Back to the Beginning Again*

Circular NarrativeOne option for telling a story is by means of a circular narrative. That narrative structure begins and ends a story in more or less the same place, often with the tale of how the character ended up in that place being the main plot.

There are a lot of ways to go about using this structure in crime fiction. Sometimes those beginning/ending ‘bookends’ are detailed and obvious. Sometimes they’re less so. Either way, it’s an interesting way to give a crime story a form.

Agatha Christie arguably uses the circular narrative structure in Sad Cypress. That novel begins at the trial of Elinor Carlisle, who’s been arrested and charged in connection with the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at Elinor’s family home, Hunterbury. After the opening scenes, Christie tells us that the story really all began with an anonymous letter to Elinor. The letter claimed that someone had ‘designs’ on her elderly Aunt Laura’s fortune. Then, the story moves on to Elinor’s trip to Hunterbury with her fiancé, Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman. We learn then of Roddy’s growing infatuation with Mary, of the breakup of his engagement with Elinor, of Aunt Laura’s death (and the fortune at stake), and of Mary’s poisoning. Local GP Dr. Peter Lord has fallen in love with Elinor, and wants her name cleared, so he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees, and the story proceeds to the climax, where we return to the trial. There, Poirot’s investigation leads to some startling evidence that changes the course of the trial.

Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid A Scandal also takes a rather circular path. It begins as Horace Croyden tells a listener that he wants to explain exactly what happened, so the listener won’t get the wrong impression from lurid newspaper stories. Then, Croyden proceeds to tell his story. He’s a staid, old-fashioned banker with quiet good taste, who’s always had a horror of creating a scandal, or even getting public notice. He keeps his home scrupulously neat, and works ciphers as a hobby. Then one day, as he tells the story, he met his boss’ cousin Althea, and the two began what Croyden thought would be a dignified courtship that would end in marriage. At first, that’s exactly what it was. But then, he found Althea was more vivacious than he’d thought (or hoped for). What was worse, she redecorated their home with more modern taste, and in other ways, didn’t behave in ways he thought were ‘ladylike.’ The proverbial straw came when she destroyed the ciphers her husband was working, and he took the only action he felt he could. Now, the story returns to the beginning, so to speak, as Croyden explains why he did what he did.

James M. Cain’s novella Double Indemnity has a touch of the circular narrative, too. In it, insurance salesman Walter Huff tells the story of his meeting with Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. He goes on to tell of his attraction to Phyllis, of the affair they start, and of its disastrous consequences. As the story begins, we can see that he’s actually telling it to a reader. And as the story ends, it comes full circle and we learn where Huff is as he writes, and why he’s actually writing the story to begin with.

In Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair, we are introduced to Gilbert Hand, junior partner in a publishing/bookselling firm. The story begins as Hand tells the reader (as if speaking to a listener),

‘I’m not going to give explanations and make excuses. I’ll tell you what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.’

Then, Hand explains how, after the death of his wife, Rachel, he moved to a respectable London hotel for a change of scenery, and perhaps, to get ready to start his life again. There, he found a long coil of dark hair hidden in the davenport in his room. That discovery led to the development of an obsession with the person who put it there, and, ultimately, to tragedy. At the end, the narrative returns to the beginning, as Hand addresses his listener again. And here, we learn where Hand has been all along as he’s told his story.

Martin Edwards’ Dancing For the Hangman is the fictional retelling of the story of Dr. Hawley Crippen, and the famous murder of his wife, Cora. Edwards’ account begins and ends with notes from the Chief Government Archivist. In them, it’s clear that a manuscript written by Crippen has been discovered, and that it sheds a completely new light on the murder. The story itself begins as Crippen is in prison, awaiting execution. He tells of his early life, his young adulthood, his meeting with Cora, their marriage, and his later meeting with Ethel Le Neve. As the story goes on, we see the events from his perspective as doubts are raised about exactly what happened to Cora. Then, the story goes round again and ends with Crippen about to be executed. It’s an interesting way to tie the events together.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. That novel begins with an account of the discovery of the murders of Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. It’s told in first person, from the point of view of Angela and Rowan’s daughter Katy, who wasn’t home at the time of the murders. Then, the story moves to the perspective of Wellington journalist Rebecca Thorne. She learns that Connor Bligh has been in prison for several years for those murders, but that there is a possibility he is innocent. If he is, this could be the story to establish Thorne’s place at the top of New Zealand journalism. So she begins to ask questions. The more questions she asks, the closer she gets to the story – too close for objectivity.  But eventually, Thorne learns what really happened on the day of the murders. The story comes round again at the end, and there are references to the same story Katy starts to tell at the beginning.

As you can see, there are several ways to tell a story. One option for telling a story is by means of a circular narrative. That narrative structure begins and ends a story in more or less the same place, often with the tale of how the character ended up in that place being the main plot.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Switchfoot.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Charlotte Jay, James M. Cain, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Talmage Powell

18 responses to “Back to the Beginning Again*

  1. Heartafire

    Enjoyed. Thanks for the information I particularly found the last paragraph very useful

  2. That type of narrative does seem to work very well, and a lot of these books sound very good. I did enjoy Double Indemnity a lot.

  3. A.M. Pietroschek

    Well explained, thanks!

  4. Great topic and discussion, Margot. Thanks for mentioning Double Indemnity. The classic film version also uses the circular structure to great effect. It occurs to me that many of those Forties crime melodramas we call film noir today used variants of the circular structure, almost a hallmark of the style.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Bryan. And you know, I hadn’t thought about it when I was preparing this post, but you make a very well-taken point about the film version of Double Indemnity. One might even argue that it that circular structure’s even more apparent in the film, because of the visual impact. And yes, I think a lot of noir films of the time use that structure. I think that in itself is an interesting topic, so thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  5. Is To Avoid a Scandal out as a Kindle single? I’d love to read it.

    Wishing you a fabulous Mother’s Day, Margot. 🙂

    • Thanks very much, Sue 🙂 Sorry to say that as far as I know, it’s not available on Kindle. In fact, the collections I have that include it aren’t available in Kindle format 😦 . I do know that you can get Alfred Hitchock’s Death Bag, that includes that story, as a paperback on Amazon, and it’s not expensive.

  6. I agree this can be a very effective approach if it’s handled well – gets the suspense going right from the beginning. Gillian White’s ‘Copycat’ sets the story up by letting us know that one of the two main protagonists has murdered the other – but we don’t know which is which! She then takes the reader back to when they first met and tells the story of their friendship and what led up to the crime. Knowing part of how it will end really adds to the reading since you’re on the lookout for clues as to the reason all the way through…

    • That’s exactly the sort of story I had in mind, FictionFan, when I was putting this post together. Thanks for mentioning it. Stories like that – where you know the outcome, but not how it came about – really can be suspenseful when they’re done well. And I give credit to White for being able to convincingly let you know one person’s been killed by the other, but not which one is victim and which killed. That takes talent!

  7. Margot, you have covered an interesting angle in crime-fiction. I was wondering if the reopening of an old case, the exhumation of a body, and final resolution of the mystery with the conviction of the real culprit would qualify as a “circular narrative.”

  8. Kathy D.

    Had a hard time trying to get this blog to accept my comment last night.
    But wanted to say that from the start one knows the perpetrator in L.R. Wright’s “The Suspect,” and then the book goes back in time to say what happened but stays current, too, as the police investigate the crime.
    It’s very effective.
    Then there’s the complex “The Widow,” by Fiona Barton, which starts in the present day and mentions the culprit and then goes back four years to when the crime occurred. Then tells the story from several viewpoints. It’s a good book and in this one, it’s not confusing to jump back and forth in time.
    When a book starts out with readers knowing the killer(s), and then goes backward, circular reasoning is used. Sometimes it’s confusing when books go back and forth in time, but in these two examples, it works well.

    • Those are good examples, Kathy. And, as you say, when it’s done well, so that the reader can follow along with the story, it can work. It can be an effective way to frame a story.

      Sorry to hear you had difficulty commenting last night. I had no trouble reading this comment, though, so hopefully it was a temporary glitch.

  9. I always very much like that structure – there’ something very satisfying about it. And, I really liked your structure – very clever!

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