And Still We Wonder Who the Hell We Are*

lost-identitiesThere’s not much more basic – and more essential to the way we think about ourselves – than our identity. If someone asks your name, you know the answer. You may forget certain things you’ve experienced, but you have a core of memories that tells you who you are and where you’ve been. Imagine if you didn’t.

Crime fiction that makes use of this plot point (characters who don’t know who they are) can be risky. It’s a plot point that has to work hard to be credible. What’s more, it has to fit in smoothly with the rest of the plot. But when it does work, it can add an interesting dimension to a crime novel.

One novel that’s called a lot of attention to this plot point is S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep. This novel tells the story of Christine Lucas. Because of injury from a mysterious accident, she wakes every morning with no idea who she is or where she is. Her husband, Ben, knows about his wife’s difficulties, and tries to help her each day to re-orient herself. Her doctor suggests that she start to keep a daily journal, and use it to write anything she does remember during the day. The hope is that she’ll gradually remember her life. Then one day, she sees a note in her journal: ‘Don’t trust Ben.’ Now, everything gets turned upside down. With her memory and sense of identity gone, Christine has no idea why Ben cannot be trusted, if he can’t. And what if she’s the one who can’t be trusted? Perhaps her memories are wrong. As she slowly pieces together what she can of her life, Christine isn’t sure who can be trusted. What she gradually comes to know, though, is that there is something very dark in her past.

Sherban Young’s Fleeting Memory introduces his detective, PI Enescu Fleet. In the novel, a man wakes up to the sound of someone knocking on the door of his cabin. He opens the door to a young woman who asks for his help. She says she has no idea who she is or what she’s doing there. He invites her in and tries to help. When she asks his name, it occurs to the man that he has no idea who he is, either. Thinking he’s mocking her, the woman leaves. That’s when it really hits home that the cabin is unfamiliar, too. So is the dying man he finds in the living room. The man’s last words are

‘The answer lies with Keats.’

Just then, the protagonist gets another visitor, Enescu Fleet. Fleet’s looking for his dog, who’s run off. And when his host finds out he’s a PI, he thinks he’s found the solution to his problem. Not knowing his own name, he becomes Assistant PI as he and Fleet try to piece together what’s happened. This novel is lighter than some others that feature characters who don’t know who they are, and puts more of a ‘cosy twist’ on the plot point.

That’s not the case with Giles Blunt’s BlackFly Season. In that novel, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Officer Jerry Commanda is having a soft drink at Algonquin Bay’s World Tavern when a young woman comes in, covered with black fly bites, and with her hair matted with leaves. She doesn’t know who she is, nor how she came to be at the tavern. And she has no idea where she lives or anything else that could help Commanda assist her. She’s taken to hospital, where X-rays confirm that she has a bullet lodged in her brain. This means that someone was trying to kill her. So OPP Detectives John Cardinal and Lise Dorme start to investigate. They find that the woman’s injury is related to the murder of a biker gang member, and to some other ritualistic killings.

And then there’s Peter May’s Coffin Road. That novel begins as a man stumbles ashore on a beach of the Isle of Harris.  He has no idea who he is, or why he was in the water, or that he’s apparently been living on Harris for the last eighteen months. He soon learns that he is a writer, who’s working on a book about a local Hebrides mystery: the 1900 disappearance of three lighthouse keepers. The only problem is, when he looks at his outline, he finds that he hasn’t written anything. The only clue he has is a map of the famous Coffin Road. He tries to trace back his movements from the time he lost his memory – and discovers a dead man. Now, he’s faced with the terrible possibility that he committed a murder. D.S. George Gunn investigates, and finds the relationship between the lighthouse keepers’ disappearance, the dead man, and an Edinburgh teen who becomes convinced that her father (thought to have committed suicide) is still alive.

There are also novels in which characters gradually lose pieces of their identities. For instance, Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind features Dr. Jennifer White, a former well-regarded orthopaedic surgeon who has been diagnosed with dementia. Over the course of the book, we learn that there has been a murder in the house next door, and that White may be responsible. But she is gradually losing her identity and her memory, so it’s very hard for the police to establish just what happened. There’s also Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobson novels. Those stories feature octogenarian Jacobson, who has short-term memory problems. So he often forgets what most of us would consider very basic things.

And that’s the thing about losing one’s sense of identity. We take for granted the knowledge of things like our names, our children’s and grandchildren’s names, our personal stories. When we don’t have that – when we don’t even know who we are – it can be thoroughly frightening. And it can make for a solid layer of suspense in a novel if it’s done well.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s The Grand Illusion.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Giles Blunt, Mike Befeler, Peter May, S.J. Watson, Sherban Young

40 responses to “And Still We Wonder Who the Hell We Are*

  1. Pingback: And Still We Wonder Who the Hell We Are* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. Margot, as far as I can recall Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Trilogy is the only one I have read with this theme, though I have seen many films about identity crisis and amnesia. It’s not a particular easy subject to write, I think. One would probably need to speak to medical professionals like psychologists and neurologists for a better understanding about how the human mind and brain works.

    • I would think so, too, Prashant. That would be important if one wanted to make a story more credible, I think. And thanks for mentioning the Bourne novels. That’s actually a fine example of how this plot point works in thrillers.

  3. Col

    I know you aren’t a big Adam Sandler fan, but I’m reminded of Fifty First Dates, where Drew Barrymore (similar to the Watson character) wakes up each morning with no recollection of the previous days events, or indeed any event that occurs after her car accident. Sandler has to make her fall in love with him each and every day for the rest of their lives. It’s a real favourite in our household

    • You know, Col, just because I’m not Sandler’s No. 1 fan doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate this film. It’s an interesting look at the phenomenon of amnesia. And I do like Drew Barrymore’s work.

  4. A.M. Pietroschek

    ‘Fleeting Memory & Coffin Road’ were the ones I would check as audio-books (due time-management).

    Reading this article made me realize that I only remember:


  5. This plot point is at the heart of an excellent mystery by Catherine Aird, called Henrietta Who?

    A woman named Grace Jenkins is struck and killed in a hit-and-run accident. Her daughter, Henrietta, comes home from college. Sounds like a small domestic tragedy – until some very disturbing facts come to life. It seems that Grace Jenkins never had children. In fact, it will quickly become apparent that nobody seems to have known very much about her, and that the accident which killed her was no accident. Henrietta is faced with the sudden realization that she has no idea who she is. Or, as she says when she first learns that the woman she believed to be her mother could not have been her mother…

    “But” Henrietta’s world seemed suddenly to have no fixed points at all. She struggled to think and to speak logically. “But who am I then?”

    As you say, basic – and very powerful.

    • Yes, indeed, Les! And I’m so glad you mentioned that. I had intended to discuss it (and should have!), but it didn’t make is way in. You are absolutely right about the core of that story, though. Folks, do read it if you haven’t.

  6. I was hoping you’d mention the book a dear friend of mine read (she likes to give me the play-by-play of each chapter, so it’s like I read it too). Maybe you can piece it together. Historical fiction. Detective is in a horse-drawn carriage accident and loses his memory, even his name isn’t familiar. But at the time of the accident he was working a homicide case, which may or may not have played a role in the accident (no spoilers). Little by little he retraces his steps to unravel the mystery and it leads him to a wealthy family, if memory serves. Does this sound familiar at all? As usual, the title escapes me.

  7. Keishon

    Yes, if it’s done well. Great post as usual Margot but honestly, I run the other way for amnesia stories. Dislike them a lot. I guess I haven’t read the right one yet.

  8. mudpuddle

    not a classical mystery, but interesting is Gene Wolfe’s “Soldier of Arete” in which the hero undergoes exactly the same fate as your first example, journal and all… there’s a sequel, also, called “soldier in the mist”… p.s. : arete means honor in greek, i think…

  9. Sherban and Enescu – if that doesn’t sound Romanian to me? Add all the literary allusions and a bit of a cosy spin and it makes the book sound worth investigating, if only I can find it easily over here.

    • I hadn’t thought about the Romanian connection, Marina Sofia. Young lives in Maryland, but his family background may be Romanian; I don’t know about that. The stories do have a cosy sort of feel, without getting ‘frothy,’ and I like the wit in them. If you try his work, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

    • Thanks so much for mentioning Fleeting Memory in your post, Margot. And good catch on the Romanian angle, MarinaSofia. Yes, both names, Enescu and Sherban, are extremely Romanian, and no, neither of us are. It’s rather a mystery how we wound up with them. I believe the books (there are five in the series) are readily available in the UK through Amazon, but if you have trouble finding them, let me know.

      • Thanks for your visit, Sherban. It was a pleasure to mention Fleeting Memory. And it was really interesting to hear about the background to those names. Folks, do try the Enescu Fleet series if you haven’t!

  10. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Another intriguing post by mystery writer/blogger Margot Kinberg!

  11. Although not a crime/mystery novel, one of the main characters in my Civil War/Reconstruction saga suffers a head wound and loses his memory. Slowly, he regains his past, only to lose it again when he’s mugged while on his way home from a Union prison camp at war’s end. Eventually it all works out, not necessarily for the better. Very interesting post, Margot, and food for thought! 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Michael. And thanks for sharing the information about your historical series. I think one of the points about that series of events is that it’s believable. We can imagine how your character would lose his memory. In my opinion, that sort of plot point depends heavily on it all being credible.

  12. BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP has huge plot holes for me. A TURN OF MIND worked much better. In a related vein THE LIKENESS did not work for because I could not believe that a woman’s close friends would not know an imposter. Voice alone.

    • I think you’ve put your finger on one of the essentials if this sort of plot is going to be successful, Patti: credibility. If readers can’t ‘buy’ a scenario in a story, they won’t be drawn into it.

  13. Before You Go To Sleep was one of the reasons I got so hooked on the domestic psychological thrillers probably because I’m fascinated with the way we use our memories, and how they can let us down. Great post!!

    • Thank you, Cleo. And that novel certainly is a powerful example of a domestic psychological thriller. As you say, it explores very effectively what memories are like, how we use them, and what happens when they fail us.

  14. I’ve just been reading the next James Bond book in my 2016 read-through of Fleming – and this one ends with Bond suffering amnesia and lost to the world. M thinks he is dead, but Bond is being looked after by a beautiful young woman who doesn’t want him to recover his memory and leave her.

    • Ah, now that’s just the sort of scenario I had in mind with this post, Moira, so thank you. And I give you credit for doing such a thorough read-through. I must confess that, fun as the Bond books can be, I get my fill of them…

  15. kathyd

    Hmmm, Before I Go to Sleep — didn’t read it, but saw the terrifying movie. It is a psychological thriller. Don’t watch it late at night if you want to sleep.
    Turn of Mind was terrifying in another way — what happens to a woman with dementia who is suspected of murder and doesn’t even recognize her caretaker. It’s not only the dementia that the author portrays that’s tough enough to read about, but the character’s regimented treatment in a facility is disturbing, as she still thinks, but is ignored. And then in jail where there is no regard for her mental state at all.
    But I loved Henrietta Who? So much fun to read it.
    This reminds me to read Coffin Road, which the library doesn’t yet have, but I’ll bug the main branch.
    One other series that I’m reminded of is not a series with characters with amnesia or dementia, but books about a protagonist, Jane Whitefield, helps people escape from their dangerous lives and find new identities.

    • That’s a really interesting topic in and of itself, Kathy – getting new identities like that. Sometimes that can add a fascinating layer to a story. And if you read Coffin Road, I hope you’ll enjoy it. It is Peter May, after all…

      You’re right, too, about Turn of Mind. That book has its own brand of haunting, I think.

  16. kathy d

    Turn of Mind was also disturbing because while I read I thought about my mother who had dementia, although she was in a lovely facility in Cambridge, Mass., which I highly recommend. She loved the staff. She was still a snobby New Yorker, who looked down on other residents who didn’t read the New York Times or follow the news! I saw a photo of her sitting in a circle of newspaper readers with her NY Times. And she had no patience with people who didn’t know about art or music or history, but just discussed their grandchildren or the weather. Yup, you could take my mother out of New York, but you couldn’t take New York out of my cultured mother. even when she had dementia.

  17. I haven’t read many books with that theme, Margot. I am glad that you and Sue Coletta reminded me of The Face of a Stranger, because I have been meaning to read that for a long time.

    • Anne Perry is really talented, Tracy. If you do get the chance to read her work, I do recommend it. I’m very glad that Sue mentioned it; it’s a fine example of what I had in mind with this post.

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