Theatres, especially (but not necessarily) old ones, seem to almost breathe suspense. It makes sense, too. The tension of getting ready to perform, the disparate personalities in the cast and “theatre politics” make for a very effective set of motives for murder. And the buildings themselves lend to the atmosphere, too. There are all sorts of places where a murderer can hide; there are sometimes darkened corridors, abandoned stage sets and other places that can seem eerie; and buildings have history. That, too lends to the story. No wonder the theatre is such an effective backdrop to a murder mystery (yes – pun intended ;-) ).
That’s one reason that many of Ngaio Marsh’s novels are set in the theatre atmosphere. For example, in Enter a Murderer, the Unicorn Theatre is planning a production of The Rat and the Beaver. Arthur Surbonadier is outraged when the leading role he’d thought would go to him goes instead to Felix Gardener. Just before the show begins, a drunken Surbonadier bursts in on Gardener and threatens him. But, when a prop gun turns out to be quite real, it’s Surbonadier who’s shot on stage. Sir Roderick Alleyn is attending the performance and gets involved in the murder investigation.
Simon Brett’s Charles Paris series also focuses on the suspense-charged atmosphere of the theatre. In Murder in the Title, for instance, Paris, who’s down his luck and drinking far too much, gets the part of a corpse in a new murder play at Rugland Spa’s Regent Theatre. The Regent has come down in the world, and it’s hoped that some new plays will bring it back. When accidents start to happen as the cast is getting ready for the play’s opening, Paris gets curious about what’s going on. Then, there’s an apparent suicide. Paris begins to investigate and discovers that someone’s been sabotaging the theatre company’s attempts to revive the Regent’s fortunes.
Even delightful tropical island paradises can provide suspenseful atmospheres for crime. Even if it isn’t literally true, there’s a sense of being isolated that adds to the tension and the level of suspicion.
For example, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians) takes place, for the most part, on Indian Island off the Devon coast. Ten people accept invitations for a stay there, and they duly arrive and get settled in. On the first evening, they’re each accused of having caused at least one death. Then, one of the people on the island is poisoned. Then another death occurs. Soon, it’s clear that there’s a murderer among the group, and the survivors have to figure out who the killer is and stay alive themselves. To make matters worse, the island is cut off by a storm, so that there is no way to leave.
The island atmosphere is also quite effective in Ann Cleeves’ Blue Lightning. Detective Jimmy Perez brings his fiancée Fran Hunter to Fair Isle, where his family lives. It’s a rather insular place to begin with, and there’s tension as Fran tries to fit in and get along. Then, the body of Angela Moore is found in the Fair Isle bird observatory. The island is more or less cut off from the outside world by a series of autumn storms, so Jimmy and Fran can’t really count on outside assistance as they begin to investigate the murderer. Then, there’s another death. In this novel, it’s as much the insular nature of the island community as it is the weather that raises the tension and suspense.
Abandoned Mines and Buildings
When a building or a mine is abandoned, there’s sometimes an eerie sense of the place being haunted by the past. Even when the novel doesn’t have any of the paranormal about it, an abandoned place can be unsettling. Along with that uncomfortable feeling of the past clinging to a place, abandoned buildings and mines are dangerous. So there’s also a sense of foreboding.
For instance, in Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the ten-year-old disappearance of Emma Bestwick. Acting on a tip given to a local newspaper star, the team searches for the body in the Arsenic Labyrinth, an abandoned arsenic mine near the Lake District village of Coniston. Emma Bestwick’s body is indeed found – along with a set of other, older remains. As Scarlett and her team search for answers, there’s another death. With help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett ties together the three deaths and unearths some very nasty secrets.
In Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders, retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn joins her mother and her mother’s travel group for a sightseeing and gambling trip to Laughlin, Nevada. The trip turns deadly when the body of an unidentified man is found in the bathtub in one of the group’s hotel rooms. Then, the body of one of the group members is found in an abandoned gold mine. As Thorn tries to keep the rest of the group safe, she begins to investigate the two deaths and retraces her travelling companion’s last movements; this leads her back to the gold mine, and the eerie and dangerous atmosphere of the gold mine plays a major role in the suspense of this story.
There’s also a real sense of eeriness in the abandoned buildings that feature in Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House. In that novel, Superintendent Duncan Kincaid is called to the scene of a warehouse fire when a woman’s body is found in the debris left by the fire. As Kincaid and his team investigate, they discover that the dead woman could be one of four women who have recently gone missing. With help from his lover and former partner Gemma James, Kincaid finds out what has happened to each of the women, and who the dead woman was. During the course of their investigation, there’s another fire. And another. Each of the fires takes place in a different abandoned building, and part of the suspense of this novel comes as firefighter Rose Kearny and her team investigate the scenes of these fires. Kearny discovers a thread that connects the fires, and this information helps Kincaid and James to solve the mystery of the fires.
There are several other excellent atmospheres, too, that lend themselves beautifully to crime fiction. For instance, there’s the university campus, the museum and the hospital. Which atmospheres do you like best for mysteries? If you’re a writer, how do you weave atmosphere into your stories?