For all that prologues can add to a novel, they can also take away from a novel’s effectiveness. Prologues can be jarring if, for instance, they take place at a very different time from the rest of the novel and it’s not made clear. They can also easily become too cliché. But they are an interesting and sometimes very appropriate way for an author to get the reader interested in the rest of the story.
Some of Agatha Christie’s novels feature prologues. For instance, Sad Cypress begins with a prologue in which Elinor Carlisle is asked by a judge to say whether she is guilty or not guilty of murdering Mary Gerrard. The Council for the Crown then begins to outline the case against her. His description brings back memories to Elinor of the events that led to her trial. Elinor Carilsle is the niece of wealthy Laura Welman. When “Aunt Laura” suffers a stroke, Elinor and her fiancé Roderick “Roddy” Welman travel to Hunterbury, the Welman’s home in the town of Maidenford. They’re also motivated by an anonymous letter Elinor has received that hints that someone is trying to ingratiate herself with Aunt Laura so as to inherit her fortune. When Elinor and Roddy arrive at Hunterbury, they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. Roddy is soon completely infatuated with Mary, and Elinor breaks off her engagement with Roddy when she finds this out. Then one afternoon, Mary is poisoned. It’s not long before Elinor is arrested for the crime; she had two motives, and she prepared the last meal that Mary ate. Peter Lord, Aunt Laura’s doctor, wants Elinor’s name cleared at any cost; he’s fallen in love with her and wants her acquitted. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. Interestingly, this book ends where it begins: at the trial of Elinor Carlisle. In the end, Poirot is able to provide evidence that convinces the jury of the identity of the real killer.
Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide) also begins with a prologue. In that prologue, Major Porter, retired from service in India, is in the Coronoation Club, reading a newspaper story about the death of wealthy Gordon Cloade. He mentions that Cloade had very recently married a young widow named Rosaleen Underhay, and that Rosaleen will be a rich woman. Then, Porter goes on to say that he knew Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay. Apparently, the marriage wasn’t successful, and Underhay agreed to give his wife a divorce. Then, according to Porter, Underhay hinted that if word of his death was made public, Rosaleen would be a widow and entitled to his money, and that he might make a new life under the name of Enoch Arden. Hercule Poirot is the only person in the club who pays attention to this story, and he remembers it. Almost two years go by; then one day, Poirot gets a visit from Gordon Cloade’s sister-in-law, who says that she wants Poirot to investigate to find out whether Robert Underhay is still alive. Remembering what Major Porter said, Poirot gets curious about the Cloade family. Then, a stranger calling himself Enoch Arden visits Wamsley Vale, and hints that he knows that Robert Underhay is still alive. Not many days later, he’s suddenly killed. Gordon Cloade’s nephew, Rowley Cloade, visits Poirot and asks him to help find out the truth about this stranger and his death. Poirot is now too intrigued to resist, and he begins to get involved in the case. In this novel, the prologue gives interesting backstory about Rosaleen Underhay Cloade, and tells the story of how she met her husbands.
Liza Marklund’s The Bomber uses a prologue to build suspense and to tell the story of the murder that’s at the center of this novel. In the prologue, we meet a woman whom we later find out is Christina Furhage, head of the committee that is organizing the Stockholm Olympics. We follow her as she leaves her office, gets a very upsetting telephone call, and then heads to Victoria Stadium, where the Olympic Games will be held. She enters the stadium, and is killed. In fact the first sentence of the prologue prepares the reader:
“The woman who was about to die stepped warily out of the doorway and glanced quickly about her.”
The novel soon switches to the perspective of Annika Bengtzon, a journalist for the Stockholm newspaper Kvällspressen. She gets an early morning call that Victoria Stadium has been bombed. At first, it’s assumed that the bombing is the work of terrorists, and the police try to find out which group might have been responsible. Soon, though, Bengtzon figures out that the bombing was used to cover up a more personal motive for Christina Furhage’s death and that of Stefan Bjurling, who was also killed in the blast. As she finds out more about each victim’s personal life, Bengtzon also discovers what the real motive for the killings was, and who the bomber really is.
There’s also a prologue in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden. Landscaper Warren Howe is working on a job one day. He sees that he’s being watched, and says,
“I thought you were dead.”
The other person then tells Howe that they have to talk, and that he (Howe) can’t have what he wants. Howe refuses to listen and in fact, rudely brushes his visitor off. The tension builds when Howe also brushes off the fact that his visitor has grabbed one of his tools, a well-sharpened scythe. Howe discovers too late that he should have paid attention when he’s murdered with his own tool.
The action in the novel then moves forward ten years. We find out that Howe’s killer was never caught, although his wife Tina was suspected. Now, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was guilty, so DCI Hannah Scarlett and her recently-formed Cold Case Review team re-open the case. As they examine Howe’s life and those of the other people in Howe’s Lake District village, they find out that more than one person had a motive for murder.
The same is true in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s’s My Soul to Take. That novel’s prologue takes place in 1944, when a young girl is lured to an underground hiding place and trapped there by someone she thought she trusted. The end of the prologue sees the child alone in the underground hole:
“Maybe someone would come to get her. Surely the person at the window would save her. Please, please, please. She didn’t want to stay her any more.”
The novel then moves to the present day, when Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by Jónas Júlíusson, who owns a very upscale resort and spa. He believes that the grounds of the spa and the land nearby are haunted, and he wants to sue the former owners of the land because they didn’t inform him of the fact. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts, but she is interested in the fee she could earn. Besides, a trip to a spa sounds very tempting. So she agrees to take the case and travels to the spa. Soon after her arrival, the grim discovery is made of the body of Birna Hálldorsdóttir, an architect staying at the same spa. When Jónas Júlíusson is accused of killing her, Thóra agrees to represent him. She begins to investigate the murder and the talk about the land being haunted. As she learns more about the history of the area, Thóra also discovers the connection between Birna’s death and the long-ago disappearance of the little girl described in the prologue.
My own current work in progress, the third in my Joel Williams series, also has a prologue. This prologue describes a murder that’s at first thought to be a terrible accident. Two years later, the death is re-discovered, you might say, and it becomes clear that the victim was deliberately killed.
These are just a few of the many crime fiction novels that start with a prologue. What’s your view of prologues? Do you prefer them? Dislike them? If you do like them, what kind of prologues do you like? If you’re an author, do you write prologues?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chicago’s Beginnings.