We meet more than one nostalgic character in Agatha Christie’s novels. For example, in The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot gets a letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian who’s moved to the small town of Merlinville-sur-Mer in France. Renauld claims that his life may be in danger, and he asks Poirot’s help. Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to France, but by the time they get there, it’s too late. Renauld has been stabbed to death. Poirot and Hastings work with the French police to find out who wanted to murder Renauld and why. In the process, Poirot learns about Renauld’s past. It turns out that Renauld was actually French, and had left the country years earlier. It was nostalgia that led him back. Ironically, that nostalgia led him right to the one place in France where he would be in the most danger.
In Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Poirot gets a very unusual request. Carla Lemarchant asks him to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale’s wife Caroline was tried and convicted for the murder, and she had motive, too. Crale was regularly unfaithful to her, and had even hinted that he was going to leave her for his latest mistress Elsa Greer. The poison used to kill Crale was found in his wife’s possession, too. But Carla Lemarchant is sure her mother was innocent, and wants her name cleared. Poirot agrees, and interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also asks each to write out an account of the murder. From those accounts and his conversations with the people involved, Poirot is able to figure out who really killed Amyas Crale and why. Although each of the five people have horrible memories of the day in question, it’s also interesting to see how a desire to live in the past also plays a role. For instance, two of the characters are Meredith and Philip Blake. They grew up with Amyas Crale, and Meredith still lives on the property next to the former Crale home. Each is nostalgic for boyhood days in a different way, and that comes through in the novel.
Nostalgia plays an important role in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane is an alumna of Shrewsbury College, Oxford. She has very fond memories of her days there and the friends that she made, so when she gets a request to attend Shrewsbury’s Gaudy Dinner, she is torn. On one hand, she’s eager to make a visit to Shrewsbury, as she had happy times there. On the other, she’s reluctant, because she’s gained a lot of notoriety from having been on trial for murder (the trial is detailed in Strong Poison). In the end, Harriet decides to return to Shrewsbury, and is warmly received. A few months after her return from Oxford, Harriet receives a letter asking her help. It seems that someone has been committing vandalism and writing terrible anonymous notes. There are other disturbing occurrences, too, but the Dean of Shrewsbury College doesn’t want the police involved. So Harriet travels back to the college under the guise of doing research. During her visit, the incidents escalate, and Harriet herself is attacked. Lord Peter Wimsey goes to the cllege to help find out what’s going on, and in the end, he discovers who’s behind these frightening occurrences and what the motive is.
We also see nostalgia woven through Mary Higgins Clark’s While My Pretty One Sleeps. That’s the story of successful designer Neeve Kearny. Neeve gets concerned when one of her best customers, fashion writer Ethel Lambston, fails to pick up her latest wardrobe order. Neeve decides to look into what seems like Ethel’s disappearance, although her father, retired police commissioner Myles Kearny, is concerned for his daughter’s safety. The reason has to do with the murder, years earlier, of Neeve’s mother Renata. The man Kearny suspected of the murder has just been released from prison and Kearny is afraid that he’ll go after Neeve. Despite these concerns, Neeve begins to investigate what happened to Ethel Lambston. As she gets closer to the truth about Ethel Lambston, Neeve unknowingly also gets closer to the truth about her mother’s murder – and more in danger herself. Throughout this novel, we see Neeve’s nostalgia for her childhood, her fond memories of her mother, and her sense of loss.
James Lee Burke’s A Morning for Flamingos also has a thread of nostalgia running through it. Dave Robicheaux has rejoined the New Iberia police force, but in the course of transporting two prisoners to the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Robicheaux is shot and left for dead. The shooter, Jimmie Lee Boggs, escapes, and Robicheaux takes some time off for his wounds to heal. Then, he’s approached by an old friend who works for the DEA, and wants Robicheaux to help infiltrate the criminal gang run by New Orleans boss Tony Cardo. Robicheaux agrees, chiefly because he finds out that this might be a way to track Boggs down. He begins his investigation, only to find out that his old love Bootsie Mouton Giacano, is married to one of Cardo’s associates. It turns out that both are nostalgic for the old days before Robicheaux’s stint in Viet Nam. That nostalgia is part of what draws them back together, and it adds an interesting layer to the story, and a new facet to Robicheaux’s character.
There’s also plenty of nostalgia in Rita Mae Brown’s Pawing Through the Past. Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen is helping to plan her high school’s class’ twentieth reunion. At the same time, her friend Miranda Hoggendobber is helping to plan her class’ fiftieth reunion. As the two women are planning these events, we get a sense of their nostalgia for some of the good times they had. Then, several of Harry’s classmates receive cryptic notes that say, “You’ll never get old.” At first, the notes are passed off as a joke. But when Leo Burkey, who was the class’ Lothario, is shot, it’s clear that the notes were threats. Later, Charlie Ashcraft, also known as a ladies’ man, is shot as well. Now it appears that someone is targeting the members of Harry’s high school class. And in the end, the past is exactly the reason why the murders were committed. Interestingly enough, Miranda Hoggendobber’s reunion is much more pleasant, and offers a welcome contrast to the dark events of the other reunion going on in the same building. As a matter of fact, nostalgia brings Miranda together with an old flame, Tracy Raz, and the two resume their relationship.
Alan Orloff’s Diamonds for the Dead also has an interesting theme of nostalgia. In that novel, Josh Handleman returns from San Francisco to his native Northern Virginia when his father Abe dies from a fall down a staircase. We get a strong sense of Handleman’s nostalgia as he visits the home where he grew up; we also get a sense of the memories he has of his father. One night, a former friend of his father’s tells Josh that Abe didn’t die by accident; he was killed. At first, Josh doesn’t believe it. His father was well-respected by everyone, and had a sterling reputation; his nickname was “Honest Abe” Handleman. But when Josh begins the process of going through his father’s financial affairs, he finds out that his father was actually far wealthier than anyone knew. He also discovers that Abe Handleman had a fortune in diamonds, and that the diamonds are now missing. Now, Josh goes on a search for the diamonds and for the truth about his father’s death. The closer he gets to the truth, the more he learns about his father, and the closer he gets to danger himself.
And then there's Alexander McCall Smith's Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is proud to be the daughter of Obed Ramotswe, and mourns his loss. In The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, she reminisces about her father, his skill with cattle, and the lessons he taught her. Mma. Ramotswe also enjoys reminiscing about the more traditional ways of Bostwana in which she was brought up. In several of the novels in the series, we learn about Mma. Ramotswe's life through the pleasant memories that she has.
There are many other novels that feature nostalgia; I’ve only had space to mention a few. Which ones have you enjoyed?
Speaking of nostalgia (yes, this is related), I’d like to take a moment to lift a glass and send a toast across the border to all of my Canadian friends. May you have a warm, wonderful Thanksgiving holiday – the stuff that the best memories are made of.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s Reminiscing.