It’s not hard to imagine how frightening it would be to wake up and discover you’ve lost a big chunk of time. Blacking out itself is scary enough; blacking out and then waking to discover you might have done something horrible while you were blacked out is far worse. Not being able to trust one’s own memory is disorienting and sometimes truly frightening. So it’s no wonder that scenario is used in crime fiction novels. First there’s the suspense and tension as the character becomes aware that she or he might have committed a terrible crime. Then there’s the suspense that comes from the questions a blackout raises. Did that person commit the crime? Was that person framed? It can all make for a very effective plot thread so long as it falls out naturally and isn’t ‘soap opera’ contrived.
In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, for instance, Norma Restarick has that kind of frightening experience. She believes that she may have committed a murder. She has hazy visions of the crime and doesn’t remember how she got to the scene of the crime. She’s not sure she’s guilty but the possibility is strong enough that she visits Hercule Poirot to see if he can help. Just after she meets him though, she loses her nerve and leaves in confusion, not even giving him her name. With help from his friend mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot finds out who the young woman is and tries to find her. By then, though, she has disappeared. So Poirot and Oliver work to find out where she is and whether she really did kill someone. Then there’s another death and again it seems that Norma may have been responsible. It turns out that that the real culprit manipulated Norma with drugs and led her to think she is responsible for both deaths.
In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we meet Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy business entrepreneur Diedrich Van Horn. Howard’s been having troubling blackouts, and when he wakes up after one of them with blood on him, he is sure that he must have done something terrible. So he visits his college friend Ellery Queen and asks Queen to help him find out what might have happened. Queen agrees and he and Van Horn start to investigate. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home in Wrightsville, a small New England town, so the two friends go there to find out what might have happened. While they’re there Van Horn has another blackout. This time, he recovers to find that his stepmother Sally Van Horn has been murdered. There’s a very real chance he committed the crime and in fact, that’s the immediate assumption. But Queen isn’t convinced, so he continues to investigate. He discovers the truth about Sally Van Horn’s murder, but not before Howard Van Horn’s assumption of his own guilt has tragic consequences.
Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers introduces us to twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel. He had a very unhappy childhood that included the tragic death of his mother when he was young. But he’s made a life for himself and now works at an auction gallery. He shares an apartment with twenty-four-year-old Wendy Hanniford, who has her own sad history. One afternoon Wendy is murdered. Shortly afterwards Vanderpoel is seen wandering in the streets covered in her blood. The police arrest him almost immediately and he’s assumed to be guilty. Wendy’s father Cale Hanniford wants to know what led to Wendy’s death; he’s been estranged from her for quite some time and wants to know the kind of person his daughter had become. So he approaches former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder and asks him to find out. Scudder agrees and begins to look into Wendy’s life. As he does so he begins to wonder whether Richard Vanderpoel is actually guilty of her murder. He interviews Vanderpoel, who seems to have only very vague memories of what happened. Shortly after that interview Vanderpoel commits suicide. But Scudder continues his investigation. The more he learns about both young people the more he comes to believe that Richard Vanderpoel was innocent, despite the young man’s inability to remember what happened that afternoon.
Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye is the story of the murder of schoolteacher Eva Ringar. Late one night she is killed and her body left in her bathtub. Her husband Jurgen Mitter is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons. Their marriage was by no means perfect. Besides, on the night of the murder he was extremely drunk and doesn’t remember what happened to his wife. He is sure he didn’t kill her but he blacked out and doesn’t remember enough to account for himself. It’s not impossible that he killed her in a drunken rage without being aware of it. So he’s arrested, tried and convicted. Because he has no memory of the night of the murder, Mitter is remanded to a mental facility instead of prison. While he’s there he slowly begins to recall the events that led up to Eva’s death. In fact he even remembers who killed his wife. When he does he contacts that person and ends up being murdered himself. Now Inspector Van Veeteren, who’s been having doubts about Mitter’s guilt, brings his team fully into action and they investigate the lives of both victims to find out who the killer is.
Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell has a similar experience in Denise Mina’s Garnethill. At the time of this novel, she’s a Glasgow ticket-taker who’s just decided to break things off with her married lover Douglas Brady. She goes out one night with a friend and after a long night of drinking goes home and falls asleep. She wakes up the next day to discover Brady’s body in her living room. She was very, very drunk that night and doesn’t remember much about coming home. She has no memory of inviting Brady over, and certainly no memory of killing him but it is possible that she’s the killer. That’s at least what detective Joe McEwan, who’s investigating the case, thinks. O’Donnell can’t really prove her innocence but she doesn’t think she’s guilty. So to clear her name, she starts asking her own questions. In the end, we learn that someone took advantage both of her drunkenness and her already-fragile mental state to frame her for the crime.
In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s December Heat, his Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa has to find out the truth about a crime possibly committed by someone he knows. Another police officer Vieira goes out one evening with his girlfriend Lucimar, who calls herself Magali. He gets very drunk and more or less blacks out. The next thing he’s aware of is waking up in his home to find that his belt, his wallet and his police identification are missing. Then he learns to his shock that Magali has been murdered and his belt has been found in her apartment. He doesn’t think he killed her although it might have happened that way. Inspector Espinosa, who’s working on the case, doesn’t think Vieira would have committed this kind of murder. So even though Magali was ‘only a prostitute,’ Espinosa digs deeper to find out who else would have had a motive and would have been able to frame Vieira so successfully.
Blackouts have to be handled carefully in crime fiction. Otherwise they can seem contrived and pull the reader out of the story. But they do happen. And when an author handles a blackout in a skilled way, the result can add a lot to the tension in a novel as both the sleuth and the suspect who’s blacked out have to figure out what’s really behind a crime.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.