I Found Her Diary Underneath a Tree*

Do you keep a journal or diary? A lot of people do. Journaling is one way in which people can come to terms with things that happen to them and it can be a really effective way to make sense of one’s life. Diaries are sometimes the most intimate look we get into a person’s life so they can tell an awful lot about what someone is like. And in crime fiction, diaries ‘flesh out’ characters and can add a great deal to a story. They can be useful clues too.

Diaries show up in more than one of Agatha Christie’s stories. For instance, both The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder in Mesopotamia are told from the first-person perspective of journal-keepers. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot retires to the village of Kings Abbott to garden. His plans change abruptly when wealthy manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study. Ackroyd’s niece Flora asks Poirot to find the killer, as she wants her fiancé cleared of suspicion. That story is told from the point of view of local doctor James Sheppard, who lives next door to Poirot. In Murder in Mesopotamia, Poirot is on his way back to London from Syria when he is asked to interrupt his journey and investigate the murder of Louise Leidner, wife of noted archaeologist Eric Leidner. Although she was in good physical health, she’d had various fears and said that she saw hands tapping at windows and faces looking in, among other things. So her husband hired a nurse Amy Leatheran to look after her. The story of Louise Leidner’s murder and the investigation is told from Amy Leatheran’s point of view. In these novels the narratives don’t look like a set of diary entries but they do serve to show some the character of the writers. And of course, crime fiction fans will know that some of Poirot’s adventures and all of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are told in more or less journal form by respectively Captain Hastings and Dr. Watson.

In Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur, we meet Kerstin Kvist, a young Swedish nurse who takes a job in England to be closer to her lover Mark Douglas. Her position is with the Cosway family who live in a Victorian home called Lydstep Old Hall. Kvist’s patient is thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. From the time Kvist meets the family, she dislikes almost all of them, especially John’s mother Mrs. Cosway, the family matriarch. The main events of the story take place in the 1960’s but the Cosway family lives very much an anachronistic Victorian lifestyle. It’s a dysfunctional family as only Ruth Rendell can portray, especially in her Barbara Vine persona, and Kvist isn’t comfortable there but she takes up her duties. Soon she begins to notice that John Cosway has been heavily drugged and is kept under sedation constantly. His mother is responsible for this regimen and as a nurse Kvist doesn’t think it’s either necessary or well-advised. So without letting Mrs. Cosway know, she begins to withhold the drugs John is used to getting. Her personal involvement in the family has tragic results. One of the key features of this novel is a leather-bound diary that Kvist begins to keep. Before her time with the Cosways, she never kept a journal and in fact wouldn’t have considered it. But the journal was a gift and as time goes by, Kvist becomes more and more attached to her diary. In the end it becomes an important piece of evidence as the events of the story unfold.

In The Hidden Child Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck finds her mother’s old diaries in the attic of her parents’ home. She wants to know her mother better through those diaries but mostly, she wants to know why her mother neglected her and her sister Anna. In the course of looking through her mother’s things Falck finds a Nazi medal. She’s taken aback by her family’s possible connection to the Nazi regime, so she visits retired historian Erik Frankel to try to get some answers. When he is killed two days later, it’s clear that someone in Fjällbacka wants certain secrets to be kept hidden. Although he’s supposed to be on paternity leave, Falck’s husband police officer Patrik Hedström gets involved in the investigation.  As the novel moves on Falck and Hedström look into what the connection is between the town’s World War II past and the present day investigation. Throughout the novel, the diaries Falck finds give us a way of knowing her mother and understanding more about Falck too.

Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson also makes of journaling. He’s a retiree who has to deal with short-term memory loss. In fact, that memory loss gets him into a very difficult situation at the beginning of Living With Your Kids is Murder. In that novel Jacobson moves from his home in Hawai’i to live in Colorado with his son Danny, his daughter-in-law Allison and their daughter Jennifer. When the plane lands he finds himself at the heart of a murder investigation. His seat-mate Daniel Reynolds has been killed and Jacobson is a suspect since he had an argument with Reynolds. The only problem is he doesn’t remember the argument or anything much about Reynolds. With help from Jennifer, Jacobson starts to keep a journal of what happens when he moves to Colorado and slowly tracks down leads to Reynolds’ real killer.In Jacobson’s case, that daily journal helps him compensate for his memory loss. Each day he writes down everything that happens and then re-reads his journal the next morning so he can remember what happened the day before.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his team investigate the mysterious death of Dr. Suresh Jha. Jha has made a career out of investigating superstition and myth and debunking fraudulent practitioners. One day he’s attending a meeting of the Laughter Club, which uses laughter as therapy. During the meeting, what seems to be an incarnation of the Goddess Kali appears and stabs Jha. Many people believe that Kali has taken revenge on Jha for his unbelief, but Puri doesn’t. So he and his team look more closely at the Laughter Club and at other enemies Jha might have made. One of them is a spiritual leader who started life as a magician named Aman but who now calls himself Maharaj Swami. Jha had worked very hard to expose Aman as a fraud and the two had a very public feud. So Puri and his team look closely into Aman’s background. And for that they get unexpected help. It turns out that Aman keeps a diary in which he’s detailed all of his experiences since leaving home. While the diary itself doesn’t detail the truth about what happened to Jha, it does give an important perspective on Aman and his past.

And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, which is told more or less in journal form. Retired school principal Thea Farmer is taking a writing class and as a part of that experience she’s been instructed to keep a diary. Her entries detail her pride in the home she’d had built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains and her chagrin and hurt when she loses her money in a bad business decision and has to settle for a small home she calls ‘the hovel’ that’s located next door to her dream house. When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, whom Farmer calls ‘the invaders,’ purchase that home, Farmer writes of her deep resentment of both of them. Things get even worse when Frank’s niece Kim comes to live there. Bit by bit though, Farmer and Kim develop a sort of friendship and begin to get along. That’s when Farmer starts to suspect that something terrible may be going on next door. The journal she keeps recounts her suspicions and tells of the decision she takes because of them. One thing that’s interesting about Farmer’s journal is that many of the entries are written in response to writing prompts given to her and her classmates. It’s an innovative concept for telling a story.

Diaries and journals can reveal a lot about the writer. So it’s little wonder that they’re often one of the things detectives look for when they’re investigating. When they’re effectively woven into a novel they can add a solid layer of character development.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bread’s Diary.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Camilla Läckberg, Mike Befeler, Ruth Rendell, Tarquin Hall, Virginia Duigan

10 responses to “I Found Her Diary Underneath a Tree*

  1. Great examples! Journals can be great for learning more about a victim. I think there may have been an Elizabeth George book where a boy used a tape recorded diary to detail problems at his school.

    I know there are probably fewer diarists these days, but other devices could also be used. I think we can learn a lot from a person’s calendar (even a digital one.) Or their blog and Facebook accounts.

    • Elizabeth – I agree completely about modern-day technologies like blogging, Facebook and the like. More and more, that’s how people share their lives.
      Are you perhaps thinking of Elizabeth George’s Well-Schooled in Murder? In that novel a student makes a tape recording of some awful things going on at his school and that’s how Lynley gets news of what may be behind the boy’s disappearance. And you’re right that that kind of recording can play the same role as a diary in letting the sleuth (and readers) in on what’s going on in a character’s life.
      Interesting isn’t it that there aren’t as many ‘old-fashioned’ diaries as there were. I wonder how many people keep word-processed journals that they don’t necessarily publish, but that they do keep…

  2. Such a lovely post.
    Murder of Roger Ackroyd is perhaps the best book of the kind. Was The Pointing Finger (???) also narrated in journal form? I really don’t remember.
    But with fewer and fewer people picking up a pen any more, I wonder if a time will come when journals will become little more than secret blogs and fb notes.

    But you missed out the most famous journals of all time- the journals of Dr. J. Watson 🙂

    • Natasha – Thanks for the kind words 🙂 – Interesting you brought up Christie’s The Moving Finger. It’s not, strictly speaking, told in diary or journal form. But it is told in the first person, from the viewpoint of one of the protagonists Jerry Burton. You have a better memory than you may think…

  3. It’s interesting about ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ because, apart from the beginning and the end, you forget in the narrative that it is actually a diary form.
    As Natasha says, the journal style of Watson is wonderful and of course, Holmes begins to become interested in the title/content of what Watson writes.

    • Sarah – You’ve a good point about Murder in Mesopotamia. It is easy to forget as the story goes on that it’s a journal. I like the narrative flow actually. And your comment about Holmes’ interest in Watson’s narratives makes me think of Poirot’s interest in Hastings’. I’m thinking of The Chocolate Box in which that topic is raised. It’s raised in some other stories, too.

  4. Fascinating, Ms. Kinberg. I can’t recall any examples of the role of diaries and journals in crime-fiction but the theme reminds me of Bram Stoker’s DRACULA which, I think, is narrated in the form of letters and notes. I read this book a long time ago so it’s possible I might be mistaken with the title. One can associate secret diaries and journals with mystery, horror and spy stories more than other forms of fiction. They make for a compelling read.

    • Prashant – You have a very good memory! Dracula is indeed written in the form of journals, letters and so on. I think that choice of narrative works very well for that story, actually. And you know, I hadn’t thought of it but it isn’t just crime novels that use the diary/journal kind of narrative effectively. That style can add a lot to a spy or horror novel too.

  5. kathy d.

    Oh, brrrr, Dracula, not my ghoul of choice. Diaries are interesting plot devices. Certainly, the journal kept in The Precipice fulfills a lot of goals, filling in the reader on much that’s going on in the protagonist’s mind and with the neighbors. It works quite well there.
    As a child, I kept a diary for awhile, one with a little lock and key, like so many of us did. But not now.
    This brings me to the topic of letters written by the protagonist to other characters or even to the readers. Another interesting, related topic, and one often used.

    • Kathy – Interesting isn’t it how some people like the whole Dracula business and others don’t. And I agree with you that the journal format does work very well in The Precipice. And you make a very well-taken point about letters as ways of telling stories. They can indeed be very useful tools can’t they? I’ve seen the used a lot in crime fiction.

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