Crime fiction fans vary a great deal in the kinds of novels they like, and the kinds of plot points they enjoy. That’s one reason for which it’s such a good thing that there’s a wide variety of crime fiction out there to enjoy. There’s something for just about everyone. One of the most popular crime fiction plots (I know I enjoy it) is a plot that hinges on hidden secrets, especially old secrets. We all keep things to ourselves and sometimes what’s hidden is a dark secret that has shattering effects later on. Those kinds of things do happen in real life and they can make for extremely effective and absorbing stories when they’re done well.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder is the story of Gwenda and Giles Reed, newlyweds who are looking for a new home. Gwenda finds herself irresistibly drawn to a house in Dilmouth and they soon move in. Soon, though, Gwenda begins to have a disturbing sense of déjà vu about the home. She seems to know things about the house that she couldn’t know if she’d never been there before. What’s more, she sees images of a dead woman lying in the hallway. Concerned about her mental health, Gwenda accepts an invitation to “get away” and visit Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West and his wife. Gwenda is a distant relative of Miss Marple’s, and tells her about what’s been happening. At first, Miss Marple advises Gwenda to “let sleeping murders lie.” But one night, she and Gwenda go to see a play, and Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to one of the scenes. Now Miss Marple suspects that more is going on at Dilmouth than it seems. So she and the Reeds look into the history of the house and the village, and find out that there was, indeed, a murder committed there and that Gwenda witnessed it. In the end, the three uncover some of Dilmouth’s old, hidden secrets and help catch a killer.
Old secrets are at the heart of Bartholomew Gill’s The PM of Belgrave Square. In that novel, Chief Superintendent Peter McGarr of the Garda Síochána, the Irish National Police, is called to the scene of the shooting murder of arts and antiques dealer William Craig. McGarr and his team get to work on the case and try to find out who would have wanted to kill Craig. One thing they soon discover is that a painting which was in the shop has been stolen. So one possibility is that the murderer’s motive was theft. Other clues, though, suggest otherwise. Besides, there are several other suspects. For instance, Craig’s enigmatic wife Louisine might very well have seen the murder, but hasn’t said anything. Craig’s business partner Pierre Roche has a dark past and keeps his own counsel. He could have any number of reasons. And then there’s Craig’s son Henry, with whom he’d quarreled and whom he’d actually written out of his will. And then there are Craig’s possible connections with the IRA. With the help of his wife Noreen, McGarr and his staff look into the Craig family past, where they find all sorts of hidden secrets. It turns out that Craig’s murder has to do with family secrets, World War II secrets and more modern secrets that several people have been keeping.
Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye also treats the subject of long-buried dark family secrets and their effects. In this case, the family is the very respectable, upright, middle-class Longley family. No gossip, let alone scandal, has ever touched the family. And yet, they are hiding a very dark truth. Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was tried, convicted and hanged for murder. Now, journalist Daniel Stewart approaches Vera’s niece, Faith Longley Severn; he wants to do a story on the family and on Vera Hilliard’s trial and execution. Severn agrees and together she and Stewart begin to unearth the family’s past. In the end, the process forces Severn to confront the family’s secret and come to terms with the truth.
Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory tells the story of the Davies family. Twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies is a world-class violinist – until one night when he suddenly, frighteningly cannot play a note. Terrified, he seeks psychological help to find out why his ability to play is blocked. In the meantime, his mother Eugenie is killed one night in what looks like a tragic hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie’s death and find that the Davies family has a tragedy in its past. Twenty years ago, Gideon Davies’ sister Sonia drowned at the age of two. Her nanny Katja Wolff was imprisoned for the crime and has recently been released. Slowly, as Gideon Davies’ memories are unlocked and as Lynley and Havers investigate the death of Eugenie Davies, we learn about the secrets the family has been keeping and how they relate to the modern-day tragedies.
In Sara Paretsky’s Total Recall, private investigator V.I. Warshawski is investigating a case of possible insurance fraud. While she’s on that case, she gets a strange and urgent request from her long-time friend and mentor Dr. Charlotte “Lotty” Herschel. A strange man named Paul Rabudka has made claims that he’s a Holocaust survivor trying to find as many surviving members of his family as he can. This stirs up terrible memories for Herschel, who’s tried her best to forget her own past. As a teenager she and her family escaped Austria just ahead of the Nazis and ended up first in England and later in the U.S. But she’s never said much about her past, as she very much would rather not remember it. Warshawski tries to help her friend as best she can, and begins to investigate Paul Rabudka to see if he is who he claims to be. That investigation unearths all sorts of buried secrets and in the end, is related to the insurance fraud investigation Warshawski is also pursuing.
Martin Edwards’ novels often focus on old, buried secrets. His Lake District mysteries feature DCI Hannah Scarlett, who leads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team. In the course of her work, Scarlett and her team re-open old cases and unearth hidden secrets, too. For instance, in The Cipher Garden, the team re-opens the ten-year-old murder case of landscaper Warren Howe, who was killed with his own scythe. Howe’s wife Tina was suspected of the crime at the time, but she had an alibi and the police couldn’t pursue the case. Recent anonymous notes point to Tina as the killer, so the team begins to sift through the evidence again. In the meantime, Oxford historian Daniel Kind has a mystery of his own – the curious shape of the garden at the cottage he’s taken. When he discovers that Howe was employed by the same landscaping company that made the garden, it’s clear that the two mysteries may be related. And so they are. Each in a different way, Scarlett and Kind discover several long-buried family secrets and village secrets that have everything to do with Warren Howe’s death and the other events in the novel.
Unearthing long-buried secrets makes for a very popular plot point, and when it’s done well, a very engaging one. There are some very fine examples out there, too, that I know I haven’t referred to, so if you like this theme, I’m sure I haven’t mentioned your favourite – which one is it? If you’re a writer, have you used this as a theme?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from ‘Til Tuesday’s Voices Carry.