Not very long ago, I did a post on nostalgia and the role that it plays in the way we think and in crime fiction too of course. One of the things that came up in the discussion about that post (thanks, folks!!) is that some memories have exactly the opposite effect to nostalgia. We all have sadness and pain in our past – it’s unavoidable really – and those are often memories we don’t want raked up. I’m sure we could all give examples from real life, and it’s quite true in crime fiction as well.
Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) is all about terrible memories that people want to avoid. Famous artist Amyas Crale has been working on a new painting. He’s invited the subject, his mistress Elsa Greer, to his home Alderbury to take advantage of what he thinks will be the perfect setting. Needless to say, Crale’s wife Caroline is not best pleased about it and she’s even overheard threatening her husband. One afternoon, Crale is poisoned. His widow is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons and in fact she is arrested, tried and convicted. She dies a year later in prison and life goes on for the people in the Crales’ lives. Sixteen years later, Amyas and Caroline’s daughter Carla visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent and now that she’s on the point of getting married, she wants her mother’s name cleared. Poirot agrees and contacts the five people who were ‘on the scene’ when the murder occurred. He also gets written accounts from each one, and talks to some other, less directly involved people. In the end that information gives him the truth about the case. One of the interesting things that keep coming up in this novel is that many people ask why Poirot is raking up the whole painful business again. Only a few people are willing, right from the start, to tell their stories. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is not exactly nostalgic about his past either. As we learn in The Last Coyote, Bosch is the son of Marjorie Lowes, a prostitute who was murdered when her son was eleven years old. The case wasn’t exactly high-priority, so the killer was never found. Thirty years later, Bosch is suspended from duty because of a violent encounter with a supervisor. He’s ordered to undergo psychological treatment and is asked to work with Dr. Carmen Hinojos. While he’s ‘sidelined,’ Bosch begins to look into the case and to face some of his own past. One of the things we learn for instance is that Bosch was placed in the McLaren Youth Facility. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place one looks back to with nostalgia. Bosch has survived all of these things along with a stint in Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys taking the time to savour the memories.
School memories aren’t very nostalgic for Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez either. He was born and raised in Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and went to school in Lerwick. The weather and the difficulty of getting back and forth between his home and the school forced Perez to stay at the school during the week. He visited his family home on weekends when the weather co-operated, and on holidays. For several reasons school in Lerwick was not an enjoyable experience for Perez. He was homesick and couldn’t accustom himself easily to life on Lerwick. What’s more, there were two bullies who made his life miserable. Everything changed when he met and befriended Duncan Hunter. Hunter made his life bearable and that’s part of what makes it so awkward in Raven Black when Hunter becomes a suspect in the murder of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross. As it is, Perez does not want to be reminded of his awful school days. For another, he feels a gulf between him and Hunter now that several years have gone by. That unpleasant past adds an interesting layer to this story.
In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, the Davies family has to face some terrible memories from the past. Twenty years before the events in the story, two-year-old Sonia Davies was drowned. Her nanny Katja Wolff was arrested in connection with the death. She’s recently been released from prison and that alone rakes up the past. Then one night, Sonia’s mother Eugenie is killed in what looks at first like an accidental hit-and-run incident. Then her son twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies faces a different kind of crisis. He is a world-class violinist who suddenly finds himself unable to play. He decides to seek psychological help to find out what is at the root of his block. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie Davies’ death and find that all of these plot threads are related, and all are tied to the Davies’ family’s traumatic past.
Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything deals with painful memories too. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her best friend Evie Verver are inseparable. They share all of their secrets and Lizzie can’t really imagine life without Evie. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. No-one is overly worried at first, but as the evening wears on and she doesn’t come home, her family becomes concerned. They, and later the police, ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that will help them find Evie. Lizzie doesn’t know very much about what happened to Evie though, and she can’t be of much assistance. But she does want to know what happened to her best friend. So in her own way, Lizzie starts to ask questions and investigate. She finds that the memories she thought she had of her and Evie might not be accurate. She also learns that she’d built up a lot of assumptions about herself, Evie, and life that covered up some extremely painful truths. Interestingly, Abbott addresses the issue of painful memories in a few ways. At one level, Lizzie has to confront memories that are not as pleasant as she had though. At another, the story begins as the adult Lizzie looks back on the terrible time of Evie’s disappearance.
Most of us have fond memories that we think about with great pleasure. But there are usually some sad ones, too, that we’d just as soon forget. There are far too man examples of this in crime fiction for me to list them all, but I’ve no doubt you already get my point…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River.