Have you ever noticed how your perspective on things changes as you get older? For instance, if you visit a home that you lived in as a child, you may see that it’s a lot smaller than you remember. You remember that house with a child’s perspective, but now you see it with a different set of eyes. That different way of looking at things is arguably part of the reason for which our memories can be so unreliable.
We see that plot point quite a lot in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Not only is it realistic, but also, it allows the author to add to the suspense of a story. And in the case of ‘whodunit’ crime novels, it allows for all sorts of ‘red herrings’ and proverbial wrong turns. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to think of many others.
In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to solve a sixteen-year-old case. Her father, famous artist Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon during a painting session. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was arrested, charged and convicted, and with good reason. For one thing, there was physical evidence against her. For another, she had a motive, as her husband was having an affair with the subject of his painting Elsa Greer. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. This he agrees to do, and he interviews all five of the people who were ‘on the scene’ at the time of the murder. He also asks for Carla’s own memories. In two cases, Carla’s and that of her Aunt Angela Warren, the memories of that time are those of children. Carla was five, and Angela Warren was fifteen when Crale was murdered. And it’s interesting to see how their perceptions of things have changed. There are two incidents in particular that didn’t make sense to a younger mind, but now make a lot of sense. The difference in perspective isn’t the solution to the mystery, but it explains several things and adds an interesting layer to the story (I know, I know, fans of Sleeping Murder).
Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind begins in 1988, at a lakeside school picnic at Wanaka. The members of the Anderson family, including fourteen-year-old Stephanie, her younger brothers Jonny and Liam, and her four-year-old sister Gemma, are there with many other local people. During the picnic, Gemma disappears. The police are called in and there’s a thorough search. But no trace of Gemma turns up – not even a body. The family tries to move on as best they can, and seventeen years go by. Now Stephanie is a fledgling psychiatrist who lives and works in Dunedin. One day she hears a haunting story from a patient Elisabeth Clark. Years earlier, her sister Gracie was abducted, and no trace of her was found. This story is so much like Stephanie’s own that, as the saying goes, it won’t leave her alone. Against her better professional judgement, she decides to find out who was responsible for causing so much devastation to these two families. She takes a leave of absence from her work and begins to search for the truth. The trail leads her back to Wanaka and in the end, she does find out who abducted both girls. Throughout the novel we see the way Stephanie viewed everything as a fourteen-year-old versus the way she looks at life now.
In Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case, we meet Caspar Leinen, a young attorney who is just beginning his career. One day his name comes up on the legal aid rota and he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini, an Italian immigrant to Germany, has been arrested for murder. It seems that he went to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, headed for the suite occupied by Jean-Baptiste Meyer, and shot the man. Collini says that he committed the crime and doesn’t want a lawyer. But German law requires that he be represented. So Leinen prepares to handle the case as best he can. Collini doesn’t do much to defend himself, which means that Leinen will have to take on a lot of the work. He digs into the backgrounds of both men and finds some surprising truths. He also finds a little-known point of German law on which the whole case will ride. In the course of the novel, we also get to know Leinen’s own history, and that plays a role in the story’s events too. It’s interesting to see how his perspective as a boy and teenager changes as he reflects on the same events with adult eyes.
Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer also deals with the different perspectives that we acquire as adults. Catherine Monsigny is a beginning attorney who gets her chance at a major case when she is asked to defend Myriam Villetreix against a murder charge. She has been accused of poisoning her wealthy husband Gaston, but claims to be innocent. And as Monsigny looks into the case, she sees that there are other possibilities. In the meantime, she comes up against a tragedy from her own past. When she was three years old, she was a witness to the murder of her mother Violet. Her memories are understandably very sketchy, but some things have stayed with her. As it happens, the Villetreix murder happened not very far from the scene of the long-ago murder, and the location haunts Monsigny. In the course of the novel she learns who killed her mother and why. As she does so, we see that her adult perspective, and some discoveries she makes, helps her to see certain events and people in a very different light.
There’s also Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything. In that novel, thirteen-year-old Lizzie Hood and her friend Evie Verver are inseparable. Then one terrible day, Evie doesn’t come home from school. The later it gets, the more worried Evie’s family becomes, and they ask Lizzie to tell them anything she may know that could help. But Lizzie can’t be of much assistance, not to the family and not to the police when they talk to her later. She wants to know what happened to Evie, though, and in her own way, begins to search for the truth. She finds that many of her memories don’t reflect what really happened. And since it’s the adult Lizzie who narrates the story, we also see how her perspective on everything has changed since she was thirteen.
And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. That story really begins in 1978, when fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan disappears and is later found strangled. This tragedy devastates her parents, the aunt and uncle with whom she was staying when it happened, and her cousins Mick and Jane. At first the police thought that someone in the family might be responsible. But then not many months later, another girl, sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor, was also found strangled. Everyone began to believe that these deaths were the work of a serial killer dubbed the Sydney Strangler. The cases were never solved, and years went by. Now, more than thirty years later, journalist Erin Fury is doing a documentary on the effect of tragedies like this on the families involved. She interviews both Jane and Mick, along with Jane’s husband Rob, who also knew Angela. As the novel goes on, we see how these characters viewed Angela and the circumstances surrounding her death. We also see how different some of their youthful perspectives are to what really happened and to the adult perspectives they now develop on everything.
And that’s the thing about looking back. On the one hand, there are some very clear memories we have that are actually quite accurate. On the other hand, when we look back, we often do so with our childhood perspective. It’s not until we really think about things with adult maturity that we really understand them. I’ve only brought up a few examples here. Which books with this plot point have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s My Back Pages.