All of us have a past that we bring into relationships. And once in a while, that ‘baggage’ impacts those relationships. Even when a partner knows the truth about a person’s past, it can still come back to haunt, so to speak. And having a partner who has a lot of past ‘baggage’ can be a challenge.
There many examples of this dynamic in crime fiction, and it’s not hard to see why. It can make for interesting tension and suspense in a story. And there are plenty of opportunities for adding character layers. Sometimes, that past ‘baggage’ can even be a plot point.
It is in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Hilton Cubitt is worried about his wife, Elsie. Before they married, she told him that she had had some ‘unpleasant associations’ in her past, although she reassured him that she had done nothing shameful herself. She also told him that she didn’t want to discuss her past; that was a condition of marriage for her. Cubitt agreed, and all was well at first. But lately, Elsie’s been getting some cryptic letters that are frightening her. She won’t say what they’re about; and, since they’re written in a sort of hieroglyphic code, her husband can’t work that out for himself. So, he takes the problem to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is working on the code when matters get more urgent. Whoever’s writing the letters has written more messages, this time on the windowsills of the Cubitt home. One night, a tragedy occurs and Cubitt is shot. Holmes uses the code to lure the killer and find out the truth about what happened.
Lady Elsa Dittisham, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, also has a past. Years ago, she had an affair with a famous painter named Amyas Crale. One afternoon, he was poisoned. His wife, Caroline, was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and died in prison a year later. Elsa was a witness in the investigation, so she gave evidence in court, and took quite a lot of nasty criticism for breaking up the Crale home. Now, she is married to Lord Dittisham, who knows about the case. While he doesn’t deny what happened, he wants to leave it all in the past. So, he’s none too pleased when Hercule Poirot wants to interview Elsa about Crale’s murder. Poirot’s been hired by the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant, to re-open the case, because Carla believes that her mother was innocent. Although Lord Dittisham is opposed to the idea, Elsa is eager to tell her story. She and the other people who were present at the time of the murder write out their accounts of what happened. They also speak to Poirot. From those recollections, Poirot pieces together the truth about the matter.
Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces readers to Bill King. He and his sister, Lora, have always been close, so he hopes she’ll be happy for him when he falls in love with a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. Right from the start, Lora has concerns about Alice, but she tells herself it’s because she’s too protective of her brother. Then, Bill and Alice get married. Lora tries to be nice to her new sister-in-law, mostly for Bill’s sake. But, she soon learns some things about Alice that make her uneasy. Bill doesn’t seem to be badly bothered by his wife’s past, and she is, as he sees it, good to him. The more Lora finds out, though, the more repulsed she is. At the same time, though, she’s drawn to Alice’s life. Then, there’s a murder, and Alice could be mixed up in it. Lora tells herself she wants to look after her brother, so she starts asking questions about the murder. And she finds herself pulled even deeper into Alice’s story.
In Håkan Östlundh’s The Intruder, we are introduced to Malin Andersson, her husband, Henrik Kjellander, and their two children, Ellen and Axel. They return from a two-month trip only to find that their Fårö Island home has been left in a mess, with some things missing, trash everywhere, and more. At first, it looks as though it’s a case of terrible temporary tenants. But then, Malin finds a photograph that’s been deliberately defaced. Now, it looks as though this could be a very personal violation of their home. So, they call in the police. Gotland police detectives Fredrik Broman and Sara Oskarsson begin to look into the case. They’re following up on some leads when Ellen goes missing. Now, the stakes are a lot higher, and everyone searches frantically for the girl. And it turns out that it all has to do with ‘baggage’ from the past that quite probably should have been shared – but wasn’t.
And then there’s Stella Duffy’s The Hidden Room. Laurie and Martha have been married for a long time, and have raised three children, Hope, Ana, and Jack. They’ve had their differences, as couples do, but they a strong bond. Martha knows that Laurie comes from an unusual background. Adopted from China, she was raised in a cult in the American desert. The group was led by a charismatic man named Abraham, and it had a strict code for dress, activities, and more. Laurie left the cult as a young woman, and Martha knows that her years there still have an impact on her. But she doesn’t know everything about Laurie’s experiences. And that means trouble when the past catches up with Laurie, and someone she hasn’t seen for years turns up again. This could spell disaster for the family, and Laurie is determined to protect the ones she loves.
And that’s the thing about having a partner with ‘baggage.’ You never know when it can come up again or impact the relationship. And it’s interesting to see how that dynamic adds to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by David Crosby.