An excellent book review from Maxine at Petrona (a superb blog you really should follow closely if you don’t already) has got me thinking about what happens in crime fiction when characters from one novel come back in another. I’m not talking here of protagonists or “regulars” in a series. Rather, I mean individuals who are involved in a particular case who come back in a later novel. When it’s done well, that plot point can give readers a sense of closure; we learn what ended up happening to a character and that can be interesting. It also gives readers a sense of the continuity of a series and that can make the series that much more believable.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny when Superintendent Spence asks him to investigate the murder of a charwoman. The evidence in the murder pointed to her unpleasant lodger James Bentley, but Spence has begun to believe that Bentley may be innocent. Poirot agrees to see what he can do and goes to Broadhinny where the murder took place. During his stay there, he lodges at Long Meadows, a Guest House run by Maureen and Johnnie Summerhayes. They’re friendly and interesting hosts, but ill-equipped and badly unprepared to run a Guest House. Among the many things Poirot has to cope with at the Summerhayes’ establishment is some of the worst cooking he’s ever encountered. For Poirot this is a true sacrifice. But he survives his stay and finds out who the killer of Mrs. McGinty really is. A few years later in Cat Among the Pigeons, Poirot solves the murder of Grace Springer, games mistress at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. Springer’s death turns out to be connected to a revolution in the Middle East, a cache of stolen jewels and a kidnapping. One of the pupils at the school is Julia Upjohn. She slowly puts some of the pieces of the puzzle together and decides to visit Poirot and ask him to investigate. She knows of Poirot because her mother is a great friend of Maureen Summerhayes During Julia’s first conversation with Poirot we learn that he did finally teach Maureen how to properly cook at least one thing – an omelette.
In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s The Laughing Policeman, Martin Beck and his team have their hands full trying to protect the American embassy in Stockholm when a demonstration by a group of anti-war protestors gets ugly. Everyone’s nerves are on edge and the police force is spread too thin. Then to make matters worse, a gunman kills eight people on a bus. One of the victims is Beck’s youngest colleague Ǻke Stenström. At first the murders look like the work of a crazed maniac. But bit by bit, Beck and his team learn that things aren’t as simple as that. At the time of his murder Stenström was working on the “cold case” of Teresa Camarão, a Portuguese woman who’d become a prostitute. That investigation plus the fact that not everyone on the bus was identified put the police on the right track and help them solve this case. One of the characters in this novel is Stenström’s fiancée Åsa Torell. She is grief-stricken by her fiancé’s murder, but that doesn’t mean she’s incapable of helping the police. She’s got the very strong feeling that something isn’t right about this case – that Stenström wasn’t just killed randomly. Her suspicions help fuel the investigation. Torell deals with her grief by becoming a police officer herself, and we see her again in other Martin Beck novels; in fact they have a very brief relationship. Several years later in The Terrorists, the Stenström case comes back to haunt both her and Beck. This time, the team has been assigned to protect a controversial American senator who’s planning a visit to Stockholm. At the same time, the team is investigating the murder of pornographic film-maker Walter Petrus (Valter Pettersson). They’re also involved in the trial of Rebecka Lind, who’s been accused of bank robbery – a robbery she says she didn’t commit. I don’t want to give away spoilers so I’ll just say that this book contains a clear connection to The Laughing Policeman.
Michael Connelly introduces us to L.A.P.D. cop Harry Bosch in The Black Echo. Bosch has recently been demoted from the elite Robbery/Homicide Division to the Hollywood Homicide division because of a shooting incident. He’d been after a serial killer nicknamed The Dollmaker and got important evidence from a prostitute Dixie McCall who’d escaped from that killer. Dixie’s evidence led Bosch to the man’s apartment where he killed The Dollmaker with what he feels was a clean shot. But because he didn’t have a warrant, and because the suspect didn’t turn out to have a weapon at hand, Bosch was investigated by the Internal Affairs Division (IAD) and demoted. The main focus of The Black Echo is the investigation of the murder of Billy Meadows, whose body is found stuffed into a drainpipe. At first that death looks like a junkie’s overdose, but Bosch and his partner Jerry Edgar find that it goes a lot deeper than that; it’s connected to a major bank robbery. The Dollmaker story is woven throughout this novel though and comes back later in The Concrete Blonde. In that novel, Bosch faces a major civil suit by the family of Norman Church, the man Bosch shot in the Dollmaker case. Church’s family claims that Bosch shot the wrong man so now Bosch has to defend his actions on that day. To make matters worse, a dead woman is found with all of the hallmarks of The Dollmaker’s distinctive “signature.” So Bosch also has to face the possibility that he could have been very, very wrong about Norman Church.
In The Cat Who Turned On and Off, Lillian Jackson Braun’s Jim “Qwill” Qwilleran is a features reporter for a big-city newspaper, the Daily Fluxion. He hears about a fascinating part of the city called Junktown and decides to write a feature about it. It’s full of unusual craft shops, antique shops and art galleries and Qwill becomes fascinated with the place. He soon learns that a few months earlier, Andrew “Andy” Glanz, a respected antique dealer and authority, was killed in what looked at the time like a tragic fall. But Qwill soon begins to wonder whether Glanz was murdered. So in the guise of writing a tribute feature about Glanz, he looks into the case. In the end, he’s able to prove that Glanz was murdered and finds out who the killer was. One of the antique dealers Qwill meets in The Cat Who Turned on and Off is Amberina, one of three sisters who own and run an antique shop in Junktown. It’s not a spoiler to say that Amberina isn’t the killer; she and her sisters do figure into the story though. A few years later, Qwill moves the small town of Pickax, “four hundred miles north of nowhere.” He’s settled into his life there as a columnist when he gets a call from Amberina. She tells him that the Casablanca, a beloved but decrepit old apartment building in Junktown, will soon be sold to developers unless it can be saved. She invites Qwilleran to spend some time at the Casablanca, hoping that he’ll help publicise the effort to save the building. The penthouse that Qwill takes belonged to artist Dianne Bessinger, who headed the committee to save the Casablanca. Bessinger was recently murdered and Qwill soon suspects that someone in the building was responsible. He discovers that some prominent people in the area wanted Bessinger dead, and slowly finds the connection between her death and the movement to sell the Casablanca.
There are a lot of other novels too – far more than there is space for here – where characters and cases from earlier novels come back for what you might call resolution in later novels. In fact, I’ll bet you could think of many more than I could. It’s got to be done carefully, so as not to bore regular readers nor exclude new readers (or give away spoilers). But when it is done well, this strategy can tie a series together, offer closure and “flesh out” characters. Do you find that this plot theme works for you? If you’re a writer, do any of your characters from one novel re-appear in a later one?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Foo Fighers’ Resolve.