There’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.