Taking the time to ‘step back’ and reflect can teach us a lot about ourselves. We’ve all got things to be glad and proud of, and also things we’d just as soon forget (erm – I sure hope I’m not the only one in that situation…). Reflecting and looking back can be painful, but it can also help us learn. In crime fiction, it’s an interesting way to add depth to characters and to show not tell about events in the past that have to do with the present story. It can also be an effective way for the author to add plot twists and complications. After all, people’s perspectives on the past are not always accurate.
There’s a fascinating example of looking back in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was the natural suspect and there was plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she was convicted of the crime and died a year later in prison. But Carla has always believed her mother to be innocent. Now she wants her mother’s name cleared and Poirot agrees to look into the case. To do that, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each person. Those accounts, plus what he learns from other sources, give Poirot the information he needs to find out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. One of the really interesting aspects of this novel is the way in which each person’s memory of the events is affected by a host of factors. Because of that, as each person reflects on that time, we see the events in a different light.
In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town we meet Peter Alan Nelson. He’s a famous Hollywood director who’s spent years living a self-indulgent life. Now he’s looking back with some regret because he lost contact with his twelve-year-son Toby after the breakup of his marriage to Toby’s mother Karen. That reflection spurs Nelson to try to locate Karen and Toby and re-establish contact so that he can at least be a father to his son. But by that time, Karen and Toby have disappeared. So Nelson hires PI Elvis Cole to trace his missing family. Cole’s unwilling at first; people might want to disappear for any number of reasons. But he’s finally persuaded and starts the search. He and his partner Joe Pike trace Karen and Toby to a small Connecticut town where she is now vice-president of a local bank. She is also mixed up with some very nasty Mafia people. She’d like to break free of their grip but as you can imagine, that’s easier said than done. So Cole and Pike agree to help solve her problem with the Mob if she’ll at least meet with her ex-husband. She agrees and Cole and Pike get to work. Of course, it’s not going to be as easy as it may seem…
In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma. Precioius Ramotswe gets a visit from a successful civil engineer Mr. Molofelo. He owns an ostrich farm and recently had a nasty run-in with some poachers. That near-death experience has caused him to reflect on his life and look back at some things he’s done. Years ago when he was a student, Mr. Molofelo lived with the kindly Tsolamosese family. While he was there, he stole a radio from them. During the same time, he had a girlfriend Tebogo Bathopi. When she became pregnant with his child, he did little to help her. Now Mr. Molofelo wants to make things right with his former host family and with his former girlfriend, so he asks Mma. Ramotswe to track them down. She agrees and in due course, finds out where they live. In this case, Mr. Molofelo uses his reflection to do some good.
Some people of course don’t look back on their lives with any regret at all. Such a character is Simeon Lee, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder). He’s the wealthy and tyrannical patriarch of a dysfunctional family that gathers for Christmas at the family home Gorston Hall. Lee has done all sorts of terrible things, but here’s what he says about it:
‘I don’t regret it, you know. No, I don’t regret anything. I’ve enjoyed myself…every minute! They say you repent when you get old. That’s bunkum. I don’t repent.’
Lee may not regret his choices, but the saying that ‘old sins cast long shadows’ proves true when he is brutally murdered on Christmas Eve. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend Colonel Johnson, and he’s persuaded to work with Superintendent Sugden to find out who killed Simeon Lee and why.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, retired school principal Thea Farmer looks back on her life when she takes a creative writing class. Her teacher Oscar poses questions to the class, and the members respond in the form of journal entries. Through Thea’s entries, we learn that she had a custom-made ‘dream home’ built for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Everything fell apart though when poor financial decisions forced Thea to sell her dream home and settle for the house next door, a home she calls ‘the hovel.’ When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea considers her own, she has nothing but contempt for them, even calling them ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with the family. At first Thea is prepared to dislike Kim heartily, but she discovers that Kim has a great deal of writing talent, and she develops a sort of friendship with the girl. So when Thea begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, she decides to take her own measures. Throughout this novel, Thea looks back on her past, on what caused her to leave her position, what caused her to lose her money, and so on. In all of this, it’s interesting to see the way she looks at her life. Although she knows she’s not perfect, at the same time, she doesn’t really acknowledge her own role in the things that have happened to her.
Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is the story of what happens when the Corrowa people of Brisbane unsuccessfully pursue a land title claim to Meston Park. Just a few hours after Judge Bruce Brosnan rules that the Corrowa have no legal claim to the park, he is murdered. The police, mostly in the form of Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Higgins and Detective Sergeant Jason Mathews, immediately start to look among those who were involved with the title claim lawsuit. They don’t ignore Brosnan’s personal life either. Then, there’s another murder. As the police try to link the two killings, readers learn the history of Meston Park, which was once Brisbane’s boundary. We also learn about the Corrowa people’s activism and the long and painful history of race relations in the city. On a personal level, we learn about one activist in particular Charlie Eversely. He’s spent a lifetime working for basic human rights and justice for his people. He’s done his best, but he’s also become disillusioned and when we learn his story, it’s easy to see why. His daughter Miranda has become an attorney working for an Aboriginal legal aid group, and was one of those who pursued the Corrowa people’s claim to Meston Park. Her sense of defeat and regret when the case is lost has driven her to real despair. Here’s what Charlie has to say about his own past and about its effect on Miranda:
‘‘Darlin’, I know I haven’t always been a good father to you.’
‘That’s not true.’
Charlie smiles sadly, shakes his head. ‘I had no business bringing grog into our house. No business at all.’
‘Dad, I know you had a lot of problems back then.’
‘I just need you to know that I love you very much and I have always been proud of – ’
‘For once in your life, Miranda, don’t interrupt…’
‘I’m sorry, Dad.’
‘You got nothing to be sorry for. When your mum passed away, I turned to grog. That’s how I taught you to work through your problems…’’
As Higgins and Matthews sort through the events and interact with the various people involved in the case, we get an unflinching look at racism, relations between the police and the public, and social class issues. We also see how people look back and cope (or don’t) with their own histories.
Looking back and reflecting can be very difficult – even painful. But it can teach us a lot.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rembrandts’ Someone.