Golden Age Advice on Staying at Country Houses

If there is one thing many characters in Golden Age Detective fiction do, it is being invited to and staying at country houses, either owned by family members, friends or acquaintances. On the face of it such an invite may seem nice, but as many Golden Age novels show us, staying at country houses can be lethal business. So just in case a chum invites you to stay at their country house here are some guidelines for a safe trip, culled from many Golden Age detective novels.

country house

Rule No. 1 Never play the game Murder!

It may seem like a good idea, a bit of fun made more atmospheric by the surroundings, but it is also a prime opportunity for someone to bump you off, as Sir Hubert Handesley found to his cost in A Man Lay Dead (1934) by Ngaio Marsh. Much safer sticking to scrabble.

A Man Lay Dead

Rule No. 2 Check who else has been invited.

A key reason for disharmony at a country house weekend party is guests not getting along, which is sometimes deliberate such as in Death and the Dancing Footman (1942) by Ngaio Marsh and unintentionally in Vernon Loder’s The Mystery at Stowe (1928). Of course this disharmony usually leads to someone getting murdered, so if you see someone’s name on the guest list who you really don’t get along with, you best stay at home.

MarshandLoder

Rule No. 3 Avoid the Study

From novels such as Anthony Berkeley’s The Layton Court Mystery (1925) to The Unfinished Clue (1934) by Georgette Heyer and Philip MacDonald’s The Rasp (1924), we learn that one of the deadliest rooms in the country house is the study. So avoid this room at all costs as even if you don’t get murdered in this room, you could easily accidently implicate yourself in someone’s demise by popping into the study for a chat, a stamp or a dictionary.

Berkeley Macdonald Heyer

Rule No. 4 Keep your eye on the Butler

butlerAlthough saying the butler did it is a cliché and in fact in the majority of Golden Age detective novels featuring a country house, the butler is invariably innocent, there is still the odd novel or two where this is not the case. I won’t give any examples to prevent spoilers, but I would still keep a wary eye on them, as even if they aren’t murderous, Golden Age detective novels wouldn’t say they were always above a spot of blackmail.

Rule No. 5 Avoid where possible the following activities: Fishing, Amateur Theatricals and Treasure Hunts

Although these pursuits can no doubt be a lot of fun when you do them at home but at a country house, these can easily turn into death traps, either in terms of a murder method or as an opportunity for a killer to act. The proof of such can be found in Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice (1955), Agatha Christie’s They Do It with Mirrors (1952) and Dead Man’s Folly (1956).

MarshChristiex2

Rule No. 6 Don’t make clandestine meetings near pools, in summer houses or on building roof tops

Although these places seem perfect places to have a romantic interlude or to discuss private matters, they are also prime locations for murders, especially at night. Moreover, even if you are lucky enough not to be the intended victim, your presence at such places, indicated by footprints or fallen jewellery, could make you look pretty suspicious with the police. Annie Haynes’ The Crystal Bead Murders (1930), Patricia Wentworth’s The Silent Pool (1953) and The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) by Carter Dickson are all prime examples of this problem.

HaynesDicksonWentworth

Rule No. 7 Be careful what you eat and drink

Poison whether in drink or food is a popular murder weapon for your would be murderer at a country house, as Christie’s novels Sad Cypress (1940), 4:50 from Paddington (1957) and The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962) will attest to. Drinking and eating sparingly may be the way to go forward or alternatively bring a few secret provisions of your own. After all I don’t think anyone fictionally has laced a cereal bar with poison before.

Christiepics3

Rule No. 8 Check the owner of the county house is not a collector of weaponry

Of course you can’t rule out the idea that a murderer will bring his own weapon, but as The Mystery at Stowe (1928) and A Man Lady Dead (1934) will attest to, killers are often aided in their plans by their host having a handy collection of poison darts, daggers or revolvers, which are never kept under lock and key. So if your intended host says they always keeps his sword collection in the dining room or leaves his revolver lying on his desk I would make your excuses and not go.

Rule No. 9 Avoid going to such places at Christmas

Envious CascaUnnatural death at country houses can take place all year around but Christmas time is a particularly popular time for killers, with there being more than one fictional dead Santa. Examples range from Agatha The Santa Klaus MurdersChristie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca (1941) to Ngaio Marsh’s Tied up in Tinsel (1972) and Mavis Doriel Hay’s The Santa Klaus Murder (1936). Maybe the egg nog has gone to their head or perhaps being confined with their relatives is more than they can bear, but to be on the safe side stay at home for Christmas.

General proviso: If you are rich, have a lot of poorer relatives and aren’t a particularly nice person I would avoid country houses all together as statistically you are the most likely person to be murdered out of any country house party.

Going on Holiday? Check out Agatha Christie’s tips for a safe holiday here.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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21 Responses to Golden Age Advice on Staying at Country Houses

  1. JFW says:

    I enjoyed these rules, especially the one regarding Christmas. 🙂 I might be tempted to add…

    (10) Try your best to avoid the following behaviour: flirting to incite jealousy; changing your will to punish a poorer relative; blackmailing someone desperate. Incidentally, doing any of the above outside of a country house might not be wise for your survival.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad you liked the post, it was quite a funny one to write and it isn’t too spoilerish. Your additional rule is also good. Francis Duncan’s Murder for Christmas, would be quite applicable for the last part of the rule and there is probably a mountain of GAD novels involving will changes. Which books did you have in mind for ‘flirting to incite jealousy,’ as I feel like there has been one I read where this applies but I just can’t think of the title.

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      • JFW says:

        Now that you mention it, I cannot quite come up with an immediate example of ‘flirting to incite jealousy’. 😛 In away, Agatha Christie’s ‘Five Little Pigs’ or E. R. Punshon’s ‘Suspects – Nine’ might obliquely qualify? Or perhaps Agatha Christie’s ‘The Hollow’? There was some flirting in J Jefferson Farjeon’s ‘Thirteen Guests’, but the passions incited probably weren’t critical to the mystery.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Those are good examples though, better than any idea I had (and by any idea I mean no idea!).

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  2. Andy Kelley says:

    Hi, really nicely done! Thanks for taking the time to do this.sincerely, Andy

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Susan D says:

    That was fun. I’d also mention, Don’t switch rooms with anyone without telling everyone in the house. And don’t borrow someone else’s sweater or shawl, even just to run out to the garden.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. JJ says:

    Good work again, Kate. If there was more fiction about hanging out with crime fans you could give us rules for surviving Bodies from the Library in a few weeks…as it is, we’ll probably all just have to chance it…!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks and I hadn’t thought about the perils of the conference. I’ll just be chuffed if I don’t get lost getting there. But in general I think with group events in GAD fiction the key thing to do is to stay with other people and not go wandering off by yourself.

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      • JJ says:

        Blimey, you make it sound like a horror movie….

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well you never know some GAD fanatic may see the conference as a prime opportunity to kill a fellow rival who did them over at a book sale, or steal a rare edition of Christie. After all how much will we really know about each other at the conference? Only what we tell us other, as Miss Marple would say. Though the age of the internet and the fact we’re not stranded on an island or a remote bit of the countryside probably reduces some of these issues.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Bev Hankins says:

    I would add another, courtesy of And Then There Were None: Make absolutely sure that you really do know the person who has issued the invitation. If you can’t quite recall where you met Mr. or Ms. So-And-So or the name on the invite is a bit blurry, you really shouldn’t sign up for a “pleasant” weekend at their isolated mansion. If you think your tricky memory is just letting you down and you go anyway–but find when you are waiting for your transport to said isolated mansion that you know none of the other guests, turn tail and run. Immediately.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. cmikolj says:

    I’m really enjoying these posts and what a terrific game it is. I would add another rule, for artists this time; never accept a commission for a portrait if it means you must stay at the subject’s house. If you do, murder will certainly ensue (a few examples from Ngaio Marsh- poor Agatha Troy!)

    Liked by 1 person

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