Now I Act Like I Don’t Remember*

Painful MemoriesNot very long ago, I did a post on nostalgia and the role that it plays in the way we think and in crime fiction too of course. One of the things that came up in the discussion about that post (thanks, folks!!) is that some memories have exactly the opposite effect to nostalgia. We all have sadness and pain in our past – it’s unavoidable really – and those are often memories we don’t want raked up. I’m sure we could all give examples from real life, and it’s quite true in crime fiction as well.

Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) is all about terrible memories that people want to avoid. Famous artist Amyas Crale has been working on a new painting. He’s invited the subject, his mistress Elsa Greer, to his home Alderbury to take advantage of what he thinks will be the perfect setting. Needless to say, Crale’s wife Caroline is not best pleased about it and she’s even overheard threatening her husband. One afternoon, Crale is poisoned. His widow is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons and in fact she is arrested, tried and convicted. She dies a year later in prison and life goes on for the people in the Crales’ lives. Sixteen years later, Amyas and Caroline’s daughter Carla visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent and now that she’s on the point of getting married, she wants her mother’s name cleared. Poirot agrees and contacts the five people who were ‘on the scene’ when the murder occurred. He also gets written accounts from each one, and talks to some other, less directly involved people. In the end that information gives him the truth about the case. One of the interesting things that keep coming up in this novel is that many people ask why Poirot is raking up the whole painful business again. Only a few people are willing, right from the start, to tell their stories. It’s an interesting phenomenon.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is not exactly nostalgic about his past either. As we learn in The Last Coyote, Bosch is the son of Marjorie Lowes, a prostitute who was murdered when her son was eleven years old. The case wasn’t exactly high-priority, so the killer was never found. Thirty years later, Bosch is suspended from duty because of a violent encounter with a supervisor. He’s ordered to undergo psychological treatment and is asked to work with Dr. Carmen Hinojos. While he’s ‘sidelined,’ Bosch begins to look into the case and to face some of his own past. One of the things we learn for instance is that Bosch was placed in the McLaren Youth Facility.  It wasn’t exactly the kind of place one looks back to with nostalgia. Bosch has survived all of these things along with a stint in Vietnam, but that doesn’t mean he enjoys taking the time to savour the memories.

School memories aren’t very nostalgic for Ann Cleeves’ Jimmy Perez either. He was born and raised in Fair Isle in the Shetlands, and went to school in Lerwick. The weather and the difficulty of getting back and forth between his home and the school forced Perez to stay at the school during the week. He visited his family home on weekends when the weather co-operated, and on holidays. For several reasons school in Lerwick was not an enjoyable experience for Perez. He was homesick and couldn’t accustom himself easily to life on Lerwick. What’s more, there were two bullies who made his life miserable. Everything changed when he met and befriended Duncan Hunter. Hunter made his life bearable and that’s part of what makes it so awkward in Raven Black when Hunter becomes a suspect in the murder of seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross. As it is, Perez does not want to be reminded of his awful school days. For another, he feels a gulf between him and Hunter now that several years have gone by. That unpleasant past adds an interesting layer to this story.

In Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory, the Davies family has to face some terrible memories from the past. Twenty years before the events in the story, two-year-old Sonia Davies was drowned. Her nanny Katja Wolff was arrested in connection with the death. She’s recently been released from prison and that alone rakes up the past. Then one night, Sonia’s mother Eugenie is killed in what looks at first like an accidental hit-and-run incident. Then her son twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies faces a different kind of crisis. He is a world-class violinist who suddenly finds himself unable to play. He decides to seek psychological help to find out what is at the root of his block. Inspector Thomas Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate Eugenie Davies’ death and find that all of these plot threads are related, and all are tied to the Davies’ family’s traumatic past.

Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything deals with painful memories too. Thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her best friend Evie Verver are inseparable. They share all of their secrets and Lizzie can’t really imagine life without Evie. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. No-one is overly worried at first, but as the evening wears on and she doesn’t come home, her family becomes concerned. They, and later the police, ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that will help them find Evie. Lizzie doesn’t know very much about what happened to Evie though, and she can’t be of much assistance. But she does want to know what happened to her best friend. So in her own way, Lizzie starts to ask questions and investigate. She finds that the memories she thought she had of her and Evie might not be accurate. She also learns that she’d built up a lot of assumptions about herself, Evie, and life that covered up some extremely painful truths. Interestingly, Abbott addresses the issue of painful memories in a few ways. At one level, Lizzie has to confront memories that are not as pleasant as she had thought. At another, the story begins as the adult Lizzie looks back on the terrible time of Evie’s disappearance.

Most of us have fond memories that we think about with great pleasure. But there are usually some sad ones, too, that we’d just as soon forget. There are far too man examples of this in crime fiction for me to list them all, but I’ve no doubt you already get my point…

*NOTE:  The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s The River.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ann Cleeves, Elizabeth George, Megan Abbott, Michael Connelly

30 responses to “Now I Act Like I Don’t Remember*

  1. neer

    Thanks for highlighting a topic that I find absolutely fascinating, Margot. Our remembrance of the past is so selective and subjective that invariably different versions of the time exist in our minds. One book that I read not so long ago dealt with this issue: The Sense of an Ending. Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines are two other noteworthy example.

    BTW, in this sentence:
    They, and later the police, ask Evie to tell them anything she may know that will help them find Lizzie.

    – I think, the names of the girls have become interchanged.

    Do write about a few more literary examples.

    • Neeru – Thanks for noticing that issue with the names. I’ve gone back and fixed it. You’re absolutely right too about how selective our memory can be. And I’m so glad you choose an example from Márquez’s work. I’ve always admired it very much. And that one is a clear example of the way time, memory and so on are not as objective as we think they are.
      As to literary examples, that’s an interesting point! Perhaps I’ll do a literary post now and again…

  2. Margot: For the soldiers and nurses who survived the Great War memories of the conflict cause great suffering. Ian Rutledge of the Charles Todd series has no escape as the voice of Hamish occupies his mind. John Madden of Rennie Airth’s triology barely functions just after the war. For the Maisie Dobbs mysteries by Jacqueline Winspear her cases in the 1930’s still draw her back to the war. The Bess Crawford series, also by Charles Todd, sees her coping with war memories.

    Overall in crime fiction I wish there were more sleuths like Anthony Bidulka’s character, Russell Quant, who has good memories of life on the farm and a loving relationship with his mother.

    • Bill – You’re quite right about both Bess Crawford and Ian Rutledge. I feel the same way about Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs too. She has some pleasant memories but some awful ones as well. Those memories add to the tension of the stories and the depths of the characters. On that score, it’s a solid plot point. But at the same time, I’m with you in enjoying novels in which characters have pleasant memories too.

  3. Very interesting post, Margot. The Megan Abbott book is a great example for this post: it’s a very vivid story that has stayed with me more than a year later. By vivid I mean creepy, I think.

    • Rebecca – Thanks for the kind words. I feel the same way about The End of Everything. Abbott is very skilled at creating that kind of novel – the kind that stays with the reader in that way.

  4. This is a fascinating area for me…memories. I recently re-read “Five Little Pigs” and loved how Poirot really hit a wall at first–no one wanted to talk. Great book.

    I’ll have to re-read “Traitor to Memory.” I remember enjoying it, but that’s about all I can recall.

    • Elizabeth – Memories really are fascinating aren’t they? And for a writer, there’s so much opportunity there for adding in tension and conflict to a plot. Did someone remember something inaccurately? Which memories are people trying avoid dealing with? There’s an awful lot there.

  5. I think fiction writers often connect revenge or vengeance with memories, especially sad and tragic events in a character’s life. Sidney Sheldon’s famous novel ‘The Other Side of Midnight’ is one example.

    British writer Oliver Strange wrote 10 terrific westerns about Sudden, a Texas outlaw who goes from town to town looking for the two men who killed his foster father. Revenge is the theme in all the books as James Green’s hunt for the men not only earns him the nickname of “Sudden,” because of his fast draw, but he is also accused of crimes he never committed. Green doesn’t give up till he finds the men.

    • Prashant – You’ve got a very well-taken point. Painful memories are often the cause for a desire for revenge. And revenge is a very compelling motive for murder. Thanks for those examples, too. They show that we see this pattern in lots of different kinds of fiction, not just crime fiction.

  6. I liked the way Christie handled memory in Sleeping Murder – Gwenda’s memories of her childhood home have both pleasant and horrific elements, and the way she gradually gets flashes of memory builds a real sense of creepiness.

    • FictionFan – Oh, that is a good one. I’m glad you’ve brought it up, actually. I was trying to choose between that one and Five Little Pigs and ultimately chose the latter. So I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  7. Fascinating post, thanks for stirring up the old grey cells. 😉

    Peter May’s detective hero Fin McLeod is another great example – in the first book to feature him, The Blackhouse, he goes back to the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides and manages to rake up some deeply unpleasant memories about his childhood and his old best friend in the process.

    Thanks for the reminder about Ann Cleeves – she’s been on my TBR pile for far too long!

    • Tess – Thanks for the kind words. I’m so glad you mentioned the Peter May series. It is a great example of what I had in mind with this post, and of course there’s never enough room for everything one wants to put into a post. You’ve filled up an important hole I left. And I know how busy one gets, and what TBR lists can be like *sigh*, but I hope you get to Cleeves soon. She’s very talented in my opinion.

      • I’m bumping her up the list as I type! There was a British tv adaptation of her first (?) book last year which I thoroughly enjoyed.

        • Tess – If you’re meaning the Vera series, I agree – it’s a great adaptation. I admit I’ve not yet seen the adaptations of her Jimmy Perez novels, but eager to do so.

        • Oh, sorry, no, I meant the first Jimmy Perez book. It was set in Shetland with Douglas Henshall in the title role. There was some muttering about the ‘Shetland’ accents *grin* but I really enjoyed the series.

        • Tess – Ah, now I see. So glad you enjoyed what you saw, accents or no. 😉 As I ‘say,’ I’ve not seen that series, although I’ve heard great things about it. But I can heartily recommend the novels.

  8. I love books where a crime in the past is being investigated, particularly if it turns out people’s cherished memories are going to be overturned. It happens in Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence too, and I recently read a book by Elli Gottlieb, Now you See Him, which was a very clever meditation on what you remember versus what really happened.

    • Moira – Oh, yes! Ordeal by Innocence! That is a great example isn’t it of the truth not being kind to memories. Christie actually addresses that issue in several books doesn’t she? And the Gottlieb sounds good, too. Another for the TBR list…*sigh*

  9. Reading THE LEWIS MAN, the second Peter May book about particular fellow and memories of long ago are often difficult to separate from what actually happened. Especially in the case of dementia. Really love his writing.

    • Patti – Isn’t May a talented writer? And you’re right about separating fact from not-fact when it comes to long-ago memories, particularly when it comes to cases of dementia. Now you’ve got me thinking about Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. Similar issues…

  10. Col

    I’m enjoying the Vera series on TV at the minute – saves me having to read any of her books! Regarding memories, good or bad, I think it’s a common theme that writers and not just crime authors have to provide them for their characters otherwise there’s no depth to the narrative..

    • Col – I think the Vera series is quite well done, so I’m glad you’re enjoying it. And you make a good point too about giving characters memories. That’s a very effective way to give them some depth.

  11. This post prompted me to post a quote on FB – “I’ve never tried to block out the memories of the past, even though some are painful. I don’t understand people who hide from their past. Everything you live through helps to make you the person you are now.”
    ― Sophia Loren

    The inclusion of the whole of a character provides the reader with a basis for comparison and measurement making a more interesting read.

    • Lesley – Thanks for sharing that quote. I love that attitude. She’s right too that we are the products of everything that has happened to us, good or bad. And you’re absolutely right about making characters whole. The more fully developed they are, the more interesting.

  12. I liked what Neer said: “remembrance of the past is so selective and subjective”. I find that is very true and wonder how valid my memories of my childhood are. I have recently noticed how many characters in crime fiction dwell on their past… and I understand how that can happen. In The Broken Shore by Peter Temple, the main character spends a lot of time thinking about his childhood experiences. Which color his behavior in the present.

    • Tracy – You’re quite right actually. There really are many, many examples in crime fiction of characters who reflect on their childhoods and how those childhoods have affected them. As you say, those memories are subjective and that in itself can add an interesting layer to a story.

  13. Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion. Johan Theorin’s Echoes from the Dead gives a powerful portrayal of loss and painful memories.

    • Sarah – I’m glad you mentioned Echoes From the Dead. Theorin does give such a poignant and real portrait of what really painful memories can be like. I like his Gerlof Davidssson character very much, too.

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