As this is posted, it’s 70 years since the very first publication of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl in Amsterdam. As you’ll know, it’s the story of the Frank family, especially their years of hiding from the Nazis. It’s had a powerful impact on generations of readers; and is required reading in many schools. If you haven’t yet visited the Anne Frank Huis/Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, may I strongly encourage you to do so. It’s a memorable, very moving, experience.
Diaries and memoirs are fascinating ways to learn about a lifestyle, a time period, and a particular person. Even though they almost always have biases (they are written from one person’s perspective), they’re often quite informative. I’m sure you’ll be able to think of many more examples of powerful diaries and memoirs than I could. I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s autobiography.
And this form of writing certainly finds its way into crime fiction. After all, not everyone may be eager to have certain things about them published in a diary. And sometimes, diaries and memoirs are effective ways to tell a story (right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories?).
Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is, by and large, a memoir told from the point of view of Dr. James Sheppard, who lives in the small village of Kings Abbot. The small town is rocked when retired manufacturing titan Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night. The most likely suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. But Paton’s fiancée, Flora Ackroyd, insists that he’s innocent. She asks Hercule Poirot, who’s taken the house next to Sheppard’s, to clear Paton’s name, and he agrees. Christie also used the ‘memoir’ form of storytelling in Murder in Mesopotamia, which is told from the point of view of a nurse, Amy Leatheran. She’s hired by an expedition team that’s working a few hours from Baghdad, so she’s on the scene when Louise Leidner, who’s married to the team’s leader, is murdered. Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to investigate. In both of those cases, we get an interesting perspective on the crimes, victims, and perpetrators.
In Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, famous novelist Gerald Chandliss dies of a heart attack. His grief-stricken daughter, Sarah, decides to cope with her loss by writing a biography of her father, combined with a memoir of what it was like to grow up with him. The more she probes into his life, though, the more Sarah sees that he wasn’t at all the man she thought he was. His name, as it turns out, wasn’t even Gerald Chandliss. It turns out that Sarah’s planned memoir uncovers all sorts of dark secrets that she never imagined were there.
As Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House begins, Arthur Bryant, of the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) is working on his memoirs. He’s been a part of the PCU since 1940, when it was established, and certainly has plenty of stories to tell. As he’s looking through the materials he has on the PCU’s first case, Bryant makes a shocking discovery, and decides to investigate it. Shortly after Bryant starts asking questions, a bomb blast destroys the PCU offices, taking him with it. Bryant’s grieving police partner, John May, decides to find out who set the bomb. To do that, May goes back to the 1940 Palace Phantom case that Bryant was investigating when the PCU offices were destroyed. At the time, there were several bizarre accidents and deaths connected with London’s Palace Theatre and its production of Orpheus. Someone wanted very badly to shut down the production, and took several drastic measures to do just that. As May looks into the case again, he slowly picks up on the trail Bryant was following, and makes the discovery that Bryant made. And that solves the present case, as well as answering some important questions about the 1940 case.
And then there’s Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. In that novel, Alec Dennet, who was a member of Gough Whitlam’s 1972-75 Australian government, has decided to write his memoirs. He and his editor, Lorraine Starke, are visiting Uriarra, a writer’s retreat near Canberra, so that they can focus on the work. One night, they’re both murdered. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is reluctantly persuaded to return from a leave of absence and investigate the murders. Chen is interested anyway, since his Ph.D. work has to do with Australia’s political history. Soon, he and his team discover that the manuscript that Dennet and Starke were working on has disappeared. This opens up several possibilities when it comes to suspects. For one thing, there are still several people in high places who might be embarrassed or worse if some truths about them come out in the memoirs. For another, there are several foreign governments who are also interested in the content of that manuscript.
And that’s the thing about diaries and memoirs. They can shed fascinating light on a person, an era, or an event. And, in fiction, they can be an interesting way to tell a story. But they can also be dangerous, especially when their contents might put someone at risk.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Sondheim’s I’m Still Here.