Those Were the Best Days of My Life*

NostalgiaDo you ever feel nostalgic about a certain period of your life? For a lot of people, there’s a certain time in life that we look back to with special fondness. It might be childhood, university days, or something else. In fiction, nostalgia can give us real insight into characters and what’s important to them. It can also be an effective way for the author to ‘show not tell’ about a character’s history. And sometimes, in crime fiction, personal history plays an important role in present-day murders and their investigation. So nostalgia can shed some light on characters’ motivations too.

Nostalgia plays an important role in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). John Christow is a Harley Street specialist who on the surface of it has, as the saying goes, everything going for him. He has a stable marriage, two healthy children and a successful career. And yet, he’s restless. As the story begins, he and his wife Gerda are preparing to visit Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell for a weekend in the country. Christow is hit with an attack of nostalgia for a place called San Miguel, where, fifteen years earlier, he’d had a relationship with up-and-coming actress Veronica Cray. In fact, he even gets the feeling that


‘I want to go home.’


He and Gerda go to the Angkatell’s home and the weekend gets underway. Then, on the Saturday night, Veronica Cray makes a dramatic appearance at the house. Christow is surprised, as he didn’t know she was in the area. It turns out she’s taken a nearby cottage and her unexpected visit takes Christow right back in time. When he is murdered the next afternoon, their history makes Veronica Cray a suspect. Interestingly enough, Christie addresses nostalgia in another way too in this novel. One of the house guests Edward Angkatell lives at Ainswick, Lady Lucy’s family home. Several of the other guests spent holidays there as young people, and in different ways, each is nostalgic for that time. It’s an interesting undercurrent in the story.

We also see nostalgia in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane is an alumna of Shrewsbury College, and she fondly remembers those days and the strong friendships she made. In part it’s that nostalgia that leads her to go back to Shrewsbury for its annual Gaudy dinner and festivities. At first, Vane is reluctant to go; she’s acquired some notoriety (see Strong Poison for the details) and isn’t sure that she’d be welcomed back. But an old friend specially asks her to make the trip and Vane decides to do so. To Vane’s happy surprise, she is welcomed warmly and takes great pleasure in renewing old acquaintances and re-living happy times. A few months later, she receives a letter from Shrewsbury’s Dean. Some disturbing vandalism and other occurrences have taken place and the Dean wants Vane to find out who is responsible. The idea is that this will be done quietly and without the need to get the police involved. Vane agrees and goes back to Shrewsbury under the pretext of doing research for a novel. She does find out who is responsible for the events at the college, but not before getting into real danger herself.

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency introduces us to Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She runs the only female-owned detective agency in Botswana and as the series evolves, we see how she makes a success of her business. She has a stable home life, too, with a solid husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (whom I have to confess I like very much as a character) and two adopted children. But she is also nostalgic for her childhood days with her father Obed Ramotswe. In fact, he is one of her heroes. She is often reminded of him, and she has taken much of his wisdom to heart. It’s not trivial either that it was an inheritance from him that allowed Mma. Ramotswe to buy the detective agency and set up shop.

Even Colin Dexter’s most emphatically unsentimental Inspector Morse can get nostalgic at times. In The Riddle of the Third Mile, we learn that Morse had been studying at St. John’s College, Oxford before he joined the police force. In the novel, he and Sergeant Lewis investigate the disappearance of his former Oxford mentor Oliver Browne-Smith, as well as the murder of an unknown man wearing Browne-Smith’s clothes. At first, it looks as though the body turning up answers the question of what happened to Browne-Smith. But it’s not so simple as that, as Morse and Lewis learn. As the novel evolves, we learn that Morse fell in love with Wendy Spencer, who was studying for her Ph.D. at St. Hilda’s College. Morse was deeply hurt when she ended the relationship, but it’s clear in this novel that he has a certain amount of nostalgia for those days as a student.

In Åsa Larsson’s The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson returns to her home town of Kiruna when her former friend Sanna Stråndgard asks for her help. Sanna’s brother Viktor has been found murdered in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength, and she wants Martinsson to help her through this difficult time. Martinsson has her own reasons for not wanting to return to Kiruna, but she reluctantly agrees. Police detectives Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate the murder and discover that Sanna is the prime suspect. In fact, she is arrested for the crime. She begs Martinsson to defend her, and, mostly for the sake of Sanna’s two children, Martinsson agrees. Not all of Martinsson’s memories of Kiruna are good ones. In fact, events there are exactly the reason she left in the first place. But while she is in town, she stays at her grandparents’ home near the town and that experience is nostalgic. Martinsson spent happy times as a child staying with her grandparents, and those memories give her comfort as she faces the rest of her past as well as the difficulties of this particular case.

A lot of us get nostalgic about one or another part of our lives. Nostalgia can make us smile even when things aren’t going well, and in fiction, it can add depth to a character. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going to look through some old ‘photos…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance’s  Summer of ’69.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Åsa Larsson, Colin Dexter, Dorothy Sayers

21 responses to “Those Were the Best Days of My Life*

  1. Some great examples there Margot, thanks. I was always quite impressed by Christie handling of false nostalgia in AT BERTRAM’S HOTEL where it turns out the management trades on it for nefarious purposes – given that the recall to the past was clearly part of the story’s appeal, I thought this showed a typically shrew understanding of her readers predilections.

    • Sergio – I’m glad you mentioned At Bertram’s Hotel. I toyed with doing so myself, but didn’t, so you filled in a gap I left. You’re quite right about how well Christie knew the way her readers would think. And she plays on that in that novel with people’s understanding of nostalgia. She does that with other emotions and common human experiences too, very effectively.

  2. What a great photo you created.

    I love the theme of your post. I don’t think of that enough when I write because my characters are so caught up with the present but I want to work on this. Great examples.

    • Clarissa – Thank you. I’m glad you liked that ‘photo. And you make a well-taken point about characters living in the here and now. When there’s a murder investigation on, that’s what characters do; it’s fairly natural. But it’s always interesting I think when we can learn more about them, and that includes pasts.

  3. Great post. I have found that sometimes when I’m reading a reference in the book will cause a nostalgic memory for me. It might be an activity the character did as a child or maybe a reference to a song. In that way, the author has drawn me in a bit more and made the character that much more realistic to me because of the nostalgic memory. It does give the characters depth to see that nostalgic side of them.

    Thoughts in Progress

    • Mason – Thank you. You’ve provided such an interesting angle on this topic, too. Not only is nostalgia a way to get to know characters better, but also, it’s a way to invite the reader to be engaged. A book that takes place during a special time in one’s life, or that refers to music that makes one nostalgic, can draw the reader in. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way, so thanks.

  4. kathy d.

    Friends and I were discussing the First Ladies’ Detective Agency series last night; all of us love it. We were talking about the focus on human relations and understanding people, and the lack of violence and brutality.
    We talked about the first book where Precious Ramotswe’s father, Obed Ramotswe, provides his point of view, looks back on his life, the good and bad, especially the time he spent in the horrific mines in South Africa under apartheid. He has nostalgia for the good things in his life, especially his daughter, pride in his country, and affection for his cattle.
    And Mma Ramotswe often thinks of her father and her life with him, with great love and respect.
    What a beautiful series.

    • Kathy – It really is a lovely series, isn’t it? I so enjoy the way McCall Smith develops the characters, invites the reader to get to know them, and gives backstory. And you’re right, there’s really very little violence and what there is, is more alluded to than ‘witnessed’ if I can put it that way. Little wonder I’m so fond of that series.

  5. There’s a little sub-genre of books about ‘that long ago summer’, often when young people shared a house together, in what should have been the best years of their lives. I’m thinking of Erin Kelly’s The Poison Tree, and Barbara Vine’s A Fatal Inversion, and there are others too. There’s always an air of nostalgia for those youthful times, but then it always turns out there were some pretty bad things going on too… so perhaps best forgotten!

    • Moira – You know, you’re right about that. I hadn’t thought, really, about that group of books as a sub-genre but perhaps it really is. And The Poison Tree and A Fatal Inversion are great examples. As you say, an interesting mix of nostalgia with ‘perhaps best forgotten…’ You know, I ought to do a post on that…

  6. Hi Margot – a thoughtful post on another fascinating topic as it applies to mysteries. Moira’s comments on that special summer bring to mind the movie Summer of ’42, not exactly a mystery, and alas, not based on a novel. I think a post on the ‘nostalgia, perhaps best forgotten’ meme is a great idea!
    As for me I find nostalgia in an era a little before my time : the literary world of the Golden Between-The-Wars Age of the classic mystery novel and its, deceptively so, stable upper crust British society at that time.

    • Bryan – Oh, that was quite an era, wasn’t it? I don’t blame you at all for feeling that way about that era. And my goodness, I’ve not thought of Summer of ’42’ in a very, very long time. Thanks for reminding me. And I will start thinking about ‘nostalgia best forgotten…’ What a great way to put it.

  7. Margot, I’m reading Tom Piccirilli’s The Last Whisper in the Dark. This is the second book about a family of thieves and killers, so there aren’t too many moments of sweet nostalgia. That makes the occasional good memory especially important to the characters’ lives. If you haven’t read The Last Kind Word and The Last Whisper in the Dark, I highly recommend them. Piccirilli is a wonderful writer.

  8. Nice topic that provokes some thought on the subject. I don’t usually find myself nostalgic for a particular period in my life, but I often wish I could go back and ask my mother and father questions about their lives and experiences.

    There seem to be a lot of mysteries that go back in a character’s life while they remember the past, but often those are not particularly pleasant times they are remembering.

    • Tracy – Thank you. You’re right that a lot of novels that deal with characters’ memories don’t exactly paint the past as particularly good. And of course, that’s human; we all have I think unpleasant memories of something or other. And of course, sometimes we think we remember things fondly, but they weren’t really that way, and we see that in novels, too. It’s an interesting topic.

  9. Col

    I nearly always come away from here with more books to think about. I’m off to look up the Piccirilli’s now! I have enjoyed a couple of his in the past, but he’s another author I have taken my eye off.

  10. I can’t believe it. I’ve read every book you mention! Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion and I’m not surprised that writers have a field say with it. Love all the books you mention although Savage Altar is probably my favourite.

    • Sarah – I love The Savage Altar too. So well-written and such interesting characters. And you’re right; nostalgia is a very strong emotion, so it makes sense that authors explore it. Among other things it’s an interesting way to ‘show not tell’ about a character.

  11. Pingback: Now I Act Like I Don’t Remember* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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