Sunday, October 24, 2010

It'll Be Just Like Starting Over*

Have you ever wished you had a "Restart" or “Rewind” button so that you could go back and start something over? In golf, it’s often called a “Mulligan” or a “do-over,” when a player is allowed to take a shot (usually from the first tee box) again if the first one’s gone awry. In life, most of us have had times when we wish we could go back and start something over, take back words or make another decision. I know I’ve had that happen to me. It’s a very natural wish, especially if one’s made a mistake or a very unwise decision. Because that desire to start all over is such a common human experience, it’s no wonder that we see it quite often as a plot point in crime fiction. After all, as I’ve often mentioned on this blog, good crime fiction is a reflection of real life.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels include characters who try to start over. For instance, in The Hollow, we meet successful Harley Street specialist John Christow. He’s got a devoted wife and two healthy children, but he’s never quite been able to forget his first love Veronica Cray. Then one week-end, Christow and his wife Gerda are invited to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Unbeknownst to Christow, Veronica Cray has taken a “getaway” cottage nearby and one night during the Christows’ visit, she bursts in on the gathering. It turns out that she’s orchestrated her visit because she’s never been able to forget John, either. She insists on having him see her back to her cottage and in no time, it’s clear to Christow that his former love wants to rekindle their romance. Christow discovers, though, that he’s no longer interested. He tells Veronica that he really doesn’t love her, although he once did. Veronica is baffled, upset and hurt at this rejection as she realises that the two of them are not going to be able to start over. Her feelings quickly turn to hatred, andex this gives her a motive for murder when the next afternoon, John Christow is shot by the Angkatells’ swimming pool. Hercule Poirot has also taken a nearby cottage and gets involved in the investigation of Christow’s murder. Poirot and Inspector Grange sift through the clues and evidence and find out who really killed Christow and why.

Mystery novelist Harriet Vane gets a chance to start over in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison. In that novel, she’s arrested and charged with the poisoning murder of her former lover Philip Boyes. There’s plenty of evidence against her, too; she and Boyes had recently quarreled, and she actually had arsenic in her possession (she claims that she was using the arsenic for research for an upcoming novel). Lord Peter Wimsey attends her trial and becomes smitten with her. When the jury can’t reach agreement on a verdict, Harriet Vane gets a “do-over” – a second chance to prove her innocent. This time, Wimsey determines to clear her name, since he wants to marry her. With help from some of his friends, Wimsey gets the clues he needs to find out who really killed Philip Boyes.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus has certainly had his share of moments to regret. He has quite a lot of difficulty with the policies and authority structure of the police department, and frequently gets himself in trouble because of his inability or unwillingness to “play by the rules.” Still, he’s a brilliant detective with a lot of courage, and the department is loath to get ride of him entirely. So in Resurrection Men, they offer Rebus and several other police officers a chance to start over. Rebus is in serious trouble for throwing a mug of tea at DCS Gill Templer. Immediately he realizes he’s gone too far:

“Rebus sat down then, one finger punching the desk as if trying to find the rewind button on life’s remote control.”

The department remands Rebus to Tullialan Police College, along with several other officers who’ve also had difficulties with authority. Their purpose there is re-education and the opportunity to learn to work as a team. To that end, the Resurrection Men (or “Wild Bunch,” as they are also called) are given a cold case to solve. In 1995, Eric Lomax, a small-time gangster and crook with a vicious reputation, was beaten to death. His murder was never solved, so the Resurrection Men are assigned to go over the facts, get any fresh evidence they can and solve the murder. Beneath the surface, though, Rebus has another purpose for returning to Tullilalan: it’s suspected that some of the other Resurrection Men are involved in illegal activities, and it’s Rebus’ mission to find out who’s involved. While this is going on, Siobhan Clarke is investigating the murder of art dealer Edward Marber. She gets surreptitious help from Rebus in solving the case and as it turns out, that case has a surprising tie to the Lomax murder.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch gets a “do-over” in Echo Park when Raynard Waits is convicted of two brutal murders. Waits knows he’s probably going to get the death penalty, so he hints that in exchange for his life, he’ll give the police information on other cases. One of those cases is the disappearance of Marie Gesto, who walked out of a Hollywood supermarket one night and never made it home. Bosch investigated the Gesto case and, although he had a suspect in mind, he was never able to make a case. When he finds out that Wait may know something about the Gesto case, Bosch goes to see him. In the course of their interactions, Bosch learns that when he first investigated the Gesto disappearance, he missed an important clue. This time, he’s determined to put that right and bring the killer of Marie Gesto to justice.

You might say that Bosch gets a personal “do-over,” too. In The Black Echo, Bosch’s first outing, he meets FBI Agent Eleanor Wish. Bosch discovers that a dead man found in a drainage ditch is a former army buddy of Bosch’s from Viet Nam named William Meadows. At first, Meadows’ death is considered the regrettable but straightforward death of a junkie. Bosch soon suspects otherwise, though, and before he knows it, he’s involved in a much more complicated case than he could have imagined. In the course of the investigation, he gets involved with Wish. Their relationship is interrupted, but Bosch and Wish get a chance to start over in Trunk Music. In that novel, Bosch is investigating the apparent mob killing of independent film-maker Aliso, whose body is found stuffed in the trunk of his Rolls Royce. The L.A.P.D. doesn’t seem particularly interested in finding out the truth about Aliso, but, Harry Bosch being Harry Bosch, that doesn’t stop him from investigating. He “follows the money” in this case, and it leads him to Las Vegas – and right back to Eleanor Wish. The two of them re-establish their relationship and end up together. But again, Harry Bosch being Harry Bosch, we know it’s not going to be as simple for them as that…

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gives a “do-over” to a client, Mr. Molefelo, a successful civil engineer who’s also a landowner and ostrich-rancher. A near-death experience at his ostrich ranch has convinced Mr. Molefelo that he needs to go back and set several things right. Years ago, when he was a very young man, Mr. Molefelo lived with generous and kind Mma. Tsolamosese and her husband while he attended college. At the time, he got his girlfriend, Tebogo Bathopi, pregnant and did nothing to help her; in fact, he sent her away. He also stole a radio from Mma. Tsolamosese. Now, Mr. Molefelo wants a “do-over;” he wants to meet with both women, ask their forgiveness and give them money in recompense. Mma. Ramotswe agrees, and patiently tracks down both women. In the end, they are re-united with Mr. Molefelo so that he can make a fresh start.

In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Delicious and Suspicious, we meet Sebastian “Seb” Taylor. He’s the son of Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue in Memphis. Seb’s made somewhat of a mess of his adult life in New York City, so he decides to go home to Memphis and be “just Seb Taylor,” surrounded by family and friends. His plans are scuttled when Rebbeca Adrian, a scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned just after eating at Aunt Pat’s and the Taylor family comes in for its share of suspicion in her murder. Lulu Taylor is determined to clear the names of her family and her restaurant, so she investigates the murder. In the end, she’s able to find out who’s responsible.

It’s the most natural thing in the world to wish for a “Restart.” That’s why characters who are in that situation can have so much appeal. We sometimes cheer them on in their efforts to start over. Which are your favourites?

On Another Note…

My sincere thanks to Clarissa Draper, who was kind enough to award Confessions of a Mystery Novelist... this beautiful Cherry on Top Award. I’m quite honoured and flattered, especially considering what a superb blog Clarissa has.

As a part of this award, I’m supposed to answer this question:

If I had the chance to go back and change one thing in my life, would I, and what would it be?

Like everyone else, I’ve made my share of mistakes, bad decisions and the all-too-common opening-mouth-before-thinking blunders. But really, I’m a very fortunate person. I really think the only thing I would change, if I could, is that I might have started writing fiction sooner than I did…. Not bad, I guess ;-).

How about you? I’ve been asked to actually pass this award along, but I think it’d be more interesting to just put the question out. What do you think??? Would you take advantage of a “do-over?”

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon’s (Just Like) Starting Over.


  1. No.

    Oh, you want to know more than that?

    Well, I know that seen from the outside, people might think I wanted to rewind the tape so I could have the chance of a better health (not only for me, but for the whole family), a better economy, begin writing earlier and all that.

    But what if anyone in my family wound the tape back and decided they could do without me? Nope, I´d never ever take that chance.

    But when I write, it is fun to play with all the buttons on that tape recorder. This summer I wrote a flash fiction story ending like this:

    "She put the xxxxxxx back in the kitchen drawer, wishing certain things could be undone."

  2. Dorte - LOL! Yes, of course I wanted to know more :-). I really, truly admire your attitude. And of course, you are completely right. A "Rewind" button could have terrible consequences and honestly, if I got one, I'm not sure I would ever use it. It might change everything, and there are a lot of things I like just the way they are...

    You are right, though, about how much fun it is to play with that "button" when it comes to writing fiction. I think it's a fascinating plot line...

  3. My mouth needs an 'undo' button sometimes. :-)

  4. Charmaine - LOL! So does mine!! :-)...

  5. Yes, that would be great if I knew I wanted to write fiction earlier. I also wish I had to stubbornness to finish the books faster.

    I love do-over plots. Especially ones where those characters have amnesia or get a secret identity. It's also interesting in those books when they have to confront their pasts as well.


  6. A replay might be nice, provided you could take along the knowledge you've (hopefully) learned from past mistakes.

  7. Hi! I've been a regular visitor of your blog since last couple of months and it's been a great experience!

    One of the examples of a successful "Restart" can be found in 'THE SHAPE OF SNAKES' by Minette Walters. The protagonist discovers her neighbor on a rainy night, lying on the sidewalk, badly beaten and dying.

    Almost convinced of foul play, she tries to fight the popular perception of it being a road accident. However she ends up being ridiculed by the police,her neighbors and even her husband.

    Tottering on the brink of a mental breakdown and with divorce looking like a distinct possibility; she decides to move to Hong Kong with her husband.

    It is at this point that she restarts the whole investigation into finding out what exactly happened on that rainy night and eventually secures justice for her dead neighbor and reclaims her own life back in the process.


  8. Clarissa - I think most of us have things like that that we would do differently. And you're right; "do-over" plots with secret identities can be intriguing - especially if the past comes back to haunt them....

    John - Ah, that's just it! If there were a "Rewind" or "Restart" button, would you have the wisdom... Hey, you just reminded me of a great "Do-over" film, although it's not a crime fiction film. Peggy Sue Got Married, with Kathleen Turner and Nicholas Cage. Great example of a story where someone with the knowledge does get to have a "do-over."...

    Amey - Thanks for your kind words :-). I'm so glad you are liking the blog. And thank you so much for that Minette Walters example. I've read some of her novels, but not that one yet. You've quite whetted my appetite for it; the story seems like a great one, and it's a terrific example of what I'm talking about in this post. I'm going to have to add that one to my TBR list, as I like Walters' writing.

  9. When you stop and think about what you would do over you also have to think about the ripple effect it would have. That's one I'd have to think long and hard about or I would have to have a do-over of my do-over. LOL

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Oh, that is funny, isn't it? Everything affects everything else, so yes, if we went back and had a "do-over" with one thing, it would change everything else. I'm not sure if I'd want all that much change; it could be dangerous...

  11. If I had a rewind button, would I change anything? Not likely. My policy in life is that once I take a decision, I do not look back, and which other people question many of the important decisions I took, I am quite happy with all of them (if not for those, I would be a different person, and that I would not want).
    But yes, I do wish I could undo some of the small things I say and do.

  12. Rayna - I like your outlook on life :-). The major decisions we take in life really do make us the people we turn out to be, and you're a pretty wonderful person. Why would you want to go back and change that?

    ...and you're not the only one who'd like to be able to undo life's little mistakes...

  13. I once read an alternative history (name of it escapes me) where someone got to travel back in time and kill Hitler before 1933. The result was that someone more evil but cleverer than him came to power and there was a far worse world war than what actually happened and general misery for the entire planet from that point onwards. What I took away from reading that book was that 'do overs' are probably, on balance, a bad idea.

    Just think, If I had the opportunity to take my foot out of my mouth on any of those many occasions I have found it there I might have done something more embarrassing or hurtful. You just never know :)

  14. Bernadette - I don't think I've read that novel you describe; it doesn't sound familiar. But the premise is interesting, and it makes an important point. Everything affects everything else. So if we could go back and have a "do-over," who knows what the outcome might be? It could be far, far worse than the current outcome.

    And maybe you've got a point about the opportunity to go back and not plant one's foot in one's mouth. I've done that an embarrassing number of times and it'd be nice not to have been in that position. But as you say, "foot-in-mouth" embarrassment is one thing; there are far worse things...

  15. This reminds me of the last post you did on which I was able to comment...the one about children of detectives. (Well, it's been a busy week...) I think of Harry Bosch and the times he was able to make the past right, or solve past wrongs. It's not exactly "doing it over," but it's as close as we often get in life. In Michael Connelly's Bosch novels, he gives his protagonist the chance to do two things: solve his mother's murder and begin raising his daughter.

    Would I change anything? Yes. I definitely would. But I can't concentrate on those things or I would be miserable today! One must learn to live in the present, and I have a naked 2yo at my breakfast table singing "Little Einsteins" songs, so how bad could life be?


  16. Michele - LOL! Yes, it's those precious moments in life that remind us that things could be far, far worse :-). It's wise, too, I think, to concentrate on what is than on what might have been...

    You make a very strong point, by the way, about Harry Bosch. Connelly gives his protagonist more than one opportunity to, as you say, make the past right (I like that phrasing). As you say, it's not exactly a "do-over," but it does involving him righting a wrong. I think that's part of what motivates Bosch, anyway - the desire, even the need, to set things right. You give good examples, of that, too :-).

  17. Thanks so much for the mention!

    And--yes, I'd love to rewind to some parts when I've opened my mouth and inserted my foot and NOT say what I said. :)

    Other than that, I'm pretty happy with the way things turned out.

  18. I can think of a few things I'd use the rewind button for - mainly to reverse a few of life's tragedies. But as Dr Who always tells us, you can't mess with time in this way (unless you are Dr Who I suspect).
    I had forgotten that Eleanor Wish was a character in the very first Bosch book, Margot! I must go back and read them again one day, as I often mean to. And while on the subject of Bosch, Connelly uses the rewind theme to a slightly different effect in his latest, The Reversal.

    I think it is a crime-fiction staple for someone to turn out to have taken over somebody else's life, but I can't think of examples at the moment. I do recall that in Elizabeth George's last book, someone who has committed a terrible crime as a boy (based on a famous case in the UK) has reinvented himself with a different name, etc, as an adult. The gradual revelations about this form a significant part of the plot, and explain some strange behaviour on the part of several of the characters.

  19. Elizabeth - Oh, my pleasure :-)! I really like the characters that you've created for the Memphis Barbecue series. I look forward to seeing what happens with them as the series unfolds; I really do.

    I'm right there with you, too, about things I wish I hadn't said. Wonder why it is that it's so easy to open mouth before engaging brain.... ;-).

    Maxine - Ah, the wisdom of Dr. Who! In that case, he's right, actually, I think. Much as I admit there are things I wish I could go back and change, the reality is, it probably would affect other things that I like as they are. Pity you can't untangle those strands...

    I find Eleanor Wish a really interesting character, and I think she's a good match for Bosch in a lot of ways. She's his intellectual equal, she's very like him in terms of her quick-thinking, yet somewhat reflective nature, and she's quite strong in a lot of ways. She's not easily described and to me, that makes her interesting.

    Thanks for the little mention of The Reversal. I'm very excited to read that one, and am just waiting for my turn at the library :-).

    I admit, I didn't read This Body of Death, although now you remind me of this aspect of it, and of your excellent review of it, it's gotten my attention again. I'm going to have put that one on my TBR. Folks, here is Maxine's terrific review of This Body of Death.

  20. I would never start smoking. Although I quit many years ago, it's always a worry. I would finish college before marrying and having kids. I would take up writing before age 50. I would learn how to apply makeup and walk in high heels. I would pay attention in math classes. I would not prioritize my social life in high school and college so much. And so much more. I am full of regret about myself but not my husband. He was my best choice.

  21. Patti - I'm very happy for you that you quit. Quitting smoking isn't an easy thing to do no matter how long ago you did it.

    And I am also really happy for you that you made such a wise choice of husband. I did, too, and it's a great feeling. And of course, I know you are happy about your children, too :-).

    I think we all have things like that that we've done and wish we could re-do. It's what we do with what is that counts more, though, I think....

  22. Would I like a do-over? Yes. In fact, I'd like a lot of them. I'll happily take all the ones that everyone else seems to be passing up. However, I shall keep focussing my eyes on the here and now and the road ahead and keep reminding myself that looking backwards sooner or later will give you a crick in the neck. Those hurt.

  23. Elspeth - Oh, well-said! A crick in the neck does hurt, doesn't it? One of the many good reasons to keep one's eyes looking forward and not backwards. I think it's hard not to wish sometimes for a "Rewind" or "Restart" button, but in the end, you're right; it's the here and now that matter.

  24. No need to thank me. In fact, it is I who should thank you for teaching me a lot about the anatomy and the physiology of a mystery novel. Now I enjoy reading mysteries more than ever! :)

    About wanting to go back and do things differently; I think this desire is very strong in those with professions dealing with life and death situations. A doctor will always tell you about how there was this case that he could have approached differently. A soldier will always tell you how he could have acted differently and saved the life of a fellow soldier.And so it is for a detective also!

    Somehow, these decisions deciding life or death for somebody else are the most difficult ones to sweep under the carpet. And thus the constant pinch of "I wish I could go back and......"!

    P.S. Please do read 'The Shape of Snakes' on a priority basis. If you liked "The Breaker" you will love this one.


  25. Amey - You're very kind - thanks :-)

    I hadn't thought about the effect of being a professional on this kind of question, but you know, that makes perfect sense. As you say, any time a doctor's work turns out less-than-perfect, or even tragically, she or he probably wants to "turn the clock back." The same's true, I'm sure, of lawyers when they lose cases, or banking professionals if their bank suffers a serious loss. And yes, there's no doubt that detectives are exactly the same way. If they don't catch the criminal, or if lives are lost in the process, it's the most natural thing in the world to wish for a "Restart" button...

    ...and thanks for the recommendation of The Shape of Snakes; I'm moving it up on my TBR list :-).