For many readers, the setting of a story is an important part of the appeal. And when it comes to crime fiction, a setting can add to the suspense, and even create its own particular challenges and conflicts. Case in point: moors.
Moors are beautiful, and they are unique in terms of the plant and animal life. But they are also potentially hazardous. The weather is frequently unreliable, and there are bogs and other dangers. They can be lonely and deserted, too. So, it’s little wonder that plenty of crime fiction is set on moors.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles is set on Dartmoor. As fans can tell you, it’s the story of the Baskerville family and a curse that seems to have been laid on its members. For generations, a phantom hound has been said to haunt the family since the 1600s, when Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. And there certainly have been some strange deaths in the family. Most recently, Sir Charles Baskerville was found dead in the park of Baskerville Hall, the family estate. Now a new Baskerville is coming from Canada to take over the home and family leadership, and Dr. James Mortimer is concerned that this new Baskerville will also fall to the curse. He goes to Sherlock Holmes with his concerns. Holmes can’t get away from London immediately, so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. It turns out that the explanation for the family curse is quite prosaic. In this novel, the wild, dangerous moor is an important part of the story.
It is in Gil North’s Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm, too. In that novel, Sergeant Caleb Cluff is called to the village of Gunnershaw when Amy Wright is found dead. It looks on the surface like a suicide, but Cluff isn’t entirely convinced. The victim’s husband, Alfred, was much younger than his wife, and it’s not out of the question that he would have killed her for her fortune. But Cluff can’t question Wright, as he’s gone missing. So, Cluff decides to try to find him. His search takes him across the Yorkshire moor where Gunnershaw is located, and it’s a very dangerous place. Cluff knows the area well, since he grew up there. But that doesn’t mean he’s entirely safe…
Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn takes place mostly on Dartmoor, where Mary Yellan has gone to stay with her Uncle Joss and Aunt Patience Merlyn. They own Jamaica Inn, which Mary soon learns is a depressing, foreboding place that gets no visitors. She also soon learns about some things going on at the inn. As she gets closer to the truth about the inn, she also finds herself in danger. Then, there’s a murder. Now, Mary’s life is in peril, because she’s found out some things she wasn’t supposed to know. Now, she’s going to have to get to safety if she’s to stay alive. And it won’t be easy. The moor is dangerous, and there are very few people around who could help her. It’s not spoiling the story to say that there are some tense scenes involving the moor in this novel.
Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands takes place mostly in the town of Shipcott, on Exmoor. Twelve-year-old Steven Lamb decides to help his family. Nineteen years earlier, his Uncle Billy Peters went missing and never returned. The family hasn’t recovered, and Steven wants to help with the healing. So, he decides to find Uncle Billy’s body, so that at least the family can bury him properly. He can’t, though, and isn’t sure what he’s going to do, until he gets another idea. A man named Arnold Avery, who’s in prison for another child murder, was always suspected of Uncle Billy’s murder, too, and Steven decides to find out from him where the body is. So, he writes to Avery. Avery answers his letter, and before long, the two are engaged in a very dangerous game of cat and mouse. There are some important scenes that take place both on Exmoor and on Dartmoor, where Avery is imprisoned. They add to the tension, and they add to the sense of atmosphere.
And then there’s Steve Robinson’s In the Blood. Genealogist Jefferson Tayte has been commissioned by business executive Walter Sloane to trace Sloan’s wife’s ancestry. The trail has led to England, where one of her ancestors, James Fairborne, went with his family during the American Revolution. There are several mysteries connected with the family, including the fact that Tayte is warned quite strongly to leave the genealogy alone, and go home. This he refuses to do, and he continues his search for the truth. At the same time, Amy Fallon is in search of some truth of her own. The house she lives in has a secret room in which she has found an old writing box containing a love letter. Her search for its writer takes her to previous owners of the cottage, and to the Prison Museum in Dartmoor. It turns out that Tayte’s search has led him to the same place, and the two end up searching for the same history from two different perspectives. The Dartmoor scenes are not the most important scenes in the novel. But the atmosphere there is evocative and adds to the suspense.
And that’s the thing about moors. They are beautiful, peaceful at times, and full of distinctive wildlife. But they can also be extremely dangerous and even eerie. Little wonder we see them in crime fiction.
The ‘photo is of Dartmoor. I was ‘sentenced’ there once, when I was visiting the UK. It’s magnificent, but it’s easy to see how perilous it could be.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Smiths’ Suffer Little Children.