It’s Been So Long Since I’ve Been Gone*

Sometimes, people leave home for what they think are very good reasons and when they leave, they think they’re leaving their problems behind them. But going away doesn’t always solve problems; in fact sometimes, it can make them worse. When that happens, there’s sometimes an instinct to go home. Sometimes, too, “prodigals” are drawn home by other circumstances. Of course, going home is often easier said than done as the saying goes. And that tension can add a lot of suspense to a crime fiction story, even if the “prodigal’s return” isn’t the main part of the plot.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder), Simeon Lee invites his grown children and their spouses to join him at Gorston Hall, the family home, for Christmas. For various reasons, everyone accepts, but no-one really wants to go. Simeon Lee is an unpleasant tyrant who’s found ways to alienate everyone. One of his sons is Harry, who’s the family “black sheep.” Harry left the family home twenty years earlier and has done a lot of travelling all over the world since then. He’s gotten in all sorts of trouble, too. When he gets the invitation, he accepts it in part because he hasn’t been able to make a really successful life for himself although we can tell he’s enjoyed trying. On Christmas Eve, Harry Lee becomes a suspect when his father is murdered. He was in the house, he desperately needed his share of his father’s large fortune, and nobody knows much about what he’s been doing in the years he’s been away. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he is persuaded to look into the case. He finds that Harry Lee’s return has engendered quite a lot of resentment, and that makes for an interesting layer of tension in the novel.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we meet the Lawson family. Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate have just inherited a considerable amount of money from Mallory’s very wealthy Aunt Carey. The money will mean that Mallory can leave the teaching position that has burned him out, and he and Kate can pursue their dream of starting a small independent publishing company. The Lawsons inherit Carey Lawson’s home in the village of Forbes Abbot on condition that her companion and friend Benny Frayle have a permanent home there. The Lawsons are only too happy to agree to this since they like Benny and she’s got some publishing skills and good ideas. The Lawson’s twenty-year-old daughter Polly is set to inherit a large sum of money, too, although she has to wait until she turns twenty-one to get access to the funds. Unbeknownst to her parents, Polly has gotten herself into a great deal of financial trouble, so she desperately needs the money she’s set to inherit as soon as possible. Using a trumped-up story, she persuades Mallory to authorise some of the money he and Kate have inherited to pay her debts. And that’s when Polly’s trouble really begins. She thinks she discovers a way to speculate with her parents’ inheritance and ends up in real trouble when everything falls apart. Then she disappears just before becoming a suspect in the murder of Dennis Brinkley, the Lawson family’s financial consultant. Inspector Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate Brinkley’s murder and another murder and as they’re doing so, Mallory Lawson becomes more and more worried about his daughter. He finds her and brings her back to the Mallory home, and it’s interesting to see how everyone adjusts to her return. On one hand, she’s safe and the family is able to start repairing their relationships. On the other, there is a lot of strain and resentment on all sides. It’s a realistic reminder that coming home, so to speak, isn’t always easy.

It’s not easy for Sebastian “Seb” Taylor in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Delicious and Suspicious, either. Seb is the son of Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ popular restaurants. Seb left Memphis a few years earlier to “make it” in New York, but he’s not had much success. In fact, he’s now got a drug habit and has made some unsavoury associates. So Seb decides to do the difficult thing and go home. He wants to be “just Seb Taylor” again. He goes back to Memphis and begins to work with his mother and his brother Ben at the restaurant. There’s naturally some resentment in the family; Ben sees his brother as irresponsible and selfish, while Seb sees Ben as sanctimonious and domineering. Meanwhile Lulu is doing her best to keep her family united and keep the restaurant as successful as it is. Then word comes that Rebecca Adrian, food critic for The Cooking Channel, will be visiting Memphis to choose the restaurant that will win The Cooking Channel’s best barbecue in Memphis award. Aunt Pat’s will be one of her stops. Everyone gets busy preparing for this visit, and when Adrian arrives, she’s treated to a special meal. But then, only hours after her visit to Aunt Pat’s, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Soon, word begins to spread that the food at Aunt Pat’s is dangerous and that’s why Adrian died. To clear her restaurant and her family from suspicion, Lulu Taylor begins to ask questions about the murder. She soon finds that Rebecca Adrian alienated nearly everyone, so there are several people who are only too happy that she’s dead. Throughout the novel, Seb Taylor’s struggles to “come home” form a solid sub-plot and add a level of interest and realism to the story.

And then there’s Rebecca Martinsson, an attorney whom we first meet in Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar). Martinsson is originally from the Noorland town of Kiruna. She left home for very good reasons and after studying law, took a job in Stockholm where she’s working when this series begins. Martinsson had a less-than-pleasant departure from Kiruna so she’s in no hurry to return. She works too many hours, but her job pays her bills and she’s not what you’d call unhappy in Stockholm. Then one day, she gets a call from a former friend Sanna Strångard. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been found murdered in a local church and it was Sanna herself who found the body. So she’s understandably both devastated and emotionally shaken. She begs Martinsson to return to Kiruna to be with her. At first, Martinsson demurs, but in the end, she’s persuaded to go. When she gets to Kiruna, she feels a sense of belonging, especially once she settles into her grandparents’ house, where she’s decided to stay. But she also feels a sense of alienation, especially considering what her reasons were for leaving. Then, Sanna Strångard is charged with her brother’s murder. She asks Martinsson to defend her and for several reasons Martinsson finds that difficult. But she takes up the task and in the end, she finds out who killed Viktor Strångard and why. Martinsson’s sense of both homecoming and alienation add a layer of character depth and tautness to this story.

We see a similar sort of conflict in Linda Castillo’s series featuring Kate Burkholder, Chief of Police of the Amish community of Painter’s Mill, Ohio. Burkholder was raised in that community, and she is Amish. In Sworn to Silence, we learn that sixteen years earlier, Burkholder left the community for a very good reason. Years passed and Burkholder became a police officer. When Painter’s Mill finds itself in need of a new police chief, Burkholder is tapped for the job, as it’s felt that her Amish background and police skills will be a good fit for that community. She herself feels that she’s gotten past the reason that she left in the first place. Then, the body of a murdered young girl is found in a snowy field. Burkholder is determined that the murderer won’t strike again, so she goes after the killer. But stopping the killer is going to mean that Burkholder will have to confront her past. Throughout the novel, Burkholder feels the conflict between belonging in this place and what she has to do to catch the killer.

There are plenty of other novels, too, where a character makes the difficult choice to come home, only to find that her or his troubles are just beginning…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Comin’ Home.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Linda Castillo, Riley Adams

6 responses to “It’s Been So Long Since I’ve Been Gone*

  1. This topic reminds me of “In the Woods” by Tana French. It can lead to a great plot twist, especially if the protagonist goes home to investigate a crime or right a wrong, and no one recognizes him.

    • Pat – You know, you’ve got a good point about Into the Woods. I hadn’t thought about that one when I was preparing this post, but it is a great example of what I had in mind. And yes, it’s especially an interesting twist if nobody recognises the “prodigal.” You’re inspiring me :-).

  2. The other interesting plot development is when the prodigal returns, expecting everything to be the same. It never is.

  3. The return of Martin Guerre? The Man in the Iron Mask? 😉

    Barbara Vine used this device effectively in the twist to A Fatal Inversion.

    • Maxine – Oh, yes, those are great examples! ;-). And thanks for mentioning A Fatal Inversion, too; it’s a terrific example of exactly what I mean here, and I simply neglected to mention it. Maxine to the rescue. 🙂 Folks, Barbara Vine/Ruth Rendell has created some really compelling psychological mysteries/thrillers. A Fatal Inversion is one of the good ‘uns.

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