There are certain communities of people who tend to live what people have sometimes called a bohemian lifestyle. They don’t keep conventional hours, or dress conventionally. And they don’t look at the world in a conventional way. We often think of artists, writers, musicians and actors as being in this category, and some are.
Those communities can be really effective as settings for crime novels. The bohemian lifestyle is intriguing, and can even be appealing. And there are all sorts of possibilities for character developments and for plots.
Several of Agatha Christie’s stories include bohemian characters and settings. As just one example, in Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who claims she may have committed a murder. Before she can give any details, though, she tells him she’s made a mistake, and that he’s too old. She leaves without giving her name, so at first, Poirot can’t follow up. But his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, happens to know who the woman is. She is Norma Restarick, daughter of successful businessman Andrew Restarick. Mrs. Oliver tries to trace Norma’s whereabouts, beginning with her London flat. One of Norma’s flatmates is Frances Cary, who works in an art gallery, and sometimes models. She lives a very bohemian lifestyle. It also turns out that Norma’s been seeing a man named David Baker – a man Mrs. Oliver calls the Peacock because of the way he dresses. Baker, too, is a bohemian. Oddly enough, Norma really isn’t, although she’s mixed up with that community. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver try to find out whether Norma really might have committed a murder. But first they’re going to have to find her. They do, but not before there’s a murder…
When we first meet Dorothy L. Sayers’ Harriet Vane, she is in the dock, on trial for the murder of Philip Boyes. And the situation doesn’t look very good for her. For one thing, there is evidence against her. For another, she lives somewhat of a bohemian lifestyle, even daring to live with Boyes without being married to him. At the time this was written, that was enough to make a woman notorious. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and falls in love with Vane. In fact, when the jury cannot reach a verdict, he determines to clear her name, so that he can marry her. As it turns out, this case isn’t what it seems on the surface.
Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly is the first of his Gervase Fen novels. It takes place mostly at Oxford, and its focus is a group of people who are all connected in some way to playwright Robert Wright’s new work, Metromania. They’re all ‘theatre people:’ actors, musicians, writers, and some admirers. And they all live bohemian lifestyles, with little interest in social conformity. Preparations are being made for a production of this new play, and the pace is getting a bit frenetic. Then one night, Yseute Haskell, who has the lead in the play, is shot. On the surface, it seems like an ‘impossible crime,’ since she was alone in her room, and no-one was seen to go into it or leave it. In fact, the police think it may be a suicide. Fen doesn’t think so, though, and he gets involved in the investigation. It turns out that this wasn’t suicide at all.
Fans of Ngaio Marsh’s work will know that she had a lifelong connection to the theatre and ‘theatre people.’ Many of her novels (e.g. Enter a Murderer and Opening Night) take place mostly in a theatre setting. Others involve actors in other settings. And, of course, Marsh’s Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn meets and later marries an artist, Agatha Troy. So, several of her novels also feature art and the art world. Throughout these novels, we meet characters with bohemian lifestyles and nonconformist views about life.
Stuart Kaminsky’s Toby Peters is a PI in 1940s Hollywood. A former Warner Brothers security officer, he has several connections in the film business, and he certainly gets his share of clients from the world of acting. Both Bullet For a Star and Murder on the Yellow Brick Road are set in the Hollywood filmmaking context. So are several other books in this series. And the actors and other ‘Hollywood types’ that Peters meets often live unconventional lives. So do some of Peters’ other clients (he has one adventure, for instance, that takes place in a circus setting). He certainly doesn’t meet a lot of ‘suburban couple with two children and white picket fence’ families…
Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a wealthy, ‘blueblood’ family in 1930’s New South Wales. His conservative older brother, Wilfred, runs the family business. But Rowly has a very different view of life. He’s a ‘gentleman artist,’ and his closest friends are also artists, or writers. While Rowly himself lives a mostly conventional lifestyle, his friends really don’t. They keep the hours they want, dress in ways that suit them, and don’t hold as much with traditional social structure. Their politics are unconventional, too. All of that sometimes puts Rowly at odds with Wilfred, who’s more comfortable with traditional ways of thinking and living.
Bohemian lifestyles and unconventional views can make for a really interesting community of people. And those communities can add richness to a crime novel or series. There are many more of them in crime fiction than I have space to discuss (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto series?). But these examples should give you a sense of how bohemian communities fit into the genre. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Dandy Warhols.