As any crime fiction fan knows, life can be very dangerous. Sometimes it seems, too, as though fictional murder victims must not read a lot of mystery novels. If they did, they’d know that there are just some places where it’s best to be very, very careful. So here, for the benefit of those who haven’t yet become fictional victims, are some basics about places where extra caution is definitely indicated.
Staircases are, of course, risky in real life and they certainly are in crime fiction. Just ask Emily Arundell, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). She’s a wealthy woman whose relations are all desperate for their share of her fortune. Late one night, during an Easter Bank Holiday visit from her family members, she has a frightening fall down a flight of stairs. At first, everyone thinks that Miss Arundell stumbled on a toy ball that her terrier had left at the top of the stairs. Soon enough, though, Miss Arundell begins to believe that her fall was not accidental, and she writes to Hercule Poirot about it. By the time Poirot gets the letter, though, it’s too late; Miss Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. Nonetheless, Poirot and Captain Hastings take on the case and find out the truth about Emily Arundell’s death.
Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise also features a dangerous staircase. In that novel, Victor Dean, a copywriter for Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., falls to his death down the company’s spiral staircase. At first, his death is considered a terrible accident. But Dean left behind a half-finished letter in which he says that someone in the company is mixed up in illegal activity. So the company’s managers, ever-eager to avoid a scandal, ask Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate. Wimsey goes undercover at the agency as Dean’s replacement, and begins to look into the matter. He finds out that someone in the company was using Pym’s resources to arrange meetings between a drugs gang and local dealers. Wimsey finds out who the culprit was and is able to uncover the workings of this “arrangement,” but not before his own life is put at risk.
In Alan Orloff’s Diamonds For the Dead, we learn of the death of “Honest Abe” Handleman, a well-respected member of the Reston, Virginia community. When he suddenly dies from a fall down a staircase in the family home, his son, Josh, returns to Virginia from San Francisco to arrange for the funeral and settle his father’s business matters. Josh hasn’t been back long when an old friend of his father’s tells Josh that Abe Handleman was murdered. At first, Josh doesn’t believe it, and in fact, he tells his father’s friend that it’s probably grief that’s behind that feeling. But then, Josh finds out that his father was much wealthier than anyone had imagined. What’s more, he finds out that his father had amassed a collection of diamonds – a collection that’s now missing. So Josh sets out to find out the truth about his father’s death.
Bodies of Water
Of course, most people know that it’s important to be careful around water. Still, it’s surprising how many people in crime fiction are drowned. For example, in M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Day the Floods Came, Agatha decides to take a holiday to help her begin to pick up her life after her husband, James Lacey, abandons her to become a monk in a monastery. She chooses a Caribbean trip and there, she meets a young couple, Concita and Pablo Ramon. She doesn’t get a “normal” newlywed-husband feeling about Pablo Ramon, but doesn’t pay much attention to it at first. When she returns to her home in the Cotswolds, Agatha finds out that Concita has been drowned in a boat mishap, and that her husband, Pablo, has been arrested for the crime. This drowning comes back to haunt Agatha when Kylie Stokes, who’s in Agatha’s Pilates class, is found drowned in the River Avon. Kylie’s a newlywed and Agatha immediately suspects her new husband, Zak, of the crime, because of its similarity to the Ramon murder. Kylie’s death seems like suicide, but Agatha is sure it’s murder, and sets out to investigate.
And then there’s Joyce Reynolds, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party. She’s a young teenager who boasts that she’s seen a murder. Joyce is not exactly a stickler for the truth, and likes to take every opportunity to make herself the center of attention, so no-one believes her at first. Then, that evening, Joyce is drowned in a bucket of water at a Hallowe’en party. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery novelist, is at the party and believes that Joyce’s murder is connected to the boast she made. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, so he visits the village of Woodleigh Common to find out the truth behind Joyce’s death. In the end, and after another drowning death, Poirot finds out how Joyce’s murder was related to some dark secrets that some people in the village have been keeping.
In Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. Several people said at the time that Bethany had committed suicide, but Scarlett doesn’t really think so, and when two more deaths occur, she begins to believe the deaths are all connected. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, and Fern Larter, her friend at the Cumbria Constabulary, Scarlett pieces together what happened to all three victims, and is able to solve the cases.
We’re all taught from early childhood to cross streets safely and watch for cars. But that doesn’t always prevent terrible mishaps. For instance, in Mickey Spillane’s My Gun is Quick, Mike Hammer meets prostitute Nancy Sanford while both are in a coffee shop. She tells him her hard-luck story and Hammer, who’s just been paid for another case, gives her some money to help her get back on her feet, so to speak. The next day, he learns that Nancy’s been killed in a deliberate hit-and-run accident. He returns to the coffee shop to see what he can find out, and resolves to solve her murder. It turns out that Nancy was collecting evidence she was going to use to close down a prostitution ring, so Hammer investigates to find out who managed the operation and who would have wanted Nancy Sanford silenced.
In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, Eugenia Davies is struck and killed one night in a deliberate hit-and-run crash. Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate the death, and they find that Eugenia Davies’ murder is connected to her complicated family relationships. For instance, there’s her twenty-eight-year-old son, a brilliant violinist who suddenly has stopped being able to play. And there’s the fact that years earlier, her daughter Sonia was drowned and Sonia’s governess was imprisoned for the crime. As Lynley and Havers untangle the past, they’re able to find out why Eugenia Davies was killed.
Tube and Train Tracks
Train and tube tracks can be very dangerous places, and most of us wouldn’t consider spending a lot of time on them. And yet, there are plenty of fictional murder victims who don’t seem to have learned that lesson. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, Anne Beddingfield has decided to set off on an adventurous life. She’s been left an orphan and, with no particular ties to her home, decides to move to London to stay with her late father’s solicitor and his family while she decides what to do with her life. One day, she witnesses a terrible accident in which a man falls under a tube train. Anne happens to find a note that’s fallen out of the man’s pocket, and that sets her off on more adventures than she could have imagined. She gets mixed up with international smuggling, a fortune in diamonds and an interesting question of inheritance.
In Charlotte MacLeod’s The Withdrawing Room, Sarah Kelling has had to open her old-style Boston brownstone to roomers. Most of them, although, quirky, are satisfactory – except for Augustus Quiffen, who’s not only obnoxious, but much to inquisitive. When he’s killed by a fall under a subway one day, none of the boarders mourns him very much. But then, a witness says that he was pushed. So Sarah and her friend and boarder Max Bittersohn, investigate Quiffen’s death. They find that his mishap was most definitely not an accident.
Anywhere With Sharp Objects
There are far, far too many examples of this kind of mishap for me to mention. But it does seem interesting that so many fictional murder victims don’t avoid sharp implements. For instance, in Friedrich Glauser’s classic, The Spoke, Bern policeman Sergeant Jakob Studer and his wife, Hedy, travel to the town of Schwarzenstein for their daughter’s wedding. Instead, Studer gets mixed up in murder when the body of Jean Stieger is found in his hotel room; he’s been stabbed in the back with a bicycle spoke. At first, bicycle mechanic Ernst Graf is suspected, and is even taken into custody. But this is too easy a solution, especially when Joachim Krock, Stieger’s boss, is poisoned. So Studer looks into the case further, and finds that Stieger’s death is more complicated than it seems on the surface.
In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s A Dyeing Shame: Death at the Beauty Box, hairdresser Tami Smith is found stabbed by her own shears. One of her clients, retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover, decides to investigate Tami’s death. She finds more than she bargained for when her friend and neighbor, Edna, is also killed. Myrtle discovers that Tami’s death is a good reminder that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing…
There are, of course, lots of other places that careful characters should avoid. Which ones would you recommend?