Saturday, September 18, 2010

It's Yesterday Once More*

One of the important parts of any story, including a crime fiction story, is the way the characters unfold and the way we learn about them. Some authors tell us about the characters bit by bit, in more or less a linear way. The beauty of that is that it’s logical, so the reader finds it easy to follow the plot line. Other authors, though, use flashbacks to tell the characters’ stories. Flashbacks can give a character more depth. They’re also quite similar to how we think in real life; for instance, we’re in a situation and it reminds us of another, earlier situation. We remember that earlier situation. We don’t really go back in time, of course, but we do “flash back” to what we remember, even as new situation is happening. When it’s used effectively, the flashback can fill in important pieces for the reader, flesh out characters and tell about critical events in a story.

For instance, Agatha Christie uses flashbacks in And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten people are invited for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each of them accepts the invitation. On the night of their arrival, each of them is accused of having caused the death of at least one other person. At first, there’s a round of shocked protest, but then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. Late that night, another guest dies. The guests slowly realize that they’ve been lured to the island because of their pasts. Then, as more guests begin to die, it’s clear that the guests are all targets. As the novel goes on, we learn about the death each guest is accused of having caused. Those stories are mostly told in flashback form from the different guests’ perspectives. In this way, Christie tells the reader why each person is on the island, and gives the reader each guest’s perspective on the past.

Christie also uses flashbacks in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). Successful Harley Street specialist John Christow iand his wife Gerda are invited to spend a week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also invited are several other Angkatell relations. On the morning they’re to leave for the country, Christow is delayed in his office not because of a medical emergency but because of a flashback. He’s remembering a long-ago love affair with now-famous actress Veronica Cray. Although it was Christow who ended the relationship, he’s never quite gotten over her. When the Christows arrive at the Angkatell home, they join a house party of other Angkatell relations, and as the novel moves on, we learn about their history together in part through flashbacks. When Christow is shot that Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who’s been invited to lunch, comes upon the murder scene. He and Inspector Grange begin to look into the case. Here, Christie uses flashbacks not only to tell the backstories of the different characters and their relationships to each other but also, to show how they are affected by Christow’s death.

Ngaio Marsh uses the flashback strategy in Clutch of Constables. DCI Sir Roderick Alleyn is lecturing to students, and the case he’s telling them about involves his wife, painter Agatha Troy. While Alleyn is out of the country on another investigation, Troy decides to use the time to take a river cruise. Among her fellow passengers are some strange characters. One of them could very likely be an international criminal known as the “Jampot,” who’s wanted for murder. We learn about the cruise, the passengers, and of course, the crime mostly through letters that Troy writes to her husband. The story moves between Alleyn’s lecture to his students and the flashbacks to the cruise story, so the story doesn’t follow a really linear structure.

Neither does Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point. That’s the story of brothers Leo and Patrick Varela, who were born and raised in Belize, and who’ve both moved to the Miami area. Patrick has done well in local politics and is set for real success. Leo is a poet and a mental health worker. Both brothers seem to have solid lives, but both are hiding a terrible secret from their past. One day Freddy Robinson, a former friend from Belize, shows up at the hospital where Leo Varela works. Freddy’s now working for some very shady people who’ve given him a job for which he needs Leo’s help. Freddy asks Leo to release one of the patients under his care. It seems this patient may have “inside information” on some dirty tricks that Patrick Varela’s people have been using, and the people Freddy works for want that information. At first, Leo refuses. Then, Freddy threatens that if Leo doesn’t help, he’ll reveal a dark secret he knows about the Varelas’ past. That threat is enough to persuade a reluctant Leo to get involved with Freddy again, and the result is a tragic series of events. Throughout the novel, we learn bit by bit about the Varela brothers’ life in Belize and about the terrible secret they’ve both been keeping. That part of the story is told in flashback form. It’s intermingled with the present-day story so the reader sees the connection between past and present.

Colin Dexter uses flashbacks a few times in The Riddle of the Third Mile. The novel begins as Bert Gilbert, who now works for a moving company, remembers a terrible day during World War II. The events of that day set the scene for the present day, where we find out that Oxford don Oliver Browne-Smith seems to have disappeared. When a body is found dressed in Browne-Smith’s clothes, Morse and Lewis begin to investigate the murder. Through flashback, we learn that Browne-Smith was Morse’s mentor at Oxford, and that he considered Morse a brilliant student. We also learn through flashback why Morse left Oxford: he’d fallen in love with Wendy Spencer. When she ended their relationship, Morse fell into a deep depression and ended up having to leave the university. This story about Morse’s past is interwoven with the present-day investigation of Browne-Smith’s disappearance, and of its connection with the long-ago events of World War II.

James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux battles his share of personal demons and at times, the cases he works on brings those demons back. For instance, in A Morning for Flamingoes, Robicheaux is shot and left for dead by Jimmie Lee Boggs, a prisoner he was helping to transport. Robicheaux’s injury brings back memories of his time in Viet Nam, and Burke shares those memories as flashbacks. Once he’s healed from his physical wounds, Robicheaux reluctantly agrees to take part in a “sting” operation against a New Orleans crime boss, Tony Cardo. It turns out that Cardo is also a Viet Nam veteran, and s Robicheaux interacts with him, this, too, triggers flashbacks. In that same novel, Robicheaux re-unites with an old love, Bootsie Mouton Giacano. When he gets a letter from her, we learn about his first meeting with her through flashbacks, and later, as the two spend time together, Burke tells more about how they met and why they broke up.

Alexander McCall Smith uses flashbacks quite often in his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and his Sunday Philosophy Club series. The protagonists in each series, Mma. Precious Ramotswe and Isabel Dalhousie, are reflective individuals. So as the stories in these series unfold, we learn about those characters through their thoughts and memories. Those flashbacks make the novels in both series move in a more stream-of-consciousness than a linear progression.

And that can be one challenge of flashbacks. Since they can interrupt a story, they can be distracting if not done well. However, authors who use flashbacks effectively weave them in so that the reader can follow the story as well as get background information and important clues to the plot. When they’re deftly integrated, they can add an interesting depth to a novel. What’s your view? Do you enjoy flashbacks? Do they distract you? If you’re a writer, do you write flashbacks?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Carpenters' Yesterday Once More.


  1. Flashbacks can add a great deal to a story if done well. As you mentioned, in our daily life things do happen that cause us to recall a memory from our past so in that respect it's only natural to be included in writing. However, when the author introduces a flashback and then goes on and on with that flashback, you lose the present and what the story should be focused on. Also if every other page of the book contains a flashback, that can be a little too much unless the whole focus of the book is about the characters' flashbacks.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - You make a well-taken point! When the flashback goes on for a long time, or takes up too much of the action in a novel, it can take away from the "here and now" part of the book - the main part of the story. I agree that that's what a story should be focused on, too. Of course, as you say, there are books that are entirely about characters' flashbacks, but those are, I think, harder to pull off.

  3. I was going to to say that I hate flashbacks but I can't. One of my favorite television series is Cold Case and the whole episode is basically told in flashback. Flashbacks can be powerful. But, it has to be done right. Flashbacks in Cold case are dialogues. Also, they are short and only have to do with the case - nothing more.

    In the book you're reading, I do use flashbacks but I felt I needed them. However, I don't use them much.


  4. Clarissa - Oh, my favourite TV show is Cold Case, too! And yes, it is told in flashbacks, but they're rather seamlessly woven in, so it's not hard to keep track of the action.

    And so far, I've thought the flashbacks you use in The Sholes Key are quite effictive. Folks, do check Clarissa's book out. You can enjoy each chapter for free, and there's a new instalment every few days :-).

    There are many flashbacks, though, that don't work particularly well. They aren't woven in well, or, as Mason mentioned, they "take over" the "here and now" plot. Still, when it does work, it can work well.

  5. I do like flashbacks, but I don´t think I have used them in any of my novels. I do sometimes in my flash fiction stories, though. But then I test my limits much more in flash which I think is a very good reason for writing these ultrashort stories (it is certainly not for the money :D)

  6. Dorte - LOL! No, flash fiction is most definitely not done for the money, is it? Your stories are terrific, and you use flashbacks effectively, I think. I like flashbacks, too, if they're handled well. They're only a problem if they're "wedged into" a story instead of "sewn in" naturally.

  7. A lot of care is needed with flashbacks, but if done well, they can add a lot to the story. Lonely Magdalen, by Henry Wade, has a long and quite brilliant flashback which forms the middle third of the book.

  8. Martin - You're absolutely right; flashbacks must, indeed, be handled carefully. I confess, it's a strategy I've not really mastered, myself. Thanks for mentioning Lonely Magdalen, too. If one's got Wade's kind of talent, the flashback really does work quite well.

  9. Flashbacks are tricky. If used judiciously, they add so much to a story, but it takes just a little bit extra to push it over the top.

  10. Rayna - You are so right! Flashbacks are definitely to be used with a lot of care. They can add a lot to a story, especially in terms of understanding the characters. But they can also be badly misused.