I’m Going Back Some Day*

Return Trips to Places From Earlier NovelsHave you ever finished a novel, and wondered what happened to the characters later, perhaps even years later? It’s interesting when authors explore this question, because it leads to all sorts of possibilities. Some authors return to their characters in the context of a series, so that we follow what happens to them on a regular basis.

Some authors, though, do things a bit differently. They return to their characters after (at least fictionally) some time has passed. When this happens, readers get to find out how different places and characters have evolved, if they have, and what has happened to them. And that can lead in very interesting directions.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer is her lodger James Bentley, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. In fact, there’s so much evidence that he’s been arrested, tried and convicted. Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t sure Bentley is guilty though, and has asked Poirot to look into the matter. In the course of the investigation, Poirot found that Mrs. McGinty had a way of finding out things about people, and that more than one person might have been willing to kill to prevent certain facts from coming out. Years later (in Hallowe’en Party), Poirot visits Spence, who is now retired, and living in the village of Woodleigh Common. Poirot is on another case, this time the drowning death of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. He wants Spence’s impression of the people in the village and their possible motives for murder. As they chat, they return to the Mrs. McGinty case, and follow up on a few of the major characters in it. It isn’t, admittedly, a return to Broadhinny, but it does catch the reader up on what’s happened since the events of the first novel.

Scott Turow first introduced the world to Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich in Presumed Innocent. In that novel, Sabich is a prosecuting attorney for Kindle County. He gets a particularly disturbing case when he is asked to investigate the murder of a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus. What makes this case even more difficult is that until a few months before her death, Polhemus and Sabich were romantically involved. When Sabich’s boss finds out about this, he removes Sabich from the case. Matters get even worse when evidence turns up that implicates Sabich. In fact, he goes on trial for the murder. He asks Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him and together, the two prepare their case. Turow returns to Kindle County and to Rusty Sabich many years later in Innocent. By this time, Sabich is the chief appellate judge for Kindle County. One morning, he wakes up to find that his wife Barbara has died, apparently of natural causes. But questions begin to arise about the case. For example, why did Sabich wait 24 hours to contact authorities or his son Nat? And why was there a large dose of antidepressants in the victim’s system? Before long, Sabich is on trial for murder again, this time the murder of his wife. As the story goes along, we see how the characters have evolved since the events of Presumed Innocent.

John Grisham takes readers on two visits to Clanton, Mississippi. In A Time to Kill, the town is outraged when Billy Ray Cobb and Pete Willard brutally attack and rape ten-year-old Tonya Hailey. There’s a lot of sympathy for the Hailey family, and Cobb and Willard are duly arrested.  Tonya’s father, Carl Lee Hailey, isn’t convinced that these rapists will really face justice, since they are White and Hailey and his family are Black. So he lies in wait for them and shoots them as they go into the courthouse. Hailey’s lawyer, Jake Brigance, faces several obstacles as he prepares for trial. For one thing, his client clearly shot two people. And it doesn’t help matters that there are several powerful people in town who want Hailey out of the way for reasons of their own. Sycamore Row takes place three years after the events of A Time to Kill. Brigance has had to deal with financial and other very negative consequences of his defending Carl Lee Hailey. But it’s clear that at least someone supported him. One day Seth Hubbard hangs himself from a sycamore tree; his lung cancer is terminal and increasingly painful, and he saw this as the best way out, so to speak. Before his death, he sent a letter containing a holographic will to Brigance. The will stipulates that his children and grandchildren will not inherit any of his money. Instead, he has left everything to his housekeeper Letitia ‘Letty’ Lang. Hubbard knew that his family would contest the will, and he wants Brigance to do everything possible to uphold it. As Brigance and Lang prepare to go up against the Hubbards, we see what the town of Clanton is like now, and how much has changed or not changed.

In Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Turned On and Off, her sleuth, James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran, is a features journalist for The Daily Fluxion. He plans to do a feature on a little-known section of the city called Junktown. A lot of people think that Junktown is a run-down area full of junkies and crime. But it’s actually a collection of interesting antique shops and other unusual businesses. As he gets ready to do his feature, Qwilleran gets drawn into the personal stories of the people who live and work there. That’s how he finds out about the death a few months earlier of Andrew ‘Andy’ Glanz, a respected antiques expert and dealer. The death was assumed to be an accident, but Qwill soon begins to believe it was anything but that. As he prepares a tribute article, he finds out about the network of past history and relationships in the area; it turns out that Glanz’ murder has everything to do with that network. Qwill returns to Junktown later in the series, in The Cat Who Lived High. In that story, he is in the area to help save the legendary Casablanca apartment building from demolition. While he’s there, he stays at the Casablanca, in an apartment formerly occupied by artist Diane Bessinger. When Qwill discovers that she was murdered, he gets drawn into finding out who the killer was. And this puts him in contact again with several of the characters and places that Braun depicted in the earlier novel.

Attica Locke’s Black Water Rising takes place in 1981, in the Houston area. Jay Porter is a low-rent lawyer who’s trying to make a successful life for himself, his wife Bernadine ‘Bernie’ and their soon-to-be-born first child. In one plot thread, he takes Bernie out for a bayou cruise to celebrate her birthday. Instead, he ends up rescuing a woman who’s fallen (or been thrown) in to the bayou. She won’t say much about herself; and once the Porters drop her off at the police station, she indicates that she doesn’t need or want any more help. But the next day, Porter learns that there was a murder that night, and that the woman they helped may be mixed up in it. Porter doesn’t want to get involved in the case, since he has an unpleasant past with the police (mostly a result of his days with the Black Power movement). But Porter finds himself drawn into this shooting case, and works to find out the truth and still say as far away from trouble as he can. It isn’t entirely successful…   Pleasantville returns readers to this area of Houston fifteen years after the events of Black Water Rising. Porter has been working on environmental law, and trying to keep his office a going concern. He gets drawn into the disappearance of Alicia Nowell when he learns that she’s the third of three girls gone missing in the last few years. And this isn’t the work of a crazed serial killer either. It turns out that Alicia was a volunteer for one of the local mayoral candidates, and that this case is all about corruption and politics. As Locke tells the story, we see how the community has evolved, and we see what’s happened to Porter and the people in his life as well.

And that’s one of the interesting things about books that take readers back to settings and characters from earlier stories. Readers can see how places, characters and even ideas have evolved. Or haven’t.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Roy Orbison and John Melson’s Blue Bayou. Listen to the original version and the popular recording by Linda Ronstadt and see which one you prefer.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Attica Locke, John Grisham, Lilian Jackson Braun, Scott Turow

26 responses to “I’m Going Back Some Day*

  1. I always thought it was to provoke the reader or watcher of movie to come to a conclusion for themselves.

    • I think that’s one key to making such a story work well, Michael. When the author gives some information – enough to orient the reader – but not every detail, this invites the reader to do just that.

  2. I absolutely loved A Time To Kill, but never read Sycamore Row. I’ll have to add that to my list. Thanks!

  3. One of the most memorable uses of this kind of character development, I think, comes in two of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books. In Too Many Cooks (1938), one of the major characters is a young, black waiter (I think) named Paul Whipple, who plays a significant role in helping Wolfe to a solution of the case. In A Right to Die (1964, 26 years after the earlier appearance), Paul Whipple shows up on Wolfe’s doorstep to ask for his help. He has a problem with his son – and that son will very soon be charged with murder. We learn how Paul Whipple has developed and changed over the years – and the things about him that do not change. It’s quite powerful.

    • That’s quite true, Les. Trust you to come up with such a great example (and you’re right about the name). What’s interesting about Whipple, too, is that when we first meet him, it doesn’t seem that he’ll play the important role in Too Many Cooks that he does in fact play as the story goes on. It’s a fascinating case of a minor character who takes on an important role. And yes, when we see him later, we also see what has(n’t) changed about his life.

  4. I do enjoy those visits back with characters from a standalone, even though I’ve grown tired of reading series. I’m doing a “five years later” novel right now that revisits some of the characters from Dead Wrong.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Pat! It’s just as interesting for the author to explore how the characters and places have evolved as it is for the reader, I think.

  5. Kathy D.

    Good topic as always.
    I liked Innocent and loved Sycamore Row, which is so much more than a mystery. It gives social commentary about terrible occurrences in Mississippi decades ago, and a real feel for today’s small town life there.
    And Pleasantville is on my library request list.
    I am one reader who enjoys revisiting characters and locations, even if the books are not within a series.
    I’m waiting for John Grisham to write a follow-up to Gray Mountain about Big Coal. He left some plot threads hanging in mid-air! I want more.
    I assume that there are many books which readers would like to see picked up again and protagonists depicted at a later time.

    • Oh, I’d like a follow-up to Gray Mountain, too, Kathy! I think it could be excellent. And like you, I do enjoy returning to places that have left a real impression on me. I agree with you about Sycamore Row. If/when you get the chance to read Pleasantville, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  6. Kathy D.

    It might be an interesting blog post to focus on books for which readers would like to see a follow-up story later on.

  7. It is really fascinating when authors add little snippets much later which only dedicated fans will pick up – another good example is SHOTGUN by Ed McBain, which very indirectly resolves the major hanging plot thread from HE WHO HESITATES, a book in the 87th Precinct series published many years earlier.

    • I agree, Sergio. It’s a sort of a nod to the regular reader, if you want to put it that way. And you give a terrific example of it. Of course McBain/Hunter was very clever that way…

  8. Col

    I think Westlake under his Stark non-de-plume retired Parker his thief for 23 years before bringing him back in the somewhat accurately titled COMEBACK. I’ve not yet read the second wave of Parker books.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Col. I didn’t know that – thanks. It’s a bit like Philip Kerr waiting, I think, eighteen years between the first and second waves of his Bernie Gunther books.

  9. I certainly enjoy the continuity across different books, Margot. Another thing that this does, is give a semblance of backstory, so that a reader of the second book who has already read the first one is more likely to find it ‘believable’. And you have tempted me to go and read some of the above books that I haven’t yet read!

    • I know what you mean about the continuity, Mick. That is one of the real appeals of returning to a given setting/set of characters in a later books. Interesting point about credibility, too, and one I’d not thought as much about when I planned this post – thanks.

  10. Ruth Rendell revisited an old mystery that originally appeared as a stand-alone ‘A Sight for Sore Eyes’ and we get the resolution twelve years later in The Vault. The latter book featured Detective Wexford who had no place in the original story and the advance in technology alone was startling in the intervening period.

    • Oh, you’re right, Cleo! Thanks for that reminder. I’ve always thought it interesting how she took that case from the standalone and integrated into the Wexford series. And you’re right; it certainly does show what amazing leaps in technology we’ve had.

  11. Margot, one reason I stopped reading Grisham was because I wasn’t reading anything else. It’s a reading phase I went through with several authors. Now I rarely read the same author back to back.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Prashant. I’ve done that sort of thing myself, where I spent so much time reading a particular author’s work that I didn’t read other things. It certainly gives one a chance to read more and different things if one reads a variety of authors.

  12. Fits in with the Harper Lee debate, doesn’t it?
    I really enjoyed Black Water Rising and Pleasantville – perhaps because so much time has passed between the two, that you get a far better perspective of how society has changed (or not), how characters have matured and changed. You get much more of a sense of life passing. Not a crime fiction book – but The Tale of Genji also has that ‘time passing’ feel to it – over thousands of pages.

    • You know, I thought of the Harper Lee books when I was planning this post, Marina Sofia. We certainly get that ‘returning to a town years later’ feel in them. I’m glad you liked the Attica Locke books; I think you’re right that they give a sense of how the people and place have evolve – or haven’t. And thanks for mentioning The Tale of Genji. I followed your posts on that one, and it sounded like something you could lose yourself in – one of those sweeping epics.

  13. I really want to read A Time to Kill (I have only seen the movie) and then follow that with Sycamore Row. I am glad Les mentioned Too Many Cooks and the follow up. I knew of those (of course), but never thought of reading them close together. That might be interesting.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s