Thursday, August 5, 2010

Making a Clean Start...

Have you ever wanted to completely leave everything behind and make a clean start? If so, you’re not alone. Many people get to that point, either because of life’s circumstances or their own sense of adventure. That’s part of the reason for which people pick up stakes, so to speak, and move to new places, especially places where they’re not known. Of course, it’s not always easy to make a clean break. The past often has a way of catching up with us. Trying to make a clean start is common enough in real life; it’s also a common theme in crime fiction, and that makes some sense. Making a clean start allows for all sorts of possible plot points and complications (e.g. hidden identities, characters from the past, getting used to a new environment).

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, American-born Elsie Cubitt has tried to make a clean start in England with her husband, Hilton Cubitt. She’s admitted to her husband that she’s had some unsavory associations in the past, but that she’s got nothing to be ashamed of herself. She then makes her husband promise not to question her about her past, and he agrees. The marriage is a happy one and Elsie seems to have made a fresh start. Then, she receives a cryptic letter in code, and it’s clear that she’s upset by the contents of the letter. She won’t tell her husband what’s wrong, so he asks Sherlock Holmes to help unravel the mystery. Holmes agrees and looks into the case. In the meantime, more coded messages have appeared – some of them are even drawn onto a window ledge at the Cubitt home. Then one night, Hilton Cubitt is killed and his wife wounded. Holmes deciphers the code and uses it to trap the killer and solve the mystery. In this case, Elsie Cubitt isn’t able to make a really clean break from her past.

Neither is Samuel Ratchett, a wealthy American businessman whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Ratchett is traveling across Europe on the world-famous Orient Express. Traveling by the same train is Hercule Poirot, who’s been called to London on a case he’s investigating. Ratchett has the sense that he’s in danger, so he tries to hire Poirot as a kind of bodyguard. Poirot refuses, much to Ratchett’s chagrin. On the second night of the journey, Ratchett is stabbed. Poirot is asked to find out who the murderer is and begins to look into Ratchett’s past. What he discovers is that Ratchett had tried to make a clean break with his past. He wasn’t successful, though, and you might say his past caught up with him on the train.

In Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny, where someone has tried to make a clean start among the “very nice” residents of the town. Everything falls apart when Mrs. McGinty, a local charwoman who’s a little too curious for her own good, discovers a piece of that person’s past. The only way to make a complete break with the past seems to be getting rid of Mrs. McGinty, and that’s exactly what that person does. All of the evidence in the murder seems to point to Mrs. McGinty’s unpleasant lodger, James Bentley, he’s arrested and convicted of the crime. Superintendent Spence has begun to doubt Bentley’s guilt, though, and asks Poirot to investigate the case. Poirot agrees and takes a close look at all of the inhabitants of Broadhinny. In the end, he finds out who was so determined to escape from the past that a murder seemed necessary.

In Mickey Spillane’s The Big Kill, former con man William Decker decides to make a clean break with his past. He’s got a young son and wants to “go straight” for his son’s sake. It’s not as easy as it seems, though, and one night, Decker brings the boy into a bar, has two quick drinks and leaves again, this time without his son. Just as he exits, Decker’s shot in a drive-by incident. The car involved then turns around and runs over Decker, as if to be sure he’s dead. Mike Hammer, who’s in the bar, sees what happens and rushes out. He’s not in time to find out who’s responsible for Decker’s murder, but he takes Decker’s son in and determines to find out the truth for the boy’s sake. It turns out that Decker was desperate for money and linked up with a criminal gang, so at first, it seems that he was shot because he’d bungled a break-in job. In the end, though, Hammer finds out that Decker was shot for quite a different reason.

There’s also a case of trying to make a clean break in Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbor. In that novel, Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsdale College, Oxford, is preparing for retirement, and is facing the decision of whom he will choose as his successor. The two top candidates for the position are Julian Storrs and Denis Cornford. Both men are eager for this opportunity, and their wives are at least as vested in the decision. Then, disaster strikes. Investigative journalist Geoffrey Owens, who’s talented at finding out about people, and doesn’t stick at blackmail, finds out the truth about the past of one of the characters. Now, with this important position at stake, that person sees no alternative but to get rid of Owens, and that’s exactly what happens. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in to investigate. They find that the desire for a clean break played a major role in the murder.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas is centered, you might say, on the theme of making a clean start. The Blake family is an American family who live in Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy, France. Soon enough, we learn why. Fred Blake, the father of the family, is really Giovanni Manzoni, a member of the New Jersey Mafia. He turned State’s Evidence against his fellow gangsters in order to avoid a prison sentence, and a two million dollar bounty was soon put on his head. So the family was placed under government protection and moved to France. Along with adjusting to the very different Normandy lifestyle, the family also has to face the possibility that they’ll be betrayed. That’s exactly what happens when their secret identities are revealed and word gets back to the head of the New Jersey Mafia that Giovanni Manzoni and his family are alive and well. Now, the family has to prepare for Mob-style revenge.

Sometimes, it’s the sleuth who tries to make a clean start. That’s what happens in P.D. Martin’s Body Count. Australian-born Sophie Anderson lost her brother to an abduction when she was a child. Since that time, she’s had psychic visions of the incident that still plague her. Although her parents aren’t happy about it, Sophie moves to the United States and becomes an FBI profiler with the ability to “get into the minds” of killers. She’s settling into her new work and beginning to feel that she’s made a solid new beginning. Then, the body of a young woman is found, and Sophie begins to have psychic visions about the killing. Another body is found, and the forensic story that it tells closely mirrors Sophie’s visions. Now, instead of leaving her past behind, Sophie has to use her psychic visions to track down a serial killer.

Most of us have had times when we’ve wanted to begin again and make a clean start. As crime fiction shows us, that’s often hard to do. Which novels have you enjoyed that focus on trying to make a clean start?


  1. Actually many of the stories Ive read lately have the characters making life-changing moves. In the book I'm reading currently called CUT SHORT by LEIGH RUSSELL, the MC moves to a new town and new job to escape a bad relationship. Also, in Edward Martin's books, his MC moved and made life changes.


  2. In Jess Walter's brilliant novel Citizen Vince he is in the witness protection program in Spokane. I remember a bit where his girlfriend is getting a mortgage from the bank and he blurts out that the Mob would not charge that rate of interest.
    In the film A History of Violence the character played by Viggo Mortensen a hit man for the mob has made a new life for himself until an act of bravery brings him to the attention of his former associates in Philadelphia.
    Sometimes life changing moves bring even more complications.

  3. I like the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child. According to Wikipedia, "As a drifter, the only possessions he carries are a foldable toothbrush and an expired passport. He wears his clothing for 2–3 days before discarding it, usually purchasing new clothing cheaply from from chain outlets. He has no steady income and lives on his Army savings in his bank account."

    Here's a guy who starts a new in a new town for each book.

  4. Clarissa - Oh, I haven't read Cut Short, although I've heard of it. Please let me know what you think of it, or post a review or something. I would love to know what your view of it is. And thanks also for the reminder of Martin Edwards' great Lake District series. No doubt about it; Daniel Kind makes real "fresh start" changes.

    Norman - Thanks for your examples. I haven't seen A History of Violence, although I like Viggo Mortenson. I shall have to try to watch that one. And thanks also for that bit from Citizen Vance; it really is a perfect example of the kind of thing I mean : ).

    Patti - Awww, thanks : ). But I'm no Wonder Woman. I do not have an invisible plane!

    Stephen - Excellent point! Jack Reacher does start over wherever he goes. As a drifter, he just gets a new life whenever he stops.

  5. Yeah, my life has been crazy lately but I am working my way through the book. As soon as I'm done, I will do a review.


  6. What a fascinating question, Margot; and as usual, what marvelous literary examples to illustrate your point! I think for many, the idea of 'starting over' is a mesmerizing one but the problem is however much one changes one's location or career, the person involved doesn't change. It's still you and you take your baggage with you, no matter how much you want to leave it behind.

  7. Elspeth - Thank you : ). I agree, too. Wanting to make a clean start really is so very appealing. But it's true; if the person her or himself stays the same, carrying the same baggage, how much of a new start is it? I think the past often creeps up for just that very reason.

  8. These all seem like great examples of starting over. It's intriguing to think of someone completely reinventing themselves as someone else in a completely different area of the world. An amazing topic to think about and all the possibilities it can lead to.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Laura Griffin's new series shows characters making clean starts. Actually, my newest release is the story of someone trying to leave her past behind. And, since we just picked up and moved from Florida to the Colorado mountains, I'm getting a clean start in a lot of aspects of daily living.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  10. Mason - Isn't it fascinating to think about what it's like to get a new identity and start all over in a completely new part of the world? I find that intriguing, too. And it does open up all sorts of possibilities when it comes to plots for stories, doesn't it?? : ).

    Terry - That's right! You've recently had a major change and start-over in your life. I wish for you all the best as you start over. And yours and Laura Griffen's work are terrific examples of people who want to leave the past behind. Folks, do check out Terry's book, Nowhere to Hide.

  11. As usual, another outstanding post, Margot. I agree with Patti ~ you're Wonder Woman!
    I also agree with Uriah, A History of Violence (based on the graphic novel) is a great example of starting life over ~ wonderful performances by Viggo, and Ed Harris and Maria Bello. I saw an interview with Viggo about the film, and the only scene he felt that didn't ring true for the character was the scene on the stairs with his wife. When I saw the movie, I thought Viggo was correct; it's an uncomfortable scene and out of character. My husband & I really enjoyed William Hurt's performance (he was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor; he was only in the film for 8 minutes..."Bro-him...").
    Your post has reminded me of a parole violator who took on the identity of his young nephew, along with his SS# to obtain employment. I should write a post about that incident ~ it was wild. It involved robbery, larceny, and a three day robbery & gun spree before his capture.
    You've provided an abundance of titles regarding a clean slate ~ thanks, Margot!

  12. Kathleen - Awww, thank you! You are so kind!! After your description of A History of Violence, I simply have to see it. Others have told me it was a wonderful movie, and you and Norman have completely convinced me.

    I am intrigued about your parole-violator case. I'm wondering what happened when this person simply took on another person's identity to start over. Please, please, please post about it. I'm interested, and I know you'll do a great job telling the story.