Not long ago, Brad, who blogs at Ah, Sweet Mystery Blog, did a very interesting post on the way the past catches up with fictional characters. His focus was Agatha Christie’s work, and he gave some fine examples. G’wan, then, check it out for yourself. And as you’ll be there anyway, do have a look at Brad’s excellent blog. You won’t regret it!
That trope of the past catching up with a person is woven through a lot of crime fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. It can make for a suspenseful story and interesting character development. And in real life, one really can’t run away from the past. So, there’s an element of authenticity, too, in a story that uses that plot point.
As I say, Brad mentioned a few Agatha Christie novels. One that comes to my mind is Appointment With Death. In it, the Boynton family goes on a sightseeing trip through the Middle East. We soon learn that family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is cruel and malicious, and uses that to keep her family under control. They’re all so cowed that none of them dares defy her. As a part of the trip, the family members visit the ancient city of Petra. On the second day there, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. At first, her death looks natural enough; she wasn’t in good health, and the trip has been exhausting. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied. Since Hercule Poirot is in the area, Carbury asks him to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He finds that the colonel’s suspicions were entirely justified. And it turns out that this murder has everything to do with the past catching up, if I can put it that way. Go read Brad’s excellent post for more Christie examples.
By no means is Christie the only crime writer who uses that trope, of course. In fact, there are so many fine examples of this plot point in the genre that I’m hard-put to choose just a few, I know you’ll have your own list to share.
In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, for instance, we are introduced to London psychotherapist Joe O’Loughlin. In this story, he gets involved in the investigation when the body of Catherine McBride is pulled out of the Grand Union Canal. It turns out that she was a former client, so Detective Inspector (DI) Vincent Ruiz is interested in whatever O’Loughlin may know about her. Then, there’s another murder. This one very much implicates O’Loughlin, and now Ruiz begins to actively suspect him. There are soon other deaths, too. If O’Loughlin is going to clear his name, he’s going to have to find out who the killer is, and how it all connects with him. Trite as it sounds, O’Loughlin will have to go back to the past, as it were, and use all of his clinical skills, to stop this murderer.
Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy is the first in his ‘Department Q’ novels. In it, we meet Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. He’s recovering from a line-of-duty incident in which he was gravely wounded, and a colleague killed. Another colleague was left with paralysis. Mørck, has always been difficult to work with, and it’s only gotten worse since the shooting. Eventually, his bosses see no choice but to transfer Mørck – they refer to it as a ‘promotion’ – to a new department. ‘Department Q,’ as it’s called has been set up to investigate ‘cases of special interest.’ In part, it’s an attempt to respond to some media and public concerns that the police aren’t doing enough to solve murders. In part, it’s a political move. Mørck gets started in his new job, and soon meets his assistant, Hafez al-Assad. It’s actually Assad who calls Mørck’s attention to the five-year-old disappearance of up-and-coming politician Merete Lynggaard. At the time she went missing, it was assumed that she went overboard and died in a terrible ferry accident. But there are little pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. If she is alive, then there may not be much time to rescue her, so Mørck and Assad feel a sense of urgency about this case. And in the end, they find out the truth. It turns out that it’s all connected with a past that didn’t let go.
The past doesn’t let go in Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, either. In that novel, we meet eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce. She lives with her two older sisters and her father in a large old house in the village of Bishops Lacey, in 1950s England. One evening, Flavia’s father gets a visit from a stranger. Flavia doesn’t hear much of what passes between the two men, but she knows that their exchange is acrimonious. The next morning, she finds the body of the strange visitor in the cucumber patch. And it’s not long before word gets to the police about the argument. This puts Flavia’s father at the top of the list of suspects, and he’s soon arrested. Flavia knows her father is no killer, and decides to find out the truth. And, with her unusually strong knowledge of chemistry, she’s in a good position to do so. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with something in the past that has caught up, so to speak.
And then there’s Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses, which begins in the modern day, when police receive an anonymous letter. In it, the writer takes responsibility for the murder of a vagrant whose body was found on the tracks of an underground station. The story behind the letter starts in 1966, in London’s East End. It’s a time of Mods, Rockers, and experimentation of every kind. And teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want to be a part of it. They’re from a working-class home, and have been brought up to be ‘nice young ladies,’ so they’re quite sheltered. But they want a little freedom. So, they cajole their mother into letting them go out one Friday night to the Palais Royale. The one condition is that their cousin Jimmy must take them and bring them back. That’s not a problem for the girls, who consider Jimmy to be ‘cool.’ The big night arrives, and Bridie and Midge go to the dance. What starts out as an exciting evening ends up tragically, and changes everyone’s life. And, as it turns out, that evening is behind the murder that takes place some fifty years later.
And that’s the thing about the past. Even many years or decades later, it doesn’t necessarily go away. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Yesterday – also Brad’s idea.