Do 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.