Tuesday, April 26, 2011

I'm Underground, I Fell Down*

A murder can occur just about anywhere, and that fact gives crime fiction writers a lot of latitude when they’re choosing settings. A well-chosen setting can add a layer of interest and quite a lot of suspense to a story, especially if the setting is a little eerie itself. Perhaps it’s that sense of eeriness that makes underground settings like caves, mines and tunnels such deliciously creepy places for a fictional murder. If you add to that the fact that caves, mines and tunnels often have interesting histories, it’s no wonder that there are several crime fiction stories that take place in those settings.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Also staying at the hotel are Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena Stuart Marshall and his daughter Linda Marshall. Shortly after the Marshall family’s arrival, gossip begins to circulate about Arlena’s budding friendship with fellow guest Patrick Redfern. Then one day, Arlena is found strangled on the beach at Pixy’s Cove, not far from the hotel. Poirot was quite possibly the last person to see Arlena Marshall alive, other than her murderer, so he helps in the investigation. The most likely suspect seems to be the victim’s husband. Soon enough, though, he’s able to prove an alibi, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. As they look into the case, they learn about Pixy’s Cave, located on the cove where Arlena Marshall’s body was found. Most people don’t know about the cave, and the entrance isn’t easy to find. When Poirot and the police explore the cave, they find a secret that someone at the hotel has been keeping. They also find a clue to Arlena Marshall’s murder.

In Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, coal and uranium mines play an important role in an old Ute Nation story about a Ute named Ironhand, who always seemed able to get away without being caught after looting on Navajo lands. The story was that Ironhand could fly, because he was never seen running or riding away. Over one hundred years later, that myth figures into the disappearance of one of Ironhand’s descendents who’s apparently guilty of taking part in the robbery of a Reservation casino. Navajo Tribal Police officer Jim Chee gets involved in this case when fellow officer Bernadette Manuelito asks him to investigate the theft. Hillerman’s other sleuth, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, also gets involved in the case when an old friend says that he knows who the thieves are. Leaphorn and Chee look into the case and find out that the thieves may be connected to an anti-government group that’s raising money for their cause. The sleuths also make a connection between the casino robbery, the old Ute story and the abandoned mines.

Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow also features an abandoned mine. Detective John Cardinal was removed from a haunting case six months ago. Thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, a member of the Chippewa Nation, disappeared. It was officially believed that she’d run away, but Cardinal was convinced otherwise and searched desperately for her. He never found her. Now, her body has been discovered in an abandoned mine shaft in rural Windigo, Ontario. Seemingly vindicated, Cardinal returns to the investigation. It’s not long, though, before Cardinal connects Katie Pine’s death to two other murders. Then another boy disappears. It seems very much as though a serial killer has targeted the area. At the same time as Cardinal is trying to catch a murderer before that person strikes again, he’s being investigated himself. His partner Lise Delorme has been recruited by the RCMP to find out if Cardinal has been taking bribes from drug dealer Kyle Corbett to protect his drug operations from the Mounties. Now Cardinal has to clear his name and reputation as well as solve the murders.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here, an old railroad tunnel proves to be crucial in solving a series of murders. Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is the postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia, where everyone knows everyone else. Like everyone else in town, Harry is shaken when wealthy contractor Kelly Craycroft is murdered. Then, there’s another murder. And another. Before each murder, the victim gets a postcard with the picture of a tombstone and the words “Wish You Were Here” written on it. Harry is curious about the postcards, especially since she’s the one who puts them in everyone’s mailbox. Bit by bit, Harry puts the mystery together and finds out what the victims had in common. She discovers that the secret to the murders can be found in the old abandoned Greenwood railroad tunnel that was built by one of her own ancestors. It turns out that all of the murders are tied together by greed.

Patricia Stoltey’s The Desert Hedge Murders also features a creepy underground setting. Retired Florida judge Sylvia Thorn accompanies her mother Kristina Grisseljon, and her mother’s travel group, the Florida Flippers, on a gambling-and-sightseeing visit to Laughlin, Nevada. Shortly after their arrival in Nevada, the travel group discovers the body of an unknown dead man in the hotel room shared by two members of the group. The police are called in and are in the process of identifying the man when one of the Florida Flippers disappears. Her body is later discovered when the group takes a tour of the Lone Cactus Gold Mine. Sylvia begins to investigate both deaths and, with help from her brother Willie Grisseljon, figures out how they are connected. The gold mine proves to be very important in the case, and when Sylvia discovers that, she returns to the mine to follow up on an important lead, and risks her life in the process. In the end she discovers what’s hidden in the mine that was worth two lives.

And then there's Martin Edwards' The Arsenic Labyrinth. Ten years ago, Emma Bestwick disappeared from the Lake District village of Coniston. Journalist Tony di Venuto writes a retrospective article about the case that attracts the attention of Guy Koenig, a grafter who’s recently been released from prison and returned to the area. He tells di Venuto that Emma won’t be coming back. Acting on Koenig’s information, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her team re-open the Bestwick case. They discover her body in the Arsenic Labyrinth, an old series of tunnels that were originally constructed to remove arsenic from ore. Along with Bestwick’s body, the team discovers another body that’s been in the abandoned tunnel for over fifty years. In the meantime, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is researching the life of poet, art critic and philosopher John Ruskin, who spent his later years in the Coniston area. In fact, Ruskin’s neighbours built the Arsenic Labyrinth. Gradually, Kind’s research and Scarlett’s investigation lead to the same place: the Labyrinth. In the end, we see how this series of underground tunnels is connected to local family histories, hidden secrets and several deaths.

Underground places like mines, railroad tunnels and caves can make for deliciously suspenseful settings for novels. They also provide good hiding places for bodies, weapons and other secrets. I didn’t even think of how many novels feature this kind of setting until I was getting this post ready, but there are lots of “underground novels” – more, it turns out, than I had space to mention. Which “underground novels” have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Alice (Underground).


  1. Did you leave Stephen Booth's One Last Breath for me? Because I think I've mentioned that one before. Set in a cave, it was one of the most creepy books I've read. You're right it adds such a dynamic part to any story--the setting.

  2. Clarissa - Yes, I have to confess I left that one for you - I was hoping you would bring it up. :-). It really is a very suspenseful book, and I'm glad you mentioned it again :-). Folks, do check out One Last Breath as a terrific example of an "underground story. "

  3. I'd forgotten there were so many caves in mysteries! Definitely a good way to add a darker mood to a book.

  4. Elizabeth - You know, I'd forgotten, too, until I started thinking about it. You're right, though; underground places can really darken the mood and I think they can add an interesting touch of history, too.

  5. As someone who does not even enjoy cellars, this always give me problems. Hate when people fall down or are pushed down a well especially.

  6. Patti - I think we all have those things, whether it's cellars, rats, snakes, high places or something else, that really bother us. And if you don't like cellars, I can imagine why it really bothers you when people get pushed down wells.

  7. It's the dark and the unknown that lets your imagination run riot. This is always the point in the story where I'm shouting, "Don't go down there, you idiot!" Of course, if he didn't, there wouldn't be much of a story. :-)

  8. Barbara - I've done that, too, when I've been reading! It is tempting to shout that, isn't it? I think it's that appeal to our imagination - "What's down there in that dark place?" - that can make these novels so suspenseful. As you say, though, there wouldn't be much of a story if people didn't go down into that basement or explore that abandoned mine, or go into that cave...

  9. Catching up on your posts. You do write some interesting articles, Margot.

    I shouted out, NO, so loud once while reading a scary mystery, where someone became trapped in a cave. I shouted so loud it made DH jump and spill his coffee. He prefers me to read them alone now. LOL

  10. Glynis - Thank you so much for taking the time to read my posts, and for your kind words.

    I had to laugh when I read your story about shouting out loud. I've actually done that, too! To me, that's a sign of a well-written novel, when one's so caught up in the story that one forgets it isn't real :-).

  11. Caves and mines do add an extra layer of suspense and mystery to a story. Forgotten cellars are another intriguing place killers like to hide their victims. An interesting post to get one thinking.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Mason - Thank you :-). And thanks for reminding me of cellars and basements - they really can be terrific places for mayhem, can't they? I can already think of a few novels where an old cellar plays a role.... Hmmmm....