This is the time of year when a lot of people try to make changes in their lives. You know – ‘This is the year I’ll lose weight/quit smoking/find a partner/get rid of my partner/learn a language/get that great job, etc. .’ Sometimes people do get the chance to start all over, and it’s always interesting to see whether they really can make different lives.
Starting over is a very useful context for crime fiction.There’s always the possibility of the past coming back to haunt. There’s the challenge of trying to live a new life. And there’s all sorts of possibility for conflict as the character tries for a new beginning. It’s a flexible plot point too; the author can make it hopeful or bleak, light or dark and twisted. Perhaps that’s part of why we see so much of this plot point in crime fiction.
Agatha Christie uses the ‘fresh start’ plot point in several of her stories. It’s hard to discuss some of them without giving away spoilers, but here’s one example. In The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. In the letter, Renauld says that his life is in danger, and begs Poirot to come to his aid. Poirot and Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer, where Renauld and his wife and son live. But by the time they get there, it’s too late: Renauld has been found murdered on the golf course that adjoins their property. Poirot works with the French authorities (and sometimes at cross-purposes with them!) to find out who the killer was. He discovers that Renauld wasn’t born in Canada. He moved there to start over completely. Later, he and his wife returned to France. Someone has found out about Renauld’s former life and that knowledge played a pivotal role in his murder.
Martin Edwards’ Lake District series features DCI Hannah Scarlett of the Cumbria Constabulary. She leads the Cold Case Review Team, and as we first learn in The Coffin Trail, she got that position after she became a ‘sacrificial lamb’ in another case. There were several mistakes made in an earlier investigation and since Scarlett was involved, it was decided to make as much of the problem as possible go away by moving her. The job is seen as a demotion – a dead-end position – but Scarlett determines to make the best of it. And as the series goes on, we see how she tries to do as much as she can with her new start. Oxford historian Daniel Kind, the other protagonist of this series, has also started over. A well-known ‘celebrity historian,’ he got tired of television and the limelight. So he’s bought a place in the Lakes, hoping to focus on his research and his writing. Kind’s expertise in history proves extremely helpful to Scarlett as she discovers local-history links to the ‘cold case’ murders she and her team solve.
Phillip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American writer who ‘stars’ in one of Timothy Hallinan’s series. Rafferty is a ‘rough travel’ writer with a home base in Bangkok. He’s also quite good at finding people who don’t want to be found. So he’s a good choice when someone goes missing in Bangkok. Rafferty’s wife is Rose, a former bar girl who has made a new life for herself as the owner of an apartment cleaning company. All of her employees are also former bar girls. Rafferty loves his wife very much, and is happy to accept her exactly as she is. But Rose knows very well that it’s hard to leave the ‘bar girl’ life behind. After all, as she points out in A Nail Through the Heart, what happens when she and Rafferty happen to be out together and encounter one of Rose’s former clients? Still, the two of them work hard to put together a good life for themselves and for Miaow, a former street child Rafferty is in the process of adopting.
Eric Burdett’s Bangkok 8 introduces readers to Sonchai Jitplecheep, a member of the Royal Thai Police. For Sonchai, his career as a police officer is an important way of starting over. He and his best friend Pichai Apiradee were involved in a murder. According to the Buddhist tradition, this has badly damaged their karma, even though the victim was a drug dealer. The way to repair the damage, so they’ve been instructed, is to become police officers and try to work for the good of the community. In Bangkok 8, Pichai is tragically killed during the investigation of the murder of US Marine Walter Bradley. The strong desire to avenge his friend’s death is part of what drives Sonchai to go after Bradley’s (and Pichai’s) killer. He is also motivated by his commitment to using his new life to do good.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans. Brought up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of the tracks,’ she seems in a way destined to live the same lower-class, economically disadvantaged life that her mother has had. But Jodie is both intelligent and driven. She is determined to have a new life for herself. Her ambition and brains are enough to get her a scholarship to the ‘right’ sort of school and eventually into the company of Angus Garrow. Angus is from a ‘blueblood’ family, so as you might expect, his mother is not happy about his relationship with Jodie. But the two marry and over the years, Jodie becomes a part of the upper-class circles within which Angus has always moved. All seems well until Jodie’s past comes back to haunt her. One day her daughter Hannah is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where Jodie gave birth years earlier to a daughter Elsa Mary. No-one knows about that child – not even Angus. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave Elsa Mary up for adoption; but when the nurse checks into the matter, she finds that there are no records of the adoption. So she begins to ask questions. Those questions soon become public property and before long, Jodie is the focus of a scandal. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? As Jodie, Angus and their children face the accusations, it’s clear that sometimes, no matter how much you try to make another start, it’s not as easy as it seems…
That’s certainly what Natasha Doroshenko finds in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale. She has fled her home in the Ukraine to escape the thugs who killed her journalist husband Pavel and threatened her life and that of her daughter Katerina. At first, it seems that Denmark, where they’ve ended up, will be a safe haven for them. In fact, Natasha even falls in love again and becomes engaged to Michael Vestergaard. But everything changes when Natasha is imprisoned for the attempted murder of her fiancé. One day she happens to overhear a conversation that convinces her that her past in the Ukraine has caught up with her. She manages to escape police custody and goes to Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. Her plan is to get Katerina and go away somewhere where they can start over again. But the trip to Coal House Camp is only the beginning of real danger for her, her daughter, and Red Cross nurse Nina Borg.
People often do want to make a fresh start and do things differently this time. And sometimes it’s very successful. But it doesn’t always work out that way. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill). Over to you.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. I know I’ve used that song before. You’re welcome. ;-)