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 is 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).