Right now, we’re all being asked to stay at home as much as possible, even in those areas of the world that are starting to ease Covid-19 restrictions. Plenty of people don’t like feeling confined like that (how many of us would love a proper haircut, a relaxing dinner in a restaurant, or to go to a concert or play). If you’re feeling cooped up these days, you’re not alone. In fact, a quick look at some crime fiction shows lots of cases of people who are more or less confined, even though they aren’t physically restrained.
For example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper tells the story of a young physician and his wife who take a summer break at a colonial mansion. The young woman has been diagnosed with ‘temporary nervous depression’ after the birth of the couple’s first child, and her husband wants her to have a ‘rest cure.’ She’s more or less confined to the upstairs nursery of the house they’ve taken, and strongly discouraged from going anywhere or seeing anyone. As time goes by, the woman becomes more and more obsessed with the wallpaper in the nursery, and the woman she comes to believe is trapped there. As the story progresses, the young woman gradually becomes more and more detached from reality, and we see just how much her husband has confined her. It’s a really creepy story, and highlights what confinement can do.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Sherlock Holmes gets a new case courtesy of Grant Munro. Munro and his wife Effie had a strong marriage, but she’s started to act much more secretly. She’s even asked him for a large sum of money, begging him not to question why she wants it. Munro has also seen her spending time at a cottage near the couple’s home. Oddly, he’s also seen what looks like a yellow face looking out of one of the windows. One day, he actually enters the cottage, but finds no-one there, although there are signs that the place is occupied. Holmes tells Munro to let him know if the occupants return. Munro does this, and he, Holmes, and Dr. Watson go to the cottage. There, they find out the truth about why Effie is so secretive, and who is in the cottage.
Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death is the story of the American Boynton family. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is tyrannical; Hercule Poirot even describes her as a ‘mental sadist.’ She keeps a strong hold over her stepsons Lennox and Raymond, her stepdaughter Carol, and her biological daughter Ginevra. In fact, she dominates them so much that they don’t dare to question her or disobey. They’ve been confined to their home and property more or less all of their lives, not by physical restraint, but by psychology. Then, unexpectedly, Mrs. Boynton decides to take the family on a sightseeing tour of the Middle East, including a trip to the ancient city of Petra. While they’re there, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like heart failure. That’s not out of the question, as she’s in poor health. But Colonel Carbury, who officially investigates, isn’t satisfied. He asks Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Throughout the story, we see how confinement has impacted the family, and what it’s like when that confinement ends.
One of the recurring characters in the Ellery Queen stories is Paula Paris, a Hollywood gossip columnist. Queen meets her in The Four of Hearts, when he’s looking into the deaths of two famous film stars. Paula has agoraphobia, so she never leaves her home. Instead of going to places where the stars go, she has people come to her. And she’s well enough known, and her column influential enough, that people are eager to do so. Queen learns that if anyone knows anything about the people in Hollywood, it’s she. So, he visits her to get background information on the victims and their histories. The two begin a relationship; and, little by little, Paula begins to leave her home. Later, she even accompanies Queen on some of his adventures.
There’s also J.P. Pomare’s Call Me Evie. Teenager Kate Bennet has been living in a remote New Zealand beach town with a guardian she calls Bill. They’ve exiled themselves because of something horrible that happened in Melbourne, where Kate grew up. Kate doesn’t remember much about the incident, though, although she knows she’s hiding something awful. Bill wants her to forget about it all and pick up a new life. He even gives her a new name, Evie, and they work on a made-up life story. Kate/Evie is a capable enough teen, but Bill doesn’t want her going places or meeting a lot of people. Confined most of the time, she usually spends her days at home and on the property. It’s a small town, though, and it doesn’t take long for Kate to start to meet people. Little by little, as Kate starts to put the pieces of what happened together, we learn the truth about her, and about what happened in Melbourne.
Confinement isn’t fun, even if it’s not confinement in prison or a hospital. I think most of us are eager to get out more and do the things we’re used to doing. But, if you think about crime fiction, maybe our particular ‘stay at home’ situation isn’t so bad…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Colin Hay’s Who Can it Be Now.