Most of have things in our past that we would just as soon forget. That’s understandable, really; after all, we all make mistakes and do foolish things. And for some people, those things are very serious.
What happens, though, if we run into someone we knew back then – someone who remembers our past? Or someone who finds out about it? Even if one’s past sins aren’t criminal, it can be awkward. And if they are, it can be downright dangerous. It can even be a motive for murder. And in a crime novel, it can serve both as a plot point and as a source of character development.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks she was murdered by her unpleasant lodger, James Bentley, but Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence isn’t convinced. He asks Poirot to look into the matter and Poirot agrees. It turns out that Mrs. McGinty was more curious than was good for her and found out things about someone’s past. In fact, that’s a theme throughout the book, as more than one character has an identity or involvement that’s best kept in the past.
In Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, renowned Oxford Professor Belville-Smith has planned a tour of Australia. One of his stops will be the University of Drummondale, in rural Australia. It’s a major event, so Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the faculty in the Department of English get ready to play hosts. From the beginning, the visit doesn’t go well. For one thing, Bellville-Smith is condescending and contemptuous of the university and its faculty. For another, his lectures are not exactly scintillating. In fact, at one point, he loses focus, beginning with one lecture and ending with another. Then, one afternoon, he is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s got one now. At first, there doesn’t seem much motive. But Royle slowly finds that Bellville-Smith knew one of the characters in the past, and that character couldn’t risk him telling what he knew.
In Ian Vaquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They grew up in Belize, but they’ve since moved to the Miami area. Patrick has a promising career in politics, poised for real national attention. Leo is a poet who works at a care home for those with mental illness. All goes well enough for the brothers, although they don’t have much contact with each other. Then, an old friend, Freddy Robinson, pays Leo a visit. He remembers Leo from Belize, and now he wants to renew their acquaintance. What he really wants, though, is for Leo to release Herman Massani, one of the patients in his care. Leo refuses at first. Not only is the man in need of medical and other attention, but Leo also doesn’t want to have anything to do with Freddy, who’s become a convicted felon. Freddy insists, though, saying that some of his ‘associates’ want some information about voter fraud that Massani may have. If that information is true, then it could implicate Patrick and ruin his career. Leo continues to demur, so Freddy turns from ‘old times’ sake’ to threats. Freddy knows about a dark secret in the Varelas’ past, and he threatens to reveal it if Leo doesn’t help him. Before long, things spin out of control for both brothers, and it all leads to a very dangerous game.
Sometimes, people get witness protection because of their pasts. Those are people who know too much, and would likely be killed if the wrong people knew where they are. For those people, keeping the past in the past can be literally a matter of life or death. We see that, for instance, in Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas. Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children move from New Jersey to a small town in Normandy. They slowly make the adjustments to the new language, culture, and so on. But this isn’t just any American family ‘Fred’ is really Giovanni Manzini, a member of the New Jersey Mafia who testified against his fellow mobsters in court. Now, the family is under witness protection. But, the Manzinis being the family they are, and modern social media/communication being the way it is, it’s not long before word of the Manzinis’ location gets back to New Jersey…
And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man. In it, we meet Sergeant Nick Chester. He and his family have moved from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island. They’ve had to relocate because Chester was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong. Now, he’s working for the local police department, and trying to stay as inconspicuous as he can. Very few people know who he really is. Then, the body of six-year-old Jamie Riley is found. The boy had been missing for almost two weeks, and it’s a heartbreaking end to the search. This case turns out to be connected to another murder, and to a disappearance. And with modern media the way it is, it’s not long before Chester’s old ‘associates’ find out where he is. Now, Chester has to help solve the murders if he can, and stay alive.
Most of us have things in our pasts that are best left there. And in crime fiction, that can mean all sorts of trouble. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Bob Seger.