There’s a Light at Each End of This Tunnel*

A recent interesting post from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about tunnels. We don’t usually pay too much attention to tunnels, really. We drive through them or look out of the train window as we go through them, but otherwise, it’s easy to forget they’re there. That’s especially true of places like sewer tunnels. And that’s precisely why tunnels are such good places to hide a body, or to hide evidence of a crime, or to hide from police. So, it’s little wonder that we see a lot of tunnels in crime fiction.

Tunnels, of course, are very handy when you’re trying to break into a building. It’s no surprise, then, that they’re in stories such as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Red-Headed League. In the story, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Mr. Jabez Wilson, a pawnbroker who has an interesting problem. It seems that he answered an advertisement for a job where the main requirement was to have naturally red hair. The employer was a group called the Red-Headed League. Wilson found out that the job was easy – to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica – and he wanted the extra money. The hours allowed him to keep the pawn shop open, too. So, when he was offered the job, he took it. After just a short time on the job, he went to work one day only to find out that the Red-Headed League had been disbanded. Now, he wants to find out what happened to the league. Holmes takes the case and finds that Wilson was being used by a criminal gang that was tunneling under his pawn shop to get to a nearby bank. In fact, Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Wilson get to the shop just in time to stop the tunnel from being completed.

Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank, also makes use of a tunnel. Mike Daniels is a London professional thief. He and his team have targeted City Savings Deposits Bank for a heist, and they’ve decided to tunnel under the bank to get in. But to succeed, they need someone with architectural knowledge. Enter Stephen Booker, an architect who’s been made redundant by his employer. After trying for some time to get another job, he’s taken to driving cab at night to keep food on the table. One night, Daniels happens to be one of his fares, and the two get to talking. Before long, Daniels decides he wants Booker on his team, and manages to persuade him to join in. The plans are carefully drawn up, and everyone is ready for the heist. The timing is right, too. Then, a sudden storm comes up and changes all of their plans…

Agatha Christie makes use of tunnels, too. In Three Act Tragedy, for instance, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of Reverend Stephen Babbington, who was killed during a cocktail party hosted by famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. Babbington was well-liked and had no fortune to leave. There was no trouble between him and any of the other guests, either so there doesn’t seem to be a motive. Then, there’s another, similar murder, this time at the home of noted Harley Street specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange. Interestingly, several of the same people were present at both occasions, so it looks as though one of them must be guilty. Then there’s a third murder. As Poirot looks into these deaths, he finds that a tunnel plays a role in what happens.

In Max Kinnings’ Baptism, we are introduced to London train driver George Wakeman. One day, he’s getting ready for work as usual when three people invade his home and take his wife and children hostage. They give Wakeman a telephone and demand that he follow all of their orders if his family is to stay alive. So, he takes the telephone and goes to his job. He follows the hostage-takers’ directions, gets into the cab of his usual train, and starts his day. The train is moving through an underground tunnel when Wakeman is ordered to stop. Now, there are over 400 passengers in a very vulnerable position, stuck in a tunnel. When Wakeman finds out what the hostage-takers’ real plans are, he has to decide what to do. The stakes are raised when he learns that they’ve brought his family on board…

As Andrea Camilleri’s August Heat begins, Inspector Salvo Montalbano has plans to escape the heat of Vigàta for a holiday. His plans change, though, when his second-in-command, Mimì Augello, has to change his own summer plans. This means that Montalbano must stay on duty in Vigàta. His partner, Livia, joins him, with the idea that she and some friends will rent a beach house not far away. That way, they can still spend time together. But things soon begin to fall apart. First, the beach house turns out to have rats. Then, the son of Livia’s friend goes missing. He is found, unhurt, in a tunnel that runs under the house. But also in the tunnel is a trunk that contains the body of a young girl. Now Montalbano has an even bigger problem than the heat.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ The Arsenic Labyrinth. Journalist Tony di Venuto is planning a ten-years-on retrospective on the disappearance of Emma Bestwick, who went off on her bicycle one day, and never returned. When di Venuto gets a tip that Emma is dead, and a clue as to where to find her body, the case is re-opened. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team investigate, and find Emma’s body in the Arsenic Labyrinth, a series of underground tunnels that were used to mine arsenic and remove it from the ore. The team also finds another skeleton. This one’s been there for over fifty years, and it turns out that that older death is related to Emma Bestwick’s.

See what I mean? Tunnels offer a lot of possibilities for hiding secrets. And bodies. It’s no surprise that they find their way into crime fiction. Thanks, FictionFan for the inspiration! Now, please treat yourself to FictionFan’s excellent blog, where you’ll find terrific reviews and commentary. And the porpentine.


ps. I didn’t take this ‘photo. It’s a picture of a tunnel in Pennsylvania that I passed through many times on the way back and forth from university when I was a student. Thanks,!


NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Breathe (2 AM).