by Chantal W.
In mysteries, the frame or the context is often what lures readers. Mysteries can be set in some many different locales and time periods. The details and context enrich the tale and make the mystery stand out.
The setting and the protagonist become inextricably intertwined. Elizabeth Peters set her cozies in Egypt, Kerry Greenwood set her Miss Fisher novels in jazz age Melbourne, James Lee Burke sets his series in New Iberia, Louisiana, and Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series occurs in many different national parks.
Some mystery writers choose to juxtapose the present with some past historical event. Paula Hawkins Into the Water, for instance, writes about the Northumberland region of England. Though there is a contemporary possible drowning by suicide, we have the historical context of the Newcastle witch trials.
Americans are possibly more familiar with the witch trials that took place in Salem, Massachusetts. Witch hunting in England began in 1649 in the lowlands and spread to the Northern England area. The witch trials that took place in the Newcastle area in Britain happened decades earlier than the Salem trials.
Hawkins writes about the area and the drowning pools where women of all ages were either convicted of witchcraft or drowned. If they drowned, they were deemed innocent of witchcraft. If the women did not drown, they were convicted of the charges of witchcraft for which they were hung.
Hawkins juxtaposes this disturbing set of historical events with a contemporary mystery. After the death of her sister, Nel, Jules Abbott returns to Northumberland to care for her fifteen-year-old niece. No one is certain why Nel has drowned–if it was intentional–though several ominous clues suggest otherwise.
Into the Water is certainly not the only novel that plays the present off of the past. Most of the Marple stories take place in the fictional village of St. Mary Mead with a few exceptions. In At Bertram’s Hotel Agatha Christie creates a mystery around a hotel that never changes, “By 1955 it looked precisely as it had looking in 1939–dignified, unostentatious, and quietly expensive.”
Miss Marple has chosen to stay there as a holiday to reminisce about her past. Marple had grown up in London and had pleasant memories of Bertram’s. She expects everything to be the same–same service, tea rooms and writing rooms. While it looks the same, appearances are deceiving. The difference between what Marple expects and what she sees adds dramatic tension.
The hotel is a nexus for criminal activity though no one can see that a first. Train robberies and bank robberies are somehow linked to the hotel. The Chief inspector finds the link with the help, of course, of the astute Miss Marple.