the Walker family is settled into their new home. And that’s when the trouble begins. First, Walker happens to witness an argument between one of Valley Forest’s executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. He ends up getting far more involved in this case than he ever intended; he also learns that life in suburbia is no safer than life in the city…
Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder introduces readers to Verity Long, who serves as research assistant to famous novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport. The arrangement has been working out so well that Long has decided to move to a nicer home than the one she currently has. So, she works with a house agent to find the right place. One afternoon, she and the agent visit a likely possibility. Long is exploring the house when she discovers the body of famous TV presenter Jaynee ‘Jay-Jay’ Johnson. Since Long found the body, DI Jerry Farish considers her (at least at first) to be a ‘person of interest.’ Soon enough, she’s able to convince him that she had nothing to do with the murder. But she remains interested in the case, since she’s involved. What’s more, it may be quite useful as the basis for one of her boss’ plots at some point. So Long does some of her own investigation.
Sometimes fictional real estate professionals find themselves on the wrong end of a murder weapon. For instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, we meet Parke Stockard. She’s a beautiful and very successful real estate developer who’s recently moved to the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Soon enough, the residents discover that she is malicious and exploitative, and it’s not long before she manages to alienate just about everyone in town. So there are several suspects to consider when she is found murdered one afternoon. Retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover discovers the body and decides to investigate the death, mostly to show her son (and anyone else who might wonder!) that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet.
And then there’s Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. In that novel, Stockholm house agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife Pia that he’s going out to look at a house for a client, and will be back soon. When he doesn’t return, Pia gets anxious and finally calls in the police. Vannerberg’s body is found in the home of Ingrid Olssen, who’s been in a local hospital recovering from surgery. DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team face several puzzling questions in this case. First, why was Vannerberg at Olssen’s home, when she wasn’t selling her house and in fact, claimed not to know him? And who would have wanted to kill a man who had a loving marriage, a successful business (with no hint of financial wrongdoing) and no criminal associations? In the end, the detective team finds that this murder is connected to other crimes and is linked to the past.
The real estate profession gets quite a different treatment in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. William Heming is not the kind of man you really notice very much. He’s the local real estate agent who’s sold
‘…properties on every street in town.’
Most people don’t think much about Heming, and they certainly don’t know that he’s kept keys to all of the homes he’s sold. Heming takes a personal interest in all of the villagers and their doings, and keeps his eye on them. Then, the town is shaken by the discovery of a dead body in a backyard. Heming is just as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, then everyone will know that selling houses isn’t the only interest he has…
It can be exciting to contemplate a new home, with all of the latest conveniences, in just the right place. But if you do consider a move, just be careful with whom you deal…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man.