And We Had to Go Our Separate Ways*

Returning After AbsencesA lot can happen to a person, even in a short time. So when someone goes away for a while and then reappears, there’s no telling what might have happening during that absence. This scenario can be really effective in a crime novel. For one thing, those questions and that speculation can make a fictional character all the more interesting. And sometimes, what happens during those absences plays a role in a present-day story.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her life included a real-life disappearance and return. She went missing for eleven days at the end of 1926, and was found staying at a hotel under an assumed name. Christie herself never published the reason for her disappearance, so there’s been a lot of speculation about it. Whatever the reason, it certainly added to her mystery.

We see that plot thread in some of her work, too. For example, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), Poirot is staying with a friend over the Christmas holiday. He gets drawn into a case of murder when Simeon Lee, who lives not very far away, is killed on Christmas Eve. There are plenty of suspects, too, as his family is gathered for the holiday. And, in classic Golden Age fashion, Lee was both wealthy and very unpleasant. One of the suspects is Lee’s son Harry, who hasn’t visited the family home in twenty years. He’s spent most of that time living in out-of-the-way places and cabling for money when he runs out. His long absence and sudden return have upset his brother Alfred, who’s always resented Harry. That thread of tension adds a layer to this novel, as does the mystery of what Harry’s been doing all these years. And the absence adds to Harry’s character.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, we meet Nora Wright, daughter of social leaders John F. and Hermione Wright. Three years before the events of the novel, she was planning to marry Jim Haight; he jilted her, though, and disappeared. Now he’s back, and to everyone’s consternation, he and Nora rekindle their relationship. Ellery Queen has been using a guest house on the Wright property as a writing retreat, so he’s on hand to see the impact that Haight’s return has on the family. Everyone hopes the relationship will end; instead, Nora and Jim marry. Then, Jim’s sister Rosemary comes for an extended visit. No-one likes her very much, but she seems ‘dug in’ to stay for a while. Then, on New Year’s Eve, she is killed by what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. For several reasons, Haight is the most likely suspect, and everyone is satisfied that he’s guilty. In fact, only Queen and Nora’s sister Pat believe there could be any other explanation. Queen looks into the matter and finds out what really happened; it turns out that Haight’s absence, and what happened during that time, play a role in the mystery.

John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Goodbye introduces readers to his sleuth, ‘salvage consultant’ Travis McGee. He’s the last hope for those who’ve been cheated out of money or property and want it returned. In this novel, McGee’s friend, dancer Chookie McCall, asks him to help one of the members of her dance troupe. Catherine Kerr has lost something and wants it back. The only problem is, she doesn’t know what ‘it’ is. She tells McGee that she got a visit from a man named Junior Allen, who had known her father. Allen ingratiated himself with her, and before long, they were a couple. Then Allen disappeared, only to return some months later, a great deal richer. He then took up with another woman, only to disappear again. Kerr is certain that Allen stole something of her father’s, and that that accounts for his wealth. But she has no idea what that something might be. In order to recover his client’s property, McGee will have to not only find Allen, but also trace what he was doing during his absence. And that turns out to be a very dangerous task.

Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed takes a slightly different perspective on being gone for a time and then coming back. Douglas Brodie has just returned from service in World War II, and is now trying to start his life again in London. Then he gets a call from an old Glasgow friend Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested for the murder of a young boy Rory Hutchinson, and is scheduled to be executed in four weeks. Brodie doesn’t know what he can do to help, but for the sake of his friendship with Donovan, he agrees to at least ask a few questions. One of the threads that runs through this novel is the relationship between Brodie and Donovan. They grew up together, and they saw military service together. But they haven’t seen each other in a while, and neither knows what the other’s been doing. So, although Donovan claims he’s innocent, Brodie can’t know for sure, especially at first, whether he is. Even as he’s talking to people and exploring other possibilities, he isn’t convinced his old friend was framed.

And then there’s D.S. Nelson’s Model For Murder, which takes place in the village of Tuesbury. The town is rocked by a series of murders, beginning with the local newsagent, Harold Slater. Retired milliner Blake Heatherington gets drawn into the case when Slater’s partner Steve Pensthorpe asks him to investigate. At first Heatherington demurs, saying that the police are much better equipped to do the job. But his curiosity is piqued. It’s even more so when he learns of some apparent vandalism going on at the local model village Little Tuesbury. A small cross has been painted on the door of the model newsagent’s, and the figure representing Slater has disappeared. As other murders occur, the same thing happens with their model businesses and the figures that represent them. Is this a case of Voodoo, as some whisper? Or is it something more prosaic? The closer Heatherington gets to the truth, the more danger he is in of being the next victim. Throughout this novel, there’s an interesting plot thread concerning Heathington’s friendship with Rufus Blackwood. The two grew up together, but then Blackwood left the area. He returned for early retirement ten years ago, but the two haven’t really picked up their friendship. And it’s interesting to see how Blackwood’s absence plays a role in the way they relate to each other now:

‘Rufus Blackwood is my oldest friend, living in Tuesbury, that is; and yet I know very little of him these days. We grew up together…and we went our separate ways.’

It’s actually Blackwood’s commissioning of a hat from Heatherington that gets the two talking again.

And that’s what happens when people leave, or go missing, and then return. You never know what’s really happened in their lives.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s James.


Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Ellery Queen, Gordon Ferris, John D. MacDonald

18 responses to “And We Had to Go Our Separate Ways*

  1. As is so often the case I can’t think of any examples for this despite being certain there must be plenty. Oh well as a bonus you have managed to make me want to know more about Calamity Town

    • That one’s an interesting story, Cleo. I think some of the characters in it are quite nicely done, actually. If you do read it, I’ll be keen to know what you think of it.

  2. The only example I can think of is another Christie – ‘A Pocketful of Rye’, where the black sheep of the family Lance returns to the family home only to find that his father has been murdered. Has Lance changed in his absence and now he’s married, or is he up to another of his schemes…?

  3. Christie’s real-life disappearance is intriguing. I was disappointed she didn’t say more about it in her autobiography, i.e. give a definitive account. She kind-of glosses over it, saying the reports of her disappearance were sensationalist and ridiculous, and that there wasn’t much of a story in it, doesn’t she? Perhaps it’s true: she just wanted time out and didn’t realise there would be such a fuss. Adds to her mystery, however!

    • I wish she’d said more about it, too, Caron. As you say it is intriguing, and I’d’ve liked to know more. On the other hand, it’s her business. I can’t say I blame her for wanting to keep her personal exactly that. It’s a fascinating story, though, and yes – it adds to her mystery.

  4. I really hadn’t noticed before, but it’s a very frequent feature in Christie, isn’t it? There are plenty of examples. Of course, long absence makes impersonation easier formChristie – and that’s also the case in Josephine Tey’s marvellous Brat Farrar. Patrick disappeared a long time ago – but who exactly is this who has come back…?

    • Oh, yes! Brat Farrar! Thank you for reminding me of that, Moira! It’s a great example of what happens when a character goes away for a long time and then comes back – or we think he does. And even where it’s not a question of identity, there are always all sorts of questions about what the person’s been doing. And you’re right; Christie did that quite a lot.

  5. Col

    I enjoyed the MacDonald book but wouldn’t have remembered to mention it if you hadn’t. My only offering is Sommersby with Jody Foster and Richard Gere.

    • The MacDonald is a good ‘un, I think, Col. And thanks for mentioning Sommersby. I admit it’s one I haven’t seen; but I’ve heard of it. Sounds as thought I ought to check it out.

  6. Margot, I can’t think of any more examples but I do like to read stories about avenging characters, particularly those who have been “done in” and who one day return to take their revenge. This sort of plot is common in western fiction where a cowboy or gunman is beaten up and left for dead, as I recently found in CROW BAIT by prolific author Robert J. Randisi. He comes back from the land of the assumed dead to hunt down his attackers.

    • You’re quite right, Prashant. Returning to one’s home (or some other place) to get revenge can be a very potent plot line. And it is realistic. Lots of people do feel ‘done down,’ and want to get theirs back. For some people, it’s a powerful force. And as you say, you certainly see it in Westerns as well as in crime fiction.

  7. Perhaps that’s why Christie wrote about absences, as if trying to come to terms with her own personal experience.

  8. I enjoyed Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and The Hanging Shed a lot. I read a lot of Travis McGee novels and want to reread them. You have mentioned some very good books here.

  9. Oh now this is interestiing, Margot, thank you. It can create great internal conflict in a character, I thunk, when people are estranged and there’s some great examples here.

    • Thanks, D.S. – I think there really is a lot of great possibility in estranged people who come back. It leaves all sorts of options for where those people have been, what they’ve done, and what they might want to either celebrate or hide. I think it’s realistic, too.

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