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?