Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Perfect Little Lonely Spot...

Most murderers don’t want to be connected to the crimes they’ve committed. So they take pains to “cover their tracks.” One way to do that is to commit the murder in a secluded spot where no-one’s likely to see what happened. Another is to move the body to a remote place where it’s not likely to be linked with the murderer. That’s arguably why, in so many murder mysteries, bodies are found in lonely, secluded places. After all, if a body’s found in the proverbial lonely copse (or any other out-of-the-way place), there’s no easy way to figure out who committed the murder. Anyone might have, and that’s what protects the murderer – at least at first.

In Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates a series of murders that are connected only by cryptic notes he receives before each murder. There’s also an ABC railway guide left near each body. Two of the murders take place in secluded spots where anyone could have gone, and where no-one’s likely to be a witness. In one case, a young waitress, Betty Barnard, is strangled with her own belt on a beach late at night. In the other, Sir Carmichael Clarke is murdered while he’s taking a walk through a lonely field one night. In both murders, there’s no way to connect a particular person to the place where the murder occurred. For a time, that makes Poirot’s job harder, since anyone might be the murderer. In fact, the popular theory is that a homicidal maniac is going around killing people. In the end, though, Poirot’s able to link these two murders, and two others, and finds out the real reason for the deaths.

In Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Poirot investigates the strangling murder of beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall while she and her family are on holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel. At first, her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be a likely suspect, since Arlena was having a rather flagrant affair with another hotel guest. When Kenneth Marshall turns out to have an alibi, Hercule Poirot (who’s staying at the same hotel) has to look elsewhere for the murderer. In the end, he gets a crucial clue from a former murder of a young woman, Alice Corrigan, who was strangled in a lonely grove a few years earlier. Since her body was found in a secluded place, there were no witnesses, so the case was never solved. When Poirot connects her murder to that of Arlena Marshall, he’s able to find Arlena’s killer.

Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase also makes use of the “lonely spot” plot point. Harriet Vane is taking a hiking holiday near the village of Wolvercombe when she finds the body of a man on the beach. There are no footprints or other obvious evidence as to who killed the man, and at first, Vane wonders whether the man’s death was a suicide. It’s soon clear that he was murdered. Since his body was found in a rather out-of-the way spot, though, no-one saw anything, and just about anyone could have taken the man’s body there. In the end, Harriet Vane, with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, is able to find out who the man was and why he was killed.

Tony Hillerman makes use of the “secluded spot” strategy quite often. That makes sense when you consider that most of his Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee novels take place on the Navajo Reservation, which has lots of secluded, lonely places. For instance, in The Blessing Way, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn’s first outing, we meet Luis Horseman, a Navajo who runs off when he gets into a drunken fight and thinks he’s killed a man. He’s fleeing the police, and he also wants to go through the Navajo rituals for healing, so he can make a new start. When his body is found in a deserted part of Many Ruins Canyon, it looks to several people as though Navajo witchcraft may be involved. There are no footprints or other signs that another person was at the crime scene, and Horseman’s mouth is filled with sand. Lieutenant Leaphorn isn’t much of a one to believe in witchcraft, and he’s not particularly observant of the Navajo Way. So he believes there’s much more to the murder than witchcraft. Since Horseman’s body has been found in such a secluded place, no-one saw anything, so there’s nothing to say who the murderer is. As it turns out, Leaphorn finds out that Horseman’s murderer has been “hiding” behind Navajo religious beliefs.

Louise Penny’s Still Life also features a body found in a secluded spot. Jane Neal is a beloved teacher who lives in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Early one autumn morning, she’s taking a walk in the maple wood near Three Pines when she’s killed by an arrow. At first, it looks like a tragic bowhunting accident. Inspector Armand Gamache isn’t so sure, though, and begins to investigate the case more deeply. He doesn’t have much to go on at first. Jane Neal’s body was found in an out-of-the-way place where no-one saw anything and where anyone might have been. Before long, too, Gamache uncovers some very dark secrets that the people of Three Pines are keeping, and finds that more than one person might have wanted Jane Neal dead.

We also see effective use of the “secluded spot” strategy in Martin Edwards’ Lake District novels. For instance, in The Coffin Trail, DCI Hannah Scarlett, who’s just been appointed to head a Cold Case Review team, investigates the murder of Gabrielle Anders, a beautiful model who was killed while she was in the area visiting her sister. Anders’ body was found by an old sacrificial stone in a remote location near the village of Brackdale. Shortly afterwards, a local resident, Barrie Gilpin, fell to his death. Everyone believed that he was responsible for Anders’ death, so the case was left alone. Scarlett, though, was never convinced Gilpin was guilty. Neither was her former partner, Ben Kind. So she re-opens the case. With help from Ben’s son, Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett is able to penetrate the peaceful surface of the village and find out who really killed Anders and what happened to Gilpin.

In Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, Scarlett and her team investigate the six-year-old murder of Bethany Friend, whose drowned body was found in the Lake District’s Serpent Pool. Since the pool is somewhat remote, there’s nothing to say how or why her body was found there. In fact, at first, the theory is that Bethany Friend committed suicide. Scarlett’s not convinced of this, though. For one thing, Bethany couldn’t swim and was afraid of water. Scarlett can’t imagine that someone who’s afraid of water would commit suicide that way. She also doesn’t believe that Bethany was despondent enough to commit suicide. So she decides to re-open the case, despite pressure (at least at first) not to. Part of the problem with this case, though, is that since Bethany’s body was found in an out-of-the-way place. Anyone could have brought her body there, or murdered her there. Gradually, Scarlett learns more and more about Bethany, though, and she slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together. Along the way, she’s helped by important insights from Daniel Kind and his research on British writer Thomas de Quincey.

The “lonely copse” tradition is popular in crime fiction; I’ve only mentioned just a few examples, actually. One reason for this is that it’s a logical thing for a murderer to do. If you don’t want to get caught, one way to avoid it is to commit the murder in secluded spot, or at least move the body there. Another reason, more subtle but no less effective, is the contrast between a peaceful, even beautiful nature scene, and the grisly reality of a body. That can be haunting, and keep readers turning pages. It can also serve as a warning to fictional characters to be very careful about visiting out-of-the-way beauty spots ; ). Which are your favorite, “secluded spot” mysteries?


  1. Dealing with my horrid memory here, but I believe there was one near the cliffs of Agatha Christie? Hmm. Wish I had a 10th of your memory, Margot.

    I'm actually working up a crime scene in my new chapters. I really like a remote location for it, but then you have to GET the victim and the murderer at the same place. So does the murderer LURE the victim there? Follow the victim there? And if it's so remote, how is the body discovered quickly? So much to consider, but I'd like to give it a go.

  2. The mysteries where victims are found in secluded spots are among some of the best to read. You've mentioned some great stories here. Very enjoyable post and thought provoking as always.

    Thoughts in Progress

  3. One of my favorite secluded spots is from Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin (which you mentioned in yesterday's post). The corpse is found in Mary King's Close, a 17th century underground street, under the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. At the time Rankin wrote the book (1996), the close was not open to the public, and I loved Rankin's descriptions of the spooky close as well as of Rebus' and others' feelings as they walk down and through it, culminating in the discovery of a horrific scene of murder.

  4. This post brought to mind a couple of Harry Bosch novels; and particularly, how well author Michael Connelly used the "lonely spot" to his storytelling advantage. In THE NARROWS, the serial killer leads the FBI to the site of his buried bodies in the Mojave Desert. Connelly develops a lot of his story at this site by having the FBI set-up their crime scene headquarters there. In ECHO PARK, Connelly has his killer effect a daring escape from custody while he's showing the police where the body is buried in a remote section of the park.

    As an aside Margot, I know how much you love words and in THE NARROWS, Connelly picks a site in the Mojave that is in Zzyzx, CA. If you've ever driven to Las Vegas from Southern California, you've seen the Zzyzx Road exit off of I-15. I'll bet that road sign leapt out at you! The word was specifically chosen by the desert property's owner to be the last word in the English language.

  5. Elizabeth - There are a couple of Agatha Christies where a victim's found by a cliff. One that pops to my mind is And Then There Were None , which I love on all sorts of levels.

    I know exactly what you mean about getting the victim to a remote kind of place. How does that happen? It's not as easy to write as it may seem, if you're going to make it realistic. I haven't done a secluded spot scene yet, but I might...

    Mason - Thanks : ). It certainly can catch the raeder and keep the reader turning pages if there's a secluded spot where, all of a sudden, a body turns up. Those can be terrific stories.

    Book Mole - Isn't Mortal Causes a fine description of the close? We get such a sense of how lonely and out-of-the-way it is, which really adds to the creepiness of the scene. And, of course, there's the murder scene itself... We also get a sense of how eerie it is at the very beginning, when the murder occurs.

  6. Bob - Thanks for reminding me of those Connelly novels. You're right that they do make excellent use of secluded spots. The Narrows especially does that, because the Mojave is not only secluded, but pretty unforgiving terrain. That adds to the suspense of the novel, I think. I'm really glad that you mentioned those novels.

    About Zzyzx, CA... I've actually never driven up that interstate as far as Las Vegas - no further than Interstate 40, actually. But I've seen it on maps and in the book, of course, and yes, that word does appeal to me : ).

  7. I understand about the 'comments' thing. It's been doing the same thing on my blog. Love the photo you took of the secluded place. Remind me never to go for a hike with you. :) I recently edited a mystery where a writer wrote about a vigilante woman who decides to go after pedophiles. This post reminded me of that story. The woman took extra care to make sure the spot was secluded.


  8. Clarissa - Thanks for understanding about the comments. Blogger seems to finally be letting me read them now, so I'm able to respond quickly. Very frustrating, though! The story you edited sounds intriguing; I hope it was well-written. Of course, both in real life and in crime fiction, not all murders are carefully planned, so the secluded spot doesn't always occur to the murderer. When it does, though, it can be very effective, as it seems to have been in the story you're mentioning.

    And..thanks for the kind words about the 'photo, but don't worry. I'm only dangerous when I write ; ).

  9. My thoughts are actually very similar to Elizabeth's - I understand the need for the lonely spot to commit the crime, but how to accomplish this is difficult. To do the deed there, the killer needs to get the victim there - this would mean (in the least) acquaintanceship. Moving dead bodies is just tricky. They weigh a great deal, they're not overly bendy, and let's face it, they just look rather dead. This means skullduggery in the dark hours. Also tricky. However, the more I think about this, the more it intrigues me. Hmmmm...perhaps in Book #2...

  10. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean. The very trickiness of getting a person out to a lonely spot, or getting a body there, is intriguing, isn't it? I honestly haven't attempted that, myself, but I might. It does involve lots of planning, as you say. How to entice the victim? Or, if not, how to get the body there without calling attention to it or leaving a lot of forensic evidence. Not an easy task to accomplish. Yes, murder mystery authors think about odd things....

  11. What a lovely post, Margot (as usual!). I agree that secluded spots are favoured by criminals, not least the ones you have aptly mentioned in your post. Of course, sometimes there are people who stupidly "go" to secluded spots, sometimes specifically to meet someone who is not what they seem....

  12. Secluded spots are also favoured by me, because I love crime in the countryside. In real life I often laugh at people who are afraid of walking in the dark in the countryside, however, as most real murders are NOT carefully planned and take place in towns and cities. Well, I suppose this proves that though I claim I want realistic crime fiction there is a limit :D

  13. Maxine - Why thank you : ). And I agree about how stupid people can be about going to places with the wrong person. I think I'm going to do a post about "Do's and Don't's" to avoid being a victim ; ).

    Dorte - LOL! I know what you mean. I'm all for realism in crime fiction, too - to an extent ; ). And it is interesting to read about rural crime; somehow it almost seems all the creepier, because the scenery is so bucolic and peaceful. As you say, though, in real life, cities are usually more dangerous.

  14. Oh yes, Margot, please do that dos and don'ts post -- should be great fun. A cliche-buster!

  15. Maxine - Not to worry...check the blog later today : ).