Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Good Luck Moving Up, 'Cause I'm Moving Out*

Most of us feel the need at some point in our lives to leave where we’ve been and what we’re doing and make a new start. It may be with a new job, a move, or simply leaving home and striking out on our own. Leaving what we’ve always known can be tense and anxiety-producing, as newness frequently is, but it’s often for the better, and always eventful. The underlying anxiety of leaving what one’s known and starting over can add a very interesting (and realistic) level of interest and suspense to crime fiction, and it’s a good fit as a sub-plot, too. For example, sometimes, people leave to flee an abusive or dangerous situation. That makes for a solid mystery/crime fiction plot. At times, people leave because the past is too painful for them. That, too, lends itself to a mystery plot. Even when a plot involves leaves for a more positive reason (e.g. marrying and moving to a new home), the tension of being in a new place, among strangers, can add to the plot. That can be especially true for series, where the author can add freshness to the series by including this kind of move.

We see moving from one place to another, and starting over, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, the story of the murders of Enoch Drebber and his friend, Josepth Stangerson, both staying at Madame Charpentier’s boarding house. Drebber is murdered first, and, Madame Charpentier’s son, Arthur, is suspected, since Drebber made unwelcome advances on his sister, Alice. Soon, though, it appears that Stangerson may have been the murderer. That theory is proved wrong when Stangerson, too, is killed. In the end, Holmes traces both murders to long-ago events. Years before, John Ferrier and his adopted daughter, Lucy, had been traveling across the American desert. Near death from exhaustion, thirst and starvation, they were rescued by Mormons. The only condition was that they convert to their benefactors’ religion, which they did. When Lucy grew up, she fell in love with Jefferson Hope, a stranger who’d also made a new start among the Mormons. When the Mormon leadership made it clear that they were going to force Lucy to marry one of their own, she, Ferrier and Jefferson Hope escaped, once again to try to start over. As it turns out, the results of that escape led directly to the murders of Drebber and Stangerson, both of whom were members of the Mormon community from which the three fled.

There are several examples of leaving one place to start over in another in Agatha Christie’s work. I’ll just mention two in today’s post. In The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), famous actress Marina Gregg and her husband decide to leave Hollywood and make a new start in St. Mary Mead. They buy Gossington Hall and make plans to host an open-house party for the locals. Marina’s excitement about finding a new, more peaceful place to live soon turns to horror. On the day of the party, Heather Badcock, a local who’s a devoted fan of Marina’s, is thrilled to get the chance to actually meet her idol. Shortly after they meet, though, Heather suddenly sickens and dies of what turns out to be poison slipped into a drink. At first, everyone thinks that Heather was poisoned by mistake, since the cocktail she drank was originally Marina’s. Soon, though, it’s clear that Heather was the intended victim. Now, Miss Marple and her friend, Dolly Bantry, investigate the murder to find out who wanted to kill Heather and why.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Rest in Pieces, we meet Blair Bainbridge. He’s a famous and very successful model, who’s realized that he wants a quieter life, and that his good looks aren’t going to last forever. So he buys a farm in tiny Crozet, Virginia, where he’s hoping for a more peaceful life. His next-door-neighbor is Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Crozet’s postmistress and Brown’s sleuth. Bainbridge thinks he’s been able to leave his stressful life until one day, pieces of a body start showing up in different places in Crozet. Soon, many people in town think that Bainbridge is a murderer; they’re suspicious of him, since he’s an “outsider.” Harry doesn’t believe her neighbor is guilty, so she gets curious and begins to investigate. Then, another body turns up – on Blair Bainbridge’s property. Now, Harry, with help from Sheriff Rick Shaw and Deputy Cynthia Cooper will have to dig into the dead men’s history and the secrets they were keeping in order to figure out who killed them.

Sometimes, it’s the sleuth who wants or needs to leave one place and move on to another. In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we find out that Hercule Poirot has made that kind of move. In this, Poirot’s first outing, we learn that he’s a former member of the Belgian police force. He was wounded in World War I and forced to flee Belgium. He and a group of fellow Belgians have been given a new start in the English village of Styles St. Mary through the help and benefaction of a wealthy patroness, Emily Inglethorp. One night, Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned. Captain Arthur Hastings, who’s visiting Mrs. Inglethorp’s stepson, John Cavendish, happens to run into Poirot in the village, and tells him about the murder. Poirot is only too happy to find out who killed his benefactress, so he begins to investigate. He finds that this murder isn’t nearly as clear-cut as it seems on the surface, and that the murderer has chosen a very clever way to avoid getting convicted for the crime.

We also see this need to move on in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane has been acquitted of murder in a notorious trial. In order to escape the stress and trauma of the trial, she takes a hiking holiday to Wilvercombe. Instead of a peaceful holiday, though, Harriet finds the body of a man lying on the beach, his throat cut. Since Harriet’s found the body, she gets drawn into the investigation. At first, it seems that the man has committed suicide, but soon enough, it turns out that he was murdered. Lord Peter Wimsey, who has fallen in love with Harriet and is determined to marry her, comes to help with the investigation. He and Harriet find out that the dead man was Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at a local hotel. Initially, it seems that he might have been killed as part of a political plot, but in the end, Wimsey and Harriet Vane find that his murder was more personal than political.

P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson also makes decisions to leave one place and start again in another. Sophie is an FBI profiler who specializes in “getting into the minds” of serial killers. Sophie’s helped along by sometimes-troubling psychic visions, in which she can experience what the killer experiences. Australian-born, Sophie came to the U.S. despite her parents’ wishes that she stay closer to home. In part, she made that decision, and the decision to work with the FBI, because of a traumatic childhood incident in which her brother was abducted. Sophie wasn’t able to help her brother, and the memories are very painful for her. So she starts over in a new place. In Body Count, Sophie’s living and working in the Washington, D.C. area. She moves again, though, and starts over in Los Angeles, the scene of The Killing Hands. I confess, I haven’t yet read The Killing Hands yet, but it is a solid example of a sleuth moving and making a new start. Here i
s a fine review of The Killing Hands from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading. Here's a fine review by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

Betty Trenka, one of Joyce Christmas’ sleuths, is a successful office manager for New-York-City-based Edwards & Son. In This Business is Murder, Trenka faces the need to pick up and move when her company downsizes. She’s given mandatory early retirement, and takes a new home in suburban East Moulton, Connecticut. Uncomfortable with domesticity, and unwilling to be put “out to pasture,” Trenka takes part time and temporary work at a local company. Then, the top female executive in the firm is killed, and Trenka finds herself drawn into the investigation.

Leaving what one knows and starting fresh often has advantages and disadvantages, and the tension it causes can add much to a crime fiction plot. For a series author, this strategy allows for fresh settings, characters and plotlines. Even for standalones, the subplot of what’s it’s like to leave one place and start somewhere else can be compelling and certainly reflects an experience that many of us have had. Perhaps that’s why there’s a large number of crime fiction novels that use this concept – more than I can name here. Which novels have you enjoyed where a character leaves and starts over somewhere else?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Movin' Out (Anthony's Song).


  1. A change in location provides instant conflict between new and old. And for those of us who have done this, we know first hand the crazy array of emotions it causes.

  2. Tara - You put that quite well. I like thinking of it as a conflict, because that's what adds the tension to a novel. And yes, moving on to something new sure does cause a whole spectrum of emotions! Readers who've gone through that experience can identify with those emotions, too.

  3. Which novels have you enjoyed where a character leaves and starts over somewhere else?

    I don't know of any mysteries off hand but I know of many novels where women have had to leave to avoid abusive husbands and such.


  4. Knowing that a character has recently moved into an area always leads to an interesting plot. It could be the character is the killer, will be a victim or the move is just a red herring.

    I especially like Rita Mae Brown’s "Rest in Pieces" as an example of this post. That was one that had you wondering up until the end.

  5. Ann - You are right about that; there really have been lots of novels where part of the plot involved women and/or children starting over somewhere else because of abuse. And of course, that leaves open a lot of possibilities for a plot, since there could be any number of outcomes...

    Mason - Oh, I'm glad you liked Rest in Pieces. That one kept me guessing, too. I also thought there were some interesting past/present connections in that novel that kept my interest. And you're right; someone who's left somewhere else could be leaving a secret, dark past, or could be a killer. And of course, there's always that "red herring" thing... ; ).

  6. Another excellent post Margot.
    I'v moved around a bit in my time, and can speak of first hand, to new place fear. That said, another aspect this bring out, is when you move around enough, that the fear and awkwardness of the new vanishes. And then you understand that connections will not be long term. This too, can make for interesting characters. As I write this, I realize I might use that in my next book. ;)

  7. Change is good. Be thankful for the good memories and that you have an opportunity to leave the bad ones behind. Life is too short to not be able to shift gears and move in another direction when necessary.

    Stephen tremp

  8. J.M - Thanks : ). You really do make a well-taken point that moving from the familiar to the new gets easier with practice. As you say, it's easier then to reaize that connections can certainly be pretty tenuous. I think that, for many people, that's been the appeal of characters such as Lee Child's Jack Reacher (especially in the early novels), who's enough of a drifter that he doesn't have many permanent connections. I'll look forward to seeing how you use that concept in your writing :).

    Stephen - Well-put; staying mired in something very negative often serves very little purpose. Change really can be positive, and it makes characters seem stronger when they can realize the changes they need to make and make them.

  9. I've moved several times too both across continents and across the country. I notice that moving gets harder as you get older and have more commitments (particularly children).

    I enjoyed Agatha Christie's "Sleeping Murder" where the main character moves from New Zealand to her childhood home in England, and is visited by old and incomplete memories.

  10. Book Mole - You are absolutely right; moving really does get more difficult and complicated once you get older and have other obligations. My husband, daughter and I once moved across half the U.S. with our two dogs; trust me, that was a lot more complicated than the move my husband and I had made eighteen years earlier to our first home when we married! And thanks for mentioning Sleeping Murder I almost referred to that in my post, but then I didn't, as I didn't want to go on too long. I'm glad you did, as it is a great example of trying to make a new start.

  11. I can't think oh any right off hand.However, I have contemplated having my main character on vacation. A move seems plausible, but vacation gives her an exit at the end of the book and an automatic setting change if I want it to becomes a series.

  12. A book I have recently read, Badfellas, by Toninio Benacquista, is about a family in the US witness protection programme who have to move more than once, in haste each time. It is a worthy addition to the "moving house crime fiction subgenre". (Short and full of witty black humour if anyone is interested to take a look at it.)

  13. TNB - Oh, a vacation sounds like a terrific, and very plausible, idea for having your main character go to a new place and meet new people. Those kinds of changes can add some real interest to a series and they are believable.

    Maxine - Thanks for mentioning Badfellas. I haven't read that one yet, but it is a perfect example of what I mean by making a fresh start somewhere else. Folks, Maxine's excellent review of Badfellas is here. After reading the synopsis and your review, I really do want to read this one.

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