There's something in a mystery that loves a house. We often don't think about them, but houses are lurking as an essential character in so many mysteries. We can't think about Miss Marple without her cottage in St. Mary Mead. Nero Wolfe's Manhattan brownstone is essential for the detective who never leaves home. Rex Stout gives us the details of furniture, such as Wolfe's custom chair, and we're treated to scenes in his gourmet kitchen.
Perhaps the most famous mystery house is Manderley, from du Maurier's Rebecca. Indeed, my most recent novel, about old homes, starts with a reference to that house. Manderley, with its dark caretaker, Mrs. Danvers, dominates the story. Did Manderley drive Mrs. Danvers insane? Rebecca?
As I plotted the first book in my Historic Homes mysteries, I thought of the long-gone mansion built at the turn of the century on Manhattan's West Side by steel magnate Charles Schwab (no relation to the brokerage Schwab). Taking up a city block, it contained 75 rooms. As my protagonist--architect Wren Fontaine--realizes, a home like that is more than just a home. It is a palace from which a great family can rule.
In coping with the home's last resident, Wren knows the old woman can't leave because it would be like leaving her family. Indeed, Schwab had his own psychological issues. The house cost him the 2022 equivalent of over $240 million dollars. What was it all for? What emptiness in his life was filled by owning such an architectural monstrosity? Wren must face the possibility that the overwhelming house has, over 90 years, driven members of the family insane.
But it's not always a grim story. Houses can inspire. My next book will be set in a Federal-style home, popular in our nation's early years. One of the best examples in New York is Gracie Mansion on Manhattan's East Side. Archibald Gracie was a patriot and friend of Alexander Hamilton. In the early 19th century, they mapped out their political ideas and raised money for a newspaper that's still around—the N.Y. Post.
The unadorned simplicity of the Federalist style was a refreshing break from the baroque European ideals—the beauty came from the elegance of the proportions, not elaborate decorations. It was a house suitable for a republic, not a monarchy with an aristocracy. In Gracie Mansion, you will find a mirror crowned by an eagle, and in his beak is a ball-and-chain—Great Britain's shackles ripped away. In the next Historic Homes mystery, several women—separated by 200 years—find inspiration in a classic American home and the ideals that inspired it.
Of course, you don’t need a magnificent mansion to find history and inspiration. There's a simple, unremarkable Victorian house in Massachusetts. In 1892, one of its occupants, Lizzie Borden, apparently axed her father and stepmother to death. She was acquitted, however, and the case was never solved. Did the crime put a curse on the house? I like to think that houses have their own personalities, so perhaps it was the other way around.
But don't take my word for it. The Lizzie Borden House is today a bed-a-breakfast. Book a room, and make up your own mind.