For better or worse most of us have childhood memories. Sometimes those memories come into stronger focus as we mature, so that we have a clearer picture of what we really remember. But sometimes that doesn’t happen. After all children can’t always accurately interpret what they experience, and they don’t always have “the big picture” the way adults do. But it’s surprising how often their memories can be trusted. And that’s what makes childhood memories such an interesting topic in crime fiction. How reliable are they? How do they motivate the adult who has those memories? They’re fascinating questions and a quick look at crime fiction shows us how effective they can be as plot tools.
Agatha Christie addresses this topic in more than one of her stories; I’ll just mention one. In Sleeping Murder, newlyweds Gwenda and Giles Reed are looking for a house. Gwenda soon finds one in Dilmouth to which she is oddly drawn. She and Giles take possession and at first all goes well enough. Then Gwenda begins to have an unsettling sense of déjà vu about the house although she doesn’t remember ever living there. What’s worse, she has visions of a dead woman lying in the house’s main hallway. She begins to seriously question her mental health and willingly accepts an invitation from her cousin Raymond West and his family to take a break from her life and visit them. Gwenda is also distantly related to West’s aunt Jane Marple, and tells Miss Marple her story. At first Miss Marple suggests that Gwenda should “let sleeping murders lie.” But after Gwenda has a bizarre reaction to a theatre performance one night, Miss Marple comes to believe that something terrible must have happened in the Reeds’ home. So she and Gwenda investigate. It turns out that Gwenda actually did live in the house when she was a little child and witnessed the murder of the woman she keeps seeing in her visions. Her childhood memories were more accurate than anyone wanted to believe. Miss Marple helps her find out who the woman was and who killed her.
Childhood memories also play a role in Camilla Läckberg’s The Ice Princess. Biographer (later crime writer) Erica Falck returns to her home in Fjällbacka after the death of her parents. She’s settling in and beginning to clear out her parents’ things when a neighbour discovers the body of Falck’s former friend Alexandra “Alex” Wijkner. Falck is saddened and shocked and immediately notifies the police. She and Alex were the closest of friends when they were girls but Alex ended the friendship twenty-five years ago and Falck has never really known why. She decides to write a biography of Alex Wijkner both as a way to memorialise her and deal with the grief and as a way to get to know the woman her friend became. In the course of asking her questions Falck discovers that she really didn’t know her friend as well as she had thought. There were things going on in Alex’s life that she never told anyone and it’s those secrets that led to her death. We learn in this novel that Falck’s childhood memories lack some substance because there were some dark secrets that she only finds out as she investigates her former friend’s murder.
There’s also the case of unreliable childhood memories in Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. This story is told from the viewpoint of Lizzie Hood, who takes readers back to when she was thirteen. At that time, Lizzie is best friends with her next-door-neighbour Evie Verver. They share everything and tell each other everything. Then one terrible afternoon, Evie doesn’t come home from school. As the evening drags on her family gets more and more concerned and that night they ask for Lizzie’s help. After all, Evie tells Lizzie everything and may have given her some clue. Lizzie doesn’t remember much about the day but she is desperate to find out what happened to her best friend, so she begins to do some of her own searching for answers. As she slowly uncovers bits and pieces of Evie’s life Lizzie realises that her memories and assumptions about Evie may not be accurate at all.
Paddy Richardson‘s Hunting Blind and Traces of Red both include the powerful effect of childhood memories. In Hunting Blind fledgling psychiatrist Stephanie Anderson relives a terrible memory when she begins to work with a client Elizabeth Clark. Clark has serious emotional scars that stem from the abduction years earlier of her little sister Gracie. Seventeen years before meeting Clark, Anderson’s own four-year-old sister Gemma was abducted and never found. The eerie similarities between the two cases prompt Anderson to try to lay her own ghosts to rest and find out who abducted her sister and Gracie Clark. To do that she relies partly on her own memory of the day but her memory isn’t complete. She was only fourteen when Gemma disappeared and there were things about the case that she didn’t understand. As Anderson slowly follows the trail of the person who was responsible, little pieces of the past slowly start making sense and we can see how her memories have played a role in her life – and in the solution of the mystery. In Traces of Red, television journalist Rebecca Thorne decides to pursue what she hopes will be the story that will make her career. Connor Bligh is in prison for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy, then thirteen, survived. Little hints have arisen that suggest that Bligh may not be guilty and Thorne wants to look into the case. The more she investigates, the more personally interested Thorne gets in this story and that means she can’t be as objective as she tells herself she can be. Is Connor Bligh guilty? The real solution to the mystery hinges on the reliability of everyone’s memory including that of Katy Dickson. In fact the accuracy of her memory plays an important role in the novel.
And then there’s Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer. Catherine Monsigny is a young Paris attorney who’s just beginning to try to build her reputation. She’s excited to get a case that may very well be a breakthrough for her. Myriam Villetreix has been arrested for the poisoning murder of her much-older husband Gaston. She claims that she is innocent and that her husband’s family has set her up. There is plenty of circumstantial evidence though that suggests that Myriam is the murderer. Monsigny hopes that if she can get an acquittal in the Villetreix case, she’ll burnish her reputation and start to make her name, so she travels to Guéret to begin work on the case. What she doesn’t know at first is that Guéret is not far from where a tragic event happened in her own life. When Monsigny was three years old, her mother Violet was murdered. Catherine was there but she only has a few memories of that awful day. They’ve always haunted her though and she wants to know who killed her mother and why. Little by little, as she works the case of Myriam Villetreix, Monsigny also starts to ask questions about her mother’s death. In the end, the pieces she’s always had in her own memory begin to fit with what she learns as an adult and we discover the truth about Violet Monsigny’s death.
Childhood memories can be striking in their accuracy while at the same time hazy and unreliable. That’s what makes them such fascinating plot points for crime fiction novels. Which are your favourites that use this element?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River.