Wednesday, April 6, 2011

And Baby, That's All There Is to the Coastline Craze*

I live near the Southern California coast, about 10km from the beach. You might think it would be wonderful to live so near to the beach, especially if you happen to be fond of holidays on the coast. And there is something to be said for swimming, reading and sunning on the sand, and water sports. The scenery can be beautiful, too. But the fact is, coastal living is not always all it’s advertised to be. For one thing, it’s a popular (and therefore, really expensive) place to live. For another, the coastal spots are also popular tourist destinations. That means lots of tourist traffic and big crowds, no parking spaces and lots of shops selling tacky tourist junk. Trust me. And the coast can be a very dangerous place. Just look at what crime fiction tells us about the perils of the coast, and you’ll soon see what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, for instance, takes place at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay, off the Devon coast. Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday there, as are several other guests. Among those other guests are Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife, Arlena Stuart Marshall and his daughter Linda Marshall. Shortly after the family’s arrival, gossip starts to go around about Arlena Marshall, who’s both beautiful and notorious, and her budding relationship with another guest Patrick Redfern. Then one day, Arlena is found strangled on a nearby beach. Since was Poirot was probably the last person to see her alive (besides the killer, of course), he gets involved in the investigation. At first, it looks like a case of jealousy gone horribly wrong, but it’s not long before Kenneth Marshall is able to prove an unbreakable alibi. With Marshall off the list of suspects, Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer.

Paul Alexis finds the coast to be a very dangerous place in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. Harriet Vane is taking a hiking holiday near Wilvercombe when she discovers Alexis’ body. Vane alerts the authorities, but by the time they get back to the scene, the tide has come in, and there are very few clues as to what happened to the victim. It’s soon clear, though, that he’s been murdered, so the police look into his background to find out who would have wanted to murder him. Alexis, who has a Russian background, is a professional dancer at a local hotel. At first, it seems that he’s been murdered as a part of a Russian political plot, but it’s not long before that theory, too, turns out to be wrong. Lord Peter Wimsey joins the investigation and he and Vane discover that one key to Alexis’ death lies in the cracking of an interesting cipher. In the end, the sleuths find out that Alexis’ death had nothing to do with his Russian background.

In Minette Walters’ The Breaker, brothers Paul and Daniel Spender are exploring near Chapman’s Pool in Dorset when they discover the body of thirty-one-year-old Kate Sumner washed up on the beach. The boys tell their story to Stephen Harding, an actor who’s taking a holiday in the area, and who is the first adult on the scene. Harding, in turn, contacts the police and soon, P.C. Nick Ingram begins an investigation. In the meantime, Kate’s three-year-old daughter Hannah is found wandering around in the nearby town of Poole. Ingram works with DI Galbraith, WPC Griffiths and Superintendent Carpenter to look into Kate Sumner’s life and find out who would have wanted to kill her. There are really only three viable suspects. One of them is Kate Sumner’s husband William; another is Harding himself, who knew Kate better than he admits. The third is Harding’s room-mate Tony Bridges, who’s also hiding what he knows about Kate. In the end, we find that Kate’s murder was what you would call a psychological one.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take also shows us the dangers of the coast. In that novel, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by Jónas Júlíusson to pursue a lawsuit. He’s a spa and resort owner who wants to sue the former owners of the land on which he built his resort. His claim is that the area is haunted and the owners never informed him of that fact. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts or haunting, but the fee appeals to her, as does the chance for a spa holiday while she’s investigating the claims. Shortly after her arrival at the spa, Thóra gets swept up in a much more important investigation. The body of another guest, architect Birna Hálldorsdóttir, is found on the beach not far from the spa. Jónas Júlíusson is suspected of the murder, since he had a relationship with Birna, and it becomes clear that she was not a “one-man woman.” So Thóra agrees to defend her client against this new charge. With help from her lover Matthew Reich, Thóra discovers who the real killer is, and how that murder is related to the long-ago disappearance of a local child.

And then there’s Ely Griffith’s House at Sea's End. Ruth Galloway is the Head of Forensic Archaeology at the University of North Norfolk. She is also a new mother. She returns to her work after maternity leave only to get involved in an eerie investigation. A team of archaeologists is doing a study of coastal erosion near Broughton Seas End, a lonely seaside village. In the course of their work, the team has discovered six skeletons. So Galloway begins the work of finding out whose remains the team has found and why these people died. When it’s clear that the skeletons are of people who were murdered, Galloway finds herself working with the one person she was hoping to steer clear of: DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Galloway’s daughter Kate. It turns out that the sixty-year-old bodies are not of local people, but likely are Germans. It also turns out that their deaths are related to a local wartime secret. When a journalist who’s following the course of the investigation is found dead, it’s obvious that someone doesn’t want that secret discovered.

In Tim Comstock’s Reunion at Carmel, we meet Carmel, California’s Chief of Police Will Kempton. Kempton and his children moved to Carmel after the tragic death of his wife Debbie, and the family has settled in reasonably well. Then the usually peaceful town is rocked by the beachside discovery of the brutally-murdered body of nineteen-year-old Brady Carson. Kempton and his hastily-organised team of investigators begins to search for Carson’s murderer. Then there’s another brutal murder. And another. It’s soon clear that someone is preying on the town and the team has to work frantically to find out who the killer is. In the end, we find that the murderer has a very personal reason for targeting Carmel – and Kempton.

Nicola Upson’s Angel With Two Faces is also an example of the dangers of the coast. Upson’s sleuth, author Josephine Tey, has been invited by Inspector Archie Penrose to spend a holiday in Cornwall. It turns out to be a far from peaceful visit, though. First, an estate worker dies in what looks like a tragic riding accident. Then, a local boy disappears. Tey and Penrose investigate these eerie events and their possible connection with a local legend about a lake that claims a victim every seven years. I confess that I haven’t read this one (yet), but it was too good an example not to include :-).

As you can see, coastal holidays can be exciting, interesting and certainly a diversion from everyday life. So if you’re thinking about where you’d like to go on your next trip, go ahead, catch a wave. Or perhaps not ;-).


Thanks to Maxine at Petrona and Dorte at DJs Krimiblog for the inspiration!



NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ Catch a Wave.

20 comments:

  1. Love this post! I live near the coast, too, and I always love mysteries set there. You know I'm a list maker, so I'll add these titles to my coast list! Thanks

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  2. Don Winslow does a good job with the surfing community.

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  3. Janet - Oh, thank you - that's very kind :-). I agree; mysteries set on a coast are just terrific, aren't they? So many possibilities....
    And I'm honoured to add to your coast list!



    Patti - Oh, thanks for that! I'll have to check out Winslow's work.

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  4. Hi Margot - thanks for dropping by and sorry I'm being such a bum pal with commenting lately - darn A to Zed has me frantic!
    I live by the coast too, a wild rocky Atlantic coast. I set my first mystery at Peggy's Cove, our most famous spot in Nova Scotia and there is lots to do with crime and fun happening on these waters! I love the books you mentioned - think I've read the first three and the others look terrific too.
    Jan Morrison

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  5. I have always loved evil under the sun! I agree that the beach is a wonderful setting for a mystery.

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  6. Jan - I've never been to Peggy's Cove, but the 'photos I've seen are gorgeous! What a terrific setting for a murder mystery! And no worries about how often you comment; I'm honoured and flattered that you comment at all :-).


    Clarissa - I think Evil Under the Sun is one of Christie's really good 'uns. And the setting is really a fine backdrop to the action.

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  7. Ah, you did write it! The best - and worst - of these is The Breaker. A terrifying crime novel that gets under your skin!

    And I know what you mean about living near the sea. I grew up 15 km from the finest beach in Denmark (Løkken), but in the summer holidays we would always go to another beach because there were so many German tourists in Løkken that you couldn´t even find a seat for our tiny bums ;)

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  8. Dorte - Yes, of course I wrote it! It was a terrific idea for a post :-).

    And I agree; The Breaker really is a creepy novel that does haunt you. And it's not even terribly graphic or gory. It's just....eerie.

    I know exactly why you'd leave such a wonderful beach during the summer. Lots of people who live in this area do the same thing for the same reason. You can't move without bumping into someone and don't even think about trying to find a table at a decent restaurant or a place to surf, play golf, or do just about anything.

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  9. We're probably neighbors. We love going to the beach and just hanging out. I took a pic of Main Beach in Laguna Beach and that is what you see through the wormhole on my dust cover. Lots of the locations my characters frequent are actual establishments on the beach. The beach is very inspiring to me.

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  10. Stephen - We actually are neighbours. I live about 45 minutes south of Laguna Beach, so I know of what you speak :-). The coast and beach areas are really inspirational, aren't they? It's so easy to imagine all sorts of things happening at the beach, and, especially during tourist season, all sorts of people are there. So you've got a motley crew of people as well as that beach setting. It really is a terrific context for a novel.

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  11. Margot this is one of the shortcomings of Madrid, it is not on the coast and therefore we have no beach. Which I'm very much missing after spending twenty years near the cost in Tarragona (Spain). But we can't have it all. Nice post by the way.

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  12. José Ignacio - I've heard of Tarragona, and that it's a beautiful place. I'm not surprised you're missing the seaside now. Hopefully you are able to take holidays at the beach sometimes even if you don't live near one. And thanks for the kind words :-).

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  13. Great post, and examples, Margot.

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  14. Maxine - Thanks very much, and thanks for the idea :-).

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  15. I immediately think of Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone and her home in Santa Teresa where she runs along the beach to clear her head. Seems like a pretty dangerous place to me. :-)

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  16. Barbara - You're right! I didn't mention Santa Teresa or Kinsey Millhone. Thanks for the reminder. And yes, I think the beach can be a very dangerous place....

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  17. I grew up in Victoria, British Columbia so I'm very familiar with living on the coast and with hoards of tourists every summer! I always found it interesting that after the third weekend of May there were areas of downtown Victoria that locals would never go near because of the crowds of tourists. It seemed to be a code of honour.

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  18. Elspeth - I'm not surprised at all that the locals where you grew up didn't go near the tourist places. That's exactly the way many locals where I live feel about some of the "just for tourist" places. But then again, there are several great places around here that the tourists never hear about ;-).

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  19. The beach can feature in a murder plot in so many ways which makes it a beautiful place to visit but also dangerous. Great post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  20. Mason - You put that quite well: beaches can be beautiful, but very dangerous places. Especially when there's a murderer lurking around... I think they can also be mysterious, and that adds to the setting, too.

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