But Now You Just Don’t Remember All the Things You Said, and You’re Not Sure That You Want to Know*

It’s not hard to imagine how frightening it would be to wake up and discover you’ve lost a big chunk of time. Blacking out itself is scary enough; blacking out and then waking to discover you might have done something horrible while you were blacked out is far worse. Not being able to trust one’s own memory is disorienting and sometimes truly frightening. So it’s no wonder that scenario is used in crime fiction novels. First there’s the suspense and tension as the character becomes aware that she or he might have committed a terrible crime. Then there’s the suspense that comes from the questions a blackout raises. Did that person commit the crime? Was that person framed? It can all make for a very effective plot thread so long as it falls out naturally and isn’t ‘soap opera’ contrived.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, for instance, Norma Restarick has that kind of frightening experience. She believes that she may have committed a murder. She has hazy visions of the crime and doesn’t remember how she got to the scene of the crime. She’s not sure she’s guilty but the possibility is strong enough that she visits Hercule Poirot to see if he can help. Just after she meets him though, she loses her nerve and leaves in confusion, not even giving him her name. With help from his friend mystery novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot finds out who the young woman is and tries to find her. By then, though, she has disappeared. So Poirot and Oliver work to find out where she is and whether she really did kill someone. Then there’s another death and again it seems that Norma may have been responsible. It turns out that that the real culprit manipulated Norma with drugs and led her to think she is responsible for both deaths.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we meet Howard Van Horn, son of wealthy business entrepreneur Diedrich Van Horn. Howard’s been having troubling blackouts, and when he wakes up after one of them with blood on him, he is sure that he must have done something terrible. So he visits his college friend Ellery Queen and asks Queen to help him find out what might have happened. Queen agrees and he and Van Horn start to investigate. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home in Wrightsville, a small New England town, so the two friends go there to find out what might have happened. While they’re there Van Horn has another blackout. This time, he recovers to find that his stepmother Sally Van Horn has been murdered. There’s a very real chance he committed the crime and in fact, that’s the immediate assumption. But Queen isn’t convinced, so he continues to investigate. He discovers the truth about Sally Van Horn’s murder, but not before Howard Van Horn’s assumption of his own guilt has tragic consequences.

Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Fathers introduces us to twenty-one-year-old Richard Vanderpoel. He had a very unhappy childhood that included the tragic death of his mother when he was young. But he’s made a life for himself and now works at an auction gallery. He shares an apartment with twenty-four-year-old Wendy Hanniford, who has her own sad history. One afternoon Wendy is murdered. Shortly afterwards Vanderpoel is seen wandering in the streets covered in her blood. The police arrest him almost immediately and he’s assumed to be guilty. Wendy’s father Cale Hanniford wants to know what led to Wendy’s death; he’s been estranged from her for quite some time and wants to know the kind of person his daughter had become. So he approaches former NYPD cop Matthew Scudder and asks him to find out. Scudder agrees and begins to look into Wendy’s life. As he does so he begins to wonder whether Richard Vanderpoel is actually guilty of her murder. He interviews Vanderpoel, who seems to have only very vague memories of what happened. Shortly after that interview Vanderpoel commits suicide. But Scudder continues his investigation. The more he learns about both young people the more he comes to believe that Richard Vanderpoel was innocent, despite the young man’s inability to remember what happened that afternoon.

Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye is the story of the murder of schoolteacher Eva Ringar. Late one night she is killed and her body left in her bathtub. Her husband Janek Mitter is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons. Their marriage was by no means perfect. Besides, on the night of the murder he was extremely drunk and doesn’t remember what happened to his wife. He is sure he didn’t kill her but he blacked out and doesn’t remember enough to account for himself. It’s not impossible that he killed her in a drunken rage without being aware of it. So he’s arrested, tried and convicted. Because he has no memory of the night of the murder, Mitter is remanded to a mental facility instead of prison. While he’s there he slowly begins to recall the events that led up to Eva’s death. In fact he even remembers who killed his wife. When he does he contacts that person and ends up being murdered himself. Now Inspector Van Veeteren, who’s been having doubts about Mitter’s guilt, brings his team fully into action and they investigate the lives of both victims to find out who the killer is.

Maureen ‘Mauri’ O’Donnell has a similar experience in Denise Mina’s Garnethill. At the time of this novel, she’s a Glasgow ticket-taker who’s just decided to break things off with her married lover Douglas Brady. She goes out one night with a friend and after a long night of drinking goes home and falls asleep. She wakes up the next day to discover Brady’s body in her living room. She was very, very drunk that night and doesn’t remember much about coming home. She has no memory of inviting Brady over, and certainly no memory of killing him but it is possible that she’s the killer. That’s at least what detective Joe McEwan, who’s investigating the case, thinks. O’Donnell can’t really prove her innocence but she doesn’t think she’s guilty. So to clear her name, she starts asking her own questions. In the end, we learn that someone took advantage both of her drunkenness and her already-fragile mental state to frame her for the crime.

In Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s December Heat, his Rio de Janeiro Inspector Espinosa has to find out the truth about a crime possibly committed by someone he knows. Another police officer Vieira goes out one evening with his girlfriend Lucimar, who calls herself Magali. He gets very drunk and more or less blacks out. The next thing he’s aware of is waking up in his home to find that his belt, his wallet and his police identification are missing. Then he learns to his shock that Magali has been murdered and his belt has been found in her apartment. He doesn’t think he killed her although it might have happened that way. Inspector Espinosa, who’s working on the case, doesn’t think Vieira would have committed this kind of murder. So even though Magali was ‘only a prostitute,’ Espinosa digs deeper to find out who else would have had a motive and would have been able to frame Vieira so successfully.

Blackouts have to be handled carefully in crime fiction. Otherwise they can seem contrived and pull the reader out of the story. But they do happen. And when an author handles a blackout in a skilled way, the result can add a lot to the tension in a novel as both the sleuth and the suspect who’s blacked out have to figure out what’s really behind a crime.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Denise Mina, Ellery Queen, Håkan Nesser, Lawrence Block, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

10 responses to “But Now You Just Don’t Remember All the Things You Said, and You’re Not Sure That You Want to Know*

  1. You have some good examples here Margot. ”Before I go to sleep’ involved a blackout of sorts as the narrator attempted to work out why she could never remember the previous day. You also get blackouts involved in alcoholic detectives such as Harry Hole and Wallander who attempt to piece together their previous evenings.
    When I used to travel a lot (I still do but not as much) I used to wake up and have no idea where I was. It was a horrible feeling and I don’t miss that aspect of travelling at all.

    • Sarah – I know exactly what you mean about waking up and not being sure where one is; it is scary isn’t it? And thanks for reminding me that both Harry Hole and Kurt Wallander go through episodes of having to piece together things that have happened. It really does add to the tension I think that at least at first, they’re not entire sure…
      Thanks also for mentioning Before I Go to Sleep. That’s a very interesting example of having to piece together the past every day. I can’t imagine how scary that must be…

  2. Margot, another author whose whole series is based on a form of “blacking out” is Mike Befeler, who writes books about octogenarian Paul Jacobson. He suffers from short-term memory loss, and usually wakes up unable to remember what he did the previous day. This becomes even more of a problem when he is accused of murder and can’t remember what he may or may not have done. Befeler has written several books about Jacobson so far.

    • Les – I really like Mike Befeler’s ‘Geezer Lit’ series. I like the Pual Jacobson character and I like the premise. It’s an interesting challenge and Befeler writes effectively about it. Thanks for reminding me of that series.

  3. This is one of my favourite plot devices. It’s fantastic when a writer can pull this off convincingly and when they even have the character unsure of their own guilt because they can’t remember and they do have motive. Great post idea. So, when is you non-fiction book coming out? I can’t wait to read it.

    • Clarissa – Thank you 🙂 – Glad you enjoyed the post. And yes it can really add to the tension when a character not be able to remember whether or not s/he is guilty. As you hint, it’s got to be done convincingly, but when it is, it can be a great plot device. And thanks for asking about my nonfiction book. I’ve had (very long story – trust me) a setback to it. Nothing that I cannot overcome, but a setback. It’ll hopefully be published but I’m not sure exactly when. I’m working on it though.

  4. One of Margery Allingham’s books – I think it’s Traitor’s Purse – has series protagonist Albert Campion wake up during WW2 not knowing who he is. I remember reading one critic who said it was the only way Allingham could finally get Campion to marry Amanda… I don’t remember much about the book, but then if you give your series hero amnesia, he’s going to be missing the character that readers like, maybe? So far as I can tell, all medical experts say all book versions of amnesia are completely wrong, it never works the way it does in books…

    • Moira – Right you are about Traitor’s Purse! It’s a great idea of not being able to remember one’s involvement in a case. I actually considered including that one in this post. I didn’t in the end so I’m very glad you’ve brought it up. And I’ve heard something quite similar to what you’ve heard about amnesia in real live v amnesia in crime fiction. They are nothing like the same thing. But that doesn’t stop people from using it as a plot device does it?

  5. kathy d.

    Well, there’s amnesia, even bad dementia, where people don’t remember past events, even occurrences the previous day. And then there’s alcoholic blackouts, which are portrayed in the posts above, and in so many books.
    Jo Nesbo’s Nemesis has Harry Hole not knowing if he committed a horrendous crime during a bad blackout. It makes for good suspense.
    This is a very frequent plot device, which often adds some spice to a mystery, although we do side with the protagonist, knowing he/she wouldn’t have harmed another person.

    • Kathy – Interesting you’d mention amnesia and dementia. There are several novels that use that plot point; I may even do a separate post on that at some point. I agree with you to that part of what adds to the tension in Nemesis. And you’ve got an interesting point that that particular plot device can make the reader feel sympathy for the character who’s blacked out. It’s frightening not to know what’s happened; it’s even more so if one is accused of a crime like murder that one (probably) didn’t commit.

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