He Talked of Life*

Crime writers use all sorts of strategies for giving background information and clues. One of them is to use a character who tells a story. I’m not talking here of legends and myths; rather, I mean personal stories, or at least, stories of actual events. Those characters can sometimes be easily dismissed (e.g. ‘Oh, that guy? He’s always rambling about something.’). But, as any crime fiction fan knows, any story can be important…

Agatha Christie used this strategy in several of her stories. For instance, in A Caribbean Mystery, Miss Marple is staying at the Golden Palm Hotel on the Caribbean Island of St. Honoré. Courtesy of her nephew, she’s taking some time to rest and heal from a bout of illness. One day, she happens to get into a conversation with another guest, Major Palgrave. In the course of the conversation, he starts to tell her a story about a man who got away with murder more than once, and even offers to show her a picture. Then, unexpectedly, he changes the subject. There are several people around, so it’s hard to tell whose presence caused the abrupt shift. The next day, a maid finds Major Palgrave dead in his room. Then, there’s another murder. And an attempted murder. It turns out that the rather rambling story Major Palgrave was telling plays a major role in working out who the killer is and what the motive is. I see you, fans of Taken at the Flood.

In one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s Hunting Badger, we learn of an old Ute Nation story about a man named Ironhand. According to the stories, he was almost magically able to steal Navajo sheep and escape again without being caught. On the surface of it, that seems a bit like a set of rambling myths. But, in fact, there’s truth to the story. And, when Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police hears this story from an old Ute woman, he pays attention to it. It turns out that Ironhand’s exploits are very helpful in solving the mystery of a casino robbery and an unsolved murder.

In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, we are introduced to Stephanie Anderson, who is just beginning her career as a psychiatrist. One day, she gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark. At first, Elisabeth is not open at all to the therapy process, and it’s very difficult for Stephanie to interact with her. Finally, though, Elisabeth begins to trust Stephanie. Little by little, she tells her a haunting story. Several years earlier, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, was abducted, and never found. Not even a body was recovered. Needless to say, the tragedy devastated the family and wreaked havoc on Elizabeth’s mental health. That story resonates deeply with Stephanie, who lost her own younger sister, Gemma, seventeen years earlier. In fact, the circumstances of Gemma’s disappearance are eerily similar to the story Elisabeth tells. Against her better judgement, Stephanie decides to lay her own personal ghosts to rest and find the person responsible for these abductions. So, she travels from Dunedin, where she lives and works, to her home town of Wanaka. In doing so, she finds the answers she’s been seeking.

Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road is the story of the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins, a former geologist who’s been studying the area around Green Swamp Well, Northern Territory. He’s been working on some research that he thinks is significant, but even his brother hasn’t paid a lot of attention to what he says. Then, Doc is murdered. At first, it looks as though it’s the tragic end to a drunken quarrel at a nearby pub. But Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest sees some evidence that suggests otherwise. As she investigates this death, she finds that the things Doc had to say are key to understanding why and by whom he was killed.

Janice MacDonald’s Another Margaret features her sleuth, sessional lecturer Miranda ‘Randy’ Craig. Years earlier, she did her master’s degree thesis on an enigmatic novelist named Margaret Ahlers. That’s how she knows that Ahlers is gone. But then, a friend tells her that a new Ahlers novel, called Seven Bird Saga, is about to be published. And Craig has the strong feeling that this isn’t a case of a manuscript stuck behind a filing cabinet or left in an attic. So, who has written the book? The closer Randy gets to the truth about that question, the more danger there is for her. Then, disaster strikes, and there’s a murder at what’s supposed to be a celebratory Homecoming weekend. Folded within this novel is the story of how Randy came to study Margaret Ahlers’ work, what happened when she did, and her search for the reclusive author. As it turns out, a key to both the current-day mystery and the original one is found in the Ahlers stories themselves.

And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. An unnamed art restorer is visiting a monastery in Switzerland, with an eye to repairing some of the frescoes in the chapel. There, he meets an old man who promises to tell him a story – ‘a good one’ – if he records it. This the art restorer agrees to do. He buys some cassettes (this part of the novel takes places in the 1970s), and the old man begins the story. It concerns the Franco family, who emigrated from Italy to the United States early in the 20th Century. The family prospered until patriarch Benvenuto ‘Ben’ killed another man in a bar fight. The dead man turned out to be the son of a notorious gangster, who then cursed the three Franco sons. The old man goes on to tell what happened to the sons, and how the curse impacted the Francos’ lives. On the surface, it sounds like an old man’s ramblings.  But it turns out to be a very important story.

There are a number of ways in which an author can use those seemingly meaningless, even rambling stories. When they’re done well, they can add interest to a novel. They can also serve as clues and can provide important information.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Jeff Walker’s Mr. Bojangles.

10 Comments

Filed under Adrian McKinty, Agatha Christie, Apostolos Doxiadis, Janice MacDonald, Paddy Richardson, Tony Hillerman

10 responses to “He Talked of Life*

  1. I do love a good story within a story and so this post made for particularly interesting reading. I’m especially drawn to Another Margaret which seems to be right up my street.

    • I really think you’d like Another Margaret, Cleo. MacDonald folds one story neatly within the other. And, in my opinion, Randy Craig is a strong, appealing character.

  2. That’s another of my favourite Christie clues – she does it brilliantly. For ages after I read it the first time, I found myself trying to pay attention when anyone was telling me a long, rambling story, just in case they got murdered the next day and I had to provide the vital piece of info to the police… 😉

    • Haha! I’ve done the same thing, FictionFan! Christie did do that exceptionally well in that novel, didn’t she? And it’s not the only one, either. The fact is, when you read Christie, you have to keep alert for all sorts of clues. They can pop up anywhere, including long, rambling stories… 😉

  3. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the topic of characters with background stories in crime fiction.

  4. Col

    That man Hillerman again!

  5. Another Christie – the elderly solicitor in Towards Zero tells a careful story over dinner and dies soon after. What a way to pep up the murder story…

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