A recent comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about what we remember when we read. And speaking of reading, you’ll want to visit Bitter Tea and Mystery often. It’s a terrific place to read excellent book and film reviews.
Once you’ve read a lot of crime novels, it’s easy to forget the details of what happens in them. There are just too many characters, events and other things for anyone to remember it all. So our memories become necessarily selective and even somewhat fuzzy. But some things simply stay in the memory. Sometimes it’s a scene, or a conflict. Sometimes it’s a character or an ingenious plot twist. We all have different ‘standout’ memories of what we’ve read, and there are a host of reasons for which one or another aspect of a novel stands out for us. Here are just a few examples. I hope you’ll share your own.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He gets drawn into a murder investigation though when retired magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, and there is solid evidence against him. But his fiancée Flora is convinced he’s innocent, so she asks Poirot to look into the matter. There are of course lots of detective novels in which a character protests a loved one’s innocence and persuades the sleuth to investigate. The standout in this novel (at least for me) is the plot twist at the end. It’s ingenious. There are other aspects of the story that are memorable but the plot twist is especially so.
Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice is the second in his Harry Bosch series. In it, Bosch hears of a suicide that took place on his ‘watch.’ What’s worse, the suicide is a fellow cop, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. It looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide, and the reason seems straightforward too. There’s evidence that Moore had ‘gone dirty,’ and could easily have committed suicide out of regret or if he thought he might be caught. But Bosch isn’t sure that this is a suicide. Some aspects of the case just aren’t consistent with that explanation. So he starts asking questions. That immediately gets him into trouble with the Powers That Be, who want this case kept quiet because it’s an embarrassment to the department. That doesn’t stop Bosch, though, and he continues to investigate. There are a lot of things that Connelly fans like about this series and this novel. One major thing that makes it memorable though, at least for me, is the finely drawn thread of conflict. There’s the conflict between Bosch and Moore’s killer. That conflict adds quite a lot of tension to the story. There’s also the conflict between Bosch and his superiors. That too adds to the story’s suspense. These conflicts are important parts of the story, but they are at the same time not so overdone as to be implausible.
Sometimes the most memorable aspect of a novel is one of its characters. In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost for instance, the character of ten-year-old Kate Meaney stands out. She wants to be a detective and in fact, has started her own agency Falcon Investigations. Together with her partner Mickey the Monkey, who travels in Kate’s backpack, she looks for suspicious activity and crimes to solve. And no place seems a more likely spot for suspicious activity than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she spends a good deal of time. Kate’s quite content with her life. Her grandmother Ivy though believes that she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her, promising to go along with her for moral support. The two take the bus to the school, but only Adrian comes back. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of Kate is found, not even a body. Twenty years later, Adrian’s sister Lisa is working at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard there. The two form an odd sort of friendship and each in a different way go back to Kate’s disappearance. In the end, we find out what happened to Kate and part of what makes the truth so memorable is that Kate herself is unforgettable. She has a unique perspective, she’s interesting, and a look at the other characters in the novel shows how much a part of their lives she’s been.
For some books, setting and lifestyle stand out the most. That’s the case for me anyway with M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. Edie Kiglatuk is a very skilled High Arctic hunting guide. She gets mixed up in a case of multiple murder, greed, theft and political intrigue when she takes a client Felix Wagner and some friends on an expedition. Wagner is shot and the first explanation is that it was a tragic accident. Kiglatuk isn’t sure that’s true though, and begins to ask some questions. So does Derek Palliser, the senior of Ellesmere Island’s native police officers. Each in a different way, he and Kiglatuk investigate what’s going on and in the end, they find out the truth. One of the truly memorable things about this novel is its depiction of life in the High Arctic. Eating customs, living arrangements, daily life, etc., are all portrayed authentically.
That’s also the case with Adrian Hyland’s novels featuring Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. The mysteries themselves hold the novels together and so does Hyland’s writing style. But one of the real standouts of these stories (at least from my perspective) is their depiction of the Outback setting and the lifestyle there. Readers get a real sense of the cultures, the daily life and the physical landscape. Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels are a bit similar in that way.
And sometimes it’s one scene in a novel, whether it’s a dramatic scene, a funny scene or a poignant one, that stays in the memory. For example, in Donna Leon’s About Face, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate a murder that’s tied in with illegal waste dumping. The Venice setting is distinctive and the mystery moves along. But for me at any rate, one of the standout memories in this novel is a scene between Brunetti and his wife Paula Falier. Early one morning, Brunetti wakes to find that it’s snowed. He can’t resist making a handprint in the fresh coating and then decides to put that snow-covered hand on Paola, who he thinks is sleeping. She’s not, though:
‘’If you put that hand anywhere near me, I will divorce you and take the children.’
‘They’re old enough to decide themselves,’ he answered with what he thought was Olympian calm.
‘I cook,’ she said.
‘Indeed,’ he said in acknowledgment of defeat.’’
It’s a funny scene, but it also serves to highlight the importance of Brunetti’s family life in this series.
There are also several memorable scenes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, who is Black, has been accused of raping a White woman Mayella Ewell. And in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, just the accusation is enough to put Robinson’s life in danger. Well-known attorney Atticus Finch defends Robinson, and as he looks into the case, he comes to believe that Robinson is innocent. He almost doesn’t get the chance to make his case though. On the night before the trial, he’s visiting his client at the jail when a group of angry men arrive. Their plan is to drag Robinson from the jail and pronounce their own kind of sentence. Finch’s children Jean Louise ‘Scout’ and Jem, and their friend Dill, have come to the jail in search of Atticus. When they see the men arrive, Scout runs towards her father and she, Jem and Dill end up facing down a lynch mob with Atticus. It’s one of the more powerful scenes in the novel. In part that’s because it isn’t violent, yet the tension is high enough to make it unforgettable.
We all have a different way of remembering what we read, and different things resonate with us in different ways. We may not remember everything about what we’ve read, and some of it may be a little fuzzy. But we all have those ‘standout’ memories that can be quite clear. So now it’s your turn. What are some strong memories you have from the crime fiction you’ve read?
Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s I Remember it Well.