Sinister settings: the Country House

What could be nicer than a
weekend in the country? Read on…

I love a mystery set in a country house. I think the country house is a venue that offers glamour, comfort and a large range of accommodation whilst also affording a good number of murder possibilities.

Leaving aside the staff, who glide in, deposit tea-trays, then glide out again, there are notable dangers from the residents of the house and their guests, but I want to consider the rooms the country house offers – and the murderous opportunities a writer can seize with both hands.

Actually this feels very like a game of Cluedo/Clue. Feel free to fish your old game-board out of the attic to count the rooms off with me.

I can feel the hatred coming down on me
from those pics

There is of course the drawing room. Spacious, elegantly furnished, this room is designed for the receiving of victims guests, for polite conversation, and for characters to exchange dangerous remarks or hint at secret knowledge before dinner.

The dining room: renowned for its garishly-coloured walls—usually a deep red or bilious green for some reason—and the gloomy paintings of ancient relatives glaring down, the traditional country house dining room is guaranteed to be a place where strategies are played out and suspicion is likely to cause indigestion. There’s a reason that long dining table reminds us of one of those boards where they pushed models of planes about on a map in black and white films set in ‘Somewhere in England. 1940’.

Hot running water? Lol you’re kidding, right?

If you need to go to the loo, there will be an old-school WC tucked away somewhere off the back passage (pun fully intended). The potential for danger here is very much fifty-fifty: either you’ll get knocked on the head going in or coming out, or you’ll get pneumonia from the intense cold in there due to the stone-flagged floor and the lack of a decent supply of hot water.

When the hostess rises, to lead the ladies from the dining room back to the drawing room, (that’s how the room got its name, a short form of ‘withdrawing room’) the men will remain behind to share alcohol, smokes and dirty jokes, racing tips, or discuss topics unfit for the ears of ladies: sex, politics and business. If a chap decides to step outside onto the ubiquitous terrace to smoke a cigar in the fresh air, or to pace up and down in a rage, or in a state trying to come to a decision, this is the perfect spot for him to get whacked over the head with our old favourite, the blunt object.

Some of the men may grow tired of pacing the terrace or sitting at the dining table blowing smoke and laughing uproariously, and take themselves off for a game of billiards. Apparently all country houses still insist on a billiard room in spite of the fact that 90% of billiard players die from being stabbed by a billiard cue.

Meanwhile in the drawing room, the ladies are tucking into coffee—in spite of the fact that it’s ten o’clock at night—and gossip. Away from the constraining influence of the men, they can discuss things not suitable for the ears of gentlemen: sex, politics and business. Oh and anything that might be termed ‘ladies’ collywobbles’, ie something to do with body parts and times of the month. They will quickly discover who is carrying on with who, and whether their spouse knows. Here too, the theft of the £5 note from the offering plate in church will be unearthed. We will surmise who took Lady Anne’s ruby earrings. It is 3-1 that someone will drink coffee containing some lethal dose of a poison. There will be a few gentle coughs or gasps and the unfortunate lady will clutch her pearls, her face will turn puce, and she will breathe her last, to the dismay of all. The lady of the house—if still alive at this point—will ring for the butler and tell him to phone for a doctor. Or get the doctor from the drawing room, if he is a guest to dinner. Which he usually is.

Plenty of room on top for an agile ninja

If any lady is fed up with gossiping and drinking strong coffee right before bedtime, she can always get away on her own by using one of only two time-honoured plot devices: she can suddenly develop a headache, or remember she has an urgent letter to write. These are the only excuses—apart from death—to get away to your room before half past ten. But beware. Making your escape may be good for your nerves, but you are twice as likely to die from being pushed down the stairs as if you’d waited until everyone else was going to bed before you left the confines of the drawing room. Safety in numbers, people!

And even if you do reach the sanctuary of your bedroom, there are always intruders to beware of. They may try the ‘frontal attack’ method: simply turning your door handle fifty times very slowly before entering and smothering you with your own pillow. Or, if they are martial arts experts, they will be in position long before you enter the room, hidden on the top of the four poster bed, to slither down once you are asleep and—you’ve guessed it—smother you with your own pillow. Or, you might be wakened by the sound of an odd creaking or sinister scraping. On investigating with the help of your trusty torch, you will catch a perpetrator gaining access to your room by means of a secret passage, a sliding wooden panel, or a trap door accessed by moving a book on the third shelf. Obviously, they will then immediately overpower you and smother you with your own pillow.

‘I say, Marjorie, do you think anyone will hear me if I scream from the gazebo?’

The conservatory. What a delightful setting. Here you can sit, warm and dry, and enjoy some tranquility, surrounded by beautiful plants, graceful statues, and perhaps the gentle sound of water trickling from a water feature. Here, too, you will be smashed over the head with a sturdy plant pot, garrotted with gardener’s twine, hacked to death with secateurs, or misted with some rare kind of poison, and in this tranquil–and remote–setting, die because no one else is within hearing to rescue you. Soz.

Country houses are famous for possessing at least one of the following: a gazebo/summerhouse, a tower, an attic, a dungeon, a castellated roof, a veranda, romantic (but haunted, obv) ruins of a priory or abbey, and of course a lake. This might be for boating, or for fishing, but in either case is to be avoided if you do not wish to go to a watery grave.

‘Come and look at the lovely dungeons,’
said no one ever.

NEVER, ever go to visit any of these unless everyone in the house goes with you. The reason being: they can’t all be killers (unless you’re on an old steam train stuck in the snow…) As has already been stated, there’s safety in numbers.

NEVER go to view any of these objects of interest with one or more of the following: a vicar, a young starlet about to make her Hollywood debut, an old family retainer, an elderly peer of the realm, a governess, a chauffeur, a wild young racing driver, a retired colonel, a breeder of rare horses and/or sheep, a botanist, a Viennese tenor, a fencing instructor, a vicar (yes I know I’ve already said that, they need to be mentioned twice, they are super dodgy), a kindly elderly widow lady ‘who has lived in the village all her life, and plays the church organ on Sundays’ – of course she does, the evil old bat, a cousin of the family no one has seen for twenty years (hint: not who they claim to be!), a local doctor rumoured to have a guilty secret, an orchid collector (they are a ruthless bunch and will do anything for a Fairrie’s Paphiopedilum) or a music/drawing/dancing instructor. Why? Do you need to ask? All of the above are either the most likely to be killed, or the most likely to be a killer. Whichever they are, you are advised to keep well away!

In fact, just don’t go. Curl up safely at home with a nice book instead.

***

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