>Our memories are a critical part of our identities. They have a lot to do with who we are, how we see the world and our senses of self. That’s one reason why memory studies – what triggers our memories, how they are associated with each other and so on – can be so very interesting. It’s also why memories are so important in crime fiction. Whether it’s memories of a crime, childhood memories or other aspects of memory, a lot of crime fiction is focused on what people remember and do not remember.
One of the things about memories is that all sorts of things can trigger them. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot has to rely on the memory of five important witnesses as he investigates a “cold case.” Carla Lemarchant has come to Poirot to ask him to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale was poisoned sixteen years earlier, and all of the evidence pointed to his wife Caroline. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted. A year after the trial, Caroline Crale died in prison, but Carla believes that her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to find out the truth and asks each of the five people who were “on the scene” that day to write out her or his recollection of the crime. He also interviews each of those people. At one point he’s interviewing Meredith Blake, owner of Handcross Manor, the house next to the Crale’s home at Alderbury, where the crime took place. Blake was one of Crale’s close friends, and was there on the day of the crime. In fact, the day before the murder, everyone had been over at Handcross Manor for tea. That tea, and other events that took place that day at Handcross Manor turn out to be important in the solution of the mystery, but Blake doesn’t remember things as clearly as he could. He’s mentioned jasmine in some of his comments, so Poirot uses the scent of jasmine to awaken Blake’s memories. That scent of jasmine triggers some very accurate memories that help Poirot solve the case.
In Third Girl, Poirot has a lot more difficulty triggering exact memories. In that novel, he gets a visit from Norma Restarick, a young woman who thinks she may have committed a murder. At first, she thinks Poirot may be too old to help her and leaves without giving her name. But with help from his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot finds out who the young woman is and begins to investigate to find out if there was a murder and if so, whether Norma Restarick could have been involved. Then Norma disappears. As Poirot and Oliver search for Norma and for the truth about what she has told Poirot, they learn about her past. That past has a lot to do with Norma’s disappearance and the murder she thinks she may have committed. Now Poirot realises that Norma may be in very great danger, and he and Oliver have to work fast to catch a killer before the killer finds Norma. As it turns out, it was Norma’s memory that first put her at risk. She had a memory from long ago that someone did not want her to have.
Memories also play an important role in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies is a twenty-eight-year-old violin virtuoso. One frightening day, though, he tries to play and can’t; he simply doesn’t seem to remember how. Desperate for help, he goes to a psychiatrist to find out what is blocking his ability to play. Meanwhile, one night, his mother Eugenie Davies is struck and killed by a car in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers are assigned to investigate Eugenie Davies’ death, and it’s not long before they conclude that it might not have been an accident. As Gideon Davies works with his psychoanalyst, he slowly realises that his musical block stems from memories associated with the long-ago drowning death of his baby sister Sonia. At the time, her nanny Katja Wolff was blamed for the death and imprisoned. She’s recently been released, though, and that event, coupled with Gideon’s increasingly clear memories of the past, paints a picture of long-hidden family secrets. When Lynley and Havers get to the truth about Eugenie Davis’ death and her son’s inability to play, they find that it’s all related to those secrets and to Sonia’s death.
Schoolteacher Jurgen Mitter’s memory, or more precisely, lack thereof, is an important part of Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Mitter wakes up one morning with a terrible hangover. As he slowly gets up and moves around, he discovers to his shock that his wife Eva Ringmar has been murdered and her body is in the bathtub. He calls the police and they begin to investigate. In short order he himself is arrested for the murder. Mitter recalls nearly nothing about the night of his wife’s death because he was extremely drunk. He is sure, though, that he is innocent. The prosecutor and jurors don’t see it that way, though, and Mitter is soon convicted of the crime. Because he has no memory of the murder, Mitter is remanded to a mental institution instead of a regular prison. Inspector Van Veeteren attended Mitter’s trial and based on some points of Mitter’s testimony, and some of the evidence, he wonders whether Mitter might be innocent. Meanwhile, Mitter is beginning to recover his memory. Bits and pieces of the night that Eva died come back to Mitter, mostly in dreams. Then, he remembers that someone else was at their home that night. When Mitter remembers who it was, he writes that person’s name in a Bible that’s been left in his room. He also writes a letter to that person, telling the killer that he’s remembered what happened. Those memories cost Mitter his life when the killer receives the letter and kills Mitter before he can tell anyone about Eva’s murder. When Van Veeteren and his team find out that Mitter has been killed, they launch a full-scale investigation his death and that of his wife. Once they find out about the letter, and track it down, they are able to collect the evidence they need to catch the killer.
Michael Robotham’s Lost also focuses on how much we remember – or don’t – and how our memories are triggered. Inspector Vincent Ruiz wakes up in a hospital bed with little memory of how he got there. It turns out that he was rescued from the Thames after nearly drowning there. He’s also got a bullet wound in his leg. In order to try to find out what happened to him, Ruiz asks his friend psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin to help him put the pieces of his memory together. Bit by bit, with help from O’Loughlin, Ruiz begins to recall what happened. At the time of his injury, Ruiz was working a three-year-old “cold case.” Seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle has disappeared and everyone thinks that she was killed by Howard Wavell. Wavell is a known paedophile, and there is other evidence against him. In fact, he was arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Ruiz, though, thinks that Wavell might be innocent and that Mickey Carlyle might still be alive. As his memories continue to be triggered, Ruiz returns to the case and pursues the truth, despite a great deal of pressure to leave it alone. In the end, he finds out the real truth about Mickey Carlyle.
Nancy Bush’s Unseen also treats the way memories can be repressed and triggered and how they affect us. Paedophile Edward Letton is about to target a new victim when he is struck and fatally wounded by a hit-and-run driver. A few days later, Gemma LaPorte wakes up in the same hospital where Letton is being treated. She’s injured, herself, although not as severely, and has no memory of the last few days. Detective Will Tanninger, who’s been investigating the hit-and-run incident, thinks that Gemma may be responsible for killing Letton. Gemma can’t account for herself for the last few days, and her injuries are consistent with the kinds of injuries one would expect Letton’s killer to have. Will and Gemma try to piece together what happened, but it turns out that this isn’t Gemma’s first episode of memory loss. As she gradually recovers, Gemma also begins to remember the day of the accident and some other long-buried memories. But the closer she gets to really remembering what happened, the more danger she is in from her past and from the real killer.
Lots of different things can trigger memories; a sound, a scent, an image, any one of those can bring back recollection. Memories hold the key to a lot of who we are, and to a lot of crime fiction. Which novels have you enjoyed that focus on people’s memories?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Code of Silence.