We All Know Someone Else, It All Comes Full Circle*

connectionsIt’s always interesting to think about how our lives intersect in ways we don’t always plan. Let me if I may give you an example of what I mean. I’ve a good friend and work colleague who lives about 9k from me. As it turns out, she was born in the same Pennsylvania hospital where I was born – almost 5,000k from where we both live now. We grew up about a half-hour drive apart and by different paths, have ended up in the same place again. We didn’t meet  until we started to work at the same university, but we were more connected than we knew.  I’ll bet you have those kinds of connections in your life too. If you do, it’s not surprising; it really is a smaller world than we think it is. That’s certainly true in real life, so of course, we see it in crime fiction too. There are dozens and dozens of examples, of which I only have space here for a few. So I’ll depend on you to fill in the gaps I leave.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, a group of people is staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. One of the guests is noted fashion designer Rosamund Darnley. One evening, to her surprise, she gets a ‘blast from her past.’ Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena and his daughter Linda check into the hotel. Darnley has known Marshall since they were children, but hadn’t seen him in years. Certainly she hadn’t planned to see him at the Jolly Roger. I don’t think it’s spoiling the story to say that neither she nor Marshall has planned this meeting. They each came to the hotel through different connections. Their lives get enmeshed again when Arlena Marshall is murdered. Her husband is the first suspect. For one thing, she was having a not-very-well-hidden affair and he knew about it. For another, there’s a suspicion that he thought he might inherit quite a lot of money at her death. However, Marshall has an alibi, so the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. Hercule Poirot is staying at the Jolly Rger and was quite likely the last person to see the victim alive, so he gets involved in the investigation. One of the things about a hotel, as Poirot points out, is that it draws together all sorts of people; in this case it’s an unlikely meeting place for people who hadn’t seen one another in a very long time.

Three disparate cases face Ellery Queen in Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder and The King is Dead. In the first, Queen travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville to get some peace and quiet so that he can work on a book. He arranges to stay in a guest house on the property of town leaders John and Hermione Wright. That’s how Queen gets involved in the lives of the Wright family. It’s also how he gets involved when the Wright’s youngest daughter Nora gets re-engaged and then married to her former fiancé Jim Haight – and when Haight is arrested and tried for the murder of his sister Rosemary. Several people that Queen meets in Wrighsville play roles again a few years later in Ten Days Wonder. An old university friend of Queen’s Howard Van Horn is plagued by frightening blackouts. He wakes up from one of them covered in blood and, terrified that he did something horrible, Van Horn seeks out Queen to help him get to the truth about the blackouts and about what he might have done. Queen agrees and the trail leads back to Wrightsville, where Van Horn grew up. While they’re there, Van Horn has another blackout during which his stepmother Sally is murdered. He’s an obvious suspect. Still, Queen doesn’t think his friend is guilty, so he investigates. Because Wrightsville is a small town, the Van Horns know of the Wrights, and both families know other people too. That network isn’t exactly the reason for Sally Van Horn’s murder, but it figures in the novel. We also see that connection in The King is Dead, in which Queen investigates the attempted murder of arms tycoon Kane ‘King’ Bendigo. Bendigo lives on a private island with his wife Karla and his brothers Abel and Judah. When he begins to get threatening letters, Abel convinces him to bring Queen and his father Inspector Richard Queen to the island to investigate. Then there’s attempt on Bendigo’s life and now it looks as though he really is in imminent danger. The trail leads once again to Wrightsville, where the Bendigo brothers grew up and where there are still some people who remember Ellery Queen from his other visits…

There’s another case of ‘small world’ in Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo. In that novel, LAPD cop Harry Bosch has been demoted to the Hollywood Homicide team because of a questionable shooting incident in a former case. He’s getting used to his new position when a man’s body is found stuffed in a drainpipe. At first the case looks like just another junkie who killed himself with an overdose. But this case is different right from the beginning, at least for Bosch. The dead man is Billy Meadows, a former friend of Bosch’s from their days fighting together during the Vietnam War. Both men were ‘tunnel rats’ whose job it was to find and destroy enemy underground bunkers. Meadows and Bosch have ended up, by different routes, in the same place again and that connection is part of what drives Bosch to investigate this murder more carefully. It turns out that Meadows’ death is connected to a larger plan for a bank robbery.

In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, we are introduced to Inspector Jimmy Perez. Originally from Fair Isle, he’s now called to Ravenswick, Shetland to investigate the murder of a young girl Catherine Ross. Her body is found shortly after New Years in a field not far from the home of Magnus Tait, a sort of local misfit. He’s soon the prime suspect in the murder since he was possibly the last person to see the victim alive. What’s more, the locals have always considered Tait responsible for the disappearance of another girl Catriona Bruce some years earlier. Her body was never found and there was never any real evidence against Tait, so the police couldn’t make a case. But that hasn’t stopped the locals from thinking what they think. As Perez traces Catherine Ross’ last days and weeks, he meets up again unexpectedly with someone from his past. Successful businessman Duncan Hunter threw a party at his home not long before Catherine Ross was killed. She was among the people at the party and for a variety of reasons Hunter becomes suspect in her murder. Hunter is also a former schoolmate of Perez’, and the one person at that time who protected Perez from two bullies who were making his life miserable. They haven’t been in touch very often and as adults, they have little in common. That awkwardness makes for an interesting subtext in this novel and that connection with the past adds to both men’s characters.

Wendy James’ The Mistake also features a few unexpected connections with the past. Angus and Jodie Garrow and their children have what everyone thinks is a ‘model life’ in small-town New South Wales. It all changes when their daughter Hannah is in an accident and is taken to a Sydney hospital for treatment. It’s the same hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child Elsa Mary. A nurse who was there at the time remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodei tells her that the baby was given up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal record of an adoption. That’s when the questions begin to arise. What happened to the child? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, was Jodie somehow responsible for her death? Before long, Jodie becomes both a public curiosity object and an outcast as people begin talk quite openly about her role in the baby’s disappearance. In the midst of all this, another unexpected connection provides a real measure of solace for Jodie. She is invited one evening to a book club and, pleased that anyone wants anything to do with her, attends. The meeting turns out to be a disaster and Jodie leaves, humiliated. In fact, she doesn’t even notice that one of the people at the meeting is Bridget ‘Bridie’ ’Sullivan, a friend from Jodie’s childhood. Bridie feels terrible about what happened at the meeting and calls the next day, partly to apologise (although she isn’t responsible for what happens at the meeting) and partly to re-connect. Jodie invites her to the house and says this about their meeting:


‘It’s unreal isn’t it? You. Us. Meeting again.’


And it happens because Bridie and Jodie are both acquainted with members of the book club. It’s just as unexpected for Bridie, but the two put together their friendship again, and it turns out to be a source of healing for both.

We are all much more connected than we think we are, and when that’s portrayed authentically (i.e. not in a contrived way to suit the author’s purpose), it can add to a story. As you can see, I’ve only had room to mention a few examples from crime fiction. Your turn.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from No Doubt’s Full Circle.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Ellery Queen, Michael Connelly, Wendy James

22 responses to “We All Know Someone Else, It All Comes Full Circle*

  1. I enjoy reading about such moments in fiction Margot, thanks for raising, though mainly because they never seem to happen to me personally!

  2. Margot, I will be interested to see how many examples of this type of occurrence in crime fiction there are. I could not think of many. Of course, my memory for details like that is very limited.

    IN THE WOODS by Tana French is about the murder of a child, and there an unsolved case of missing children from many years before that took place in the same location. Rob Ryan, one of the policemen on the case, was involved in the old case but he keeps that quiet. He ends up interviewing people he knew as a child in the current case. A complicated story with a lot of psychological trauma revisited.

    • Tracy – I think those kind of moments really do happen in real life, so I’m sure there are lots more of them in crime fiction than I could remember in just this one post. And thanks for mentioning Into the Woods. As you say, Ryan has to confront people he knew in his past in this new context, and I think that adds a rich layer of complication and tension to the story.

  3. I was in a cafe in Cairo in the mid 90’s and got talking to the waitress who, it turns out had not only hear of my home town (hardly anyone outside Australia has) but had lived here for 4 years and even took one of the same courses as I did at our shared university (about 3 or 4 years apart mind you).

    It’s easy to think of these kinds of things as “too much” and unbelievable when you read them but really this stuff does happen.

    • Bernadette – It really does happen, as your story shows. What a strange and fascinating experience it must have been for you to meet someone who’d lived in your home town in Cairo, of all places. Interesting how we’re a lot more willing to believe those things happen in real life than that they would happen in a novel…

  4. It happens to me all the time. On a business trip to London, I have dinner at a restaurant and it turns out my waitress is from two villages down from where I currently live in Switzerland. My current neighbours opposite: turns out the father of the family went to the primary school just opposite mine (in Vienna, Austria) at about the same time I did, so we must have met in the park and played together many times. That’s just two examples from the past couple of months, but I have many more. This sort of thing would be deemed too much of a coincidence in crime fiction!

    • MarinaSofia – Oh, those are really interesting coincidences. As you say, we would think of them as just too much in a book, but they do happen. And your story of your neighbour has me thinking that perhaps those coincidences happen more often than we realise. After all, we may see someone from our childhood and not even recognise that it’s the same person. We really are all closer than we think.

  5. Co-incidences in life are often more unbelievable than those in fiction, aren’t they. My husband used to be at sea in his youth, and once, in Japan, he got off a train and bumped into a friend who lived in the house opposite him at home! Would you believe that in a book?!

    • Dawn – Oh, that is amazing! I probably would find it too hard to believe in a book, but those things do happen. When my husband and I were on our honeymoon in the Bahamas, we stopped in one particular shop. And there, we bumped into a friend from university who was there on his own honeymoon with his new wife. Seriously. Those things happen.

  6. Margot, your comment about your friend gave me goosebumps. What a coincidence. Funnily enough, I come from a small town/big village outside Manchester. It’s not well known, but everywhere I’ve been in the world, I’ve often found a connection to it. In Greece, I met a woman (who became a friend) who grew up there. It’s been the same whereever. Which is why I never mind coincidence in a crime novel. It’s alive and flourishing in the real world.

    • Sarah – Oh, that is strange that you would meet someone in Greece who’d grown up in your town! And that you become friends too is definitely goosebump-worthy. As you say, those things really do happen all the time in real life. So although they have to be done well in a novel for me to get drawn in, I don’t mind them either. They’re a part of real life.

  7. Agatha Christie again – there’s a remarkable coincidence and meeting up in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side – not a nice one, and can’t say more for fear of spoilers! But very cleverly done.

    • Moira – Yes, yes, yes! In fact, I almost mentioned that novel, but didn’t for exactly the same reason you were restrained in your comment. It’s a wonderful example of that kind of coincidence.

  8. Col

    I think it’s sometimes a very fine line in fiction between it being a small world and the introduction of coincidence to help resolve a mystery, sometimes I feel it’s used to dig the author out of a hole…..probably a matter of skill levels.

    • Col – I agree that’s a very fine line. And it’s one of those things where one may not know exactly where that line is, but one knows when it’s been crossed. You’re right, too; some authors are very skilled at that sort of thing, and some…aren’t.

  9. kathy d.

    I just found out that a colleague of mine graduated from the same high school I went to and in the same year. He was looking at a yearbook and found my name and photo.
    Anyway, I do like this element in mysteries, if they’re not contrived, but flow naturally from the story line. And, yes, in The Mistake, the return of Birdie was essential for Jodie at that point in her ordeal. Birdie is a great character — as a child and an adult. In fact, she should have her own book!

    • Kathy – Oh, that’s really interesting that you and your colleague went to the same high school at the same time. That’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when I wrote this. And it’s the sort of thing that can be successful in books too if, as you say, it’s not contrived. And you’re right; Bridie really is a great character in The Mistake. I could easily see myself getting drawn into a book with her as the protagonist.

  10. Margot, I won’t cite specific titles, to avoid obvious spoilers, but I can think of more than a few crime novels in which much of the action (and often the key murder) is motivated by person A meeting person B and recognizing A as a former criminal/murderer/whatever. Sometimes, there’s blackmail involved; other times, a pre-emptive strike by A against B before B can even figure out the relationship. In the hands of a good writer (such as a Christie), it can be very effective and not at all a cliche.

    • Les – You’re quite right. That is indeed a theme I’ve seen in several crime novels. As you say, giving titles would give away spoilers, but yes, when it’s done well it is a very effective tool. So long as that aspect of the plot falls out naturally, it can be a terrific device.

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