I Knew You When*

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.

15 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, Ian Vasquez, Robert Barnard, Tonino Benacquista

15 responses to “I Knew You When*

  1. I was only just having a wonderful discussion about this very subject with Jadon Half! We weee focusing on Christie, and I think we both agreed that one of the best examples of this can be found in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, made all the more chilling when I discovered it based on an actual event. Sometimes the seemingly most trifling decisions have the most devastating consequences! What makes this one stand out for me, Margot, is that nobody is trying to hide a dark secret. The culprit is actually proud of their actions, thinking they represent the best of feelings!

    • What timing, Brad! And I couldn’t agree more with you both that The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side is a really effective, clear example of this whole ‘blast from the past’ plot point. The issues in that novel are certainly not clear-cut, and it’s interesting (and, yes, chilling) to understand the criminal’s justification for what happens, and how the past fits in. I think Christie handled that exceptionally well.

  2. Col

    I’m keen to read some of Alan Carter’s work, Margot including Marlborough Man. Ditto Badfellas from Tonino Benacquista. We’ve all got things from our past that we would choose not to remember, probably very trivial in a lot of instances with hindsight but still uncomfortable memories.

    • You put that well, Col. I think we all have uncomfortable memories, even if the incidents are not terrible. And most of us would rather not have them brought up. As for both Carter and Benacquista, I do recommend their work. They’re different sorts of writers, but both skilled.

    • You put that well, Col. I think we all have uncomfortable memories, even if the incidents are not terrible. And most of us would rather not have them brought up. As for both Carter and Benacquista, I do recommend their work. They’re different sorts of writers, but both skilled.

  3. Spade & Dagger

    I’m also looking out for the Alan Carter book (not readily available yet in UK), as I enjoy books about past secrets & lives – especially those written with enough clues to try and figure out some of the secrets (whether they are good, bad or somewhere between 🙂 ).
    Right now I happen to be reading Mick Herron’s Slow Horses about Intelligence agents side-lined because of previous ‘misdemeanors’ (which are only slowly revealed to each other & the reader), but called back into active service in an emergency. A clever, wry read.

    • Oh, that does sound good, Spade & Dagger. I’ve liked what I’ve read of Herron’s work, and that one sounds intriguing. I know what you mean, too, about those clues to the past that let the reader learn what happened as the book goes on. That can be really engaging, I think. As for the Carter, I do hope you’ll get the chance to read it. It’s well-written, I think.

    • Oh, that does sound good, Spade & Dagger. I’ve liked what I’ve read of Herron’s work, and that one sounds intriguing. I know what you mean, too, about those clues to the past that let the reader learn what happened as the book goes on. That can be really engaging, I think. As for the Carter, I do hope you’ll get the chance to read it. It’s well-written, I think.

  4. Interesting post, Margot. In my second Mac McClellan mystery, he and Kate are leaving a movie theater when she stops dead in her tracks and faints. After coming to, she swears she saw her former fiance in the lobby. Problem is, he drowned in a boating accident a decade earlier. Mac sets out to find the truth, and discovers things aren’t always as they seem. 🙂
    –Michael
    P.S. Didn’t Billy Joe Royal also sing “I Knew You When?” Same song, or same titles? Inquiring minds want to know. 🙂

    • Same title of song, Michael, but not the same song. There – song nerd fact of the day… 😉
      Thanks for mentioning Deadly Ruse, Michael. That’s a great strategy for getting reader interest right away. It’s also effective for tying a past case to a present case, and for developing characters. 🙂

  5. I’m intrigued that Robert Barnard has a character called Bobby Wickham, since that’s the name of one of Bertie Wooster’s recurring girlfriends. I wonder if he was deliberately paying homage or if it was just coincidence.

    • Oh, I’d forgotten about that, FictionFan! That is interesting! I wonder if that was a tip of the hat. I don’t know whether it was, but that’s intriguing. If anyone does know, please, chime in!

  6. I haven’t read any of these books, Margot, and they all sound good. I can definitely see a hidden past being a useful theme in crime fiction, although no examples come to mind.

    • I think a ‘hidden past’ plot point can be really effective, too, Tracy. It can work especially well when someone from that past comes back into the picture, so to speak.

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