I’m Almost Through My Memoirs*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Christopher Fowler, Kel Robertson, Ruth Rendell

34 responses to “I’m Almost Through My Memoirs*

  1. Justine Jones

    Love love love the. Ryan’s and May series! I cannot understand why they are not a tv series yet! Perfect for some of our elder actors! Any series similar you coukd recommend?

    • I like the Bryant and May series a lot, too, Justine. I think it’d be a terrific series for TV, too. In my opinion, Elly Griffiths’ Max Mephisto novels are somewhat similar in a few ways. For one, the sleuths are – ahem – no longer very young. There are some unusual cases, and interesting mysteries. Identical? No. But I’d like to think you’d enjoy them.

  2. You have to wonder why people will insist on keeping diaires, especially when they’re up to no good! Fatal! The real-life memoir of Katherine Parr, Lamentation of a Sinner, plays a fictional part in CJ Sansom’s Lamentation. Her memoir could be seen as heretical at a time when Henry VIII seems to be turning back towards the Church of Rome, so when it’s stolen, she asks poor old Matthew Shardlake to try to get it back for her, thrusting him yet again into the murky and dangerous politics of the time…

    • I wonder that, too, FictionFan! It certainly doesn’t do any good, does it? Thanks for mentioning Lamentations, too. The Matthew Shardlake series is a fine one, and that’s a great example of how a memoir can cause all sorts of problems. Interesting, too, what’s considered ‘dangerous’ at those times…

  3. Great post, Margot. Both the Ruth Randell/Barbara Vine and Robertson novels sound right up my alley – or should I say, tunnel. That’s where I’ll be until the PhD is finished and I re-emerge into the light…

    • Thanks, Angela. I think you’d like both the Rendell/Vine and the Robertson very much, actually. And trust me; you will get through the Ph.D. That light at the end of the tunnel is there, and it’s not an oncoming train. You’ll get it done.

  4. One of my favourite of Barbara Vine’s books is ‘Asta’s Book’, in which Asta keeps loneliness and isolation at bay by writing a diary in her native tongue of Danish. After she dies her daughter translates her diaries, which then reveal clues to an unsolved murder and to the mystery of a missing child.

  5. The book that springs to mind for me is Disclaimer by Renee Knight where her life turns up in a book. How scary must that be! Loved the concept of the book and it was a great read.

  6. Vijayalakshmi Harish

    One diary/ memoir based mystery that I really enjoyed is the first book in the Faye Longchamp series by Mary Anna Evans. The title escapes me right now, but I remember that I kept looking forward to the diary excerpts!

    • Thanks for mentioning that series, Vijayalakshmi. I’m not as familiar with it as I am with some others. Are you perhaps referring to Artifacts? As I say, I’m not thorough familiar, but I think that’s the first in the series.

      • Vijayalakshmi Harish

        Yes, I think Artifacts is the one 😊

      • Yes, ARTIFACTS is the first in the series, and it relies on memoirs of three characters, told in the form of journal entries and an oral history. Excerpts from one of those memoirs, the oral history of Cally Stanton, are also featured in a later book, ISOLATION. Since I write about an archaeologist and archaeologists rely heavily on primary sources, first-person life stories appear in various forms in several books in the series. RELICS features oral histories, STRANGERS’ backstory is told through the journal of a Spanish priest, PLUNDER features a teenage girl’s autobiographical podcasts, RITUALS includes excerpts from a fictional magician’s tell-all book, and BURIALS has autobiographical excerpts from the murder victim archaeological field books. Oh, and FINDINGS showcases a sequence of wartime love letters. As you can tell, I really enjoy giving historical characters their voices.

        • Thank you very much, Mary Anna, for your visit, and for telling us about your books. Primary sources like memoirs really are essential, as you say, when the protagonist is an archaeologist. And they do allow us to really get to know the characters. Those approaches to storytelling also help the characters to tell their own stories, too.

        • I agree. I feel like I’m able to do a better job of letting a character from the past speak if I put the reader inside his or her head. I also enjoy the creative challenge of writing in a very different voice. It keeps things fresh!

        • I would imagine it does, Mary Anna. And you’re absolutely right, I think, that the past comes alive (I know, that sounds trite, but its an apt expression) if the reader can really feel what the character does, see what the character sees, and so on.

  7. Just the thought of a diary draws your mind to secrets. Blending a diary into a crime fiction book is perfect. Diaries tell us so much about a person that they might not otherwise share. Great post, Margot.

    • I think you’re right, Mason. You never know what you might learn from someone’s diary, and I like the way a diary can give you all sorts of perspective on a person, as you say. Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. Margot, I think secret diaries are an open invitation for trouble — and sometimes murder too. I’m curious about Christopher Fowler’s “Full Dark House,” partly because I have read about the author online.

    • You have a well-taken point, Prashant. Anytime someone keeps a private diary, that could definitely spell trouble, couldn’t it? And I do recommend Fowler’s series if you get the chance to try it.

  9. I don’t do much memoir reading, Margot, but I do love when an author uses the style of memoir to tell the story. It can’t be easy to pull off, I bet. At the moment, I can’t think of an example, but I’m sure it’ll come to me…just as I’m drifting to sleep. Sigh.

    • Ha! I do that, too, Sue! It always happens that I get my idea in the middle of the night or something like that. At any rate, I think you’re right that it can’t be easy for an author to pull off a memoir-style story. When it’s done well, though, I think it can work beautifully.

  10. In Boobytrap, A Nameless Detective novel by Bill Pronzini, part of the story is told via the journal of a bomber who is setting bombs to harm his perceived enemies. This is very different for the Nameless series, since the entire story is usually told from the detective’s point of view, in first person.

    • You know, Tracy, I must admit that’s not one I’ve read. But it certainly does sound like a departure from Pronzini’s usual way of telling a story. Interesting!

  11. kathy d.

    This is not a fictional memoir, but Trevor Noah’s memoir, titled, “Born a Crime,” is wonderful. It’s refreshing despite his having been born under apartheid in South Africa. While it’s informative, most of it is about his young life, but told with great respect and love for his mother — and witty.

  12. Agatha Christie’s Man in the Brown Suit again! Diary entries from Sir Eustace Pedlar vary the narration, add greatly to the entertainment value, and keep the plot bowling along. It is very cleverly done.

    • Oh, I couldn’t agree more, Moira. Christie really does that so cleverly, doesn’t she? And we get a real insight into Pedler’s personality through reading his memoirs.

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