There Are Places I Remember*

I don’t have to convince you of how important setting is in a novel. Setting can build tension, add to atmosphere, and play a role in the sort of story that develops. There are many novels that feature a strong sense of setting, but as this is posted, it would have been Agatha Christie’s 132nd birthday. So, to celebrate Agatha Christie, I’d like to take a look at how she used setting.

When people think of Christie’s work, they often think of the ‘village’ novel, where a small English village is the setting, and everyone knows everyone. Certainly, Christie wrote several novels like that. The Murder at the Vicarage and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side both take place, for instance, in Miss Marple’s village of St. Mary Mead. A Murder is Announced and The Moving Finger, which also feature Miss Marple, don’t take place in St. Mary Mead, but their settings are also small English villages, with vicars, town gossips, village shops, and more.

Villages also figure strongly in some of Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels. Sad Cypress, Mrs. McGinty’s Dead and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd are just three examples. In those novels, as well as Postern of Fate, which feature Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, we also see another important aspect of village life: hidden secrets and long memories. Christie makes use of that sense of village history to add tension, create motive, and develop characters. In that sense, you could argue that the village becomes almost a character of its own.

But Christie didn’t always write about villages. As you’ll know, she was married to an archaeologist, and spent time in the Middle East. That time must have made quite an impression on her, because several of her novels and stories take place there and evoke that setting. In Appointment With Death, Murder in Mesopotamia, The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb, and Death Comes as the End, for instance, most of the action takes place in different parts of the Middle East. Except, perhaps, for Death Comes as the End, the stories reflect Christie’s view as a foreigner, so it’s an interesting perspective from which to see that part of the world. In some ways, that perspective isn’t exactly flattering, but in some, there’s also the sense of novelty and even wonder at a very different setting and different ways of life. There’s a real feeling for the climate, the sights, and some of the customs.

Islands are also important in some of Christie’s stories. Islands can be exotic and visually stunning and restful. So, the setting can be an effective contrast to a murder story (dark doings in an idyllic place). That’s what we see, for instance, in Triangle at Rhodes and Evil Under the Sun, in which Poirot goes on an island holiday, only to end up investigating murder. Miss Marple does the same in A Caribbean Mystery. In those novels, Christie conveys the beauty of an island and its inviting climate, while at the same time using that setting to put the murder in stark relief.

Islands aren’t all paradise, though. There can also be a sense of being a bit confined. And that can add to the suspense. So can bad weather and dangerous places such as cliffs. Christie especially depicts this in And Then There Were None. In that novel, ten people are invited to a private island, only to find themselves cut off by bad weather. As if that’s not enough, someone on the island is trying to kill all of them. The island here adds greatly to the suspense, especially when the weather turns, and a storm makes it impossible to leave.

Another setting Christie conveyed is the old family house. Big old houses often take on personalities of their own. They can be interesting to explore and can contain a lot of fascinating features and history – the expression ‘If these walls could speak!’ really sums it up. But old family houses can also be eerie and, in a sense, dangerous in their own right. That ‘old house with secrets’ setting can add to the tension among the characters who live or say there. It can also hide clues. Christie adds that element in Crooked House, The Hollow, After the Funeral, Five Little Pigs, and Dead Man’s Folly, among others. Often, the history of a house is woven in with the history of the family members that live there, and Christie adds that to those novels, too.

And I wouldn’t want to write a post about Christie’s use of setting without mentioning the way she uses transportation. Trains, planes, and boats are the main settings in, respectively, Murder on the Orient Express, The Mystery of the Blue Train, Death in the Clouds, and Death on the Nile. Interestingly, these novels are set in different physical places (England, Eastern Europe, Egypt, etc..). But it’s the transportation itself that really takes the stage as the setting. Readers get a sense of the confinement people can feel on a train; there’s not really anywhere much to go while you’re on board. Planes, too, don’t offer much in the way of movement. Even cruise ships are limited. And that adds to the suspense if someone is killed on board, as happens in these stories. It also, if you will, draws a circle around a limited group of suspects. That, too, adds to the suspense.

And that’s the thing about an effective use of setting. It adds to the story. It also gives the reader a sense of a particular place. It also can add to the suspense of a story, and even become a sort of character. Christie knew that, and, although she’s perhaps best known for her plotting, she also conveyed setting clearly, too. Which are your top Christie settings?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ In My Life.


17 thoughts on “There Are Places I Remember*

  1. Great post Margot, and you’re spot on. People tend to dismiss Christie as just writing about murders in villages and country houses, but it they read her more widely they’d find out there’s much more. Her standalone books often venture into really interesting territory, and her sense of place is excellent. I do like the ones where her characters go east into lands she explored herself – great fun!

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    1. Thanks, KBR. You know, I often wonder whether Christie enjoyed writing about the Middle East; her descriptions are just so vivid, and I’ve gotten the feeling that she had some good memories of being there. Perhaps I’m wrong. I agree with you, too, that her standalones really are interesting on a lot of levels, not least of which is her use of setting. It’s certainly not just villages and country houses!

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  2. I cannot add to Christie settings. I can add that setting has probably drawn me to more crime fiction than any other reason. That is if I can identify the setting by at least an area in a named country. it does not have to be a real life community. I find it harder to be drawn into a book in which I cannot physically visualize the setting from experience or looking up the location. The books of Gail Bowen (Regina) and Anthony Bidulka (Saskatoon and area) and Louise Penny (the fictional Three Pines that is located in the Eastern Townships) are all Canadian examples.

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    1. Setting really does add to a story, Bill, there’s no doubt about that. Like you, I prefer books where I have a strong sense of place, local culture, and so on. All of that makes the story more real. Thanks also for those Canadian suggestions. I felt the same way about them, and really feel ‘there’ when I read those authors.

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  3. Margot, I probably wouldn’t appreicate the breadth and variety of her settings because she’s not someone I’ve read particularly often. The few I have have mainly been a village environment with a country house, plus a London setting and some of the time spent in France.

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    1. Christie did do a country house and village setting well, I think, Col. And there are a few that have a setting (or are at least partially set) in France, and I’m glad you’ve mentioned them, too. If you ever do get to read some of her stuff set in the Middle East, I hope you’ll like those, too!

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  4. I think what struck me when I read They Came to Baghdad was how much she had used her experiences at digs with her husband in Iraq, that she recounted in her non-fiction book, Come Tell Me How You Live. It was fascinating to compare the two books.

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    1. It really is interesting, isn’t it, Cath, the perspective you get when you read a story and then the non-fiction that goes with it. I think it gives one a look at the way the author was thinking, and what the inspiration has been. And thanks for mentioning They Came to Baghdad. It’s a fantastic example of the way Christie used setting in her stories.

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  5. Really well written post Margot! I enjoyed reading it.
    My favourite Christie setting is the old family house. It’s the first that comes to my mind, and I love the idea of all the suspects confined to a single house with hidden clues and whispered conversations. Christie had so many family house mysteries that we can start to see familiar patterns among them – a guest who has nothing to do with the crime, a fabricated clue, a mysterious rendezvous, and so on. I love that this type of setting not only makes for a good mystery but also takes me back to a specific kind of place, time and social setting in history.
    Transportation as a setting is a close second for me, again because of the ‘locked room’ element. My favourites are Death in the Clouds and Death on the Nile. In the first, the inner monologues of the characters are so cleverly written, you can hardly choose whom to suspect!
    Thanks for the post 🙂

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    1. Thanks, Regulus98. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I agree with you that Christie did some brilliant family house mysteries. The house becomes almost a character in its own right, which to me, adds to the story. And, yes, there are all those private conversations, letters, hidden clues, and so on. Christie wrote some great characters, too, didn’t she? And the thing is, although some of the characters follow certain patterns, you never know with Christie who is actually guilty. For her, any character could be the killer, so you can’t get away with thinking, ‘Oh, it couldn’t be her/him!’ It could be. I think you’re right, too, that she did inner monologues well. Your example of >Death in the Clouds is a great one. I also like the inner monologues we read in And Then There Were None. As you say, you never know whom to suspect!

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  6. I always enjoy the village settings best, though I like them all. Poirot’s travels abroad are always good and I love the way she uses her knowledge of the Middle Eastern countries as background to several of her plots – a really effective use of the write what you know principle!

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    1. I really do like the village settings, too, FictionFan. I often have the feeling Christie had a very observant eye and a real sense of village life. But, yes, the Middle East must have made quite an impression on her. She really seemed to enjoy writing about those places, and she depicted them so clearly! As you say, write what you know…

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