An interesting post at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about a plot point that’s become more common in crime fiction in the last years. The genre is arguably featuring more older people as central characters (the reasons for that are, I think, the stuff of another conversation). Their reminiscences and ‘looking back’ on older crimes can be an effective way to tie those crimes in with newer ones.
That premise – that an older person looks back and tells the story of an older crime – isn’t of course brand-new. For instance, a few of the short stories in Anna Katherine Green’s 1915 collection The Golden Slipper and Other Stories have that plot point. Green’s sleuth is New York heiress and socialite Violet Strange, who has a secret career as a private investigator. More than once she finds that modern cases are connected with older ones, and that the key is an older person’s reminiscences.
We see that same plot point in L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, and in that novel, it’s the older person who takes on a central role. As the story opens, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just killed eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates the case, which seems to make little sense at first. Burke had no family and wasn’t known to have anything really valuable that would be worth stealing. He had no known local enemies either. And yet, Alberg doesn’t think this was a freak, random killing. Since Wilcox reported the murder and claims to have discovered the body, Alberg becomes convinced that he knows more than he’s saying; and of course, Alberg’s right. As the novel goes on, we learn about the history between Wilcox and Burke, and what was behind the murder. That part of the story relies on Wilcox’s reminiscences and memories.
Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House is the first in the Arthur Bryant/John May series. Bryant and May been a part of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) for several decades, but everything changes when a bomb goes off in the PCU offices. In order to solve this case, May needs to return to the team’s first (1940) case, which had at its heart London’s Palace Theatre and its doomed production of Orpheus. That story, which included more than one murder and a disappearance, is told from May’s now-older perspective. And as it turns out, his memories of what happened, and the outcome of the Palace case, have everything to do with solving the modern-day case.
Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind takes an innovative approach to the ‘older person looking back’ plot point. Dr. Jennifer White is a retired Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who left her position after being diagnosed with early dementia. Now she lives with a caregiver, Magdalena, but as the story begins, she’s still quite high-functioning. She becomes involved in a case of murder when her neighbour, seventy-five-year-old Amanda O’Toole, is killed. Detective Luton is assigned to the investigation and is soon interested in White as a suspect. White knew the victim well for thirty years, and the body was mutilated in a professional way that suggests a doctor or other medical professional is the culprit. But that evidence doesn’t conclusively prove White is the murderer. What’s more, White’s dementia is progressing, which makes it increasingly difficult for Luton to find out from her exactly what happened on the night of the murder. This story is told from White’s point of view, so readers learn the story of her relationship with the O’Tooles through her memories. Bit by bit, the truth of the crime comes out through those reminiscences.
And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath Be Past. Amateur divers seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson and her boyfriend, eighteen-year-old Simon Kyrö, go out to explore Lake Vittangijärvi. The ruins of a World War II plane that went down there have never been recovered, and the young people want to see what they can find. They locate the plane, but are trapped under the ice by a murderer and killed. Wilma’s body surfaces in the spring, and Inspectors Anna-Maria Mella and Sven-Erik Stålnacke investigate. With help from attorney Rebecka Martinsson, they discover that this case has everything to do with the area’s past. And some of the vital information they get comes from the memories of older residents; through those memories we learn about an older event that triggered a lot of what’s gone on in the area since then.
And I don’t think a post about the ‘older person looking back’ motif in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. That’s the story of Sheldon Horowitz, an octogenarian from New York, who’s gone to live in Norway to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband Lars. One thread of this story follows Horowitz as he rescues a small boy from the thugs who murdered his mother, who lives upstairs from Rhea and Lars. Horowitz hides the boy and then goes on the run with him. Another thread of the story tells Horowitz’ own personal history, including his stint in service during the Korean War, and the death of his son Saul in Vietnam. Those memories play a role in the way Horowitz reacts to the modern-day events. What’s interesting here is that Horowitz is slowly slipping away from being grounded in the modern day because dementia is starting to take a bit of a toll. But as readers familiar with this novel will know, he’s still smart, capable and resourceful.
Sometimes, older people don’t remember very recent things. But they often remember details from many years earlier, and those can be crucial in solving modern-day cases. These are just a few examples (I’m sorry, fans of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Johan Theorin). Which ones do you remember?
Now, may I suggest that the next stop on your blog round be FictionFan’s Book Reviews. There you’ll find excellent and thoughtful reviews, plenty of wit, and great ‘photos. And porpentines.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles In My Life.