Starting Over Again*

Rejoining the worldWhen people have been isolated, too sheltered or in some other way kept apart, it can be very hard to adjust to life in ‘the real world.’ Ask anyone who’s spent time in prison and then had to re-adapt to life ‘outside’ (that’s actually a separate topic in and of itself!) Things most of us take for granted, such as making our own decisions and connecting with others can be very much more difficult for those who are just entering (or re-entering) the world.

Certainly that adaptation is a challenge in real life. It is in crime fiction, too. And that sort of plot point can make for some interesting character development and tension in a story.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death introduces readers to the Boynton family. They’re Americans who are on a trip through the Middle East. When newly-minted doctor Sarah King meets them for the first time, she gets the sense right away that something is ‘off’ about the family. And she soon discovers how right she is. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is a tyrannical mental sadist who has her family so cowed that none of them dares cross her. In two interactions (one with Carol Boynton and one with her brother Raymond), Sarah tries to help, but her efforts come to little. Sarah heads off to Petra on a sightseeing tour, thinking that’ll be the end of her encounters with the Boyntons. To her shock though, when she arrives at Petra, she sees that they’re on an excursion there as well. Surprisingly, she even gets the chance to interact with Carol and Raymond a bit. Then, on the second afternoon there, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks like a heart attack. Colonel Carbury, the official investigator, isn’t satisfied that her death was natural, though, and asks Hercule Poirot, who’s in the area, to look into the matter.  As he does, he finds that one challenge he will face is working with Mrs. Boynton’s family. Carol, Raymond, and their two siblings have been isolated for so long that they simply don’t know how to operate in the larger world. It makes for an interesting plot thread to see how they learn.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen is staying in a house in the Hollywood Hills, hoping to get some writing done. His plans are interrupted by nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. She wants Queen to investigate the death of her father Leander, who recently died of a heart attack. Laurel claims that his heart attack was deliberately induced by someone who sent him a series of macabre ‘presents.’ Queen is finally persuaded to investigate, and starts to ask questions. One of the people he tries to speak to is Leander Hill’s business partner Roger Priam, who’s also received ‘gifts.’ Priam refuses to get involved, although his wife Delia takes the matter more seriously. Bit by bit, Queen puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and we learn how Hill’s and Priam’s past has impacted their current lives, and how it led to Hill’s death. One of the unusual characters in this story is Delia Priam’s son (and Roger Priam’s stepson) Crowe ‘Mac’ McGowan. Mac is convinced that the world is on the brink of destruction from nuclear bombs, and he wants to survive The Bomb. So he lives in a tree. He only emerges for food, and in general, interacts as little as possible with anyone else. In the course of the novel, he makes the choice to come out of his self-imposed exile and rejoin the world, and it’s interesting to see how he does that. Queen fans will know that Queen is also involved in helping Paula Paris join the world, as the saying goes. She’s a well-known Hollywood gossip columnist whom Queen meets in The Four of Hearts. She is also agoraphobic. While she’s by no means entirely disconnected from everyday life, she doesn’t leave her home. At least, not until Queen helps her to do so.

Catherine Aird’s The Religious Body touches on the interesting case of a nun who has re-entered the larger world. In that novel, Inspector C.D. Sloan and Constable William Crosby investigate the murder of Sister Mary St. Anne, who is a member of the Convent of St. Anselm’s. In order to find out who might have had a motive, Sloan and Crosby want to talk to anyone who knew the victim both before she joined the convent, and after. One of their interviews is with Elieen Lome, who left the convent fairly recently. In fact, she’s still getting used to things such as comfortable chairs and modern clothes. She admits that to her, everything is very different. The interview with Miss Lome doesn’t solve the case, but it sheds some interesting light on what it’s like to re-join the world if one’s been in a religious enclave like a convent.

Betty Webb’s Desert Wives addresses a different sort of rejoining the world. In that novel, PI Lena Jones works with her PI partner Jimmy Sisiwan to protect Esther Corbett and her thirteen-year-old daughter Rachel. Esther is a former member of Purity, a polygamous sect that lives in a compound straddling the Utah/Arizona border. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Rebecca, who is still living at the compound, has been ‘given’ to the sect’s leader Solomon Royal as a bride, and Esther wants to rescue the girl. Jones agrees and she and Sisiwan duly return Rebecca to her mother. But that’s just the beginning of the trouble. When Royal is shot, Esther becomes a suspect. It turns out, though, that there are plenty of other possibilities, and Jones goes undercover at the compound to find out who really committed the crime. Along the way, she meets Leo and Virginia Lawler, who own West Wind Ranch. On the surface it’s a tourist attraction. But it’s also a safe house for women who want to leave Purity. The logistics of escaping Purity are difficult enough (it’s rough terrain and at least twenty miles to anywhere). Along with that, the women and girls who leave have no money or credit cards, no transportation and almost no possessions. The Lawlers help them to rest up and get some of the things they need to re-join the larger world, and that is a difficult task.

And then there’s Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks, which features fourteen-year-old Adam Vander. He’s finally summoned up the courage he needs to flee his abusive father Joe. The problem is, though, that Adam has been locked away so successfully that he has no connections in the larger world, and knows little about managing on his own. As he’s leaving the house, he meets Billy Benson, a young man who’s there at the time. The two spend the next week together, with Billy providing a lot of streetwise knowledge. They find shelter and food, and Adam begins to learn a lot that he’s never really known. They also find a great deal of danger. It turns out that Billy and Adam have a connection from the past, and that link comes back to haunt them. Throughout this novel, it’s interesting to see how Adam starts to adjust to life ‘on the outside.’

That process of adaptation is never easy. But it can add an interesting layer of suspense to a story. It can also be an effective way to add character depth.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Criss’ By Myself.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Catherine Aird, Ellery Queen, Honey Brown

22 responses to “Starting Over Again*

  1. John Franklin Bardin’s Devil Take the Blue-Tailed Fly has a woman coming out of a mental hospital. It’s years since I read it, but I remember it as giving me the shivers in terms of the poor woman’s mental health, and what she finds when she comes out.

    • Oh, Moira, that’s a great example of the sort of thing I mean! Not only do people coming out of such places have their own issues to deal with, but they also have everyone else’s perceptions and prejudices to cope with as well. And the world can look very different, even if you’ve only been in such a place for a few years.

  2. Koethi Zan’s brilliant debut ‘The Never List’ has as its main character, Sarah, who has hidden herself away in her own apratment for years following a horrific experience when she was held prisoner in a cellar by a psycopathic killer. Now the killer is sending threatening messages and Sarah has to go back into the world to prove his guilt before he can do it again.

    And the title character of Ruth Dugdall’s ‘Humber Boy B’ has just come out of prison after serving a sentence that began when he was a ten-year-old convicted of killing another child. We see him trying to make sense of a world that he’s never lived in as an adult, hiding under a new identity, while relatives of the victim try to track him down. Both interesting examples of people coming back into the world after a period of separation from it, I think.

    • I think so, too, FictionFan. And you’ve given me a welcome reminder that I still haven’t read Humber Boy B, although I mean to do that *sigh.* And The Never List is a fine example, too, of what fear, guilt, and all of the other emotions that poor woman has can do to a person.

  3. Patti Abbott

    This reminds me of SAY YOU’RE SORRY by Robotham. Where a girl missing for some years suddenly turns up. Or one of the Laura Lippman books. Very common theme, isn’t it?

    • You have a point, Patti. That one and Lippmann’s What the Dead Know both have those themes of re-entering the world, so to speak. It’s definitely there in lots of other books, too. Good ‘food for thought,’ so thanks.

  4. Still Missing by Chevy Stevens is an excellent example of this. Very good read. A woman must “re-enter” after escaping from being abducted and held prisoner in an isolated cabin for a year.

  5. This is an interesting list of books and theme to write on. I can only imagine the kind of stress that would result in re-entering society. You’re right…would definitely add to the conflict and complexity of the character.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. I think there are probably a lot of stresses that we don’t even think about the stresses that come with trying to re-enter the world. I think it takes a special kind of courage and some support. And you’re absolutely right about the potential for layers of character and for conflict.

  6. My comment is a simple statement and a not so simple question: I am so impressed with the ways in which you introduce me to different authors and titles, and I very much appreciate all your efforts; how on earth do you remember so much about so many books and authors? (Note: I have reached an age at which I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, yet you seem to be an encyclopedia of crime fiction knowledge. I am impressed!)

    • Thank you very much, R.T. – that’s very kind of you. Not much else rattling around in this brain, so there’s plenty of room for crime fiction. And coffee 😉

  7. Margot, I can’t add anything worthwhile to this theme post, so I’m going to stand behind R.T. and agree with all that he says.

  8. All of these sound interesting. I will have to check out the ones I haven’t read yet.

  9. This post reminds me of when someone is held hostage for years, sometimes decades, before they’re rescued, and then have to learn to adjust to the real world. We’ve certainly seen this in real-life, too.

  10. Col

    I think the post makes me think of servicemen returning back from war – probably not from isolation as such, but immersion into a very strange and unnatural environment.

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