Sunday, October 10, 2010

Older Times We're Missing Spending the Hours Reminiscing*

What are some of your fondest memories? Most of us can think of times in our lives, places or people for which we’re nostalgic. I know that’s true of me. In fact, some people are so nostalgic that they seem to live in the past. But even people who don’t go that far very often have warm memories that mean a lot to them. It’s such a natural part of human thinking that it’s not surprising at all that nostalgia creeps into crime fiction, too. Nostalgia can add a layer of interest to a character as we learn about her or his background. It can also add suspense to a story as characters come to terms with the sometimes stark differences between their warm memories and reality.

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?



On Another Note….


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.

20 comments:

  1. Nostalgia is a constant in Burke's Robicheaux novels. I think it adds depth to his character and the plot.

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  2. John - You're quite right, in my opinion. We learn quite a lot about Robicheaux in those "nostalgia" scenes. It does add interesting layers to his character and to the story.

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  3. I remember an Agatha Christie novel where a young couple, who just got married, moved into a house and she starts remembering her childhood there and she goes into the mystery of her mother's death. What a great book... and great post.

    CD

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  4. Nostalgia makes great twists and turns in a mystery. As usually I can't think of a books that fits, but I enjoyed your wonderful post. Your post always gives me some interesting to ponder.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  5. Clarissa - Oh, yes! Sleeping Murder is all about buried memories when the bride starts remembering a place she's never supposed to have seen before. That's a terrific read.

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  6. Mason - How kind of you :-). And I agree; that's one of the most interesting things about nostalgia. You never know where it will lead a character nor how it will affect a plot.

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  7. What a great post. Nostalgia for another time, and for another place is so often at the heart of a crime. There was a short story of Miss Marple where the local rascal buys up the estate where he grew up, and then plots to kill the rich wife who was his passport to return. The name of the story escapes me, but I loved it.

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  8. Rayna - Thank you :-). I think nostalgia is a really powerful force, too. And that story sounds very familiar; I know I have read it, too! Oh, now I will have to dig into my memory and see if I can remember what it was called... Thanks for jogging my thinking :-)

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  9. I love that song Reminiscing. I have a look forward perspective, yet my protagonist has the Archie Bunker Syndrome. He loves the past and the way things were. He's scared of a quickly changing world. Hates globalism and will do anything to stop it. Even steal scientific breakthroughs and murder global figures to keep things the way they were. Guess there's nostalgia here.

    Stephen Tremp

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  10. I enjoyed Alan's book, too, and what struck me about the reminiscing was how different the people who knew his dad viewed him, versus the protagonist (the victim's son.) I like the way the protagonist is surprised by all the revelations that come out.

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  11. Stephen - Isn't that a great song? And it's interesting you would call that Archie Bunker Syndrome. That's not a bad description of it, actually. There really are people like that, who don't want anything to change, and will do anything to bring back the past.



    Elizabeth - Oh, I liked that about Alan's book, too! It was as though we were seeing the protagonist's father through prism, with a constantly changing perspective. A great reminder that nostalgia is a matter of perspective.

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  12. Gaudy Night is a favorite of mine. Almost all books about older detectives seem nostalgic to me.

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  13. Patti - Oh, I like those novels that feature older sleuths, too. They've got history, experience, and so on that makes them very interesting people. And Yeah, Gaudy Night is pretty terrific!

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  14. Isn't it interesting that we remember so many events in the past with a warm, rosy hue? I believe most of us remember the good and forget the bad, or unconsciously rewrite the past so it seems better than what it was. If the present is unpleasant, the past becomes a warm place to escape to.

    Thanks for the toast! I raise a glass of wonderful BC wine to you!

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  15. Apart from your examples, I really like the Miss Marple story "Sleeping Murder" about Gwenda who returns to Britain and buys her childhood home without realizing it.

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  16. Elspeth - I completely agree with you. We do often put on those proverbial rose-coloured classes when we think about the past. It makes sense, too, especially if the present is sorrowful or sad. I wonder if that's why old flames often want to see each other again. I mean, they're "formers" for some reason...

    And thanks for the deee-licious wine :-)



    Dorte - Oh, yes!! Sleeping Murder is most definitely a terrific example of the way memory plays an important role in the way we think. Gwenda is, in an odd way, nostalgic without even realising it.

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  17. Johan Theorin's The Darkest Room starts out with nostalgia, with Katrine and her husband buying Eel Point, the once home of her Mother, and it all goes downhill for them from there! The family history is wonderfully central to the plot.

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  18. Vanda - Thank you for bringing that one up! It is a very solid example of the way nostalgia can lead a person towards all kinds of trouble, because we tend to wear "rose coloured glasses" when we think about the past.

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  19. I do agree about The Darkest Room, that's a great example of misplaced nostalgia.

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  20. Maxine - Absolutely! I'm glad Vanda brought that one up.

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