We all do things that we regret. For the most part, we move on with our lives, and although we may not be proud of everything we’ve done, our lives go on. Sometimes, though, in real life and in crime fiction, one’s past sins come back to haunt one. This theme of “old sins cast long shadows” seems to be extremely popular in murder mysteries and one reason for that may be that it provides a sense of closure for the reader when someone “gets his.” Another could be the intellectual challenge of finding the connection between past sins and the present. It’s only human, too, to want revenge, or at least to feel spite, against someone who’s wronged us, so we can identify with characters who want revenge for something that’s happened to them.
In many murder mysteries, the victim is killed because of his or her past sins. For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is called in to help solve the murder of Enoch Drebber, whose body has been found in an empty house in Brixton. The police find out that Drebber had made advances towards his landlady’s daughter Alice Charpentier, and are convinced that her brother, Arthur, killed Drebber because of it. When Joseph Stangerson, who’s also staying at the same boardinghouse, is stabbed, though, it’s clear that Arthur Charpentier isn’t guilty. Holmes links the two murders and finds out that they both have their roots in the victims’ pasts. As it turns out, their killer has committed murder as an act of revenge.
There are several examples of “old sins casting long shadows” in Agatha Christie’s novels. For example, in A Holiday for Murder (AKA Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Murder for Christmas), Poirot investigates the murder of Simeon Lee. Lee’s an unpleasant old patriarch who’s alienated all of the members of his family. When he invites everyone to spend Christmas at the family home, no-one wants to accept the invitation, but no-one dares refuse it. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally murdered and Hercule Poirot, who’s staying nearby, is called in to find out who killed Lee. It turns out that Lee’s death has everything to do with the past life he’s led and the way he’s treated his family.
Past sins have everything to do with the stabbing death of Samuel Ratchett in Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, too. Ratchett travels through Eastern Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. When he finds out that Hercule Poirot is traveling by the same train, he offers to hire Poirot to guard him, since he fears that he has enemies. Poirot refuses, and sure enough, the next night, Ratchett is stabbed multiple times. A representative from the Compagnie Internationale de Wagons Lits asks Poirot to find the killer before the train reaches its destination, so that they can hand the murderer over to the police. Poirot agrees. What he finds is that Ratchett was hiding a sinister past, and that his past sins have caught up with him.
One of the most interesting examples of “old sins and long shadows” in Christie’s work is And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). Ten people arrive at Indian Island, off the Devon Coast, for what each thinks is a different purpose. When they arrive, they soon realize that they’ve been lured there. On the first evening, each of them is accused of having been responsible for at least one death. That night, one by one, the “guests” begin to die. It’s soon apparent that the on the island were all guilty of past sins, and that their pasts have come back to haunt them.
That’s also what happens to Warren Howe, an unpleasant landscaper whose past sins lead to his murder in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. At first, everyone thinks Howe’s wife, Tina, killed him. She’s had reason, too, as he was an abusive and unfaithful husband. Tina has an alibi, though, and the police can’t pursue a conviction. Ten years later, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team re-open the case on an anonymous tip. What they find is that nearly everyone Howe knew had a motive for murder, but it’s really Howe’s past that led to his death.
Old sins also play a key role in Barbara Vine’s A Dark-Adapted Eye, which was Ruth Rendell’s first novel under her Barbara Vine pseudonym. That’s the story of the Longley family, as told by Faith Longley Severn. The Longleys are proudly middle-class, with never a hint of scandal attaching to the name. Underneath that respectable exterior, though, are hidden many dark and ugly secrets. One of them has to do with the hanging of Faith’s Aunt Vera (Longley) Hillyard for murder. After the hanging, the family sweeps away all mention of Vera and the tragedy, and the family members do their best to maintain their façade of middle-class respectability. Then, thirty years later, investigative journalist Daniel Stewart decides to write a book on the murder, the trial and the events that led up to the tragedy. As Faith tells the family’s story, we learn of the family sins that led to the murder for which Vera Hillyerd was tried and hung.
There’s also an interesting case of “old sins leaving long shadows” in Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors. Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet, Mervyn Bunter, have been in a car accident and are stranded in the small town of Fenchurch St. Paul on New Year’s Eve. Since Wimsey’s there anyway, he agrees to fill in for Will Thoday, a local bell-ringer who’s been taken ill with influenza. Several months later, Sir Henry Thorpe, the local squire, dies, and the family gravesite is opened for his funeral. To everyone’s shock, there’s already a corpse in the grave. When Lord Peter hears of this, he gets interested in finding out who the dead man was and how he died. It’s soon clear to Wimsey that the unknown man’s death may be connected to a jewel robbery that had taken place at the Thorpe home many years previously. The culprits were caught, but the jewels were never recovered. As Wimsey puts the pieces of the puzzle together, we find out that the unknown body, the missing jewels, and even Will Thoday’s illness, are all inter-related and are all tied to long-ago events.
Ellery Queen treats the topic of ‘old sins,” too, in The King is Dead. In that novel, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to Bendigo Island, a closely guarded secret island owned by munitions tycoon “King” Bendigo. Bendigo’s been getting threatening letters, and he wants Queen to find out who’s responsible. With Bendigo on the island are his brothers, Abel and Judah, and his much-younger wife Karla. One night, Bendigo is shot while he’s in his hermetically-sealed study with his wife. A careful search of the room yields no trace of the gun, and it’s soon proved that Karla couldn’t have shot her husband. Queen begins to investigate the matter and he soon finds out that the shooting has its roots in Bendigo’s past. As it happens, the Bendigo brothers are from Wrightsville, a small New England town, so Queen goes to Wrightsville to solve the puzzle of the Bendigo shooting. He finds out the truth and returns to the island, but not in time to save “King” Bendigo from his own past.
Sometimes, even when the victim of a crime isn’t killed because of old sins, they still play an important role in the present. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). That novel centers on the poisoning murder of noted painter Amyas Crale. His wife, Caroline, is almost immediately arrested for the crime, and she’s a logical choice, since Crale had a habit of being unfaithful. In fact, his then-mistress was staying in the house at the time of the murder. Caroline Crale is convicted of the crime, and dies in prison. Sixteen years later, her daughter, Carla, asks Hercule Poirot to find out who really killed Amyas Crale. She’s convinced her mother was innocent and she wants to find out the truth. Poirot asks all five of the people who were “on the scene” the day of the crime to write out their accounts of what happened. Through their stories, he’s able to find out the truth. What he learns is that the past sins of adultery and murder are still playing roles in the characters’ lives.
Many mystery fans seem to have a real fascination for stories where old sins cast long shadows. Do you? Which are your favorite “old sins” novels?