Saturday, December 18, 2010

I Remember Doing the Time Warp*

Many crimes, real and fictional, have their roots in the past – sometimes the distant past. And a lot of crime fiction fans are especially fond of stories that focus on a present crime or crimes that are connected with a past crime. One way to tell this kind of story is to really tell two stories – parallel timelines, in other words. On one timeline, readers learn about the present-day crime(s), the sleuth(s) and the investigation. On a parallel timeline, readers learn about the crime in the past. They learn about the characters, the motives and so forth that led to the past crime and later to the present crime. On one hand, that storytelling strategy can be very effective since it cuts down on the need for a lot of description and contrived dialogue. On the other, some readers feel that it’s distracting. To those readers, reading about a past crime pulls the reader out of the present-day story. Readers who are enjoying reading about the crime in the past feel pulled out of the story when they get whisked to the present time.

Agatha Christie experimented with this approach to telling a story in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant asks Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old poisoning murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. His wife Caroline was tried for and convicted of the murder, and she had good motive, too: her husband had admitted he was going to leave her for another woman. Besides the motive, there was plenty of evidence against Caroline Crale; the poison used in the crime was found in her possession, and she had the opportunity to use it. After the trial, Caroline Crale was sent to prison where she died a year later. Now, her daughter wants her mother’s name cleared. Carla Lemarchant tells Poirot that she knows her mother was not guilty, and basically asks him to go back into the past and solve the crime. Intrigued, Poirot agrees. The five people who were “on the scene” the day of the murder are all still alive, so Poirot visits each one and asks for his or her impressions. He then asks each character to write out an account of the tragedy. When Poirot receives those narratives, the timeline, you might say, changes to a timeline sixteen years old. We read about the events of the murder from the perspective of each writer, and from those accounts, Poirot is able to deduce who killed Amyas Crale and why. Once the narratives have been presented, the timeline shifts back to the present, where Poirot invites all five people, as well as Carla Lemarchant and her fiancé, together so he can outline the real truth behind Crale’s murder.

There are also two timelines in Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast. Oslo detective Harry Hole and his partner Ellen Gjelten are investigating reports of a new kind of rifle – the Marklin – being brought into the country. It’s not the kind of rifle that hunters usually use; it’s a killer’s weapon. So Harry wants to know who’s bringing in this new gun and why. Harry’s also been monitoring the activities of Sverre Olsen, the leader of Valkyria, a neo-Nazi group that’s been operating in the area. Hole and Gjelten think that group is linked to the arms-trafficking. This mystery soon leads Hole to a series of murders that seem to be linked. In parallel fashion, we’re taken back to events beginning in 1942 and leading up until the end of World War II. Those events tell the story of a group of Norwegians who fought for the Nazis during that war. Bit by bit, the two timelines tell the same larger story and in the end, Hole is able to figure out what connects the story from the past with the present investigations.

Deborah Crombie’s Now May You Weep also makes use of parallel timelines. In the modern-day timeline, Hazel Cavendish invites her close friend Gemma James on a holiday at Innes House, a Guest House in Cavendish’s native Scottish Highlands. Shortly after their arrival, Donald Brodie, a local distiller, is shot. It turns out that Brodie is Hazel Cavendish’s former lover, and for that and other reasons, Cavendish is accused of the crime. James doesn’t think her friend is guilty, so she begins to look into the killing. She asks her lover, Duncan Kincaid, to join her and help her clear Hazel Cavendish’s name if it’s possible. In a parallel timeline beginning in 1898, we follow the story of Livvy Urquhart, who finds herself in charge of a small family distillery when her husband Charles dies. As we learn more about Livvy Urquhart, and the history of Scottish distilling, we also learn about an old Highlands feud that has affected both Hazel Cavendish and Daniel Brodie. Both timelines – the modern-day investigation of Brodie’s death and the story of Livvy Urquhart – tell the same family story, but from different points in time and different perspectives. Once James and Kincaid make the connections between the two perspectives, they understand who shot Donald Brodie and why.

In Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s Anasazi series, parallel time lines actually run through a trilogy rather than just one novel. In The Visitant, we meet archaeologist William “Dusty” Stewart. He and his team are on a dig in New Mexico’s Sonoran Desert when they find the remains of eight women who were probably murdered. They find other remains, too, but those remains are not located on land they’ve been permitted to excavate. So team has to halt work until they get permission to continue in the new location. The team’s overall supervisor is Dale Emerson Robertson, Stewart’s mentor. Robertson believes that the team can benefit from the expertise of a forensic anthropologist, so he calls in Dr. Maureen Cole. She and Stewart have a somewhat acrimonious history, but because Robertson insists on it, they work together with the rest of the team to find out what happened to the women. In the second and third novels, respectively The Summoning God and Bone Walker, the modern-day team uncovers more mysterious remains, each of which is connected with a modern-day story as well as a past story. Throughout the trilogy, we also follow the parallel timeline of War Chief Browser, a 13th-Century member of the Anasazi people, and his deputy and friend Catkin. In that timeline, readers discover who the victims were. As Browser and his team investigate the murders in the 13th Century, Stewart, Cole and their team investigate the same deaths in the modern-day timeline.

There’s an interesting use of parallel timelines in Robin Cook’s Acceptable Risk. In one timeline, 17th Century New England, we meet Elizabeth Stewart. Her husband Ronald, owner of a successful shipping company, has traveled to London on business. While he’s gone, some strange and frightening events begin to occur in his home town. Several local people begin to accuse Elizabeth Stewart of witchcraft because of some bizarre incidents that have happened with people who have recently visited the Stewart home. Concern quickly gives way to paranoia and in the witch-fearing climate of 17th Century New England it’s not long before Elizabeth Stewart is executed as a witch. Running parallel to this timeline is a modern-day timeline that focuses on Kimberly Stewart, a descendent of Elizabeth and Ronald Stewart. She’s a nurse at a Boston hospital who inherits the home once lived in by the original Stewart family. She’s introduced by her cousin to neuroscientist Edward Armstrong, who’s doing research on anti-depressants. Before long, Stewart and Armstrong are involved romantically. When they discover an unusual ergot growing in the basement of the old Stewart residence, Armstrong believes he’s found the key to a groundbreaking line of psychotropic drugs. He and his team begin work on an experimental drug, and their studies link the results Armstrong begins to see with reports from the 17th Century trial of Elizabeth Stewart. The team’s experiments soon have tragic consequences, though and in the end, their work raises questions about the ethics of certain kinds of research.

Parallel timelines can add to a story and give interesting and fresh perspectives on the same mystery. This strategy can also be an effective way to tell a story without overburdening the reader with a lot of narrative. On they other hand, if not done well, they can pull the reader out of a story. But what do you think? Do you like parallel timelines or do you find them annoying? If you’re a writer, do you use parallel timelines?

On Another Note....

There's still time to enter the competition to win one of two signed copies of B-Very Flat. It's quite simple, really. Test yourself on your knowledge of the victims in some crime fiction knowledge. Then, once you've taken the little quiz, see if you can figure out what the novels mentioned in the quiz have in common (Doesn't matter how you've done on the quiz). If you think you know, send me an Email (docjockey(at)yahoo(dot)com or click the EMail Me button on my sidebar). On 21 December, I'll draw two names from among those who've guessed correctly. Do check it out!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard O’Brien’s The Time Warp.


  1. I do love parallel timelimes, and I have used them in both my Danish manuscripts. I think one reason is that I like seeing how characters develop over time.

  2. Dorte - I really like seeing what happens to characters over time, too. It takes skill to weave the timelines together, and I respect you for using them.

  3. I love parallel timelines, and Five Little Pigs was particularly effective, because the older timeline was from the PoVs of multiple people. To do it any other way would just not have worked.
    The first example I ever read was from crime fiction too - The Valley of the Dead. Not re-read it for years, but at that time I thought it was really effectively done.

  4. I love parallel stories. Especially when one is going back into the past and they mirror each other really well. I'm having trouble with internet where I am so I'm hoping to be able to comment everyday but just so you know...


  5. Rayna - I have to agree; handling POV in any other way would not have worked in Five Little Pigs. It really did have to be multiple POV, I think. And thanks for the reminder of The Valley of the Dead. I am due to re-read that one, too....

    Clarissa - I like it when parallel timelines mirror each other, too. Each story makes the other that much stronger, don't you think? And I'm sorry to hear you're having trouble with the internet. No worries if you can't comment every day; I'm always honoured that you comment at all.

  6. Your post title has sent me back to my own past - I am an 11 year old girl using my parent's record player (without permission) (sorry mum) to learn the words and dance steps to the Time Warp before the wrap party for my drama group next week - my best friend is with me and we keep having to stop the record and go back because we can't understand the lyrics - plus we are laughing at our inability to dance. It's amazing how something minor - like being reminded of a song lyric - can trigger such a strong (and happy) memory. I haven't a clue if we actually sang the song or did the dance at the party :)

    As for books with parallel timelines one of my favourites from this year was Arnaldur Indridason's Hypothermia, where Erlendur is investigating a current apparent suicide which reminds him of one of his earliest cases from 30 years previously when a young boy disappeared and was never found.

  7. Bernadette - Oh, I can just imagine you and your friend practicing that song! It's just a jump to the left and then a step to the right....I just thoroughly enjoyed reading your story! It is fascinating (at least it is to me) how something like a song lyric, a smell, or something small like that can take a person right back to another time and place. Our memories are triggered by the smallest things sometimes... I feel a new post topic coming on....:-)

    And thanks for mentioning Hypothermia. That really is a good example of a book that has parallel timelines, and it is interesting that in that case, it's two timelines in the same person's life.

  8. Your title reminded me of enjoying the Rocky Horror Show when it was first on in the West End (that dates me!) with Tim Curry et al. in the cast.

    I agree that parallel or switching between timelines can really add depth to a novel.

  9. Maxine - Oh, I'm so glad you got a good memory out of that title :-). That's such a fun show, isn't it, and Tim Curry was fantastic as Dr. Frank N. Furter.

    And you're right; parallel timelines or switching between them can have exactly that effect on a novel: adding depth. It can be a very useful strategy for exploring a larger story from different perspectives, too.

  10. I think parallel timelines do add to the depth of the story. When done correctly they help draw the reader in and keep their attention.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - That's just exactly it. Parallel timelines can draw the reader in. They add interest and can add intrigue, too :-).

  12. I can usually follow two stories, but in a book I am reading now, there are four back through time and I am finding it difficult to remember the facts of each one.

  13. Patti - Wow - four stories is a bit much to follow, all in the same novel. I know as a writer I would find it difficult to write four stories in one novel.