Nearly anything can be a good setting for a murder mystery, but I’ve been thinking of late of how to select fun settings. One of the great archetypal settings for a murder is a mansion. My own survey over golden age detective fiction is that murders in a mansion—especially during dinner parties—are not nearly as common as they are iconic. I think that they’re iconic for two main reasons.
The first reason that a mansion is iconic for a murder mystery is that it’s a closed environment. The ability to exactly identify all of the suspects makes the problem fit in one’s head better, and also promises that a solution is available. The other reason is that a mansion would be a really fun place to visit. One wouldn’t necessarily want to live in a mansion, it certainly has its downsides. But one does not read a book forever. In a book one necessarily only visits, and a mansion would be a ton of fun to visit.
Looked at this way, Murder on the Orient Express, which I think everyone will agree has one of the great settings in murder mysteries, has these properties. A train is a closed environment, at least when between stations. (Yes, a person might slip out of the train, but then someone might slip out of a window in a mansion. It’s even harder in a train than it would be in a mansion.) Equally important, the Orient Express was a piece of high luxury that few of us could ever afford.
Of the two, I think that the second reason is probably more important than the first. A closed group of suspects is interesting, but it is by no means the only interesting possibility. Even if a person is murdered in a crowded train station, one tends to suspect only those people who actually had a connection to the victim. It has a different feel, to be sure, but it makes for perfectly good stories.
And, to be fair, a boring setting can still host a fascinating murder mystery. The Adventure of the Clapham Cook comes to mind as an example—Poirot is called in because of a missing cook and his investigations largely center around a suspicious border in the extra room of this not very interesting house. That said, that even the apparently ordinary can lead to something extraordinary is the theme of the story; its being an exception is not lost on the story itself.
My own two murder mysteries are set in a college campus that’s mostly deserted because of winter break and a large (public) conservatory and botanical garden. The mystery I’m working on at the moment, tentatively titled He Didn’t Drown in the Lake, is set in a camp resort in the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York and promises to be a lot of fun. The one after that will be set at a Renaissance faire next to a Monastery, which takes its name from is neighbor, Saint Anselm’s Fair. None of these settings is opulant, but each is interesting, I think. The university on break has something of the feel of a mansion, though the field of suspects is much wider than the guests at a dinner party. The conservatory also has the mansion feel and, if you discount a stranger jumping the fence, does have the closed list of suspects. There is the difficulty that a conservatory is a very visual place, though, which—even if superbly described—doesn’t carry over as well in a book as it would in a movie. The resort camp should be quite a lot of fun. It may not be the height of luxury, but it is certainly the sort of place I would love to go. The Renaissance fair is a bit different, as after all anyone with fifteen dollars plus gas money can go to one, but it should be a really fascinating and fun place to be.
I think that after that I should probably go to someplace expensive, for a change. It will be a minor difficulty that I’ve never personally been to anyplace very expensive, but then most readers won’t have, either, so at least they won’t be in a position to spot my mistakes. It should also be a fun contrast with the friars who’ve taken vows of poverty, investigating.