I Feel Like I’m Frozen in Time*

Terrible tragedies affect people deeply and in different ways. Some people are able to heal and move on. Others have a lot more difficulty moving past what’s happened. That seems to be especially the case if there’s no opportunity for closure; for instance, if a murderer was never caught, or if someone who disappeared was never found. That kind of devastating event can leave a person almost “frozen,” you might say. Crime fiction that portrays this reality can be especially compelling; in seeing how individuals are affected by murder and other horrible events, we also see just how terrible those events are. And that can be at least as gripping as a lot of depiction of violence is.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot is hired by Carla Lemarchant to investigate a “cold case:” the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, her mother Caroline was assumed to be guilty. There was plenty of motive (Crale had said he was going to leave her for his mistress), and there was opportunity, too. Caroline Crale was even found to be in possession of the poison that killed her husband. But Carla Lemarchant doesn’t believe her mother was guilty and she wants to know the truth so that she can get on with her life. Poirot agrees to take the case and approaches the five people who were “on the scene” the day Amyas Crale was killed. From each of them he gets a written account of the murder. He also interviews each of them. As he gets to know these people better, we see how some of them have been, as you might say, “frozen in time” by the murder. They function; that is, they get up, they go through their days, and so on. But they have not really got beyond what happened. In the end, Poirot finds out who really murdered Amyas Crale and why, and we can see how that knowledge (at the risk of being cliché) sets Carla Lemarchant free to live her own live.

In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue, part of a valuable Anglo-Saxon belt buckle owned by Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Laura Stratton, whose family owned the Wolvercote Tongue, is on a tour of historic English cities with her husband Eddie. The plan was for her to publicly donate the piece to the Ashmolean during the tour group’s stop in Oxford. But on the afternoon of the tour group’s arrival in Oxford, Laura Stratton suddenly dies. Then the jewel is stolen. At first it looks as though a thief simply took an opportunity to get something valuable. But the next day, Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean, is murdered. Morse and Lewis are quite sure that the two events are related, and so they are. But this is Colin Dexter, after all, so the events are not related in the way one might think. As Morse gets to know the tourists better, we find out that there is a terrible tragedy in the past of one of those families, and that family has never really gotten closure – never really healed from what happened. That tragedy is closely related to the events that Morse and Lewis are investigating.

There’s also a theme of being “frozen in time” in Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands. Eighteen years before the events in this novel, Billy Peters disappeared and was presumed killed. There was never any real closure here, because Peters’ body was never found, nor was anyone arrested for the crime. So although the family has learned to function, in several ways they’re “frozen.” It’s always been believed that Billy Peters was killed by Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for other crimes, but that could never be proven. So now, Billy Peters’ twelve-year-old nephew Steven decides to find out what really happened to his uncle. He finds out how to contact Avery in prison, and writes Avery a letter; he’s hoping that he’ll be able to get Avery to admit to killing Peters and tell where the body is. Avery has his own agenda, so he responds to Steven’s letter. The two begin a very dangerous game of “cat and mouse” as Steven tries to get answers and Avery pursues his own goals. Throughout this novel, we can see how the disappearance of Billy Peters changed everything for his family, and how no-one has really been able to heal.

And then there’s Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. That’s the story of the murder of Holberg, a seemingly inoffensive elderly man who’s found bludgeoned in his flat one day. Inspector Erlendur and his team are assigned to the case, and they begin their investigation. At first, there seems no reason for the murder; Holberg didn’t seem to have any enemies at his job or in his community. He had no real family, either, and no fortune to leave. But as Erlendur digs a little deeper into Holberg’s past, he discovers another dimension to the victim. It turns out that Holberg had been accused of rape, although he was never arrested or imprisoned for the crime. And the more digging the team does, the more apparent it is that there may have been more than one victim. As the team talks to the various people in Holberg’s past, we see how they’ve been, all in their own ways, “frozen in time” by what happened to them. We see this in particular when Erlendur talks to the sister of one of Holberg’s accusers; she’s never really healed from what happened to her sister, especially since her sister later committed suicide. It’s a compelling undercurrent to this novel, and in the end, Erlendur and his team have to get the people in Holberg’s past to move past their pain and admit what really happened, so the team can get to the truth about his murder.

Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar) introduces us to Rebecka Martinsson, a Stockholm tax attorney. She’s originally from the Norrland town of Kiruna, but because of a personal trauma, she left Kiruna and has no desire to return. Although you couldn’t really call her healthy and happy, she does function. She does her job well and has made a life for herself in Stockholm. Then she gets a call from an old friend Sanna Strångard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been found brutally murdered in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength. Sanna was the person who found the body, and it’s not long before the police begin to suspect that she may be the murderer. Sanna claims that she’s innocent and wants Martinsson to come back to Kiruna and help her. Martinsson doesn’t want to go; she’s managed to hold her life together by putting aside what happened to her there. But she is eventually persuaded, and returns to her home. Once there, she finds that Sanna Strångard was not the only one who had a motive for murder. In order to clear her former friend’s name, she works with Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke to find out who really committed the murder and why. In the process, she has to confront the tragedy in her own past.

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind also addresses the theme of being what you could call “frozen in time.” One beautiful summer’s day, four-year-old Gemma Anderson goes missing during a school picnic. An exhaustive search is made and the police do everything they can to find out what happened to the girl. But no trace of her is ever found. The family is torn apart by what happened but, each in a different way, the members of the family do their best to get on with life. Fourteen years later, Gemma’s older sister Stephanie is finishing her training as a psychiatrist. She’s continued with her life, and on the surface, she’s doing well. But she has never really healed, and never really moved on. Still, she’s functioning. Then one day, she’s assigned a new patient Elizabeth Clark who’s attempted suicide and is uncommunicative. For a while Stephanie can’t seem to break through to her patient but gradually she learns Elizabeth’s haunting story. Her younger sister Gracie disappeared one night and was never found. The circumstances of her patient’s story are eerily similar to those of Gemma’s disappearance, and Stephanie begins to wonder whether the same person abducted both girls. As she begins to ask questions, Stephanie confronts her own past and faces the fact that she has been “frozen in time.”

Sometimes, a tragedy is so devastating that those left to cope with it find it hard to move on. It can happen after any tragedy but especially when there’s never been the chance for closure. That sense of being “frozen in time” can be compelling when an author portrays it realistically without being melodramatic (not an easy task!). Which novels have you enjoyed that have that theme?




*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Three Days’ Grace’s World So Cold.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Åsa Larsson, Belinda Bauer, Colin Dexter, Paddy Richardson

20 responses to “I Feel Like I’m Frozen in Time*

  1. It’s a very common theme in many of the novel series I read. The detectives have a past that the reader gets hints about but usually for the first few novels in the series, it’s not really touched on. Then a case hits that matches the past and the writer is forced to delve into the background of the detective. If a writer does it well, it doesn’t drive me nuts but sometimes a writer can make it so sappy.

    • Clarissa – You are so right that sometimes, when detectives’ traumatic pasts come up, it’s not done well. It can get sappy or melodramatic or worse. It takes the right touch; it really does. I think that any time the “frozen in time” theme is used, whether or not it’s the detective that has that issue, it’s got to be done deftly.

  2. Frozen makes me think literally and metaphorically of Minette Walters ‘The Ice House’ where the sisters and the detective have their own reasons for being frozen in their own situations.
    Johan Theorin’s excellent first book ‘Echoes from the Dead’ was about a woman frozen by the loss of her child.

    • Sarah – Yes, yes, yes! Thank you for mentioning both of those very well-written, excellent books. They both treat that theme and I like it that Walters also uses it in both the literal and metaphorical sense; it adds an interesting touch, really.

  3. Patti Abbott

    Thought it was my teeth at first. Have that dream all the time. Yikes! Love JAR CITY.

  4. Great examples here. To me a book that deals with the case of a missing person tugs at my heart strings more than anything. I can’t image how a family would cope with that never knowing what happened.

    Thoughts in Progress

  5. Margot: Elendeur has his personal trauma from his youth that still troubles him.

    In Linwookd Barclay’s No Time for Goodbye the 14 year old Cynthia wakes up one morning to find her parents disappeared from the house during the night. 25 years later she goes on reality T.V. seeking them.

    In R.J. Harlick’s Arctic Blue Death Meg Harris is summoned home because her mother has received messages that her husband whose plane went missing over 30 years ago in the high Canadian Arctic is still alive.

    • Bill – Thank you for these terrific contributions. Right indeed you are about Erlendur; his past still haunts him and that’s part of what makes his character “tick.” And Barclay’s No Time For Goodbye is indeed a fine example of exactly what I mean.
      Now, I confess I haven’t read Arctic Blue Death, but after reading your fine review of it, I’ve just added it to my TBR.

  6. kathy d.

    I liked Jar City, too. I like the element of a detective looking at a mystery from his/her past or investigating an old case that gnaws at them.
    Sara Paretsky does this well in Hard Ball and Blacklist.
    Agree that Indridason’s obsession with his childhood trauma holds him captive and frozen in time. He’s now out trying to find out what happened, thus leaving the investigations to his team members. It’s an interesting story line. And in Hypothermia, he looks into another old case of disappeared young people.
    It’s always an interesting plot element to me.
    And often detectives stir up their own pasts when they look into an old case or a current case which has roots decades old.

    • Kathy – You’re quite right that Sara Paretsky addresses this theme in Hard Ball and Blacklist. I’m glad you brought them up. And it is interesting, isn’t it, how Erlendur has taken that step from thinking about what happened in his childhood to feeling compelled to find out the truth. Some people don’t take that next step, but he does…
      There is certainly a pattern, isn’t there, of detectives’ own pasts being brought back, so to speak, when they’re on cases. So long as it’s not done melodramatically, that pattern can work very well in novels and it gives the reader a chance to get to know the character better.

  7. Great examples here. I agree with Sarah–makes me think of Walters’ “Ice House.” I think treating this subject is tough….easy to go overboard with it and get into the maudlin. But it adds some realism to the story if done well.

    • Elizabeth – Why, thank you 🙂 Writing a “frozen in time” character or topic can indeed be tough. It’s easy to get melodramatic and it’s easy to paint a character stereotypically. But if it’s done well, it really can engage the reader.

  8. It has been a while since I read Nancy Pickard’s A Virgin of Small Plains, but if I remember correctly, there were quite a few people affected by the discovery of a mysterious dead girl found in a field. It was almost 20 years after the discovery that one of the characters took it upon herself to solve the mystery. I think Pickard did a great job with the subject matter without being maudlin.

  9. kathy d.

    Harry Bosch in The Concrete Blonde finds out his mother’s murder years earlier. I think it’s Connelly’s favorite book in the series.

  10. cathy

    a month ago our house has burned down and my father died. I feel exactly the same, I can function but I feel like time’s not moving. it’s horrible. thats why I googled it. Great post

    • Cathy – I am so sorry to hear of the horrible things you’ve been through lately. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be. I wish you peace and healing as you get through the next months, and I hope it’s at least a little comforting to know that the way you’re feeling isn’t crazy. Be good to yourself.

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