Oh, Let’s Go Back to the Start*

In a recent post, crime writer and fellow blogger Elizabeth Spann Craig made an interesting point about taking a story full circle. She suggested that one way to do this is to end a story by going back to the beginning. For instance, her Pretty is as Pretty Dies begins one morning at the home of Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who isn’t ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet. So, when she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stoddard in a local church, she can’t resist getting involved in the investigation, much to the chagrin of her son, who happens to be the local chief of police. As Myrtle starts to ask questions, she finds that there are plenty of people who had a good reason to want the victim dead. She was, to say the least, malicious and vindictive, and had alienated just about everyone in town. Myrtle discovers who the killer is, and in the final scene, is back at her home. In that sense, the story goes full circle, beginning and ending at Myrtle Clover’s home. But a lot of things have happened in the interim, and we see that as the final scene plays out.

And that’s one way in which that ‘full circle’ approach to storytelling can be useful. It allows the author to show character changes, but at the same time bring the story to some closure. And there are plenty of examples of how this works in crime fiction. Here are just a few.

In one of the very first scenes in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, sculptor Henrietta Savernake is in her studio, creating a piece for an upcoming show. We soon learn that she is one of several guests invited to spend a weekend at the home of some cousins, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Two of the other guests are to be Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda; and for Henrietta, this makes the visit all the more special, since she is Christow’s mistress. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited for lunch, and arrives just after the murder. He and Inspector Grange work to find out who murdered Christow. At the very end of the novel, there’s another scene, again in Henrietta’s studio. It brings the story round to the beginning again, and shows some of what’s happened to Henrietta as a result of the events in the novel.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead more or less begins at the London home of forensic anthropologist David Hunter. He’s recovering from the physical and mental trauma he suffered as a result of events in Written in Bone, and now he’s preparing to leave for a trip to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, often called The Body Farm. For Hunter, this is a welcome trip, as he wants to get out of London for a time. He’s looking forward to doing some research as well as to renewing his acquaintance with his mentor, Tom Liebermann. Hunter arrives in Tennessee just in time to hear the news of the discovery of a decomposed body in a cabin not far from the laboratory. Hunter gets involved in the investigation, and it turns out to be a wrenching case. At the end of the novel, he returns to his London apartment. There’s a final scene in which he has a short conversation with the woman who lives in the flat above his. That conversation, and his return, really only take up a few sentences. But they bring the story back to the beginning to give some closure to it. And the scene shows some of what’s happened to Hunter in the course of the novel.

Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings is the first of her series featuring Victoria journalist Nell Forrest. As the story opens, she’s at the home she shares with two of her five daughters (the other three are adults who have their own homes). She gets a visit from the police, who inform her that there’s been a fire at her mother’s house, not far away. Nell’s mother, Lillian ‘Yen’ is safe, but the fire has done considerable damage. And the body of a man has been found in the garage. It turns out that this man is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen. And it turns out that he was murdered before the fire started. Now, Yen is a suspect in a murder investigation. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is guilty. And there’s no lack of other suspects. So, she starts looking into the matter, and ends up getting into real danger. At the very end, there’s a scene where Nell is back at her home. She’s having a glass of wine with DS Ashley Armistead, who’s the official investigator on the case. In a way, the scene takes us back to the beginning of the novel. But it’s not the same Nell Forrest at the end, if I can put it that way. She’s learned a few things about herself, and sees the world a little differently.

And then there’s Donald Smith’s The Constable’s Tale. This story begins in 1758 in the British colony of North Carolina. Plantation owner Henry ‘Harry’ Woodyard is serving his term as a Royal Constable for Craven County. His work mostly involves breaking up drunken quarrels, levying fines on people who don’t attend church services, and catching petty thieves. Everything changes when Edward and Anne Campbell and their son are discovered brutally murdered at their home. Only their infant survived. On the surface, it looks like it might be the work of Indians. And, considering that this novel takes place during the Severn Years/French and Indian War, that wouldn’t be out of the question. But there are hints that that might not be what happened. A broach found at the murder scene provides a clue, and Woodyard decides to follow up on it. He believes that if he can find its owner, he can find the killer. So, he starts to follow the trail. In fact, it leads on a four-month journey all the way into Canada. In the end, though, Harry finds that the truth is closer to home than he would have imagined. The last scene in the novel has him back in Craven County, getting ready to resume his duties. He’s gone through some changes, though, and Smith makes that clear.

And that’s one of the advantages of using this sort of plot structure. Going back to the beginning can help the reader see how a character has grown or changed. It also allows the author to ‘tie up’ the novel and give some closure to it. Thanks, Elizabeth, for the inspiration.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s The Scientist.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Donald Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ilsa Evans, Simon Beckett

28 responses to “Oh, Let’s Go Back to the Start*

  1. Pingback: Oh, Let’s Go Back to the Start* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. These all sound interesting, Margot. I have been wanting to find another Australian female author to try (whose books are also affordable) and I may check out Ilsa Evans more.

    • I know what you mean about accessible, affordable books by Australian women, Tracy. Sometimes it’s not easy to get them in the US. If you read on Kindle at all, the Ilsa Evans novels can be found in e-format. I hope that, if you get to try them, you’ll like them.

  3. I enjoyed the “Complete the circle” idea. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Although not strictly a crime novel, Sarah Waters does this brilliantly in The Night Watch, the ability of a writer to pull this off has to be immense but incredibly satisfying for the reader!

    • Thanks for mentioning that one, Cleo. I’ve read and enjoyed her novel The Paying Guests, but not that one. It isn’t easy to do that, as you say, but it does bring a novel full circle. I think that can add to a story.

  5. Col

    From your examples, the Evans book appeals the most, but I’m not hurting for reading material.

  6. I’m sorry Australian books are not more affordable, but can I recommend one anyway: Jock Serong’s THE RULES OF BACKYARD CRICKET opens with the narrator in the boot (trunk) of a car, not so much circling back at the end so much as spiraling throughout, from the car boot to the circumstances that brought him there. One of my fave crime reads of 2016.

    • That’s been on my wish list for some time, Angela. I’ve heard such great things about it, from all sorts of people I trust. I’m glad you brought it up, as it’s a good reminder that I need to read it.

  7. I haven’t really been aware of this technique before but can see it now you’ve pointed it out. Certainly I always like a story to be ‘finished’ in some way, usually by letting us see how life goes on for the people we’ve got to know. I always find books that stop too quickly after a dramatic climax leave me feeling a little unsatisfied. It’s a tricky balance though, because equally i don’t want a book to go on too long after the main story is done.

    • I agree, FictionFan. A story feels too ‘padded’ if it goes on too long after the main plot is resolved. On the other hand, I do like a story that wraps things up, and tells the reader what happened to everyone involved. It’s a bit of a tricky balance, I think, like so many things about writing. When it’s done well, though, it really is satisfying.

  8. My first thought was of a memorable film for a chance – the wonderful City of God, a 2002 film set in the slums of Rio. The opening sequence is a huge, dramatic extraordinary event – then the film goes back many years and slowly shows you how everyone ended up there. it is a tour de force.

  9. I enjoy seeing how a character has developed throughout the book and that there is a type of closure at the end or wrap-up even if there’s a hint of more to come. Great post, Margot.

  10. Interesting. This is (perhaps) related: I think it was Ed McBain (but it might have been someone else) who said about crime fiction: start with a body . . . the sooner the better . . . the deader the better. That struck me as the proper formula for crime fiction; the rest of the story — attempting to go back to the beginning in order to find out how and why the dead body got there — is simply completing the circle.

    • That’s a really interesting way to look at it, Tim. And it could very well have been McBain who was the source of that quote. Whether or not that’s the case, it makes sense. The story begins that way, and then goes back to the same body in the end, as we learn how and why it got there.

  11. Great topic, Margot. I do like this in a book. In fact I’d like to write a novel that begins and ends with the same sentence. Josephine Tey’s The Franchise Affair almost begins and ends with the same scene: solicitor Robert Blair sitting in his office with his secretary bringing in his tea and two digestive biscuits. It is almost as if the events of the novel have left him right back where he started. But there is another half page to go . . .

  12. Pingback: Wine Country | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

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