Friday, April 30, 2010

A Visit to the Local...

I had an interesting comment exchange with Book Mole about pubs as a setting for crime fiction. The pub or bar is one of the more enduring scenes for at least some of the action in crime fiction novels, and it’s interesting to think about why. There are arguably several reasons this is such a popular kind of setting. One is that going out for a drink is a perfectly natural thing to do; readers can identify with bar or pub scenes. Another is that bars and pubs are excellent places for sleuths to learn local gossip, “loosen people’s tongues” and otherwise work to solve crimes. Bars and pubs are also places where fights – and worse – can erupt, so scenes in them can add to the action in a story.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot doesn’t usually spend a lot of time in pubs; his preference seems to be hotel bars, and they sometimes provide quite a lot of excitement. For instance in Triangle at Rhodes, a short story that appears in Murder in the Mews, Poirot is taking a holiday in a hotel at Rhodes. Also staying at the hotel are famous actress Valentine Chantry and her husband, Commander Tony Chantry. Other guests are Pamela Lyall and Susan Blake, two friends who are taking a holiday together, and Douglas and Marjorie Gold, a young couple. Shortly after everyone’s arrival, it becomes clear that Valentine Chantry and Douglas Gold are smitten with each other, and it’s soon obvious that they’re having an affair. Everyone sympathizes with the jilted spouses, and it’s easy to understand Tony Chantry’s anger and Marjorie Gold’s distress. Matters come to a head one evening in the bar when Douglas Gold and Tony Chantry have a bitter argument. Then, they’re reconciled, and after dinner, they return to the bar after a billiards game. Douglas Gold brings drinks for everyone. Valentine Chantry takes a sip of hers and soon slumps over, dead. At first, it seems that Douglas Gold killed her, although no-one can think of a motive. Poirot, though, has seen something no-one else saw, and is soon able to figure out who killed Valentine Chantry and why.

In Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Poirot investigates the murder of Celia Austin, a resident at a hostel for students. Celia’s a nice, if somewhat dull, girl who works as a dispenser at a local hospital. One day, she sees something she wasn’t meant to see, and learns things she wasn’t meant to learn about someone who’s using the hostel as “front” for some illegal activities. Then, it turns out that she knows too much about the past of one of the residents. So one night, Celia is poisoned. One person who has a very good idea of what’s been going on is Mrs. Nicoletis, owner of the hostel. It’s soon discovered that she’s been drinking much more than is good for her – or for the killer. So one night, the killer contrives to meet Mrs. Nicoletis at the Queen’s Necklace, a pub near the hostel. By the time she leaves the pub, Mrs. Nicoletis has already been poisoned and she never makes it home. Poirot is sure that her death, that of Celia Austin, and some other strange events going on at the hostel are connected, and with the help of the hostel’s manager, Mrs. Hubbard, he’s able to put the pieces together.

A bar is also the scene of a murder in Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill. Of course, this is quite a different kind of bar. One rainy night, Mike Hammer is in a seedy bar, angry at the world and drowning his sorrows. Then, a man named William Decker comes in out of the rain, bringing with him a toddler. He has two drinks, then suddenly goes, leaving the child behind. Just after he’s left the bar, a car comes by, shots ring out, and Decker falls. Then, the driver of the car deliberately runs over him. Hammer manages to shoot one of the men in the car, and the man dies before Hammer can find out anything about why Decker was a target. Hammer takes the child in, and resolves to find out who shot Decker and why. At first, it seems that Decker had been mixed up with a criminal gang, and had bungled a robbery. As Hammer investigates, though, he finds that it’s more complicated than that. Hammer goes up against gangsters, police and the local district attorney, who don’t want Hammer meddling in the case, as he searches for answers. In the end, he finds out who ordered Decker’s killing, and deals with the criminal as only Hammer can.

In Martha Grimes’ The Man With a Load of Mischief, the first pairing of Inspector Richard Jury and Melrose Plant, pubs are the backdrop for two murders. One day, Dick Scroggs, keeper of Hardy’s Crown in Long Piddlington, finds the body of Rufus Ainsley atop a beam on the outside of the Jack and Hammer, a pub across the street. Earlier, the body of William Small, a guest at the Man With a Load of Mischief, had been found in that pub’s wine cellar with his head shoved into a keg of beer. At first, it seems that the two men are strangers to the village, since no-one admits to knowing either of them very well. All is not as it seems, though, and soon, Melrose Plant’s interest and curiosity (and his knowledge of the village) come in very handy to Inspector Jury as he investigates what really happened to Ainsley and Small.

There’s another example of a murder at a bar in Philip R. Craig’s A Vineyard Killing. That novel takes place on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Saberfox, a real-estate development company owned and run by brothers Paul and Donald Fox, has been trying to buy up as much land as possible. The company’s been using some very unethical practices, too, to try to seize land from locals who aren’t willing to sell at Saberfox’s prices. Then, Paul Fox has a narrow escape from being shot outside a local restaurant, and one of the residents, Dodie Donawa, is suspected. J.W. Jackson, part-time investigator, gets involved in the case when he’s briefly suspected, himself. In both his and Donawa’s case, Saberfox representative Albert Kirkland had tried to get them to sell, using persuasion and, later, veiled threats. So both residents have a motive for going after Saberfox. Jackson is soon able to clear Donawa and himself of suspicion, but there still seems to be a local connection. That seems even more evident when, one night, Albert Kirkland is found murdered outside of a local bar. Jackson is convinced that there’s more going on here than simply local anger at Saberfox’s practice, so he starts to ask questions of the bar’s owner, one of employees, and some of the “regulars.” In the end, Jackson finds out that Kirkland’s death and the attempted murder of Paul Fox have their roots in the past, and have little to do with Martha’s Vineyard or its residents.

Of course, pubs aren’t just useful as murder scenes in crime fiction. Many sleuths use them to find out gossip, think over their cases, and meet people who would rather not meet “officially.” There are far too many examples of this for me to mention them all, so I’ll just settle for a few.

Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer spends quite a lot of his time in bars. He hears the gossip, tries to drown his troubles, and sometimes meets clients there. Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, is a recovering alcoholic, so he doesn’t go to bars for the drinking. Rather, he’s acquainted with a lot of local bartenders and owners, who hear much of what’s going on. For example, one of his friends and sources of information is Gary Pratt, who owns the Black Bear CafĂ©, a local bar and restaurant. Qwilleran often stops in there when he wants to find out things that residents don’t always want to tell the police. Peter Temple’s Jack Irish is a regular at pubs, too. In fact, when he’s on a case, he sometimes gets people to talk to him about the case by treating them to a beer. And of course, there’s Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Morse arguably spends more time in his local than he does in his office. He prefers a liquid diet to a “regular” diet, and he himself says that he thinks best when he’s been drinking.

There are dozens more examples of sleuths who do quite a bit of their detective work in bars and pubs. For atmosphere, gossip, anonymity and tension, the bar or pub is a very effective context for a mystery or a scene in a novel. Which are your favorite novels where the pub plays a big role?


  1. Many years ago I visited a pub in Oxford - because it was one of Morse´s favourites! LOL

    I think pubs are such an important part of British culture that it is hard to imagine a series without pubs. This was confirmed last year when I wrote a post about protagonists and ended up with an invitation from gorgeous Daniel Kind (see the comments):

  2. Philip Craig makes good use of bars generally in his Vineyard series. I think, like a pub, bars are a part of a resort town culture. (Restaurants too, but you get more locals in the bars.)

    I'm not a drinking person, so bars aren't a natural part of my writing. But in the mystery series where it matters most, the region is one where restaurants will play a similar role. (And now that I think about it, ice cream stands.)

  3. Rebus of course spends a lot of time in pubs. Like Morse, he thinks well with a good pint in his hand.

  4. Dorte - What a wonderful post! I'd accept an invitation from Daniel, too : ). Daniel, are you listening? ; ) I've often thought, too, that if I ever get to Oxford, I'll have to visit some of Morse's haunts.

    You're right, too, that the pub is an essential part of British culture, so yes, I think it would be hard to have a series without pubs and still have it believable.

    Daring Novelist - I agree with you about Craig's series. And you make a well-taken point, too, that it doesn't necessarily have to be a pub or bar. Restaurants, ice cream stands, and other different kinds of places could play a similar role, depending on where the mystery series takes place.

    I think that goes to an essential point: to be authentic and believable, a mystery has to take contextual factors into account (e.g. region, culture, social class and the like).

    Kerrie - Right you are, of course! Rebus is no stranger at all to the local. His diet is often more liquid than solid...

  5. Dorte is right. Having spent a year in England, everyone turned up at the local pub most nights. Whole families were there up until a certain hour. They are different from bars. Not being a drinker then, I still loved to go to them. They were so warm, cozy and intimate on those dark nights.

  6. Patti - You're right; pubs and bars really are different, aren't they? Pubs can really be the social center of a village or town, even for people who aren't drinking. When I've been in the U.K., I've always found them inviting, friendly and yes, warm.

  7. A few years ago when they introduced the smoking ban here I thought "great, I can go into pubs again" but I practically never do. I did when I was young, and am familiar with many in Oxford (as frequented by Morse and others) but luckily not "The Oxford", Rebus's favourite, which sounds awful! I have just finished a book set in New Jersey where the reporter has to meet various characters in "sports bars" (which make me imagine that awful place Tony Soprano owned and used as his office) - an English pub would be my preference over that.

  8. Maxine - Oh, I agree 100% with you; I very much prefer pubs to places like Tony Soprano's Bada Bing. It's funny you would mention smoking, too; that was always my one big problem with pubs and bars; they would become far too smoke-filled for me to be able to enjoy myself.

    This is just a personal preference of mine, so anyone may feel free to disagree with me, but I've found pubs in smaller towns and cities much nicer than the pubs I've been to in London. Admittedly, that may be because, not being a local, I didn't know where the good ones were. Still... I've liked some of the ones I've been to in Northumbria very much. One or two in the Bristol area, too.

  9. Very nice post, Margot, and thanks for the acknowledgement :-)

    I agree that the pub/bar setting has a culture of its very own. Morse, Rebus, Jury, Banks all spend so much time there. I also enjoyed Death at the Bar by Ngaio Marsh - if I recall right, the murder itself was done using a poisoned dart in a bar, and much of the action in that book revolves around the bar.

  10. Book Mole - Why, thank you : ), and it's my pleasure to thank and acknowledge the people who give me ideas.

    Thank you, too, for reminding me of Death at the Bar. You have a very good memory : ). That one does, indeed, mostly take place at the Plume of Feathers, wherein attorney Luke Watchman is apparently killed by a poisoned dart. It's as much an interesting "howdunit" as it is a "whodunit."

  11. Thanks, Margot! It just occurred to me that there seems to be a difference between the "gentlemen detective" and the "working class detective" in terms of the amount of time spent in the bar. While Rebus, Jury, Banks and Morse (not sure about him being working class) spend a lot of time drinking, Holmes, Lord Peter, Miss Marple (haha, had to include her), Alleyn, Lynley and Dalgliesh do not, although they do visit bars when necessary. Just a thought, though there may be plenty of exceptions!

  12. Book Mole - That's a terrific insight, I think! I know there are some really interesting differences between the working class sleuth (Here's a post I did a post on this kind of sleuth) and "well-born" detectives. One of them could very well be the way they approach drinking (pubs/bars or not).

    Morse is an interesting character, actually. He's not "well-born;" rather, he's upper-middle-class, so in that sense, he's neither "gentleman" nor "working class." To me, that quality of not fitting neatly into one or another category adds to his appeal.

  13. Very nice post on the working class sleuth and nice insights into Morse! He is indeed special. He also lives in Oxford, a university town. These towns tend to have a unique culture, with the pub being an important place for people from all social backgrounds to gather. I have never been to Oxford though, but my husband and I are affiliated with a university.

  14. This is so interesting. I love mystery and crime fiction. Wish I could write it, but I do best with memoir and YA. I just happily found you and I'm going to follow. Cheers.

  15. Book Mole - Thank you : ). You're right that university towns do develop a unique culture, and one of the things that I think Dexter does quite well is discuss the occasional friction between the locals and the university folk. That really does happen in university towns, and I agree; the pub is one place where all sorts of people, both "town" and "gown" gather.

    Ann - Thanks for stopping in, and I'm happy that you find the blog interesting. I very much look forward to your input : )