Friday, September 3, 2010

And You Feel Like a Fool, 'Cause in Spite of Your Rules, You've Got a Memory*

Many of us take great pleasure in remembering. In fact, memory is a really important part of human thinking and experience. Imagine what it might be like if you didn’t remember your name, your family, or any of your experiences, and you have a sense of the importance of memory. Needless to say, memories play an important role in true crime and crime fiction, too. Police and court systems rely on witnesses’ memories, and sometimes, flashbacks and other long-term memories bring to light an old crime. Even when memories aren’t crime-related, they certainly do affect us.

Memories play a crucial role in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant asks Poirot to take on a sixteen-year-old case of murder. Her father, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned one afternoon while he was painting. Her mother Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted for the crime and died in prison a year later. The facts of the case seem to point directly to Caroline Crale; her husband was habitually unfaithful and had recently taken up with a young woman, Elsa Greer, whose portrait he was painting at the time of the murder. Caroline Crale had found out that her husband was going to leave her for Elsa, and had even been heard threatening him. Traces of the poison used in the murder were found in her possession, too. Despite this evidence, though, Carla believes that her mother was innocent. Poirot takes the case and asks each of the five people who were “on the scene” at the time to write out their accounts of the events leading up to the murder, and of the murder itself. What’s interesting in this novel is the differences among the narratives, and things that each character does and does not remember. In one character’s case, of course, the narrative is not truthful, since that character is the murderer. In another character’s case, a lapse of memory that later becomes clear explains some of Caroline Crale’s behaviour during and after her trial.

In Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians), ten people are invited to Indian Island, off the Devon coast. They all accept the invitation, but when they arrive, they discover that their host is not there. Still, they settle in and prepare for their visit. That night after dinner, each of them is accused of causing the death of at least one person. Everyone reacts with shock, but when one of the party dies suddenly, it’s clear that something sinister is going on. Late that night, another death occurs. It’s obvious now that one of the party is a murderer, and now, the survivors try to figure out who the killer is, while staying alive themselves. In this novel, it’s through the characters’ memories that we come to see what brought each one of them to the island, and why each of them has been targeted.

Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night also includes a theme of memories and nostalgia. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane has received an invitation to attend the Gaudy Dinner and festivities at her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford. She’s hesitant to do so, because her murder trial (detailed in Strong Poison) gave her a certain amount of notoriety. As she considers the invitation, we get an “inside look” at her fond memories of and nostalgia for the college and the people who went to school with her. It’s for mostly that reason that she decides to go back to Shrewsbury for the Gaudy Dinner. Once there, Harriet is welcomed much more warmly than she’d thought she would be, and is glad she went. Not long after her return from Shrewsbury, Harriet receives a letter asking her to help investigate a disturbing series of events at the school. There’s been vandalism and some anonymous letters, and no-one wants to call in the police. Harriet agrees and returns to Shrewsbury under the pretext of doing research for a book. With help from some of her old acquaintances at the school, and from Lord Peter Wimsey, Harriet finds out who’s been responsible for the frightening events at the school.

Memories also play an important role in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take. Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by Jónas Júlíusson, who owns an upscale spa and resort. He believes that the property where the spa is located is haunted, and wants to sue the former owners for not informing him of that fact. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is happy to earn the attorney’s fee. Besides, she’s tempted by an all-expenses-paid visit to the spa. So she agrees and travels to the resort. Soon after her arrival, the body of successful architect and fellow spa guest Birna Hálldorsdóttir is found on a beach near the spa. When Jónas is accused of the murder, Thóra agrees to defend him. As she researches the case, she discovers that Birna’s death may be related to the disappearance sixty years earlier of a young girl. Once she makes this discovery, Thóra begins asking around not just about the ghost, but also about the child. She gets some very useful information from the memories that local people share with her. One, in particular, is an elderly woman, Lára, who gives Thóra crucial information about the case. In the end, those memories help Thóra to connect the child’s disappearance with Birna’s murder.

Of course, memories are not always pleasant, especially in crime fiction. They can also haunt us. That’s what happens to James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux. One of the “personal demons” that he faces is his war experience in Viet Nam. Robicheaux suffers from flashbacks and memories of that time, especially when he is under a great deal of stress. In fact, that gives him a unique connection to New Orleans crime boss and drug dealer Tony Cardo in A Morning for Flamingos. In that novel, Robicheaux agrees to go undercover in a “sting” operation against Cardo and his people. His goal is to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, a suspected Cardo associate against whom Robicheaux has a personal vendetta. As he gets to know Cardo, Robicheaux finds out that Cardo, too, is a Viet Nam veteran who’s haunted by his own memories. The better he gets to know Cardo, the more sympathy Robicheaux has for him, and in the end, it’s much less clear than it is at the outset who the “good guys” and “bad guys” really are.

Patricia Stoltey’s Willie Grisseljon is also haunted by his memories of Viet Nam. He’s a former solider who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and has to take precautions to avoid having flashbacks and other unpleasant episodes. He’s the former owner of an accounting firm, and together with his sister, retired Florida circuit court judge Sylvia Thorn, Willie also ends up getting involved in several different kinds of mysteries. For instance, in The Prairie Grass Murders, it’s Willie’s memories of growing up in Illinois that have led him to visit the former family home. While he’s exploring, he finds a man’s body and alerts the police. Instead of being grateful to Willie for sounding the alert, the deputy sheriff accuses Willie of the crime and he ends up in jail. When Sylvia comes to bail him out, the two get involved in finding out who the dead man is and why he was killed.

Even haunting memories, though, may be better than no memory at all. That’s the terrifying experience that Howard Van Horn has in Ellery Queen’s
Ten Days Wonder. He’s been suffering from frightening blackouts where he has no memory of what happened. After one of them, he wakes up covered in blood, and comes to believe he must have done something horrible. So he goes to his old college friend Queen to help him figure out what has happened. Queen agrees and the two try to piece together the facts. Their search takes them to Van Horn’s home in the small New England town of Wrightsville, where they stay with Van Horn’s wealthy father Diedrich and his stepmother, Sally. While they’re there, Van Horn has another series of blackouts. Worse, Sally is found strangled, and now Van Horn is accused of murder. Queen doesn’t think he’s guilty, and investigates the case. After a search through the Van Horns’ past, and another death, Queen is able to figure out the truth behind Van Horn’s blackouts and Sally’s death.

In Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we also see an example of frightening loss of memory. Norma Restarick visits Hercule Poirot because she thinks she may have committed a murder. When she meets him, she changes her mind about hiring him, saying that he’s too old. She leaves, and then promptly disappears. Nonetheless, Poirot is interested in her and finds out who she is from his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver. The two begin to look into Norma’s life to see who might have died and why she would have committed a murder. It turns out that Norma has had several memory lapses, and strange memories of what she thinks must have been murders. In the end, Poirot and Oliver are able to find out what happened to Norma, why she’s had these frightening memories and lapses of memory, and what’s behind her belief that she may have killed someone.

Memories help to define us. They remind us of our identities and they can provide lots of pleasure. They can also be frightening. Either way, memories have a powerful effect on us. Which novels have you enjoyed where memories play a major role?

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


  1. When I started writing Theo's wife in my novels, I debated having her with amnesia. However, I've learned a lot about Theo and his character because of that situation. I don't touch on it much in my book because she's a minor character but I know Theo thinks about her a lot.


  2. Clarissa - Thanks for that example! Folks, please do check out Clarissa book, The Sholes Key. It's a fine thriller and well-written. And it's absolutely free to read online. I know I'm caught up in it!

  3. Repressed memories do add a bit of mystery to any story. It can lead the main character astray or cause the killer to do suddenly be a good guy because he has no memory he's slaughter 10 people. Great post, sorry I can never think of any books to add to your great list.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - You're absolutely right. Repressed memories are fascinating, aren't they? They can lead a character to go someplace for what seems at first like no logical reason. That's what happens in Agatha Christie's Sleeping Murder, when Gwenda Reed finds a house that appeals to her right away and buys it. At first, she's not sure why it appeals to her, but in the end, we find out that she's been there before, and has some frightening repressed memories of things that happened there.

  5. This is a great recap, Margot, of different books that use memories as part of their plot. I'm always interested in the topic as a reader..I think Rendell's books frequently had memory play a role, too...

  6. Elizabeth - Thanks : ). You're right, too, that several of Rendell's books, both under her own name and as Barbara Vine, include an important role for memory. A Dark-Adapted Eye does. So do Speaker of Mandarin and The Monster in the Box. Thanks for bringing up her work.

  7. Rendell has certainly also written some of my favourites when it comes to memories. It is a great theme - one that I like reading AND writing about. Uncovering dark stories is such a pleasure for a (curious) writer.

  8. Dorte - I agree; the theme of memories is intriguing and it allows for lots of different approaches. Rendell does it very well, I think. And, as you say, putting together people's memories to uncover dark truths is particularly, creepily delicious : ).