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.
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.
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.
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.
Rule No. 4 Keep your eye on the Butler
Although 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).
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.
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.
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
Unnatural 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 Christie’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.