I Can Still Remember Packed Together Like a Can of Sardines*

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Louise Leidner, wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner. It’s highly unlikely that anyone outside the dig team would have committed the crime, so Poirot concentrates on the people at the expedition house. He soon discovers that the atmosphere among the group has been tense and uncomfortable. One of the characters, a nurse named Amy Leatheran, puts it this way:

‘If people are too much cooped up together it’s got a way of getting on their nerves.’

That sort of strain isn’t the reason for the murder, but Nurse Leatheran has a point. When we’re cooped up with people – even people we care about or love – even the smallest idiosyncrasy can loom large (e.g. ‘Will you please stop rattling that newspaper whenever you turn a page?’). Before long, there can be an all-out fight over something as minor as where someone leaves a comb or hairbrush.

The feeling of being packed together isn’t very much fun, and a lot of people have had to deal with it during this year of the pandemic. But it can add an effective layer of tension to a story. And when it’s used well, it can bring much to a story’s atmosphere. In fact, Christie used it in more than one story (didn’t she, fans of And Then There Were None?).

In Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger, a postman named Joseph Higgins is admitted to Heron Park Hospital, which has been converted for wartime (WW II) use. He’s got a broken femur, which isn’t in itself life-threatening, but which does need surgery. Tragically, he dies during the operation. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police is sent to the hospital to supervise the paperwork, which is supposed to be routine. However, Higgins’ widow insists that he was murdered, and it’s not long before Cockrill begins to take her seriously. He’s working on the investigation when a nurse who was present at the operation is herself murdered. It turns out she had too much to drink at a party, and blurted out that she knew Higgins was murdered, and she knew how. Cockrill establishes who the suspects are, and more and more, isolates them. As the novel goes on, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to be cooped up together, and the whole experience upsets everyone. That adds a real layer of atmosphere and tension to the novel.

Hake Talbot’s The Rim of the Pit takes place in a small New England town during a winter storm. A house party gathers at the home of Frank and Irene Ogden. This isn’t a typical gathering, though. Irene’s first husband, Grimaud Désanat, owned a piece of valuable land. On it grows a type of tree that is needed for the Ogden family business. Désanat didn’t want the land logged for twenty years, but the wood is needed now, so Irene (who is a self-styled medium) has decided to host a séance to communicate with her former husband, and get his permission to do the logging. The séance is duly held, and is eerie in itself. Then, later, Irene is murdered. The weather has basically trapped all of the guests for the time being, so they’re facing that stress as well as the stress of knowing that one of them could be a killer. It doesn’t help matters that a few of those present believe in spiritualism, and wonder whether something otherworldly is going on. That plus the stress of being cooped up together add much to the tension in the story.

Jane Haddam’s Not A Creature Was Stirring is the first of her novels to feature former FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. He’s invited to Christmas Eve dinner at the home of wealthy Robert Hannaford. It seems Hannaford especially wants to talk something over with Demarkian. Demarkian is inclined to send his regrets, but he’s persuaded to go because Hannaford has offered a large donation to Demarkian’s church if he agrees. By the time he gets to the Hannaford home, though, it’s too late:  Hannaford’s been murdered. The victim is survived by his wife and children, all of whom are at the house to observe the holiday. And each one has a good motive for murder. The family is thoroughly dysfunctional, and Hannaford made no pretense of a close relationship with his children. So there’s resentment and to spare, and that’s to say nothing of the large fortune to be distributed. The members of the family have to stay at the house during the investigation, and it’s soon clear that they don’t get along. Matters are only made worse as they are required to stay together, and that tension adds to the story.

More recently, Anne Holt’s 1222 is the story of a group of passengers who start out taking a train from Bergen to Oslo. A crash leaves the conductor dead and the passengers stranded. They’re transported to a local hotel where they’ll have to wait until arrangements can be made for them. Then, one of the passengers is killed. Another, police detective Hanne Wilhelmsen, is reluctantly drawn into the investigation. Then, there are other murders. Wilhelmsen is going to have to work fast if she’s to find the killer before anyone else dies. And it doesn’t help matters that everyone’s cooped up in the same hotel, and getting on each other’s nerves.

And that’s the thing. Even people who really like, or even love, each other need some space to themselves. If people are packed in together for long enough, nerves start to fray, and that can have a lot of very negative consequences.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s A Room of Our Own.


16 thoughts on “I Can Still Remember Packed Together Like a Can of Sardines*

    1. She really made some fantastic use of that trope, didn’t she, Rachel? And she made really creative use of different contexts, etc., too, to make it feel fresh every time. It’s a really effective way to build tension and suspense, isn’t it?

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  1. Well, the not being packed into a train and underground twice a day five days a week has certainly improved my quality of life. I don’t know how I’ll go back to the commuting life!

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    1. I know the feeling, Marina Sofia! There are some good reasons to take public transit, but the crowds? No. It’s no wonder so many of us are so grumpy when we get to work. I’m much happier not being packed in with a lot of other people.

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  2. This is an area where writers excel, I think. We have the ability to crawl into the writer cave and let the rest of the world melt away. As for the entrapment trope, yes, I agree. That type of environment is rife with conflict. Always a good thing in crime fiction. 🙂

    Happy New Year, Margot! xo

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    1. Happy New Year to you, too, Sue! I agree that being a writer makes it very easy to slip away and keep the rest of the world at bay. It’s one of the perks, says this introvert. In fiction, of course, being at close quarters can really add to the tension and conflict. That’s especially true if the characters can’t leave the situation. Little wonder it’s such a popular trope!

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    1. Oh, that is a good example, Neeru! Thank you. As for Not a Creature Was Stirring, I think it’s a fine novel, and the start of a solid series. If you try it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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  3. Being cooped up with a lot of other people is my idea of hell, but it’s always fun when it happens in books! I feel that killing someone for rattling a newspaper repeatedly shouldn’t really count as murder though – justifiable homicide, surely? 😉

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    1. Ha! I can certainly see a jury acquitting you for the newspaper-rattling – er – incident, FictionFan! Any jury ought to understand that! 😉 I know what you mean, too, about being cooped up with a lot of people. It would be absolutely horrible for me, too, although as you say, it can be such a great premise for a crime novel. It’s easy to see how it would ratchet up the tension, that’s for sure!

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  4. I enjoyed a book this year – Kevin Donerty’s The Leonardo Gulag – which featured some artists behind the Iron Curtain in the 50s. They were disappeared and transported to a forger’s camp in the wilds of Siberia. It was a claustrophobic existence with a crammed journey by train followed by the isolation of a remote prison camp and the pressure of producing quality art forgeries or death.

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    1. Oh, yes, Col, I remember your fine review of that one. I hadn’t heard of a forger’s camp before, but that does sound interesting. And certainly the transportation experience, and being in the camp, would be claustrophobic. It’s a really interesting premise for a novel, and I can see why it kept your interest.

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  5. I set one of my novels, Cold Cold Heart on a remote Antarctic research station, with only ten wintering over (and, yes, a nod to And Then There Were None) and no way in or out for 9 months. It was a lot of fun – for me, but not for the characters.

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    1. Oh, I can imagine that Cold Cold Heart was fun to write, Christine. And somehow, I suspected you might have had And Then There Were None in mind… I have to admit, I’ve not yet taken the risk of writing a story like that; I give you a lot of credit, because yours came out beautifully. At some point I may just try it myself.

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