So I Meet You at the Cemetery Gates*

Recently, Moira at Clothes in Books did an interesting post about church tombs in books. They appear in a number of novels and it’s not surprising. Church tombs, mausoleums, and cemeteries are full of atmosphere. And there’s often really interesting information about the people buried there. It’s little wonder, then, that we see such places depicted in a lot of crime fiction. Space doesn’t allow me to mention all of the them, but here are a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have retired and settled into a new home. Tuppence becomes intrigued when she finds a book in which there’s a coded message: Mary Jordan did not die naturally. She starts asking questions about who Mary Jordan was, and soon finds that the home she and Tommy have bought has a history, and so does the town where they live. At one point, she pays a visit to the local churchyard to look at the gravestones. Her thinking is that if she can find a grave for Mary Jordan, that might give her some information. It is, as Tommy says, a rather gloomy place, but Tuppence finds something strange: there are no Mary Jordans buried there.  The visit makes Tuppence even more curious, and, in the end, she and Tommy connect the coded message to the town’s history and a dark secret hidden there.

Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors sees Lord Peter Wimsey and Mervyn Bunter stranded in the small town of Fenchurch St. Paul after a car accident. They’re rescued by the local vicar, Reverand Theodore Venables, who invites them to stay at the vicarage while the car is repaired. Wimsey returns the courtesy by substituting when one of the local change ringers becomes ill and can’t take part in the New Year’s ringing. A few months later, Fenchurch St. Paul is faced with a mystery when the local squire dies. As preparations are made for the funeral, it’s discovered that there is already a body in the grave – an unknown man. Venables writes to Wimsey about the matter, and Wimsey and Bunter return to the village to investigate. They find that this mystery is related to a robbery and theft some years earlier. There are a few scenes in the story that take place in the graveyard, and they add to the sense of atmosphere in the novel.

Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs is the first in her series featuring psychologist and private investigator Maisie Dobbs. In one of her first cases, Christopher Davenham hires her to find out if his wife Celia has been unfaithful. Maisie isn’t exactly comfortable with the case, but she agrees. She starts to follow Celia and discovers that there’s been no infidelity. Instead, Celia has been visiting a particular cemetery where a friend of her brother’s is buried. Maisie makes it her business to be there one day at the same time as Celia, and the two strike up a conversation. There’s a touching scene there where Maisie and Celia talk about the losses from the war, and how many soldiers are buried there. Through that conversation, Maisie learns about a mystery having to do with a local home for wounded WW I veterans. She decides to investigate further, and she uncovers the truth behind some unexpected deaths.

In Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, genealogist Jefferson Tayte gets a new commission. Walter Sloane hires Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry. Tayte agrees and gets to work. He traces her lineage to the Fairborne family, which split into two branches around the time of the American Revolution. One branch stayed in the US; the other went to England with a group of Loyalists. With Sloane’s approval, Tayte travels to England to follow up with the modern-day Fairbornes. Very soon, it’s made clear that someone does not want Tayte looking into the family history. He persists, though, and finds out the truth about what really happened to the Fairbornes. In one tense scene, Tayte and a local police investigator named Hayne are visiting the Fairborne family mausoleum. There, Tayte discovers some critical information – and finds himself in very serious danger. Here’s just a bit of the description of the mausoleum:

‘Hayne shone the torch to the back wall, revealing a two by four matrix of empty recessed chambers. The beam wandered higher then until it caught a stone angel looking down on their arrival with an uncharacteristically malevolent stare. Hayne flicked the light away again to large central granite sarcophagus that was plain sided and carried no decorative detail.’

It’s an eerie sort of place that hides some dark secrets.

And then there’s Michael Campling’s A Study in Stone. In it, we meet Dan Corrigan, who’s taking a break from his high-powered London corporate job. He’s staying at a house his sister owns in the small Devonshire town of Embervale while he contemplates his next move. There, he meets former teacher Alan Hargreaves, who lives nearby. The two find themselves drawn into a mystery when Corrigan becomes curious about the inscription on a stone tablet that’s on display at the local coffee shop. Corrigan manages to decrypt the inscription, but it still doesn’t make much sense to him. He tries to learn more by looking into the local area’s history, but no-one seems willing to answer his questions. In fact, he manages to ruffle several local feathers. He and Hargreaves keep looking for answers, though, and they discover that the inscription has to do with the town’s past. That leads them to a local church cemetery, where they find a connection between the past they’ve been exploring and the more recent past. In the end, they discover what the inscription really means and why it was written.

Mausoleums, cemeteries, and graveyards can all be fascinating (if somewhat eerie) places to learn about the past and about the people who lived in an area. They’re full of atmosphere, too, which makes them really effective as settings in crime novels. Thanks, Moira, as always, for the inspiration! Now, treat yourself to a visit to Moira’s blog, where you’ll find rich discussion, terrific reviews, and lots about clothes and culture in fiction.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Smiths’ Cemetery Gates.