Most of us grow and change over time. That’s usually a positive thing, since it means we’re getting more mature. That process of changing and evolving can be a challenge, though, especially when others insist on thinking of us in the ‘same old ways.’ If you’ve ever returned to your home town, for instance, where people knew you as you used to be, you may know that feeling of frustration (e.g. ‘I’m not that person now! I’ve changed!).
In fiction, including crime fiction, changes in characters can certainly add to the story. And it can make for suspense, even conflict, when others don’t seem to want to accept those changes. There are plenty of examples in the genre. Here are just a few.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, we are introduced to Hilton Cubitt. He’s concerned about his wife, Elsie. Before they married, Elsie warned him that she’d had some ‘unpleasant associations’ in her life, although she herself hasn’t done anything wrong. Because of this, she made her husband promise that he wouldn’t ask about her past, and he agreed. But now, it seems the past has caught up with her. She’s been getting cryptic letters written in code. They’re clearly upsetting to her, but she won’t confide in Hilton. So, he brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who agrees to look into it. Then, messages are scrawled on one of the window sills of the Cubitt house. Now, Elsie seems terrified, but still won’t tell her husband why. Then a tragedy occurs, and Hilton is shot. Holmes works out the code, and discovers that someone has refused to let Elsie change, grow, and, if you will, reinvent herself.
Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger features brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton. Originally from London, they’ve taken a home in the village of Lymstock, so that Jerry can recover from a plane crash injury. They’re just settling in when they receive a vicious anonymous letter that claims they’re lovers, not siblings. Soon enough, they find out that they’re not the only victims of these ‘poison pen’ letters. Someone in town is sending out anonymous letters to several other people. Then, there’s a murder. And another murder. Miss Marple gets involved in the investigation, and discovers the truth behind both the letters and the murders. One of the villagers is 20-year-old Megan Hunter. When we first meet her, she’s awkward and frumpy, and most people dismiss her. Jerry gets to know her, though, and finds himself falling for her. He takes her on a trip to London, where he pays for her to have a makeover and new clothes. When they return, Megan looks and learns to act more sophisticated and mature. But it’s a bit awkward at first, as not everyone is ready to forget the dowdy, clumsy Megan they knew.
In Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point, we meet brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. They grew up in Belize, but moved to Miami. Now, Patrick has a very promising career in local law and politics. He’s even being spoken of as a very good choice for the next mayor of Miami, with all sorts of possibilities after that. Leo is a poet, who also works at Jefferson Memorial, a mental hospital. He doesn’t travel in his brother’s circles, but they do have their past in common. And it comes back to haunt them. One day, Leo gets a visit from Freddy Robinson, whom he knew in Belize. Freddy’s now working for some ‘associates’ who want Leo to release one of the patients, Herman Massani. It seems that Massani has some information on voter fraud in the Miami-Dade County area. If that information is accurate, it implicates Patrick. At first, Leo doesn’t want anything to do with Freddy, who’s become a convicted felon. But Freddy insists, and reminds Leo that he knows about some dark things that happened in the Varela brothers’ past. Leo’s tried his best to move beyond Belize, but now, it seems that Freddy won’t let that happen. When Leo contacts his brother, Patrick wants to wait and see what will happen. But things soon begin to spin out of control for both brothers, and it’s clear that they won’t be easily allowed to get past what happened when they were younger.
In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, social worker Simran Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. She’s been living and working in Delhi, which suits her. But, when an old university friend asks for her help in a case, she finds it impossible to refuse. It seems that a horrible tragedy has occurred at the home of the wealthy Atwals. Thirteen members of the family have been poisoned, and some stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the house. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. The evidence isn’t clear on whether she was responsible for what happened, or was a victim who managed to survive. Durga herself has said nearly nothing about that night, so the police don’t know how to proceed with her (or the investigation). It’s hoped that if Simran works with the girl, she can get her to open up and talk about what happened. In one of the sub-plots of the novel, Simran faces the challenge of people who want to see her only as the girl she was, and not as the skilled, educated professional she is now. That proves to be a real stumbling block for her, although she does find out the truth about the Atwal case.
And then there’s Peter May’s Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ MacLeod, who makes his entrance in The Blackhouse. He’s originally from the Isle of Lewis, but left there several years ago. Now, he’s a police detective, living and working in Edinburgh. Then, there’s a murder on the Isle of Lewis that closely resembles an Edinburgh case MacLeod’s working. He’s seconded to the island, the idea being that if the two murders were committed by the same person, the two police forces should work together. For MacLeod, though, this isn’t a happy homecoming. He had good reasons for leaving in the first place, and had no real desire to go back. He does, though, and meets up again with the people he grew up with, several of whom never left the island. His interactions with them add some interesting tension to the novel. Over the years, he’s grown up, become a skilled detective, and made a new life for himself. But plenty of people on the island still see him as the boy he once was.
And that’s a big challenge when we try to grow up and remake ourselves. We sometimes have to deal with the fact that not everyone sees the ‘new us.’ That can make for real-life tension, and interesting conflict and character development in a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Bettye Crutch, Allen Jones, and Booker T. Jones.