Wednesday, July 28, 2010

When Strangers Meet....

An interesting book review from Rayna at Coffee Rings Everywhere got me thinking about how often we’re thrown together, so to speak, with a group of strangers. It may be in a hotel, on an airplane, at a theater or somewhere else; there are lots of places where strangers congregate. Those settings can be very effective contexts for crime fiction for a few reasons. For one thing, there’s always a bit of awkwardness when strangers interact, and that can add an interesting layer to a story. Also, since characters in this kind of crime fiction don’t know each other, this allows for a layer of mystery, and for the author to gradually reveal the characters. Finally, when a murder occurs in that kind of setting, it’s fairly likely that at least one of the people isn’t as much of a stranger to the victim as it seems, so it can add suspense to the story as the sleuth tries to find out what the connections are, if any, between the victim and the other characters.

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is a very suspenseful example of what happens when strangers are thrown together. In that novel, ten people receive an invitation to visit Indian Island, off the Devon Coast. Each of them gets a different sort of invitation, and each accepts it. After dinner on the night the guests arrive, each is accused of causing the death of at least one other person. The guests haven’t met each other before, but they’ve all been brought to the island, it seems, for the same purpose. Soon after the accusations, one of the guests dies suddenly. Later that night, another dies. It’s now clear to everyone else that there’s a murderer on the island, and worsening weather means that the survivors are trapped there. Now, everyone’s faced with the stressful situation of having to depend on each other while at the same time, not trusting anyone.

In Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Hercule Poirot is traveling by air from Paris to London. On the same flight is Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender. During the flight, she suddenly dies of what seems to be heart failure. At first, it seems as though her death was caused by a wasp’s sting. Very soon, though, it’s clear that Madame Giselle was poisoned. Now, Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp and Hercule Poirot have to figure out which of the other passengers murdered Madame Giselle. Interestingly, most of the passengers are strangers to each other. A few know one another casually, but it’s very interesting in this novel to see the way these people start to interact with each other once they’re all under suspicion of murder.

Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train shows the tragic consequences of what can happen when strangers are thrown together. Guy Haines and Charles Anthony Bruno are strangers to each other, who happen to be traveling by the same train on a cross-country journey. They get to talking and soon share their life stories. Bruno hates his father and would like nothing more than to get rid of him. Haines dislikes his estranged wife, Miriam, and would like to get rid of her so that he can marry again. Bruno proposes the idea that each should, if you will, commit the other’s murder. His view is that if he kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills his father, neither will be suspected because neither will have a motive. It’ll be, so Bruno thinks, the perfect crime. Haines brushes off Bruno’s suggestion, not aware that Bruno is serious. Then, Bruno kills Haines’ wife and puts pressure on Haines to fulfill his side of the bargain. Under pressure, Haines finally kills Bruno’s father. It’s almost a perfect crime – almost. Private detective Arthur Gerard suspects that somehow, Bruno’s involved in his father’s death although he can’t prove anything. In the end, it’s Gerard’s sense that something’s “wrong” that leads to the solution of the mystery.

In Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson’s The Nightmare Factor, a group of strangers is caught in a terrifying health nightmare when they’re struck by what looks like a particularly virulent outbreak of influenza. As the illness begins to claim more and more lives, Dr. Calvin Doohan of the World Health Organization works frantically with the San Francisco Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control to find out what’s responsible for the deaths. These strangers have in common only their membership in a civic group, but that common thread is the key to the mystery behind this severe outbreak.

Hugh Pentecost’s The Fourteen Dilemma tells the story of a group of strangers who are all staying on the fourteenth floor of New York City’s exclusive Hotel Beaumont. Among the floor’s residents is the lucky Walters family, who’s won an all-expenses paid trip to the city. Two days after their arrival, beautiful twelve-year-old Marilyn Walters wanders off. At first, no-one thinks much about it, but when she doesn’t return, the hotel staff works feverishly to find her. When her body is found stuffed in a trash can, hotel manager Pierre Chambrun works with public relations director Mark Haskell and the police to find out who murdered Marilyn and why. The most logical suspects are the other guests on the posh fourteenth floor, and we gradually learn more about them as the sleuths look into each one’s background.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Lived High, former investigative reporter Jim Qwilleran, Braun’s sleuth, agrees to help save the Casablanca apartment building from demolition. It’s an historic building and some of the residents have nowhere else to go, so they’re desperate to keep their homes. Qwilleran moves into the building, taking the apartment of art dealer Dianne Bessinger, who was head of the committee to save the building. Bessinger was recently murdered, and it soon becomes clear that someone in the building was probably responsible. As Qwilleran gets to know more and more about the residents of the building, many of whom seem to be strangers to each other, we learn more and more of their pasts. As the effort to save the building and solve Bessinger’s murder goes on, the stangers’ lives intersect more and more. Those interactions provide an interesting backdrop to the solution of the mystery of Bessinger’s death, especially as suspicions arise about which one of them is responsible for it.

And then there’s Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take. In that novel, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is approached by Jónas Júlíusson, the new owner of an upscale spa/resort. He wants to sue the former owners of the land and buildings, because he believes the former owners didn’t tell him that the area is haunted. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, and isn’t sure she wants to take on this case. However, she does like the chance for a spa getaway. So she agrees to come to the spa and find out what’s going on. Then, the body of a young and successful architect, Birna Hálldorsdóttir, who was staying at the hotel, is discovered on the beach not far from the hotel. When Jónas is accused of the crime, Thóra agrees to defend him and gets involved in the investigation. As Thóra tries to trace Birna’s last days, the residents of the hotel are drawn together in a web of suspicion.

Whenever a group of strangers is gathered together, especially in a situation where they feel trapped, this adds tension and drama to a story. Which novels have you enjoyed that use this theme?


  1. The ones that sprung to mind were Then there were none and Strangers on a Train but any story involving tough situations (like kidnapping) are good because often the kidnapper and victim start learning about each other.


  2. Clarissa - You make a very interesting point that I hadn't thought of. When there's a kidnapping, or other hostage situation, it's interesting how each "side" gets to know about each other. I think I'm going to have to do a post on kidnapping. Thanks! : )

  3. When you think 'strangers' the first book you think of is Murder on the Orient Express, and of how people could pretend to be strangers when actually they were all so intimately connected.

    Death in the Clouds, I read only very recently- lovely story. The rest of the books you mention sound great too- will try to pick them up as soon as possible.

    Somehow, I have strangers in my mind these days, because I have met some really nice ones.

  4. Rayna - Thanks for mentioning Murder on the Orient Express. It's a wonderful context for a bunch of strangers meeting and having to be in contact. I almost mentioned it myself; as you say, those strangers are intimately connected even before they meet on the train and that makes the story all the more interesting.

    I'm glad you've met some kind strangers; I always like it when that happens to me, too.

  5. Strangers on a Train came immediately to mind--and it functions as a good warning not to talk to strangers!

  6. Elizabeth - Oh, I agree completely! Strangers on a Train is also creepy because one of the strangers doesn't know the other one is unhinged. It's really taut and suspenseful.

  7. My biggest fear is to be trapped in a stuck elevator with a mime and a contortionist. Scary. Very, very scary.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. Stephen - LOL!! Oh that is a funny (and scary) mental picture. Not something I would want, either...

  9. I've always loved "Murder on the Orient Express" and "And Then There Were None". There's always something that all the strangers have in common. It's a classic scenario, strangers stranded somewhere and they have to work together to achieve something.

  10. Elspeth - Absolutely! Putting a group of disparate strangers in a situation where they have to work together is just full of possibilities, isn't it? That's something I've always liked about those novels, myself. I really think that scenario is delectable.

  11. It's funny, I sware I commented on this post last night! But here's my answer again...

    Hard Boys started it all (my father's)...Then it was a compilation of Hitchcock-type/Poe-esque short stories with graphic images that caught my attention...Then there was Nancy Drew and Christopher Pike...Then straight for modern mystery novels like Koontz and Kellerman.

    Great question!