It’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.