Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Old Sins Cast Long Shadows...

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?


  1. I love reading about people's guilty secrets - real life and fictional. I think we all have things in our past that we'd rather no-one knew about. However, in my case, and I hope in yours, most of these things aren't murder worthy. I'm a little worried, though, because that photo at the top looks pretty realistic.

  2. Bobbi - Don't worry - I'm only dangerous when I write ; )... I think you have a lot of company in that people seem to really enjoy reading about others' guilty secrets; perhaps it makes us feel less shameful about our own. Like you, none of those - er - little things in my past are murder-worthy, but as you say, we all have those little and big secrets. It makes characters more human when they have them, too.

  3. Old sins casting long shadows makes for wonderful murder mystery stories. They give the reader another avenue when searching for the killer before they are actually revealed. Old sins can be used for as a motive for murder, but also as a red herring. That's what makes them so interesting.

  4. Mason - You are so right! Old sins are as effective as a "red herring" as they are a motive for murder. So the sleuth (and the raeder) has to really pay attention to figure out whether someone's past is the real motive or whether something else is.

  5. Elizabeth - Isn't that a *wonderful* novel!?!? It's always been one of my favorites, and actually, it was said to have been Christie's own favorite of her books.

  6. The thing I love about 'old sins' is that it gives characters a history that happened long before the 'now' of the book. More history equals more depth and complexity and that's superb.

    My favorite? Probably "And Then There Were None".

    I've got myself a copy of Agatha Christie's Secret Notebooks and her methods are extremely close to mine. I'm feeling rather validated!

  7. Yes, I too love "old sins". This is quite common in Scandinavian crime fiction, eg The Glass Devil by Helene Tursten, and both novels (so far) by Johan Theorin. I love to read a novel in which all becomes apparent when you uncover the past and look at it in the "right" way to understand the present. Peter Temple is also a master at this.

  8. Elsepth - You should feel validated! I've read your excellent blog often enough, and your responses to my posts, to know a little about the way you think, and I admire it.

    I agree that old sins and past history do give characters more depth. That depth makes them more real, so the reader can identify with them.

    I'm glad you like And Then There Were None so much; I have a special place for that one : ).

    Maxine - I'm glad you mentioned Peter Temple : ). One of the things I love best about your comments on my blog is that you mention authors that I don't make the space for in my posts, although I should. I agree that Temple does the "past-leads-to-present" scenario very, very effectively. And, although I'm not even close to being as familiar with Scandanavian crime fiction as you are, I get the impression that you're quite right about that being a common theme among those authors. It's one thing that appeals to me about that group of writers (as if one could generalize that much about such a large group).

  9. Hakan Nesser's Borkmann's Point, The Return and Woman With Birthmark all have murders that relate to events in the past.
    The book I have just finished The Turnaround by George Pelecanos is a classic story of old events coming back to haunt the participants after 35 years!
    So a lot of European and American crime fiction still sticks to the same favourite themes even if in vastly different locations and societies.

  10. Norman - I've not had a chance to read The Turnaround yet, but I've heard that it's very good; I hope you enjoyed it. It certainly seeems an excellent example of the kind of thing I'm getting at here.

    There are some themes - and I think "old sins..." is one of them - that just seem to be enduring favorites in the genre. Little wonder that today's writers still address them...

  11. I can't think of any off the top of my head - your lists are always so thorough, Margot! But I recently reread a few of the Christies you mentioned, and enjoyed them (once again) thoroughly. I've not read anything by Martin Edwards - I like the title "Cipher Garden".

  12. Belle - Thanks for your kind words : ). I heartily recommend Martin Edwards' work. His Lake District series (The Coffin Trail, The Cipher Garden, The Arsenic Labyrinth and now, The Serpent Pool) are well-written with haunting plots, interesting characters, and vivid settings. He's also got a fine ear for dialogue. Here is a short description of the books.

  13. ´Old sins´ is one of the very best plots! I could mention hundreds of favourites - if I could remember them! :D

    But A Dark-Adapted Eye is a great favourite of mine. I have to reread it once in a while, and it never fails to thrill and puzzle me. Brilliant story.

  14. Dorte - Oh, I agree completely! A Dark-Adapted Eye is so well-written and compelling, with such strong characterization. It's a fabulous novel, in my opinion. And yes, "old sins" make for some of the most absorbing stories in crime fiction, don't they?

  15. It is terrific, isn't it, Maxine? Folks, I do recommend it!