Sunday, April 25, 2010

And It's Hard to Believe After All These Years...*

One of the recurrent themes in crime fiction is the re-appearance of someone from a character’s past. It’s easy to see why, too. We all have a history, so it makes sense and is realistic that characters would, too. Very often in crime fiction, when the past comes back again, it’s because of something unpleasant that happened in that earlier time. Most of us have done things we would probably like to leave in the past, so we can identify with characters who want to move on and leave the past behind. It can add real suspense to a story, too, as the reader discovers what’s in characters’ pasts, and how that history affects (sometimes causes) present events. Of course, there’s always the risk that bringing up the past can seem contrived, so in well-written crime fiction, it happens naturally. That said, though, having the past crop up again can make for an absorbing plot or sub-plot.

There are some Agatha Christie novels in which someone from a character’s past comes back. I’ll just mention two. In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders and An Overdose of Death), Hercule Poirot and Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp investigate the shooting death of Henry Morley, Poirot’s dentist. At first, there seems no motive for Morley’s death. He hadn’t made dangerous enemies, he didn’t have a fortune to leave, and he wasn’t mixed up with any shady businesses. Then, one of Morley’s patients dies, and another disappears. Then, another body appears. Now it’s clear that there’s more to this business than a simple shooting murder. When Poirot gets to the truth about the deaths, he finds that all of the events have been set in motion by one event. The murderer was recognized by someone from the past. Once the killer realized what that recognition would mean, there seemed no choice but to strike.

We also see an example of this theme in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). John Christow is a well-known Harley Street doctor. Married and with two children, he’s made what most people would call a success of his life. What most people don’t know is that fifteen years earlier, he’d broken off an engagement with Veronica Cray, a beautiful and popular actress. Veronica had wanted him to give up his research and career and follow her to Hollywood, and Christow had refused. While he’s put that part of his life behind him, Christow has also felt held down by that past relationship. One week-end, he and his wife, Gerda, are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. On Saturday night, the Angkatells’ guests are in the drawing room after dinner when all of a sudden, Veronica Cray bursts in on the scene. It seems she’s taken a week-end cottage nearby. Her re-appearance sets in motion a whole series of events that end up in Christow’s murder the next day. Hercule Poirot has also taken a cottage near the Angkatells and gets involved in the case when he visits the Angkatells for lunch and instead, comes on the murder scene.

Arthur Conan Doyle also makes use of the character-from-the-past theme. In The Adventure of the Dancing Men, for instance, Hilton Cubitt asks Holmes’ help in solving the mystery of his wife’s strange behavior. Elsie Cubitt had been mixed up with some shady people in her past, but she put that behind her when she married. The past catches up with her, though, when she receives some strange messages written in an odd code. The messages frighten Elsie, but she won’t confide in her husband. Then, similar messages start appearing as chalk drawings on the Cubitts’ window ledges. Now Elsie’s terrified, but she still won’t tell her husband what the drawings are about. Now, Cubitt goes to Holmes, asking his help in “cracking the code” and finding out what’s behind his wife’s fears. Holmes finds out that someone from Elsie’s past has re-appeared and threatens not just Elsie, but her husband, too. One night, Cubitt is murdered and his wife wounded; Holmes believes that the killer is the person who’s been sending Elsie messages. Once he figures out what the drawings mean, Holmes uses the code to lure the killer to a meeting and reveal the murderer’s identity.

In The Adventure of the Crooked Man, Holmes tells Watson of the strange death of Colonel James Barclay. His wife, Nancy, is suspected of killing him; the two had a violent quarrel just before Barclay died of a blow to the back of the head. Still, they’d always been what’s called a very united couple before then, so there doesn’t seem a reason for the death. Then, a neighbor and friend of Nancy Barclay tells Holmes a story that gives him an important clue as to what happened. On the night of Barclay’s death, Nancy had a chance encounter with someone from her past and her husband’s. That chance encounter changed everything for Nancy and has led directly to the death of her husband.

Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box is a very interesting example of the return of a character from the past. Years ago, as a young policeman, Inspector Wexford investigated the strangling murder of Elsie Carroll. He suspected a strange man named Eric Targo of committing that murder and two others, but couldn’t get the evidence to pursue the case. Then, Targo disappeared. Now, he’s returned to Kingsmarkham and Wexford spots him one day. What’s worse, it seems that Targo’s deliberately targeting the Wexford home. His van’s spotted near the home, and one day, Wexford finds out that Andrew Norton, his newly-hired gardener, has been strangled in the same way as the older murders were committed. Now he’s determined to bring Targo to justice. While Wexford’s trying to convince his dubious partner, Mike Burden, that Targo is a serial killer, DS Hannah Goldsmith is investigating the possibility that sixteen-year-old Tamima Rahmam, whose family has emigrated from Pakistan, may be being forced into an arranged marriage. Then, Targo disappears again. As it turns out (and in classic Rendell style), the two cases are related, and in the end, we learn what happened to Tamima Rahmam and how it’s related to the disappearance of Eric Targo.

There’s also a case of the past coming back, so to speak, in Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point. That’s the story of brothers Patrick and Leo Varela, natives of Belize, who move to the Miami area. Years earlier, when the brothers were young, they been involved in a terrible incident back in Belize – a past that both brothers have tried to forget. Since their move, Patrick has become a politician on the brink of real success, while Leo has become a poet who works on the mental ward of a hospital. One night, one of their old friends, Freddy Robinson, shows up at the hospital where Leo Varela works, asking for his help. Robinson wants Leo to release one of the patients, and says he’s acting for people he represents. Leo knows that could cost him his job or possibly worse. Besides, he has no wish to associate with Freddy, who’s become a criminal with a jail record. So at first, he refuses. Then, Freddy threatens Leo with the memory of what happened in their past. Now, both Leo and Patrick are in danger. The two brothers are desperate to figure out how to keep Freddy – and their past – from ruining everything for them. As they work to stop Freddy and the people he works for, the brothers end up on opposite sides, so to speak. Leo now faces as much danger from Patrick and his associates as he does from Freddy.

There’s an interesting case of the past coming back in Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces. Blair Bainbridge is a successful and wealthy model who’s decided to buy a farm in tiny Crozet, Virginia. Although he’s a newcomer, he settles in and seems to be getting used to life in Crozet. In fact, he seems like a good match for his neighbor and Brown’s sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen. Then, pieces of a body start turning up in different parts of town. The body turns out to be that of a vagrant who wandered into town and whom nobody seems to know. When another death occurs, people begin to wonder whether Bainbridge is a murderer. Harry, who believes that Bainbridge is innocent, lets her curiosity get the better of her ad begins to investigate. What she finds is that the vagrant is actually a person from someone’s past; he’s killed because he represents a threat to the comfortable life of one of Crozet’s solid citizens.

The theme of characters from the past coming back to haunt one is popular in crime fiction for a lot of reasons. When it’s well-written, it can be engaging, too, as the reader learns, bit by bit, about the characters’ pasts. It can also add suspense to a story. That may be why there are so many examples – more than there is space for in this one post. Do you enjoy that theme? If you do, which are your favorite examples?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Code of Silence.


  1. I have bookmarked this post. Very interesting and insightful. Even though I am a thriller author, mystery intertwines itself into my stories.

    Thanks for exploring.

  2. Cym - Thank you :). Isn't it interesting how thriller, mysteries, and some other genres, too, have themes in common? Folks, please do check out Cym's web site.

  3. I always enjoy a mystery where someone from the past shows up because you know they are going to cause problems one way or another. I can never think of a book title when I respond to your post, but I know in a Tony Hillerman book you mention recently Jim Chee's ex-girlfriend returns from his past. She doesn't kill anyone, but does cause problems for Jim and his investigation. Just another way the past can be involved in a mystery.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - You are so right! Whenever someone from the past shows up, you know something's going to happen. And thanks for mentioning Tony Hillerman's Skinwalkers. No doubt about it - when a former love interest comes back, that certainly complicates matters. And in Coyote Waits, when another woman Chee's interested in comes back into his life, that, too, makes things complicated. I hadn't thought to add that aspect of the past coming back to this post, so I'm glad you did.

  5. I too enjoy a novel where someone from the past shows up. It is always possible that there is a hidden motive for a murder - something that emerges from the past.

    One of my favorites is Missing Joseph by Elizabeth George where the victim's past plays a very important role in the solution to the murder. The book has several unexpected twists that help make it a good read.

  6. Book Mole - Oh, you brought up a very fine example of the way the victim's past comes back to haunt him in Missing Joseph. It's a terrific read, as you say. One of the really interesting aspects about it is the network of relationships, past and present, that also figure in the plot. Thanks for reminding me of that one!

  7. Hopeless I know, but the only one I can think of at the moment is Agatha Christie's The Man in the Brown Suit. Probably the most interesting thing about that story is that the villain narrates pert of the story.

    I think it is a useful theme but it needs to managed carefully, or it stretches credibility.

  8. Al - It's interesing that you would mention The Man in the Brown Suit. That one does, indeed, have a theme of someone from out of a character's pasat. I like the multiple perspectives in the novel, too, and of course, Chrisite doesn't really let you know who the killer is and that one of the perspectives is the killer's until the end.

    You're right, too; having someone re-appear from the past can be tricky. It needs to happen naturally, and the events have to be believable.

  9. This is a wonderful device and it's little wonder Agatha Christie used it with such aplomb! I suspect it's because it's an occurrence that could happen to anyone - your life is going along and then someone reappears and brings with them all types of issues you thought you left behind years ago. Trouble ensues.

  10. Elspeth - You're absolutely right. We all have pasts, and as you say, someone could come out of anyone's past and bring up things better left behind. Always a harbinger of trouble to come... And I agree; Christie was a genius at using this strategy.

  11. Characters who reappear is a fine theme in crime fiction, but I like old stories and old corpses even more! Give me a rotten corpse and I am as happy as a little terrier :D

    I enjoyed reading about The Monster in the Box. I haven´t bought it yet, but it looks as if I am in for a treat.

  12. Dorte - Oh, that is hysterical! I like those decomposed bodies and decades-old secrets, too : ). I think you will like Monster in the Box , especially if you've kept up with the Wexford series. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I think it's quite a fitting end to the Wexford series.