Friday, December 25, 2009

Stranger in Town

Most people don’t want to believe that a friend, relative or acquaintance is a murderer. We’d far rather blame a nameless stranger. That could be one reason why the “suspicious stranger” is so common a theme in crime fiction. We see “the stranger” in three very common roles. One of them is as the suspect; the other characters don’t know much about the stranger, so it’s easy to be convinced that the stranger is a murderer. Another role is as the victim. When the victim is a “stranger in town,” this can add to the suspense as the sleuth tries to figure out where the stranger came from, who he or she is, and how he or she came to be murdered. Some crime fiction also casts the sleuth into the role of the “mysterious stranger.” When the sleuth is a stranger, she or he can take an “outsider’s” perspective on the other characters, and that can provide an added layer of interest.

We see this kind of suspicion of a stranger in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of a charwoman in the small village of Broadhinney. No-one wants to believe that any of the “nice” people of Broadhinney could be responsible for a murder, so everyone is quite ready to believe that she was killed by her lodger, James Bentley, an “outsider” whom nobody likes very much. A few of the characters also say that the murder’s been committed by a wandering tramp. What Poirot finds, though, is that the murder was committed by someone much “closer to home” than anyone wants to believe.

A stranger is also blamed for murder in Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces. In that novel, handsome model Blair Bainbridge has just moved to the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Shortly after he arrives, pieces of a body begin to turn up in various parts of town. Everyone’s happy to blame Blair for the murder; after all, nobody knows him very well and besides, the body didn’t turn up until after he arrived. His next-door-neighbor, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth, doesn’t believe Bainbridge is necessarily guilty, even after another body turns up on his property, so she starts looking for answers. As it turns out, the murderer is someone who’s no stranger at all to Crozet.

In W. J. Burley’s Wycliffe and Death in a Salubrious Place, there’s also a clear example of a stranger being blamed for a killing. Young Sylvie is found at the bottom of a quarry with her head bashed in. At first, it looks as though it might have been an accident, but soon it’s clear that she was murdered. No-one in her Scilly Isles village wants to believe that one of the locals could have murdered Sylvie, so everyone blames Vince Peters, a recently-arrived teen pop idol. Inspector Wycliffe, who’s called in to investigate the death, is not so sure, so he begins to look into Sylvie’s background. What he finds is that she’s not as innocent as she seemed, and more than one person might have wanted her dead.

Sometimes, of course, a stranger becomes the victim. When that happens, the sleuth has to try to find out as much as possible about the victim. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks. Colin Lamb, who works for British Intelligence, is visiting the village of Crowdean, on the trail of a spy ringleader. As he’s walking along Wlibraham Crescent, looking for a particular address, a young woman comes rushing out of one of the houses, screaming that there’s a dead man in the house. The dead man turns out to be a stranger with no identification. Lamb takes this unusual case to his father’s friend, Hercule Poirot, and challenges Poirot to solve it. With Poirot’s help, Lamb and Detective Dick Hardcastle find that the stranger had an unusual connection to Wilbraham Crescent, and that connection led to his death.

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie also features a stranger who becomes a victim. In that novel, Flavia de Luce, who’s a rather unusual sleuth (she’s an 11-year-old girl who’s passionate about chemistry) gets involved in a murder in the peaceful village of Bishop’s Lacey. Late one night, Flavia overhears an argument between her father and a red-headed stranger who appears at her house, Buckshaw. The next morning, she finds the body of the stranger in the family’s cucumber patch. Flavia’s father, Colonel de Luce, is accused of the murder, and Flavia soon finds out that he and the stranger have a tragic past history. Still, she’s convinced that her father is innocent of the stranger’s death and sets out to prove it.

In both of these novels, we find out that there’s a connection between the stranger and the locals; that’s also true in Louise Penny’s The Brutal Telling, which takes place in and near the rural Québec village of Three Pines. The bludgeoned body of a mysterious man known only as The Hermit is found in the bistro owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner, Gabri Dubeau. No-one in the village admits to knowing the hermit, and the evidence shows that the man wasn’t killed in the bistro. Still, Inspector Armand Gamache and his team soon find out that there’s more to this murder than a random killing, and that the dead man was, indeed, connected to the village.

It can also make for an interesting storyline when the sleuth is a “stranger in town.” That kind of plotline allows the sleuth to take a more objective view of the suspects and the other locals. It also allows for an interesting level of suspense. For example, in Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen makes his first visit to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he’s planning a quiet rest. Before long, though, he’s caught up in the family drama of the locally-powerful Wrights, with whom he’s staying. The youngest Wright daughter, Nora, has married Jim Haight, who’s returned to Wrightsville after mysteriously disappearing three years earlier. No-one in the family likes Jim very much, and neither does anyone in town. When Jim’s sister Rosemary is poisoned at a New Year’s Eve party, everyone’s only too happy to blame Jim for the crime. Queen, however, isn’t so sure. When he starts to ask questions and get involved in the case, he’s regarded with deep suspicion. Not only is he defending the town’s choice for scapegoat, but also, he’s a stranger, too. At one point, there’s even talk that Queen himself might have committed the crime…

Lee Child’s sleuth, Jack Reacher, is almost always a stranger to the towns he visits. He’s a drifter who rarely stays anywhere for very long. In most of the novels in which Reacher appears, he’s hitching a ride or has ended up in a particular place by chance. That means he’s got an “outsider’s” perspective on the crimes he investigates. That in itself can get him in trouble. For instance, in Killing Floor, Reacher stops in the small town of Margrave, Georgia, to follow a whim; he wants to find out more about Blind Blake, a blues musician who supposedly died there. Before he knows it, Reacher has been arrested and jailed for murder. With help from Officer Roscoe, a local detective who helps to prove his innocence, Reacher works to find out who the real killer is. Along the way, he uncovers dark secrets and a dangerous conspiracy.

Agatha Christie’s Crooked House is also an interesting example of a sleuth who’s also a stranger. This novel is focused on the Leonides family and its patriarch, Aristide Leonides. He and his much-younger wife, Brenda, live with their extended family in the family home, Three Gables. Leonides’ granddaughter, Sophie, falls in love with Charles Hayward in Cairo during World War II, but the two agree not to make their engagement official until the war is over. When Sophie returns to Three Gables after the war, she finds that her grandfather has been poisoned with his own eyedrops. She’s now unwilling to marry Charles until the murder is solved, so Charles determines to find out who killed Aristide Leonides. He becomes a house guest at the Leonides home, and soon finds that almost everyone in the family had a motive for murder. While Charles Hayward himself isn’t a suspect in the killing, it’s very interesting to see how the family reacts to this “outsider.”

What’s your view? Do you enjoy the suspense of the “stranger in town” motif? If you do, which are your favorite “stranger in town” novels?


  1. I like the stranger who becomes the sleuth beause then you get to delve into the town and the other characters from a different perspective and you seem to learn about things as the stranger does.

    Thanks for sharing this post.

  2. Cassandra - You're right; when the sleuth is a stranger, you can see the other characters from a different, possibly more objective, perspective. Even if it's not objective, it's a different way of looking at the characters and the mystery.

  3. I think I enjoy it more when the stranger is blamed for the murders. It tends to take the reader away from the real killer with misdirection and clues that don't add up to the real killer. In most cases, you know it's not the stranger, but there is that slight hint that it could be.

    Hope you had a Merry Christmas.

  4. Mason - It does add that interesting layer of suspense and questioning, doesn't it, when a stranger is suspected of a killing. It sets the scene for lots of good "red herrings" and other clues that are real, if we just pay attention...

    I hope you enjoyed your Christmas, too : ).

  5. I love it when the stranger ISN'T really a least to one or two people in the town. Or that maybe he lived in the town many years before and no one recognizes first.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elizabeth - I know exactly what you mean! It really is a nice twist when at least somebody knows the stranger. Your post reminds me of Martha Grimes' The Man With a Load of Mischief, where Inspector Jury and Melrose Plant investigate the murders of two men who, at first, seem to be strangers to the town of Long Piddleton. Of course, as it turns out, they're not, and that revelation adds much to the story.

  7. I like the stranger idea, so long as it all ties into the plot somehow. I think the Lee Child/Reacher novels worked in this regard very well for several books, but now the idea has become a bit tired and the author needs to look at another way to go with Jack - I feel I've read the same plot transposed into a new situation too many times.
    The stranger idea works well in several of the Scandinavian books I've read, eg The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum, and Johan Theorin's two novels (so far) in his Oland quartet look at the effects of "strangers" on a traditional island community - particularly the second.
    I like books when the stranger turns out not to be a stranger, but I am afraid i can't call one to mind just now.
    One movie that I enjoyed very much, years ago, which was about the stranger motif in various ways is "Once Upon a Time in the West". Of course many westerns are about the archetypal stranger, eg Shane, John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies, Dances with Wolves (Kevin Costner) etc. I loved these when I was young but you don't seem to get so many of them these days. Maybe crime fiction has filled a gap!

  8. Oh, and happy Christmas, Margot! Discovering your blog has been the highlight of my Internet year! I hope you will continue it for many years to come.

  9. Maxine - Thanks so much for your kind words : )! I'm quite flattered. I'm honored and privileged to be a part of the online crime fiction community.

    When I read your comment about the Jack Reacher novels, I couldn't help thinking of the differences between the early ones like Killing Floor and the more recent ones. There really seems much more of a believable, even urgent raeson for Reacher to be moving about than in the newest ones. I won't presume to suggest how Child might move ahead with the Reacher series but I see exactly what you mean.

    I'm so glad you mentioned Dances with Wolves, too, because it really is a quintessential "stranger in town" kind of movie. I'm hardly a well-informed movie critic, but folks, I loved that movie and I recommend it highly. I think you have a point about the way crime fiction has taken up the topic of the stranger... Certainly more mystery novels (especially since the advent of the "hardboiled" genre in the '40's and '50's) have featured the mysterious person who's either a suspect or the victim. There are certainly examples of this kind of story in classic crime fiction, but there are arguably more now. That's a very interesting point to ponder; no wonder I so much enjoy your comments : ).