A native of Glasgow, Scotland who currently works as a journalist in Yorkshire, England, Pat Black has had two stories published in EQMM (the most recent in our January/February 2020 issue), and there’s another coming up later this year. Prior to making his EQMM debut, the lifelong fan of crime fiction had stories included in a variety of anthologies and won the Daily Telegraph’s ghost stories competition. In May of 2019, his first crime novel, the psychological thriller The Family, was published, followed by The Beach House earlier this year. Like so many around the world, Pat is currently sheltering in place due to the COVID-19 crisis. Being at home got him thinking about the great homes of crime fiction—especially English country houses. He’s got me longing to find shelter in one of those classic books set in the closed circle of an isolated house—just the right type of entertainment and comfort at a time like this. We hope you’ll find it so too.—Janet Hutchings
We’ve had cause to consider our homes a little more closely than we’d like. Reading as an escape has become a requirement during an unprecedented, frighteningly fast-moving situation which even the most cynical could not have envisaged as recently as February.
It’s right that we should take refuge where we can; our happy place. Mine is in between the covers of a book.
Often, our great crime literature is focused upon a single house—the place where it happened. The scene of the crime. Imagine a murder mystery and you’ll most likely think of a country house, probably somewhere in the English home counties, probably in between the wars. Although there might be blood on the rug in the study, these places are cosy. This is a basic paradox that keeps us coming back to them, time and again. In drawing the curtains upon an uncertain world, let’s take a look at some of the more memorable country-house crime scenes.
Sherlock Holmes packed in several stories set in country houses—the crawling horror of “The Speckled Band” makes great use of the layout of the house as a device to be exploited by the wicked. And even though much of the action in The Hound Of The Baskervilles takes place away from Baskerville Hall, the novel’s central crime—wherein the cursed heir is frightened to death by the beast—makes great use of the setting.
But Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most interesting country-house mystery comes in the final full-length Holmes novel, The Valley Of Fear. In it, Holmes and Watson are called upon to examine the death of a country squire at his huge residence, Birlstone Manor. In order to get there, Holmes has to solve a cipher set up by Moriarty. Once that puzzle is disposed of, we are faced with a locked-room mystery to solve as well as suspects to prune from the household, the guests, and the staff. “Faced” is entirely the wrong word to use, given the fact that the murder victim, John Douglas, has lost his in a shotgun blast.
Unidentifiable victim? You’ll be suspicious. And rightly so.
Once Holmes unpicks all the threads—including a false line of inquiry laid around the moat, and the use of disguises—the book turns into an almost entirely different beast after it “explains” the reason behind the killing. Conan Doyle transplants the action to the United States for a prototypical gangland novel involving a corrupt secret society ruling a city by fear. Though readable enough, this second part doesn’t even mention Holmes until the very end. This is a shame, as the first section is classic Holmes and Watson as the great detective tries to find out who blew off the householder’s head, the secret of the tattoo/brand on the dead man’s forearm, while Scotland Yard’s top men hem, haw, and blow hard.
If Conan Doyle is the king of the crime novel, then perhaps we should open the door to the queen. The Mysterious Affair At Styles is Agatha Christie’s calling card. Her first ever crime novel introduces us to Poirot, his top man, Hastings, and introduces that classic setting of the grand dame’s output (already something of a cliche by the time she put pen to paper). The strychnine killing which piques our favourite Belgian’s little grey cells takes place within the walls of Styles Court, with the dapper little man selecting his killer from an expertly chosen field of suspects.
All the classic elements are there, but reading this one only recently, I was most struck by the lack of details Christie puts into the hall itself. People dress for dinner, and tea is taken on lawns, but Christie’s opening crime novel is commendably light on detail when it comes to setting. Similar to Soldier Island in And Then There Were None, Christie paints in broad strokes. It’s not so much about the fine grain of the architecture, but it is all about plot, character and motive. This saves us time; indeed, it’s welcome. It’s a big, grand country house, and most importantly, it’s isolated. That’s enough for us to work with.
There are only so many times you want to have a tapestry, balustrade or a candelabra described to you, after all. Not much can improve on the poetry of the words themselves.
And then there’s Manderley. Even the weaving path of its syllables has an irresistible pull. A name that demands to be whispered, or bellowed.
Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca is surely a crime novel. This dark, brooding masterpiece sees a guileless, naïve narrator spare us few details as she is brought back by her husband, Maxim de Winter, as the new mistress of Manderley, perched high up near the sea in Cornwall.
There’s a great big piece of this picture missing—de Winter’s first wife, the lady in the title, who vanished in dodgy circumstances. Although we never meet her directly, with her voice only rendered in echoes, and her form filled out by clothes left hanging in wardrobes, the first lady of Manderley is eerily present throughout the novel. She haunts the narrator, and us, though no ghost materialises.
The little details—particularly Rebecca’s preserved room and clothes, essentially a series of traps set up for the poor narrator by the diabolical housekeeper Mrs. Danvers—are exquisitely drawn. Here, detail is key. The book retains as powerful a hold on its readers to this very day as much as Rebecca’s ghastly fingers grip those cursed to live in her shadow.
One of my favourite country house mysteries is P.D. James’s first Adam Dalgliesh novel, Cover Her Face. In it, the tall, dark detective looks at the murder of a servant at a country residence who was strangled in the night.
The Maxie family and their lovers are all present and correct that night, allowing for a wide cast for Dalgliesh to choose his suspects from. To look at the main points, characters and plot beats of this story, you might think that James had written a pastiche of an Agatha Christie novel—it even has a church fete and a suspicious vicar, for god’s sake.
But Cover Her Face is meticulously plotted, and the house of the Maxies is key to solving the mystery. Despite all the subplots and red herrings, and even one daring section where two of the main suspects go off on an investigation of their own, the novel has none of the usual parlour-game twists or conjuror’s tricks we might expect from a detective novel. Once Dalgliesh names the killer, he explains that once we take into account times and exact locations in the house, pure logic dictates that only one person could have killed Sally Jupp.
You’ll get it, but only if you’ve been paying very close attention. . . .
We’d be foolish to go through this piece without mentioning Cluedo (or Clue, to give it its North American title). I’ve got great childhood memories of this game—playing it, right in the zone where I was starting to write detective stories, aged eleven, and even earlier than that, watching my elder siblings enviously as Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Miss Scarlett, and others made their suggestions.
I have a fantastic tactile memory of all the playing pieces—specifically, the murder weapons. The little pistol; the frayed ends of the rope; the dinky little candlestick. How intriguing to have a game where you nosey around in a big old house, playing detective. This is part of my crime-writing DNA—and perhaps the time is right, now some of us have a bit more down time than we’re used to, to dust off the box on its shelf in the garage?
The Ghost Castle game was another component of my childhood’s image of spooky houses where dastardly deeds might take place. I used the game board and some animal toys to pretend Scooby Doo was investigating a mystery along its secret passageways. Indeed, everyone’s favourite crime-fighting Great Dane being another gateway to the world of creepy castles, secret passageways and, of course, the ghosts and monsters that haunted them.
The world of horror is well off for creepy houses and castles, from The Castle Of Otranto to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House Of Leaves, all of it buttressed by the phantasmagorical glory of Castle Dracula. But perhaps that’s for another blog, or another mood.
It seems a touch insensitive, perhaps crass, to highlight something as ephemeral as entertainment at a time like this. But I hope these recollections and indeed the books themselves can provide some respite from tough times.
I hope this finds you well, and in comfort. Let’s look after each other and hope for a better world to come.