Ah, But I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now*

OlderPerspectivesHave you ever noticed how your perspective on things changes as you get older? For instance, if you visit a home that you lived in as a child, you may see that it’s a lot smaller than you remember. You remember that house with a child’s perspective, but now you see it with a different set of eyes. That different way of looking at things is arguably part of the reason for which our memories can be so unreliable.

We see that plot point quite a lot in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Not only is it realistic, but also, it allows the author to add to the suspense of a story. And in the case of ‘whodunit’ crime novels, it allows for all sorts of ‘red herrings’ and proverbial wrong turns. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of many others.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve a sixteen-year-old case. Her father, famous artist Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, charged and convicted, and with good reason. For one thing, there was physical evidence against her. For another, she had a motive, as her husband was having an affair with the subject of his painting Elsa Greer. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he interviews all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also asks for Carla’s own memories. In two cases, Carla’s and that of her Aunt Angela Warren, the memories of that time are those of children. Carla was five, and Angela Warren was fifteen when Crale was murdered. And it’s interesting to see how their perceptions of things have changed. There are two incidents in particular that didn’t make sense to a younger mind, but now make a lot of sense. The difference in perspective isn’t the solution to the mystery, but it explains several things and adds an interesting layer to the story (I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder).

Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988, at a lakeside school picnic at Wanaka. The members of the Anderson family, including fourteen-year-old Stephanie, her younger brothers Jonny and Liam, and her four-year-old sister Gemma, are there with many other local people. During the picnic, Gemma disappears. The police are called in and there’s a thorough search. But no trace of Gemma turns up – not even a body. The family tries to move on as best they can, and seventeen years go by. Now Stephanie is a fledgling psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she hears a haunting story from a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her sister Gracie was abducted, and no trace of her was found. This story is so much like Stephanie’s own that, as the saying goes, it won’t leave her alone. Against her better professional judgement, she decides to find out who was responsible for causing so much devastation to these two families. She takes a leave of absence from her work and begins to search for the truth. The trail leads her back to Wanaka and in the end, she does find out who abducted both girls. Throughout the novel we see the way Stephanie viewed everything as a fourteen-year-old versus the way she looks at life now.

In Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, we meet Caspar Leinen, a young attorney who is just beginning his career. One day his name comes up on the legal aid rota and he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini, an Italian immigrant to Germany, has been arrested for murder. It seems that he went to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, headed for the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot the man. Collini says that he committed the crime and doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that he be represented. So Leinen prepares to handle the case as best he can. Collini doesn’t do much to defend himself, which means that Leinen will have to take on a lot of the work. He digs into the backgrounds of both men and finds some surprising truths. He also finds a little-known point of German law on which the whole case will ride. In the course of the novel, we also get to know Leinen’s own history, and that plays a role in the story’s events too. It’s interesting to see how his perspective as a boy and teenager changes as he reflects on the same events with adult eyes.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer also deals with the different perspectives that we acquire as adults. Catherine Monsigny is a beginning attorney who gets her chance at a major case when she is asked to defend Myriam Villetreix against a murder charge. She has been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston, but claims to be innocent. And as Monsigny looks into the case, she sees that there are other possibilities. In the meantime, she comes up against a tragedy from her own past. When she was three years old, she was a witness to the murder of her mother Violet. Her memories are understandably very sketchy, but some things have stayed with her. As it happens, the Villetreix murder happened not very far from the scene of the long-ago murder, and the location haunts Monsigny. In the course of the novel she learns who killed her mother and why. As she does so, we see that her adult perspective, and some discoveries she makes, helps her to see certain events and people in a very different light.

There’s also Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. In that novel, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her friend Evie Verver are inseparable. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. The later it gets, the more worried Evie’s family becomes, and they ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that could help. But Lizzie can’t be of much assistance, not to the family and not to the police when they talk to her later. She wants to know what happened to Evie, though, and in her own way, begins to search for the truth. She finds that many of her memories don’t reflect what really happened. And since it’s the adult Lizzie who narrates the story, we also see how her perspective on everything has changed since she was thirteen.

And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. That story really begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found strangled. This tragedy devastates her parents, the aunt and uncle with whom she was staying when it happened, and her cousins Mick and Jane. At first the police thought that someone in the family might be responsible. But then not many months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, was also found strangled. Everyone began to believe that these deaths were the work of a serial killer dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases were never solved, and years went by. Now, more than thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on the effect of tragedies like this on the families involved. She interviews both Jane and Mick, along with Jane’s husband Rob, who also knew Angela. As the novel goes on, we see how these characters viewed Angela and the circumstances surrounding her death. We also see how different some of their youthful perspectives are to what really happened and to the adult perspectives they now develop on everything.

And that’s the thing about looking back. On the one hand, there are some very clear memories we have that are actually quite accurate. On the other hand, when we look back, we often do so with our childhood perspective. It’s not until we really think about things with adult maturity that we really understand them. I’ve only brought up a few examples here. Which books with this plot point have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ferdinand von Schirach, Megan Abbott, Paddy Richardson, Sylvie Granotier, Wendy James

26 responses to “Ah, But I Was So Much Older Then, I’m Younger Than That Now*

  1. Margot, it has been a long time since I read Dorothy Bowers’ marvelous “Fear and Miss Betony,” but – if my recollection is correct – a great deal of that story hangs on different perceptions of a key character by people who knew them many years earlier. And there’s a wonderful line by the major police officer, remembering his conversation with another young woman, talking about the victim: “He thought, involuntarily, of [name removed], young, aloof, her words, ‘She was lonely – she was old -‘ The child had dared to pity age.”

    • Les – Oh, that is a brilliant line! Thanks for sharing it. And it’s interesting isn’t it how people can perceive a character in so many different ways. I think it adds to the mystery actually, because the question then becomes, ‘Whose perception is the right one?’

  2. All too true Margot but so hard to recapture sometimes (useful to have a few little ‘uns around to remind you, i find). I would certainly add Christie SLEEPING MURDER as the child’s perspective proves fairly crucial as I recall …

    • It does indeed, Sergio. Glad you mentioned that one. And it is helpful to have little ones around to remind one of that perspective. Even the music I listen to has been influenced by my own not-so-little-any-more one…

  3. Some great examples there, Margot. The Christies of course, but Megan Abbott handled the whole ‘through the eyes of a child’ thing brilliantly in ‘The End of Everything’ too. I also loved ‘My Second Death’ by Lydia Cooper – the heroine’s whole perception of herself shifting and changing as she learned the truth about things she thought she remembered from her childhood. An author to watch, for sure…

    • Thanks, FictionFan. And I couldn’t agree more about both Christie and Abbott. They took different approaches, but it’s very effective in both cases. I’ve been hearing very good things about the Cooper, so I’m glad you mentioned it. I admit I’ve not (yet) read it, but it’s on the list

  4. Your blog post title today is one of my favourite Bob Dylan lines, Margot!

    I agree that Wendy James does a great job of depicting the difference between youthful and adult perspectives in The Lost Girls. I must also get around to reading Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, too. I’m a big fan of her early work.

    • Angela – Oh, it is a great line, isn’t it? And the whole song offers so much to think about… I do recommend The End of Everything. It’s different to Abbott’s earlier novels such as Die a Little and Queenpin. But it’s got its own magnetic appeal and of course Abbott’s skilled writing style. If you do get to it, I hope you’ll enjoy it. And as for Wendy James? Haven’t yet read any of her work that I didn’t think was excellent.

  5. I started reading, and immediately thought of Five Little Pigs. That is such a great example of what you are trying to say, isn’t it?
    Anne Cleeves’ White Noise doesn’t really show the world from the point of view of a child, but it is interesting to see the impressions that Inspector Perez had of the protagonists from the time when he was much younger.

    When I was in Primary School, we lived in a mining colony, and I used to watch out for a beautiful stretch where a “river” went over rocks on the way to and from school (even then, I was a loner who much preferred things like that over gossiping with friends). I often thought about the place after we moved away, and when I returned to the place 5 years later, I kept my eyes peeled for it. Had I not been looking, I would have missed it- it was little more than a trickle of water, and not particularly pretty at that. At 16, I learnt an important lesson- let memories remain memories. If you revisit them, you only end up losing them.

    Great post.

    • Thank you, Natasha. And thanks for sharing what happened when you returned to the ‘river’ you’d remembered. It is interesting what happens when we look at childhood places with adult eyes. There’s definitely something to be said for letting memories remain memories.
      You make an interesting point too about White Nights. As you say, it’s not from the point of view of a child, but we see how Perez used to view the protagonists v how he does now. There’s a touch of that in Raven Black, too. In that novel, Perez has known one of the characters since they were in school together, but hasn’t seen that person for many years. It’s interesting to see how he deals with his change in perspective.

  6. A particularly fine Dylan quote, if I may say so. I thought of Ivy Pochoda’s Visitation Street, in which two girls go out in a boat at night, and only one comes back. There isn’t the perspective of time – the whole book takes place over one hot summer – but you do get to see the incident through the eyes of many different people, and there are events in the past which have cast their shadow over the present. A really good book.

    • Moira – It is indeed. And you’re right; the story of what happened is told through the eyes of adults, teens, and other people so that you get a lot of different perspectives of people at different maturity levels. Thanks for the reminder of that one. And the song? It’s a classic I think.

  7. kathy d.

    Very good examples of this, and I like that Bob Dylan line, too. It resonates with me now more than years ago, as “I’ve gotten younger, too.”
    There is a line from a Pat Barker book, where an elderly woman is looking at herself in the mirror, sees her aging face, and thinks,”I don’t understand this. I have the same passion I had when I was 18.”
    Another excellent book that talks about life in rural, poor Mississippi 25 years earlier and today through the thoughts of two characters is Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin. It is an excellent story with a mystery. It’s about the human condition, poverty, racism, friendships lost and found.
    Then there are books where a sequel takes places years after the first book, as “A Time to Kill,” and then the recently published, “Sycamore Row.” There, the main character is a Mississippi lawyer, Jake Brigance, who has a lot more experience in the second book and is pretty sophisticated by then.

    • Kathy – Isn’t that a great song and line? It resonates with me, too. The Pat Barker quote is terrific, too – I have a sense of how that woman must feel… And thanks very much for mentioning CLCL. It really shows how both main characters change over the years, and how those changes affect their perceptions of, well, everything. Those perceptions I think also affect the way the events in the story are viewed. Interesting point about Jake Brigance, too. And now that makes me think of the character of Adam Hall, in Grisham’s The Chamber, who had one way of viewing his life as a child, and another way now that he’s an adult.

  8. You’ve chosen a subject for your post today that fascinates me – memories. I know from talking to my younger brother that although we can remember the same event from childhood we sometimes have very different memories of what happened (of course I’m right because I’m the eldest!) so I’m always quietly thrilled when I read not so much an unreliable narrator but one who thinks they are telling the truth they just haven’t remembered quite right. I’m going to be checking out some of the books you’ve included especially those I have copies on but are buried on the TBR.

    • Cleo – Naturally you’re the one who’s right about those memories. That ought to be understood. You’re also right that we don’t always remember things as they actually, truly happened, especially if we look back to our childhoods. So it makes perfect sense that in crime fiction, characters might not remember the past as it truly, actually happened. They remember it as they think it happened, and that’s not the same thing, really. When that plot point is done well, I think it can really add to a novel.

  9. Oh interesting. The Collini Case is on my kindle waiting to be read. Your summary has intrigued me further.

    • Rebecca – Oh, I hope you’ll enjoy The Collini Case. It offers a lot to think about, and it’s fascinating from a legal perspective as well being an interesting story.

  10. I’m fascinated by the concept of inaccurate memory. It’s a great motif for crime fiction as the mind can play such deceiving tricks on you.

    • Sarah – I agree. It’s so amazing to think about what we think we remember vs what really did happen. It’s absolutely fascinating what our minds do isn’t it? And yes, a very effective motif for a crime novel.

  11. Col

    Looking forward to reading The Collini Case and Five Little Pigs, some time this century!

  12. For me, one of the best use of this trope is in L.P.Hartley’s THE GO-BETWEEN. Ishiguro’s WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS also handles it pretty effectively.

    • Neeru – Thanks very much for those suggestions. I’ve heard very good things about The Go-Between. I’m not familiar with the Ishiguro, but it’s definitely something for me to look up.

  13. Great topic, Margot. I often think about my memories of childhood, and wonder how distorted they are. Except for The Collini Case, I have not read any of the books you featured here. I would like to try Megan Abbott’s book.

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