There Are Places I Remember*

RemeniscencesAn interesting post at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about a plot point that’s become more common in crime fiction in the last years. The genre is arguably featuring more older people as central characters (the reasons for that are, I think, the stuff of another conversation). Their reminiscences and ‘looking back’ on older crimes can be an effective way to tie those crimes in with newer ones.

That premise – that an older person looks back and tells the story of an older crime – isn’t of course brand-new. For instance, a few of the short stories in Anna Katherine Green’s 1915 collection The Golden Slipper and Other Stories have that plot point. Green’s sleuth is New York heiress and socialite Violet Strange, who has a secret career as a private investigator. More than once she finds that modern cases are connected with older ones, and that the key is an older person’s reminiscences.

We see that same plot point in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, and in that novel, it’s the older person who takes on a central role. As the story opens, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates the case, which seems to make little sense at first. Burke had no family and wasn’t known to have anything really valuable that would be worth stealing. He had no known local enemies either. And yet, Alberg doesn’t think this was a freak, random killing. Since Wilcox reported the murder and claims to have discovered the body, Alberg becomes convinced that he knows more than he’s saying; and of course, Alberg’s right. As the novel goes on, we learn about the history between Wilcox and Burke, and what was behind the murder. That part of the story relies on Wilcox’s reminiscences and memories.

Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is the first in the Arthur Bryant/John May series. Bryant and May been a part of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) for several decades, but everything changes when a bomb goes off in the PCU offices. In order to solve this case, May needs to return to the team’s first (1940) case, which had at its heart London’s Palace Theatre and its doomed production of Orpheus. That story, which included more than one murder and a disappearance, is told from May’s now-older perspective. And as it turns out, his memories of what happened, and the outcome of the Palace case, have everything to do with solving the modern-day case.

Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind takes an innovative approach to the ‘older person looking back’ plot point. Dr. Jennifer White is a retired Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who left her position after being diagnosed with early dementia. Now she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena, but as the story begins, she’s still quite high-functioning. She becomes involved in a case of murder when her neighbour, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole, is killed. Detective Luton is assigned to the investigation and is soon interested in White as a suspect. White knew the victim well for thirty years, and the body was mutilated in a professional way that suggests a doctor or other medical professional is the culprit. But that evidence doesn’t conclusively prove White is the murderer. What’s more, White’s dementia is progressing, which makes it increasingly difficult for Luton to find out from her exactly what happened on the night of the murder. This story is told from White’s point of view, so readers learn the story of her relationship with the O’Tooles through her memories. Bit by bit, the truth of the crime comes out through those reminiscences.

And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Amateur divers seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go out to explore Lake Vittangijärvi. The ruins of a World War II plane that went down there have never been recovered, and the young people want to see what they can find. They locate the plane, but are trapped under the ice by a murderer and killed. Wilma’s body surfaces in the spring, and Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate. With help from attorney Rebecka Martinsson, they discover that this case has everything to do with the area’s past. And some of the vital information they get comes from the memories of older residents; through those memories we learn about an older event that triggered a lot of what’s gone on in the area since then.

And I don’t think a post about the ‘older person looking back’ motif in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. That’s the story of Sheldon Horowitz, an octogenarian from New York, who’s gone to live in Norway to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One thread of this story follows Horowitz as he rescues a small boy from the thugs who murdered his mother, who lives upstairs from Rhea and Lars. Horowitz hides the boy and then goes on the run with him. Another thread of the story tells Horowitz’ own personal history, including his stint in service during the Korean War, and the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Those memories play a role in the way Horowitz reacts to the modern-day events. What’s interesting here is that Horowitz is slowly slipping away from being grounded in the modern day because dementia is starting to take a bit of a toll. But as readers familiar with this novel will know, he’s still smart, capable and resourceful.

Sometimes, older people don’t remember very recent things. But they often remember details from many years earlier, and those can be crucial in solving modern-day cases. These are just a few examples (I’m sorry, fans of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Johan Theorin). Which ones do you remember?

Now, may I suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s Book Reviews. There you’ll find excellent and thoughtful reviews, plenty of wit, and great ‘photos. And porpentines.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles In My Life.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Anna Katherine Green, Åsa Larsson, Christopher Fowler, Derek B. Miller, Johan Theorin, L.R. Wright, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

29 responses to “There Are Places I Remember*

  1. Nice article. I like the fact that older characters are a motif in Scandi crime fic (Nesser, Indridason etc) I liked the fact that a recent book, The Harbour Master, also had an older police protagonist. They’re nice to read about.

  2. There is Jorn Lier Horst’s Dregs, which involves a group of old people who I think are in danger of being murdered one by one because of what they know about a past crime. I liked it. I’m glad you mentioned Christopher Fowler, one of my favourite writers,
    And, Margot, thanks for reminding me of one of my favourite Beatles songs, even more resonant as one gets older.

    • Christine – Glad you enjoyed the song. I like it very much myself, and always happy to provide earworms ;-). And thanks for mentioning Dregs. That’s a good novel and part of a well-written series, I think. And you’re quite right; it really is in keeping with this idea of older people looking back.

  3. Margot, Dorothy Bowers’s marvelous “Fear and Miss Betony” is the story of an elderly woman, Emma Betony, who is about to be forced into what is lovingly called a “home for decayed gentlewomen.” Her plans change when she receives an urgent call for help from a former pupil, Grace Aram, now trying to run a boarding school for girls in what used to be a nursing home. Grace Aram wants Miss Betony’s help trying to determine who is responsible for a series of increasingly troubling events, including the possible poisoning of one of the last remaining residents of the nursing home. Miss Betony finds an overpowering atmosphere of fear at the home/school – and the reason for that fear, and for the increasingly dangerous events, will be something buried in her own past. She will have to fight through her own fear to solve the case.

    • Les – Oh, trust you for exactly the right classic crime fiction example to illustrate what I mean. I really like it when those events from the past come back, so to speak.

  4. Wonderful post, Margot. And I look forward to another conversation in which you share your thoughts on why crime fiction characters are getting older. I know the writers are 😉

  5. Love this technique. I’ve been toying with doing something similar. Now you’ve got my creative juices flowing and I have to outline my thoughts before I forget. 😀 Thank you!

  6. tracybham

    Finally, I can think of an example. In SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI by Naomi Hirahara, Mas Arai is a gardener nearing 70, who has secrets from his past. He survived the bombing of Hiroshima and is now living and working in southern California. I enjoyed that first book in the series and plan to read more.

  7. Thanks for the link, Margot! The porpentine is thrilled to bits to have been mentioned! 😀

    Since I’ve been in Peter May mode this week, I’ll mention the middle book of his Lewis Trilogy, ‘The Lewis Man’ – my favourite of the three. Although the main protagonist, Finn, is a young man, much of the story is told in flashback through the fragmented memories of Tormod. He has quite advanced dementia and although he still remembers pieces of his past he’s not able to put them into words. But the reader gets to see inside his mind, back to the days when orphans were shipped off to live in the homes of people in the islands, where they might be lucky and get treated as a child of the family, but where they could be unlucky and be treated as cheap labour, or worse. I found May’s depiction of Tormod as an old man both mvoing and oddly quite uplifting – sensitively handled.

    • FictionFan – Happy to have pleased the porpentine! 😆 You’re right too about The Lewis Man. It is a great example of an older person looking back, and it’s interesting how that is handled given the dementia. It’s really not easy to write such a character; I’ve not (yet) dared to do so myself. But when it’s done well I think it can be very effective. I’so glad you brought up that example!

  8. Margot, FictionFan I too have noticed that plot point becoming more popular of late and the using a current crime to reflect on/solve a past crime seems to be equally popular. Some great reads this year!

  9. In the organisation I work for the current ‘big concern’ is the ageing workforce so they’re going all out to attract young workers, often at the expense of the experience you sometimes need to actually get things done. So it’s nice to think that at least in fiction there is still a place for some older folks. My favourites that you haven’t had a chance to mention are Johan Theorin’s Gerlof Davidsson who has featured in multiple stories and Thea Farmer from The Precipice. I want to be Thea when I grow up 🙂

    Somehow I have missed reading Norwegian by Night despite the fifty squillion recommendations I’ve had so I have finally downloaded the audio book and it’s up next. Am looking forward to it

    • Bernadette – 😆 I love Thea too! And I’m very glad you’ve mentioned The Precipice. Not only is the story a great example of an older person looking back, but it’s also a great counter to the popular myth that older people are no longer able to be masters of their own destiny, so to speak. She’s terrific. And so is Gerloff Davidsson. And, speaking as one of the squillion, I hope you do enjoy Norwegian by Night.
      You make a good point too about the real-life workforce. Yes, you do need some young people. But there is so much to be gained by tapping the wisdom and experience of people who’ve been there and done that. You need both. It’s one of many reasons I really dislike and fail to understand ageism.

  10. I’ve always liked crimes books that look back at the past, so this time I’m picking up lots of great suggestions from you and your readers…

    • Moira – Yes, I’m lucky; I have the bestest, bestest commenters, including yourself. I always learn from them . And the plot point of looking into the past can be incredibly effective.

  11. Col

    I quite like the Samuel Craddock series of books by Terry Shames where former chief of police Craddock has retired but still gets involved in solving the small town crimes. I’m unsure of his age, but you can’t fault his experience.

  12. I think it is great that we are seeing more of the older generation in books especially with real roles and personalities! May did an excellent job of this in Runaway as did Ruth Rendell in The Girl Next Door. Great post as always Margot.

    • Thank you, Cleo. And the May was just the novel that FictionFan was reviewing in the post that got me thinking about this. And I think Rendell creates nicely-drawn older characters too. I too am glad to see that older people are featuring more and more in crime fiction. They play vital roles in real life and I like it when literature doesn’t shunt them aside.

  13. Margot: Having just finished The Lewis Man I can certainly confirm the importance to the story of Tormond’s journeys into his youth.

    I think of a couple of continuing characters in popular series whose reflections of the best play significant roles in several books.

    Retired Sheriff, Lucian Connally, is a chess opponent, drinking companion and sage source of advice for Walt Longmire in the Craig Johnson series.

    V.I. Warshawski benefits from the friendship, knowledge and experience of Dr. Lotty Herschel. The doctor has harrowing memories.

    • Bill – Right you are indeed about Lucian Connelly! In more than one of the Walt Longmire books, his memories and looking back on things are crucial to solving mysteries (I’m thinking for instance of Death Without Company). And I really like the Lotty Herschel character too. As you say, she has harrowing memories, but yes, lots of knowledge and wisdom. And her memories turn out to be very helpful in Total Recall.

  14. I thought I’d mention the Dick Francis novel Wild Horses as a member of this group as well. 😀

    • Thanks, Wildeloquence! Dick Francis was such a talented writer (must re-read some of this work!) and I haven’t thought about Wild Horses in a loooong time. Glad you filled in that gap.

  15. Pingback: When I Get Older, Losing My Hair* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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