Major changes are a part of nearly everyone’s life. Whether it’s a birth, death, marriage, divorce, move or something else, most of us reach these watershed moments. Those moments often bring out strong feelings, both positive and negative, and even the joyful ones are stressful. Little wonder, then, that there are so many watershed moments – major life changes – in crime fiction. After all, it’s often when feelings and stress levels run high that murders are committed. And even when those major changes don’t cause a death, they often cause the kind of reflection that can raise the ghosts of old sins, including old murders.
Sometimes, an impending marriage is the watershed that changes everything. When people are about to be married, there are often old “ghosts” that need to be laid to rest, and we see that in crime fiction quite frequently. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant is about to be married to John Rattery. She’s afraid that her marriage will be haunted, so to speak, by the fact that her mother was hanged for murdering her father. Carla believes that her mother was innocent, and wants Hercule Poirot to prove it if he can so that she can start her married life free from the past. Poirot agrees and embarks on an investigation that takes him sixteen yeas into the past, when Amyas Crale, a famous painter and Carla’s father, was poisoned.
A past murder also gets in the way of an impending marriage in Christie’s Crooked House. In that novel, Charles Hayward and Sophie Leonides meet during Wold War II in Cario. They fall in love and agree to become publicly engaged after the war, but when Sophie returns to her family’s home, she finds that her grandfather, Aristotle Leonides, has been poisoned. She’s unwilling to marry until the murder is solved, so Charles begins to investigate. What he and Sophie find is that practically everyone in the family had a motive for the murder.
Sometimes, a wedding or impending wedding can actually cause a murder. After all, a wedding changes everything, including how fortunes may be left. That’s what happens in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase, in which Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane investigate the murder of Paul Alexis, a Russian-born professional dancer/escort who’s engaged to wealthy widow Mrs. Weldon. When Harriet Vane comes unexpectedly upon Alexis’ body while she’s on a hiking trip, she immediately summons the police. At first, the death seems to be suicide, but soon enough, it’s shown to b e murder. As it turns out, Alexis’ death has everything to do with his upcoming marriage.
A wedding also wreaks havoc in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). Gordon Cloade has married much-younger Rosaleen. Two weeks after their wedding, he’s killed in a wartime bomb blast. Now, Rosaleen inherits his large fortune. The problem is, Gerald had taught his brothers, Lionel and Jeremy and their wives, and his sister-in-law, Adela, and her daughter, Lynn, to depend on him financially. Now, the entire Cloade family has lost its financial security. One night, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden, comes to the village of Warmsley Vale. When it’s suspected that he may actually be the husband of Rosaleen Cloade, all of Gordon’s relatives believe that his arrival may mean salvation for them. Then, Arden is killed. Hercule Poirot finds himself investigating Arden’s death and later, two others.
Sometimes, it’s a death that marks a major change, and that, too, can spark a mystery. There are far too many stories of deaths where the will leads to murder for me to mention here. Suffice it to say that crime fiction is full of these kinds of mysteries. There are also many interesting mysteries where a death leads to the revelation of old secrets. For example, in Minette Walters The Scold’s Bridle, old Mathilda Gillespie is found dead in her bathtub with her wrists slit and a medieval torture device, a scold’s bridle, clamped to her head and mouth. At first, everyone thinks it’s suicide. Then, when her will is read, everyone’s shocked to find out that Mathilda left her considerable fortune to her doctor, Sarah Blakeney. Now, the rumor is spread that Sarah killed Mathilda for her fortune; Sarah decides she’ll have to clear her own name and find out what really happened to her former patient if she’s going to avoid charges of murder. As Sarah goes through Mathilda’s papers and diary, she slowly puts together the truth about the Gillespie family’s past, and the real reason that Mathilda Gillespie was killed.
Old secrets are also stirred up in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, when landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe. For ten years, the police aren’t able to bring charges against anyone, because the main suspect, Howe’s wife, Tina, had an alibi for the time of the murder. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case when anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty. Together with Oxford historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett uncovers Howe’s past and the two of them find out that Howe’s death, along with two others, are directly caused by the revelation of those old secrets that came out after Howe died. Incidentally, this novel also presents other major life changes; for example, this investigation directly leads to an important and life-changing event for Hannah Scarlett.
At other times, death can spur someone to lay old “ghosts” to rest, just as marriage can. For instance, in Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe, Andrea Curtin’s husband, Jack, has recently died. As she faces what to do at this watershed in her life, she decides that she wants to find out what happened to her son, Michael. Michael Curtin was living and working on a commune when he disappeared. At first, the police and local trackers tried to find him, but his body was never found. He was finally presumed dead. Now that Jack Curtin is dead, his widow decides to find out what really happened, so she asks Mma. Precious Ramotswe to find out the truth.
Even in crime fiction that isn’t focused on a major life event, those watershed events frequently play a role in a novel or series. For example, Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, faces a watershed when he nearly commits suicide after an ugly divorce and a bout with alcoholism. He’s rescued by a friend who’s a newspaper editor, and given a job writing features. That second chance leads Qwilleran into a whole new career. When, by a fluke, he inherits a vast fortune, Qwilleran faces another watershed – a major move to tiny Pickax, a small town in rural Moose County. Those major changes lead Qwilleran to a whole new life – and lots of new investigations. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch also goes through several life changes in the course of the novels that feature him. Personal loss, firings, relocation, and marriage are just a few of the watershed events that he faces.
In Ian Rankin’s Exit Music, Inspector John Rebus also faces a major life change – his retirement. That upcoming event spurs him to try to “clean up” as many cases as he can, and he pushes his partner, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, to work on those cases. They’re soon caught up in another investigation, though – the murder of Russian dissident poet Alexander Todorov. Rebus’ impending retirement is woven throughout the novel, and at the end, it plays a role in the novel’s final twist.
Major life changes are very important parts of our lives, and so it makes sense that they’re also woven throughout crime fiction novels. As usual, I’ve only touched on a few examples. What do you think? Do you enjoy novels that address those watershed events? Or do you find that they detract from the mystery that is supposed to be at the center of the story?
By the way….those boxes you see in the ‘photo? They are evidence of a major upcoming change in my life. My family and I will be moving this week-end. Not far, so it won’t be a bad move, but you have no idea how many boxes of books I have!! ; )
*Note: The title of this post is a line from David Bowie’s Changes.