It’s a not-so-pleasant fact of life that sometimes, you have to stop what you’re doing and start all over again. You know the feeling, I’m sure. You’re nearly done putting together a piece of furniture, only to notice you’ve put a key piece on backwards. Or, you’ve just finished an email, ready to click on ‘Send,’ when you notice you’ve made some major mistakes in it and have to rewrite it. We all have to start over sometimes.
That includes fictional sleuths. As sleuths investigate, they develop mental constructs of what probably happened. Sometimes, something happens that makes that construct impossible. So, they have to start all over again. It’s frustrating and time-consuming – so much so that there are people who will ignore new evidence that disproves their own ideas. But, if a sleuth’s to find out what really happened in a case, that frustration is sometimes part of the proverbial package.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, for instance, Inspector Lestrade gets what looks like a ‘cut and dried’ case. Charles McCarthy has been murdered, and the most likely suspect is his son, James. There’s plenty of evidence, too, as the two were seen quarreling loudly just before the killing. James McCarthy’s fiancée, Alice Turner, is convinced that he’s innocent, though. She pleads with Lestrade to take another look at the case. For all of his faults, Lestrade doesn’t want an innocent man executed. So, he contacts Sherlock Holmes about the case, and Holmes and Watson look into the matter. Holmes starts again at the beginning and finds out who really killed McCarthy and why.
Fans of Agatha Christie will know that she uses that trope of starting all over again in several of her stories. There’s a clear example of it in Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence investigated the murder of a charwoman, and all of the evidence pointed towards her lodger, James Bentley. The evidence was so compelling, in fact, that Bentley was arrested, tried and convicted – all very fair and above-board. But Spence has begun to think he was wrong. The theory of Bentley’s guilt doesn’t make sense to him as it did, and he doesn’t want to see an innocent man hung. So, he asks for Hercule Poirot’s help. Poirot agrees, and travels to the village of Broadhnny, where the murder occured. He begins all over again and goes back over the case. And in the end, he finds out who the real killer is. Although it’s Poirot who finds the solution, it’s Spence’s willingness to start over that makes that possible.
Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye begins as schoolteacher Janek Mitter wakes up after a long night of drinking. Badly hung over, he slowly comes to his senses, only to discover the body of his wife, Eva Ringmar, in the bathtub. The police, in the form of Inspector Van Veetern, are called in and, as you can imagine, Mitter becomes the most likely suspect. In fact, he’s arrested, tried and convicted. He can remember nothing about the murder, because he was far too drunk at the time. So, he’s remanded to a mental facility, rather than a traditional prison, in the hope that his memory will return. Van Veeteren has come to wonder whether his initial theory about the murder was correct. And, when Mitter himself is brutally murdered, Van Veeteren is sure that he was wrong. Now, he and his team have to let go of their theory of Eva Ringmar’s death and start all over again. And now they’ve got two murders to solve.
Gordon Ferris’ Glasgow trilogy features former journalist Douglas Brodie. In The Hanging Shed, he’s just returned from service in World War II (the book takes place just after the war), and is living in London. He’s trying to pick up the pieces, as the saying goes, and start life again. Then, he gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. Donovan’s been arrested for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. There is a great deal of convincing evidence against him, too. For instance, the boy’s clothes were found in his home, and there are traces of heroin in his system (Donovan has the habit). But Donovan claims that he had nothing to do with Rory’s death. Brodie isn’t sure what he can do to help. And, in any case, he’s not entirely convinced that his old friend is innocent. Donovan went through the war, too, and that sort of trauma can do all sorts of things to a person. Still, Brodie agrees to see what he can do, and travels to his native Glasgow. There, he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. Together, the two have to start all over again and try to put the pieces of the puzzle together in a different way if they’re to save Donovan.
And then there’s Angela Makholwa’s Red Ink. Lucy Khambule is one half of The Publicists, a Johannesburg company which she owns with her friend, Patricia Moabelo. But, she’s at a bit of a crossroads for a few reasons. Everything changes when she gets a telephone call from Napoleon Dingiswayo, who’s in a maximum-security prison for a series of horrific killings. She had written to him during her years in journalism, and he kept her contact information. Now, he wants to meet her and possibly have her write a book about him. The offer is extremely tempting, since Khambule has always wanted to write a book. So, she goes to the prison, and she and her interviewee start working together. Then, some very unsettling and violent things begin to happen. Dingiswayo can’t be responsible for them, since he is in a maximum-security facility. But if he’s not guilty, then who is? And what might that say about the murders for which he’s in prison? Now, the whole theory of what really happened has to be set aside and re-examined. And Khambule will have to do that quickly, before anything else happens.
It’s never easy or fun to have to toss something aside and start over again. But sometimes, it’s the only way to get to the truth. And the sleuth who can do that is more likely to find out the real answers.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.