There are some homes that have been in the same family for many generations. They’re full of history (and sometimes, secrets), and they often develop their own personalities. Houses like that can be fascinating to explore. They can also make very effective settings for crime novels, especially those that link past crimes with the present.
There are a lot of such fictional houses – many more than space permits. But here are a few. I know you’ll think of many, many more.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual takes place in that sort of home. In the story, Holmes tells Watson about one of his cases, a case that began with a visit from an old college friend, Reginald Musgrave. Musgrave dismissed his butler, Richard Brunton, after catching the man reading a private family paper. Not long afterwards, Brunton and a maid named Rachel Howells disappeared. Holmes agreed to look into the matter, and he found that the paper Brunton was reading contained a cryptic poem that all of the Musgrave men learned. That poem proved to be the key to a very old mystery, and the key to the disappearance of Musgrave’s staff. Conan Doyle did some other mysteries, too, that take place in an ancestral family home, didn’t he, fans of The Hound of the Baskervilles?
Agatha Christie used family homes in several of her novels and stories. One of them is Enderby, the home of the Abernethie family, whom we meet in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). When patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family members gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. During that gathering, his younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered. Everyone dismisses the idea right away. The next day, though, Cora herself is murdered. Now, the remaining family members begin to suspect that she was right. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Enderby itself isn’t the reason for the deaths. But it makes for an interesting setting, and, among some of the older characters, there’s talk about ‘the old days,’ and what the house used to be like. I see you, fans of Sleeping Murder and of Peril at End House, and of 4:50 From Paddington, and of…
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives in the family home with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian. The family is quite isolated, and that’s mostly because of a tragedy that took place six years earlier. Three other members of the Blackwood family died of what turned out to be poison, and everyone in town is convinced that someone in the Blackwood family is responsible. Still, the Blackwoods have made a life for themselves, and everything goes smoothly enough. Then, they get a visitor. Charles Blackwood, a family cousin, comes to the house. His visit sets of a chain of events that ends in real tragedy. In this novel, the house itself adds to the suspense.
Much of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone, and some people are deeply rooted in the place, and a part of its history. So are some of the houses. One in particular is the Hadley House, which plays a role in the very first novel, Still Life. It’s got its own history, and Gamache has more than one experience there.
In Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we are introduced to the de Luce family. The protagonist of this series is eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives with her father, Colonel de Luce, and her two older sisters, in the family home, Buckshaw, in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. Flavia is a child, but she is also highly intelligent, and a very skilled chemist. In this novel, she uses her skills to help clear her father’s name when he is accused of murdering a visitor to their home. Buckshaw is a distinctive old house, with lots of passages, unused rooms, and so on. And it contains Flavia’s chemistry lab, which has its own personality.
And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, in which we are introduced to genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In that novel, he is commissioned by Boston business executive Walter Sloane to trace the ancestry of Sloan’s wife as a gift. The trail leads to the Fairborne family, which has lived in the US since before the American Revolution. One branch of the family returned to English in 1781, along with a group of Loyalists, so Tayte goes to Cornwall, where the family moved. There, he finds that the modern Fairbornes are strangely unwilling to help him find out the truth about what happened to their ancestors once they got to England. Tayte continues to search for the truth and learns that the answers might be very dangerous to him. The contemporary Fairbornes live in Rosemullion Hall, the family home. It’s been Fairborne property since the 18th Century, and Tayte finds that it has plenty of history and secrets to share.
Houses that have been in the same family for a long time often develop their own personalities as they absorb a family’s history. They’re fascinating places. They can also be really effective settings for a crime novel (right, fans of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca?).
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John’s Philadelphia Freedom.