The weather is heating up in the Northern Hemisphere. In some places, people are already using their air conditioning, pulling out beachwear and fans, and looking through those recipes for cold drinks.
In the days before air conditioning, anyone who had the means at all would get out of the city as soon as possible. Some would spend the summer at the beach; that’s how many coastal towns got their start. Others would go to the country; in fact, there’s a long tradition of wealthy families who have both city places and country homes. Even today, it’s not uncommon for people who can afford it to beat the heat by getting out of the city.
We certainly see that in crime fiction. And it’s surprising how often that custom ends up getting a character involved in a case of murder. I’ll bet you’re already thinking of examples; here are just a few of my own.
Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Circular Staircase begins when Rachel Innes and her maid, Liddy Allen, travel to Sunnyside, a country home that she’s rented for a summer holiday. The idea is to get away from the heat of the city for a while. Rachel’s also looking forward to spending some time with her nephew, Halsey, and niece, Gertrude, whom she’s more or less raised since their father (and her brother) died. If Rachel had only known that taking that house would get her and her family involved in a case of theft, murder and fraud, she might have made different summer plans…
In Elizabeth Daly’s Unexpected Night, rare book dealer Henry Gamadge is spending some time at the Ocean House resort at Ford’s Beach, Maine. At the time this book was written, it wasn’t uncommon for people from New York or Boston (and sometimes even cities such as Philadelphia) to spend the summer in Maine. During Gamadge’s visit, he makes friends with Colonel Harrison Barclay and his family, who are staying nearby. So he’s on the scene when the Cowdens (relatives of the Barclays) arrive for their own summer getaway. Eleanor Cowden has brought her daughter Alma, her son Amberley, and Amberley’s tutor Hugh Sanderson. Amberley has a very serious heart condition, but he’s insisted on this trip, so that he can support a cousin of his who has a theatre group in nearby Seal Cove. On the night of the Cowden’s arrival, Amberley dies, and his body is found the next morning at the foot of a cliff. Then there’s another death. And two attempts at another murder. Gamadge works with local police detective Mitchell to find out who’s behind all of these events.
In Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s The Cape Cod Mystery, we are introduced to Prudence Whitsby and her niece, Betsey. A heat wave has arrived, and they’re planning to escape it by taking a trip to their summer cottage on Cape Cod. They’ve gotten a sheaf of letters and telegrams from potential guests, but have narrowed down the list to two, and the holiday begins. One night, Prudence’s cat Ginger escapes; while chasing after the cat, Prudence discovers the body of Dale Sanborn, a famous writer who’s staying in the cottage next door. A family friend of the Whitsbys, Bill Porter, is the most likely suspect. He was in the area at the time of the murder, he can’t account for himself, and he has a motive. But his employee and ‘man-of-all-work,’ Asey Mayo, doesn’t believe he’s guilty. Together, Asey and Prudence set out to prove that Bill Porter is innocent.
As anyone who’s ever lived there can tell you, Delhi can get extremely hot in the summer. So in Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice Quite Holiday, Justice Harish Shinde is happy to escape the heat. He accepts an invitation from an old friend, Shikhar Pant, to take a holiday in Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. With him, the judge brings his law clerk, Anant.
‘In Delhi, it was that time of summer when cool days are difficult to recollect and impossible to imagine.’
So Anant is delighted to be included in the trip. The pair arrive, settle in, and soon meet the rest of Pant’s guests. Trouble soon starts, because two of those guests, Ronit and Khamini Mittal, run a controversial NGO. Its purpose is AIDS education and prevention in the rural areas, and there are plenty of people who oppose both the NGO and its pamphlets. One afternoon, Kailish Pant, the host’s cousin, is found murdered. He was a strong supporter of the Mittals’ work, so this presents one important avenue for investigation. But as Shinde and Anant soon learn, it’s by no means the only possibility.
Donna Leon’s sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti, tries to escape the Venice summer heat in A Question of Belief. He, his wife, Paola Falier, and their children Chiara and Raffi, are planning a trip to the mountains, and everyone is excited about it. The family is on the train, on the way to their destination, when Brunetti gets a call from a colleague. Araldo Fontana, a clerk at the local courthouse – the Tribunale di Venezia – has been bludgeoned in the courtyard of the apartment building where he lives. Now Brunetti has to get off the train at the next stop, return to Venice and the heat, and try to find out who committed the murder and why.
And in Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat, Inspector Salvo Montalbano doesn’t even get the opportunity to make plans to beat the Sicilian summer heat. His second-in-command, Mimì Augello, has had to change his own summer travel plans, so Montalbano has to stay in sweltering Vigàta. When he explains the situation to his longtime lover, Livia, she has the idea of renting a beach house near Montalbano. And, since Montalbano is likely to be busy with work, she’ll bring some friends to stay with her and keep her company. Montalbano’s not happy with the idea, but the plan’s put in motion. It doesn’t work out to be a good solution, though. When the son of Livia’s friend disappears, that’s bad enough. He’s found, unharmed, in a secret tunnel that runs underneath the house. But so is an old trunk that contains a corpse…
See what I mean? Sometimes it seems there’s no escaping trouble. Even when you try to escape the heat…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City.