If you’ve ever read tales like Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, then you’ve encountered the plot structure that’s sometimes called Rebirth. This structure usually features a main character who falls under some sort of spell, enchantment, or other ill fortune, and is trapped, literally or metaphorically. When and if the character breaks free of the trap, she or he starts over. There are a lot of stories with this sort of plot structure, as it works well for fantasy, fairy tales, and so on.
But it’s also present in crime fiction. And it’s not hard to see why. There’s suspense (will the character be freed?) and tension. And it’s a flexible enough structure that it gives the author several possibilities for plot events and characters. There are plenty of examples out there; here are just a few to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the American Boynton family is on a tour of the Middle East. This isn’t an ordinary family though (if there is such a thing). Mrs. Boynton, the matriarch, is malicious – she is described as a mental sadist – and keeps her family so cowed that no-one dares to oppose her. The rest of the family (two stepsons, a stepdaughter, and a daughter) have all suffered psychologically. In fact, the only family member who seems intact is Mrs. Boynton’s daughter-in-law, Nadine. Disaster strikes when the family pays a visit to the ancient city of Petra as a part of their Middle East tour. On the second day of that visit, Mrs. Boynton dies of what later turns out to be a deliberate overdose of digitalis. Colonel Carbury asks for help from Hercule Poirot, who is in the area, and Poirot looks into the matter. One on of the interesting scenes in the novel is what happens to the Boyntons once they are free of Mrs. Boynton’s influence. I won’t spoil the story, but the epilogue, which takes place five years after the events in the story, shows how the family members have blossomed, if you will.
Patricia Abbott’s Concrete Angel is the story of Eve Moran and, later, her daughter, Christine. Eve has always wanted to acquire and have, and she’s been willing to do whatever it takes to get what she wants, including murder. Christine is born and raised in this atmosphere, and is caught in her mother’s dysfunctional web. And we see how that toxic environment impacts her. But then, she sees that her three-year-old brother, Ryan, is also beginning to be caught up in the same dysfunction. Christine is determined that Ryan will be freed from Eve’s influence; so, she decides to make a plan for both of them to escape. But that’s not going to be as easy as it may seem…
In Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, we are introduced to Stephanie Anderson, a fledgling psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. She gets a new patient, Elisabeth Clark, who at first is completely unwilling to work with her. Slowly, the two develop a rapport, and Elisabeth tells Stephanie about a horrible tragedy from her past. Years earlier, Elisabeth’s younger sister, Gracie, went missing. No trace of the child was ever found. This story sounds eerily like Stephanie’s own family history. Seventeen years earlier, Stephanie’s younger sister, Gemma, also disappeared and was never found. As she works with Elisabeth, Stephanie decides to lay her own ghosts to rest, and find the person who wrought so much havoc. So, she travels from Dunedin to her home town of Wanaka, where Gemma went missing. As Stephanie gets closer to the truth, she also finds herself slowly freeing herself of the tragedy that changed everything for her family. And we see how she starts again.
Harry Bingham’s Detective Constable (DC) (later, Detective Sergeant (DS)) Fiona Griffiths works for the Cardiff police. She’s good at what she does, and she’s learning over the course of the series to be even better. But she’s had to struggle. During adolescence, she had a severe mental illness that, in its way, trapped her. As she’s gone through the process of getting better, she’s slowly freed herself from that trap and started over. But it all still affects her. Among other things, this series shows that the process of rebirth, if you want to call it that, isn’t always immediate.
One of the main plot threads in Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons has to do with the rebirth, if you will, of the protagonist, also named Finn Bell. As the novel begins, Bell is at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is over, and a car crash has left him without the use of his legs. On a sort of whim, he buys a cottage in the tiny town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon learns that a tragedy devastated the cottage’s former occupants, the Cotter family. In 1988, Emily and James Cotter’s daughter, Alice, disappeared. No trace of her was found, and although the police suspected brothers Darrell, Sean, and Archie Zoyl, there was never enough proof to keep them in jail. A year later, James Cotter also went missing. Bell finds himself intrigued by the mystery, and he’s had his own encounters with the Zoyl brothers. So, he starts to look into what really happened to the Cotters. That process, plus Murderball (wheelchair rugby) help Bell begin to free himself from the tragedies in his life, and start over.
The ‘rebirth’ plot structure allows for some really interesting character development. There’s also lots of opportunity for conflict, suspense, and plot points, too. And it’s got a long history in literature. These are just a few examples. Over to you.
ps. In case you’re not familiar with it, the ‘photo shows a perennial called the Bird of Paradise. The buds on the left are reborn every year and become that beautiful flower you see on the right.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Journey song.