Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Grab Your Things, I've Come To Take You Home*

No matter where we live or work as adults, we are profoundly affected by our homes – the place where we grew up. Some people don’t stray very far from home. Others (and this is more common), do leave, but keep ties with the place they call home. Still others are only too happy to stay as far away as possible from home. Either way, home has a powerful effect on us, and sometimes an irresistible pull. Even those who maintain close ties to home don’t always find those ties to be peaceful and trouble-free. Homecomings can be fraught with stress and anxiety, and can rake up all kinds of painful memories. Even if they’re pleasant, homecomings almost always involve a lot of emotion. If you mix all of this emotion and, possibly, tension with disparate personalities, you’ve got a very believable context for a murder. So, it’s not surprising that crime fiction offers several examples of murders where a homecoming is involved.

Agatha Christie’s novels include a few examples of this “homecoming” theme. One of them is A Holiday for Murder (AKA Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and Murder for Christmas). In that novel, wealthy old Simeon Lee invites all of the members of his family to the family home to spend Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant, manipulative man who was repeatedly unfaithful to his wife and verbally abusive to his children. Because there’s a large fortune at stake, no-one in the family dares to refuse the invitation, although no-one wants to go. Everyone arrives for the holiday, and soon enough, all sorts of old animosities flare up. Lee is actually counting on these old resentments and jealousies, since this reunion is his idea of amusement. When Lee is stabbed to death on Christmas Eve, Hercule Poirot, who’s staying with a friend nearby, is called in to help find the murderer. The homecoming and the emotions it stirs up are an important factor in the story.

Another Christie novel where a homecoming figures into the plot is Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). Lynn Marchmont has just been demobbed from the Wrens after World War II, and has returned to the home she shares with her mother. She comes home to find that her family’s life has been turned upside down. Gordon Cloade, Lynn’s wealthy uncle, has tragically been killed by a bomb, shortly after marrying a much-younger wife, Rosaleen. The whole family had been taught not to worry about finances, as Gordon would take care of his relations. With his death, though, his wife inherits everything. Against that background of resentment, a stranger arrives in town one day who might be Rosaleen’s long-lost husband, who’d been presumed dead. If he is her husband, of course, she can’t inherit, since she was already married at the time of her wedding. So it’s in all of the Cloades’ interest to prove that this stranger is Rosaleen’s husband. Before they can, though, the stranger dies of a blow to the head. Now Lynn has to cope with her own ambivalent feelings about being home, the fact of being involved in a murder case, and her conflicted feelings about her fiancé, whom she’d left behind when she joined the Wrens. Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate by two members of the Cloade family, and is able to find out the truth about the stranger’s death, and how that death is connected with two other deaths that occur. Admittedly, Lynn’s homecoming is not the cause of the deaths. But it plays an important background role, and the emotions that are stirred up add much to the story.

There’s an interesting example of a homecoming in Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth. Cadmus Cole is a very eccentric millionaire who’s spent the last twenty years at sea. He returns to his home to try to track down his only two living heirs. To do that, he hires Queen, who’s recently opened his own detective agency. Queen and his new partner, Beau Rummell agree to the job – and the sizeable retainer Cole pays them. Just then, Queen is struck with appendicitis, so he deputizes Rummell to go to Hollywood to find one of the heirs, struggling actress Kerrie Shawn. The other heir, Margo Cole, has been living in France. By the time both heirs have been found and have come to upstate New York, where Cole’s home is, Cole himself has died at sea. Now the question is who will inherit his vast fortune? The question becomes moot when Margo is shot. Not surprisingly, Kerrie is suspected of the crime and Rummell, who’s fallen in love with her, resolves to clear her name. With Queen’s help, he’s able to find out what happened to Margo Cole, and he and Queen uncover some other surprising secrets about Cadmus Cole and his heirs.

There’s also an interesting homecoming that serves as a background in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies. Josh Tucker left Bradley, North Carolina and made his name as a journalist for the New York Times. He’s recently returned to Bradley to take care of his aging parents, and he’s found out that life in Bradley hasn’t changed very much since he left. He gets a job with the Bradley Bugle, and picks up his life in Bradley. Then, one day, beautiful but rapacious land developer and real estate agent Parke Stockard is killed in the local church. Myrtle Clover, a retired schoolteacher who now writes an advice column for the Bugle, decides to investigate the murder. There are several suspects, too, since Parke wasn’t exactly popular in town, and Myrtle sets to work figuring out which of the many suspects could have killed Parke. Josh's homecoming isn't a central focus of the book, but it figures in the plot, and it provides an interesting backdrop.

Carol O’Connell’s Bone by Bone also features a homecoming. Oren and Josh Hobbs have grown up in the small town of Coventry, California. One day, the two teen boys head off into a local woods, but only Oren comes back. Josh has disappeared. At first, Oren is suspected of playing a part in his brother’s disappearance, and the investigation seems to support his involvement. In fact, Oren ends up leaving town because of all of the suspicion. Josh’s body is not found, and Oren joins the Army and becomes a CID officer. Twenty years later, a letter he receives leads Oren to believe that his father is dying, so he returns home. One morning soon after his arrival, he finds a human jaw on the front porch of the family home. To his horror, the jaw belongs to his brother. Then, other bones begin to appear, one by one. Some are Josh’s, and others belong to an unidentified woman. Now, Oren is determined to find out what happened to Josh. To do that, he has to uncover some unsavory secrets that several people in the town are keeping.

In Kay Hooper’s Whisper of Evil, it’s the sleuth who has a homecoming. Nell Gallagher and her boyfriend, Max Tanner, grew up in the small town of Silence, Louisiana. Nell, who already was beginning to have psychic visions during her teens, witnessed a frightening event on the night of their senior prom, and left town abruptly. Now, twelve years later, she returns to Silence as a part of a special FBI unit that uses the special powers of psychics and others with paranormal powers. Using the “cover” of settling her father’s estate, Nell is helping to find out who committed a series of four murders over the last eight months. After each death, a secret that the victim didn’t want revealed comes out. Nell and her team use their unique skills to find out who the killer is.

Alan Orloff’s soon-to-be-released Diamonds for the Dead is also centered on a sleuth who goes “back home.” Josh Handleman returns to his native Virginia when his father, Abe, dies. When he returns, Josh finds out that his father was very much wealthier than he’d imagined. In fact, his father had a stash of valuable diamonds that’s now missing. Josh begins to look for the diamonds and finds that his search for the missing gems is also leading him straight to his father’s killer. I’m excited to announce that Alan will be my guest here on Confessions of a Mystery Novelist on 9 April. More about his visit soon!

Homecomings are very often emotion-laden, sometimes difficult and nearly always eventful. That may be part of why they make such interesting backdrops and sub-plots in crime fiction. What’s your view? If you’ve read “homecoming” novels, which have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill.


  1. I enjoy "homecoming" novels. There are so many possibilities with a homecoming in the plot. There can be secrets before they left town, secrets of what they did while they were gone, secrets of where they were, and secrets of why they came back. There's just endless possibilities. I enjoyed the examples you gave. Interesting post.

  2. Mason - Thank you : ). That's definitely one of the advantages of a "homecoming" plot. There are all sorts of opportunities for plot lines, hidden secrets, etc.. Homecomings, too, can add lots of twists to the story (e.g. an unexpected reaction to the homecoming, or some sort of unexpected relationship or discovery). They can be suspenseful as well, which is another thing I like about them : ).

  3. One of my all time favourite songs Margot - just seeing the line had me selecting a live version from my iTunes library to play.

    I hadn't really thought about it before (as with a lot of your topics - it seems obvious once you've pointed it out which is why you're writing the guide to mysteries and I'm not) but homecomings do feature heavily in lots of novels. I haven't read any of the ones you mention apart from Hercule Poirot's Christmas but I recall homecoming featuring heavily in Laura Lipmann's What The Dead Know - two sisters were kidnapped as young children and never seen again and one returns home 30 years later and is the centre of much intrigue.

  4. Thanks for the plug! :) I do enjoy homecomings, particularly to small towns. Frequently it means that the town views you a particular way (when you were growing up), you leave town (usually feeling you've become someone else completely), then you return and they think you're the same! (And are!) It does cause some tension...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. Bernadette - I really love Salisbury Hill, too! It's my favorite Peter Gabriel song : ). It is interesting, isn't it, how very often there are homecomings in crime fiction. It's one of those themes that, you might say, sneaks up on you. I hadn't thought a lot about it before, but it is really a "regular" theme. I've read a bit of Laura Lippman, but not What the Dead Know, so I'm glad that you brought it up, as it's a solid example of what I'm talking about.

    Elizabeth - That's exactly what I like about homecomings, too. That difference between how one's viewed by the town, and how one views oneself leads to tension and adds a layer of tautness, for lack of a better word, to a plot. What's also interesting is the internal conflict a character faces when s/he returns home, especially to a small town. The character may feel changed, as you say, but in many ways, feel pulled back into the "same old role" after the homecoming. It makes for a deeper character, I think.

    And believe me, it's my pleasure to mention Pretty.... It's a terrific book!

  6. Homecomings are great anchors for plots because most people can identify with them. The one coming home usually expects everything and everyone to be the same as when they left - and, of course, it never is.

    I reread "Taken at the Flood" just recently and was very taken with Lynn Marchmont's experiences. Everyone expects her to fit right back in and she can't because she's not the same person she was. Having been over the horizon, she can't seem to be satisfied with settling back into the same routine.

    Reunions can serve as the same plot fixture - everyone has memories of high school and remeeting old friends can bring up all sorts of remembrances - some good, some bad. I think high school reunions, especially can be wonderful flashpoints. Teenage memories are soaked with teenage feelings and those feelings remain long after the teen years have been left behind.


  7. Elspeth - You describe Lynn Marchmont's experiences so well! She really isn't the same person, in many ways, as she was, although, as you say, everyone expects her to be. Her journey is as interesting as anything else in Taken at the Flood is.

    You also make a very well-taken point about high school reunions. They can serve as compelling backdrops for a good mystery because we do remember those years, and often, our memories are flavored with the same adolescent passions and feelings we had during high school. When we get back together, it can make for a very powerful story.

  8. Thanks for the mention, Margot! I think that writing a homecoming story is special. You get to map some of your feelings of nostalgia onto your characters. And exact a little revenge on those schoolyard bullies, too!

  9. I agree that ´coming home to roost´ is a great theme. I see it as a variation of the old back story which I enjoy so much - so I can´t even begin to list my favourites. I think I have read hundreds of them.

  10. Alan - LOL! Yes, there is always the "revenge" factor, isn't there? Who says authors aren't a force to be reckoned with? ; ) That's one nice thing about being an author; one really can use one's own experiences : ). And it's my pleasure to mention Diamonds for the Dead; I look forward to reading it, and to your visit to my blog.