Ah, Yes, I Remember it Well*

Strong Memories of BooksA recent comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about what we remember when we read. And speaking of reading, you’ll want to visit Bitter Tea and Mystery often. It’s a terrific place to read excellent book and film reviews.

Once you’ve read a lot of crime novels, it’s easy to forget the details of what happens in them. There are just too many characters, events and other things for anyone to remember it all. So our memories become necessarily selective and even somewhat fuzzy. But some things simply stay in the memory. Sometimes it’s a scene, or a conflict. Sometimes it’s a character or an ingenious plot twist. We all have different ‘standout’ memories of what we’ve read, and there are a host of reasons for which one or another aspect of a novel stands out for us. Here are just a few examples. I hope you’ll share your own.

In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. He gets drawn into a murder investigation though when retired magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. The most likely suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson Captain Ralph Paton, and there is solid evidence against him. But his fiancée Flora is convinced he’s innocent, so she asks Poirot to look into the matter. There are of course lots of detective novels in which a character protests a loved one’s innocence and persuades the sleuth to investigate. The standout in this novel (at least for me) is the plot twist at the end. It’s ingenious. There are other aspects of the story that are memorable but the plot twist is especially so.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice is the second in his Harry Bosch series. In it, Bosch hears of a suicide that took place on his ‘watch.’ What’s worse, the suicide is a fellow cop, Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore. It looks like an open-and-shut case of suicide, and the reason seems straightforward too. There’s evidence that Moore had ‘gone dirty,’ and could easily have committed suicide out of regret or if he thought he might be caught. But Bosch isn’t sure that this is a suicide. Some aspects of the case just aren’t consistent with that explanation. So he starts asking questions. That immediately gets him into trouble with the Powers That Be, who want this case kept quiet because it’s an embarrassment to the department. That doesn’t stop Bosch, though, and he continues to investigate. There are a lot of things that Connelly fans like about this series and this novel. One major thing that makes it memorable though, at least for me, is the finely drawn thread of conflict. There’s the conflict between Bosch and Moore’s killer. That conflict adds quite a lot of tension to the story. There’s also the conflict between Bosch and his superiors. That too adds to the story’s suspense. These conflicts are important parts of the story, but they are at the same time not so overdone as to be implausible.

Sometimes the most memorable aspect of a novel is one of its characters. In Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost for instance, the character of ten-year-old Kate Meaney stands out. She wants to be a detective and in fact, has started her own agency Falcon Investigations. Together with her partner Mickey the Monkey, who travels in Kate’s backpack, she looks for suspicious activity and crimes to solve. And no place seems a more likely spot for suspicious activity than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center, where she spends a good deal of time. Kate’s quite content with her life. Her grandmother Ivy though believes that she’d be better off away at school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate doesn’t want to go, but her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her, promising to go along with her for moral support. The two take the bus to the school, but only Adrian comes back. Despite an exhaustive search, no trace of Kate is found, not even a body. Twenty years later, Adrian’s sister Lisa is working at Green Oaks when she meets Kurt, a security guard there. The two form an odd sort of friendship and each in a different way go back to Kate’s disappearance. In the end, we find out what happened to Kate and part of what makes the truth so memorable is that Kate herself is unforgettable. She has a unique perspective, she’s interesting, and a look at the other characters in the novel shows how much a part of their lives she’s been.

For some books, setting and lifestyle stand out the most. That’s the case for me anyway with M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. Edie Kiglatuk is a very skilled High Arctic hunting guide. She gets mixed up in a case of multiple murder, greed, theft and political intrigue when she takes a client Felix Wagner and some friends on an expedition. Wagner is shot and the first explanation is that it was a tragic accident. Kiglatuk isn’t sure that’s true though, and begins to ask some questions. So does Derek Palliser, the senior of Ellesmere Island’s native police officers. Each in a different way, he and Kiglatuk investigate what’s going on and in the end, they find out the truth. One of the truly memorable things about this novel is its depiction of life in the High Arctic. Eating customs, living arrangements, daily life, etc., are all portrayed authentically.

That’s also the case with Adrian Hyland’s novels featuring Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest. The mysteries themselves hold the novels together and so does Hyland’s writing style. But one of the real standouts of these stories (at least from my perspective) is their depiction of the Outback setting and the lifestyle there. Readers get a real sense of the cultures, the daily life and the physical landscape. Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels are a bit similar in that way.

And sometimes it’s one scene in a novel, whether it’s a dramatic scene, a funny scene or a poignant one, that stays in the memory. For example, in Donna Leon’s About Face, Venice Commissario Guido Brunetti and his team investigate a murder that’s tied in with illegal waste dumping. The Venice setting is distinctive and the mystery moves along. But for me at any rate, one of the standout memories in this novel is a scene between Brunetti and his wife Paola Falier. Early one morning, Brunetti wakes to find that it’s snowed. He can’t resist making a handprint in the fresh coating and then decides to put that snow-covered hand on Paola, who he thinks is sleeping.  She’s not, though:


‘’If you put that hand anywhere near me, I will divorce you and take the children.’
‘They’re old enough to decide themselves,’ he answered with what he thought was Olympian calm.
‘I cook,’ she said.
‘Indeed,’ he said in acknowledgment of defeat.’’


It’s a funny scene, but it also serves to highlight the importance of Brunetti’s family life in this series.

There are also several memorable scenes in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Tom Robinson, who is Black, has been accused of raping a White woman Mayella Ewell. And in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama, just the accusation is enough to put Robinson’s life in danger. Well-known attorney Atticus Finch defends Robinson, and as he looks into the case, he comes to believe that Robinson is innocent. He almost doesn’t get the chance to make his case though. On the night before the trial, he’s visiting his client at the jail when a group of angry men arrive. Their plan is to drag Robinson from the jail and pronounce their own kind of sentence. Finch’s children Jean Louise ‘Scout’ and Jem, and their friend Dill, have come to the jail in search of Atticus. When they see the men arrive, Scout runs towards her father and she, Jem and Dill end up facing down a lynch mob with Atticus. It’s one of the more powerful scenes in the novel. In part that’s because it isn’t violent, yet the tension is high enough to make it unforgettable.

We all have a different way of remembering what we read, and different things resonate with us in different ways. We may not remember everything about what we’ve read, and some of it may be a little fuzzy. But we all have those ‘standout’ memories that can be quite clear. So now it’s your turn. What are some strong memories you have from the crime fiction you’ve read?


Thanks, Tracy, for the inspiration!



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s I Remember it Well.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Catherine O'Flynn, Donna Leon, Harper Lee, M.J. McGrath, Michael Connelly

44 responses to “Ah, Yes, I Remember it Well*

  1. I absolutely agree with you Margot, about lifestyle and setting in White Heat. For me it was completely unique to anything I’d read before.

    It is also true that it’s difficult to remember a lot about the books we’ve read, which is why I think I sometimes struggle to engage fully in the comments section of your posts. It’s not because I don’t read, but because things just blend and on being asked to remember something, I seem to lose it all!

    For me, I love character driven stuff so this stands out for me the most and one of the Karin Slaughter books had a scene in it that I just didn’t see coming – but shouldn’t go into as it’s a massive plot spoiler – but it involves Sara Linton’s life and it’s things like that, that I remember and really keep me going back for more.

    • Rebecca – That’s part of what I thought worked very well with White Heat. Such vivid depictions! And trust me, you are not alone in the way stories start to blend together after a while.
      I also think you make a powerful point about the kind of readers we are. Some of us like character-driven novels, some like plot-driven novels, some don’t have a preference, and so on. For people like yourself, who really do prefer character-driven stories, it makes total sense that your strongest memories would involve character development and things happening to the characters. And now you’re nudging me to catch up on my Karin Slaughter books – thanks for the reminder.

  2. kathy d.

    What a good topic. So many books I have really enjoyed are mentioned here: What Is Lost, White Heat, any/all of Guido Brunetti’s investigations by Donna Leon, To Kill a Mockingbird.
    And, of course, Adrian Hyland’s books featuring Emily Tempest (hint to the publishing gods in Australia: Please ask Hyland to write more of these.) The Outback is a major part of the books. I, for one, learned a great deal, and then went scurrying to maps, and blogs to learn more about the geography and the Indigenous peoples of Australia.
    There are things that stand out in books, including elements that annoy me, as racist and misogynistic language, bad plot devices (coincidences, forces of nature at the right moment, impossible scenarios, etc.), but what I mostly remember are scenes from books I’ve loved.
    The scenes of friendship in Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin; the human relations issues and ending in Ivy Pochoda’s stunning Visitation Street; the social issues, friendships and snappy dialogue in Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski’s books, the feistiness and issues in Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney books.
    In fact, I remember an important exchange in Savage’s first book “Behind the Night Bazaar,” where a character talks about the need to eliminate poverty everywhere to solve major social crises.
    There’s so much to remember and think of fondly — or not. Good crime fiction is rife with memorable moments.

    • Kathy – It really is. And you’ve brought up something really important. Some of the memorable moments from books we read are moments that annoy us. They stay in our minds like an irritating song or an overplayed advertisement. Or they make us angry. And that too stays in our minds. I hadn’t thought about that, so I’m glad you filled in the gap.
      And I agree with you about the different depictions of memorable friendships, larger issues and interactions that we find in crime fiction. And sometimes it’s those moments/scenes/characters, rather than other details, that really stay with us.
      Oh, and I’d like to sign that petition to Mr. Hyland and his publisher. Please, more Emily Tempest!!!!!

  3. You are so right Margot, though i wish you weren’t as i remember having much clearer and speedier recall than I do now! When it comes to mysteries I remember being moved by the poetry of the last paragraph of Chandler’s The Big Sleep; genuinely gripped by the apocalyptic natural disasters that almost befall the characters in Sayers’ The Nine Tailors and Queen’s The Siamese Twin Mystery; not to mention utterly gobsmacked by the identity trick at the conclusion of Ross Macdonald’s The Chill and the amazing twist more or less in the middle of Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying and right at the end of the first 80 pages or so of William Goldman’s Magic – i could go on, and on … better not though – thanks for the memories Margot 🙂

    • Sergio – If it’s any comfort at all, you’re not the only one who finds it more difficult as time goes on to remember things… I agree with you 100% about the power of the last bit of The Big Sleep. It is indeed moving. And yes, the natural forces at work in both the Sayers and the Queen are extremely vivid in my memory. I think that’s because I’ve experienced natural disasters (not too many, I’m thankful to say) and I can empathise with the characters. And I’m glad you mentioned identity and other plot twists. It’s so true that those things can stay with one for a very, very long time (I’m thinking for instance about the identity issue in Queen’s The Origin of Evil and the last bit of that story). Such strong writing – little wonder we remember it.

  4. It’s so interesting isn’t it? A really memorable solution means you can’t re-read without remembering – though that can be fascinating as you notice how cleverly an author plants clues. Whereas a routine book, with a fairly random solution, can easily be read again. Of the Christies, I would put 5 Little Pigs, Crooked House, Murder is Announced, Towards Zero, Body in the Library as being very memorable – I could give you a rundown of each, plot, victim and perp in full. But – the Clocks, Pocketful of Rye, 4.50 from Paddington, Dumb Witness – they’re not terrible books by any means, but I couldn’t tell you the name of the victim or the murderer in them. Other memorable plot/solutions: Sarah Caudwell, Thus was Adonis Murdered. Margery Allingham, Police at the Funeral. Dorothy L Sayers, Gaudy Night. Robert Player, The Ingenious Mr Stone. Josephine Tey, Miss Pym Disposes. CJ Sansom, Dissolution. Francis Beeding, The Norwich Victims. They’re the books I’d give someone who needed convincing of the cleverness of the best crime fiction.

    • Moira – Oh, you’ve suggested some top-notch crime fiction! And you make such an interesting point about the difference between memorable/unusual solutions and those that are less so. As I sift through my own recollection, for instance, of Christie’s work, I do find it a lot easier to recall the novels that are her strongest (and I agree that Five Little Pigs is among them). It’s a little harder with some of the others. As you say, they’re fine books, most of them, but not truly memorable.
      And you’re right; the best crime fiction is clever. It has moments, characters, and/or solutions that are so well-done they really can’t be forgotten.

  5. Margot, thanks for mentioning my blog. I started blogging about mysteries so that I could look back and see why I liked or disliked a book. After writing a few reviews, I realized that the process helped me to see a book in a new light. (I also wanted to exercise my brain after I retired, but now it appears I will never retire and I am exercising my brain a lot at work and at home. That is good I guess.)

    I still find that I let go of a lot of details as soon as I move on to a new book, but I mind that less now. I think I pay more attention to the characters, although sometimes it is the style of writing that takes over. (As in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep… no, wait a minute, it had both style and great characters.)

    • Tracy – Oh, I think it does too. I’ve always liked Chandler’s style. And it’s my great pleasure to mention your blog (thanks too for the inspiration).
      I agree that a blog can help one go back over a book, think it through and make sense of it. And to me, that’s one of the great things about talking books on blogs. It allows me to re-think, learn and make sense of what I’ve read. And you know, I don’t think I’ll ever stop exercising my brain either. I’ve gotten too much into the habit…

  6. Margot, a fascinating post. I can especially relate to the ‘fuzzy’ part. Sometimes I think I read too fast or too many because I can’t remember a lot of the fine details later. I retain more of the general concept of the story. But there are still parts that remain with me.

    • Mason – Thank you. I think when a person reads a lot of books, it really is difficult to keep all of the details clear. As you say, the general gist of a story isn’t too hard to remember, but the details are harder. That’s why it’s so interesting to think about what we do and don’t remember from novels.

  7. kathy d.

    Oh my gosh, I must read The Big Sleep now, after reading this. More on the TBR godzilla list. (sigh)

    • Kathy – The Big Sleep may not be Chandler’s best. But it certainly shows his writing style, and I like Philip Marlowe. I’ll be interested to see what you think of it if you read it.

  8. Another great topic, Margot. I agree with you about The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – very memorable twist for me. Likewise, albeit many decades later, The Mistake by Wendy James had an ending that I did not see coming and am unlikely to ever forget.

    I increasing see memorability as a measure of quality for me. Among the most memorable books I’ve read are some of my all-time favourites: The Judas Child by Carol O’Connell; This Song Is You by Megan Abbott; Q&A (aka Slumdog Millionaire) by Vikas Swarup; Case Histories by Kate Atkinson; The Diggers Rest Hotel by Geoffrey McGeachin; and After the Darkness by Honey Brown.

    Among the memorable scenes:
    * A waiter in one of Michael Dibdin’s early Aurelio Zen novels talking about a lamb dish in which the lamb was so young, so tender, it was a crime to kill it; but now that it was dead, it would be an even greater crime not to eat it!
    * Arkady Renko’s love interest in Havana Bay taking great care in showering with the sliver of soap available to her.
    * ‘Kennedy hair’ in Adrian McKinty’s latest, In the Morning I’ll Be Gone; I’ve only just read this one, but I doubt I’ll ever forget the meditation on Kennedy hair and its superiority to Irish hair.

    • Angela – Thanks. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I agree completely about the ending to The Mistake. I still think about that… You’ve got some excellent choices too for memorable books that you’ve read. And such talented authors, too! I think many times books that end up being all-time favourites are in that category at least partly because they have those unforgettable moments/scenes/characters in them. And then of course, there are those scenes that just stay with us, like the ones you’ve mentioned. I’ll confess I’ve not (yet) read I’ll be Gone, but I can just picture the other scenes you mentioned. I can see why they’ve stayed with you. We may not remember every detail of a novel, but those powerful scenes stay vivid I think.

  9. I had to laugh at that quote from Donna Leon: indeed, the thought of Brunetti (or any Italian detective) without his food is unbearable!
    I read at such a speed, that I do sometimes forget which plot goes with which title or author – or conveniently forget certain details… in fact, I’ve even been known to take a book home from the library only to discover that I’d read it already. (This also happens – perhaps more excusably- with translations. Fred Vargas, for instance, has completely different titles in English so for the longest time I would start one of her novels in English only to realise I had already read it in French).
    However, there are always certain details which really stand out, and they are not necessarily the big moments, but those quiet moments of observation, or moments when characters confront each other or become aware of something.

    • Marina Sofia – I couldn’t imagine Brunetti without his food either! And you raise an interesting point. I wonder if the speed at which we read affects the amount we remember or the kinds of things we remember. I don’t have any data on it, but there could be a relationship. And your comment about Fred Vargas’ work reminds me of a few times where I’ve brought an Agatha Christie home from the library only to see I’d read it before under another title.
      That’s a well-taken point too that those memorable moments don’t have to be ‘action-packed.’ Sometimes it’s quieter moments that resonate the most deeply. It’s all about what the moment evokes and is about, not how ‘action-packed’ it is.

  10. Col

    Ironically a lot of what I remember most are the books I enjoyed the least.
    Exceptions obviously – series characters like Hoke Moseley (Willeford), Robicheaux and Bosch. Plus the settings for the last two authors.

    Like Tracy, I started blogging as a way of recalling what I had read in greater detail, for when I look back later. Love Tracy and her blog.

    • Col – Sometimes a terrible book really does stay in one’s memory. I can think of a few times that’s happened to me. And of course strong series characters like the ones you’ve mentioned often stay with me too. If they’re well-done enough, I feel I’d know who they were right away if they walked into a room.
      And yes, Tracy’s blog’s fantastic. IF you aren’t familiar with it, folks, do pay it a visit.

  11. Sometimes it is an image i recall most – an image my brain has been stamped with by the words of an author.

  12. Gosh, now you’ve got me thinking.

  13. I’m on the blogging-as-memory-aid team like Tracy and Col, and I’ve found that I don’t remember plots but I do remember the overall mood of a book: the grimness of Jean-Claude Izzo, the paciness of some of the Nesbo books. And, of course, I remember which books make me cry (the last Indridason I read). Thanks for the interesting discussion, Margot!

    • Rebecca – Thanks – I’m glad you’re finding the discussion interesting. I think it’s fascinating how blogging or otherwise writing about what one reads can really solidify a story in one’s mind. It makes sense. After all, it’s simply a matter of using more than one modality to store knowledge. And part of that knowledge – and of memory of course – is mood-related. Even if one doesn’t remember all of the plot details or characters, one often can remember a book’s atmosphere as grim/peaceful/funny/contemplative/whatever. And sometimes that helps in making a book recommendation or looking for the next book to read (e.g. ‘I’m in the mood for noir,’ or ‘I need a break from bleak. Bring on the comic/caper.’)

  14. There’s so much for a writer to take away in this post. We all want our books to be memorable. So what do readers remember: plot twists, conflicts, interesting characters, great settings. You’ve managed, Margot, to capture how to write a memorable novel. 🙂

    • Carol – Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you found something useful here. I think writers do have to pay attention to what readers take away from novels and what resonates with them. It’s an important part of the mix that writers can bring to the story.

  15. I think I mainly remember stuff that sheds light on the characters. For example, the scene in The Hound of the Baskervilles when Watson feels hurt because Holmes has kept things from him. Actually Conan Doyle had lots of those moments – Watson’s shock in The Empty House, a couple of occasions when Holmes’ mask slips and he shows his deep affection for Watson…

    Otherwise, it would be dramatic scenes I remember most – Eileen Chung’s dramatic exit in Reginald Hill’s Bones and Silence, for instance.

    • FictionFan – I know exactly what you mean. When we get a new perspective on a character we think we know, that can be memorable. That’s how I feel about the moments in Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels when Poirot reveals how much he values Hastings. I also love it when Hastings shows some understandable resentment about the offhand way Poirot sometimes treats him.

      • Yes, it humanises them. Actually I think most of my favourite series have partnerships of that sort – Dalziel and Pascoe, Rebus and Siobhan, Wolfe and Archie…

        • I couldn’t agree more, FictionFan. You’ve hit on something that makes those partnerships so memorable. I feel that way about Morse and Lewis too.

  16. Pingback: But if All it Takes is Inspiration* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  17. kathy d.

    Is there a better book by Chandler rather than The Big Sleep? I’d like to sample one.
    Gosh, this blog is stirring up more memorable scenes and dialogues from crime fiction. Salvo Montelbano’s ranting about seeing the character who plays him in the TV episodes, for one!

    • Kathy – A lot of people think The Lady in the Lake is among his best. Other people swear by The Long Goodbye. I think either would give you a look at Chandler at his best.

  18. Margot – Another great topic. What I remember – or don’t – is dialogue. This happens in fiction and the movies. I hear a character, in my memory, speaking a certain line or quip I thought was so good, then I go back and it’s not the line at all, though often pretty close, just slightly different wording. As for memorable plot twists, my personal favorite is Agatha’s Lord Edgeware.

    • Bryan – I know exactly what you mean. There are certain pieces of dialogue that resound in my memory too. I think that’s especially true when it’s a highly charged or witty moment. Clever dialogue can make a book or film timeless. And yes, the plot twist in Lord Edgware Dies is beautifully done.

  19. Interesting post, Margot. I never remember book titles. I’m absolutely hopeless at them. But I do always remember a story well written and that tends to stay with me over time.

    • Sarah – Thanks. Book titles really are hard to remember sometimes, especially if it’s a long series (e.g. Did that happen in ___ or ____?). Events and well-written stories tend to stay with one longer unless there’s something remarkable about a title.

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