Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Spite of Your Rules, You've Got a Memory*

Our memories are a critical part of our identities. They have a lot to do with who we are, how we see the world and our senses of self. That’s one reason why memory studies – what triggers our memories, how they are associated with each other and so on – can be so very interesting. It’s also why memories are so important in crime fiction. Whether it’s memories of a crime, childhood memories or other aspects of memory, a lot of crime fiction is focused on what people remember and do not remember.

One of the things about memories is that all sorts of things can trigger them. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot has to rely on the memory of five important witnesses as he investigates a “cold case.” Carla Lemarchant has come to Poirot to ask him to find out who killed her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale was poisoned sixteen years earlier, and all of the evidence pointed to his wife Caroline. In fact, she was arrested, tried and convicted. A year after the trial, Caroline Crale died in prison, but Carla believes that her mother was innocent. Poirot agrees to find out the truth and asks each of the five people who were “on the scene” that day to write out her or his recollection of the crime. He also interviews each of those people. At one point he’s interviewing Meredith Blake, owner of Handcross Manor, the house next to the Crale’s home at Alderbury, where the crime took place. Blake was one of Crale’s close friends, and was there on the day of the crime. In fact, the day before the murder, everyone had been over at Handcross Manor for tea. That tea, and other events that took place that day at Handcross Manor turn out to be important in the solution of the mystery, but Blake doesn’t remember things as clearly as he could. He’s mentioned jasmine in some of his comments, so Poirot uses the scent of jasmine to awaken Blake’s memories. That scent of jasmine triggers some very accurate memories that help Poirot solve the case.

In Third Girl, Poirot has a lot more difficulty triggering exact memories. In that novel, he gets a visit from Norma Restarick, a young woman who thinks she may have committed a murder. At first, she thinks Poirot may be too old to help her and leaves without giving her name. But with help from his friend detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot finds out who the young woman is and begins to investigate to find out if there was a murder and if so, whether Norma Restarick could have been involved. Then Norma disappears. As Poirot and Oliver search for Norma and for the truth about what she has told Poirot, they learn about her past. That past has a lot to do with Norma’s disappearance and the murder she thinks she may have committed. Now Poirot realises that Norma may be in very great danger, and he and Oliver have to work fast to catch a killer before the killer finds Norma. As it turns out, it was Norma’s memory that first put her at risk. She had a memory from long ago that someone did not want her to have.

Memories also play an important role in Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. Gideon Davies is a twenty-eight-year-old violin virtuoso. One frightening day, though, he tries to play and can’t; he simply doesn’t seem to remember how. Desperate for help, he goes to a psychiatrist to find out what is blocking his ability to play. Meanwhile, one night, his mother Eugenie Davies is struck and killed by a car in what looks like a hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers are assigned to investigate Eugenie Davies’ death, and it’s not long before they conclude that it might not have been an accident. As Gideon Davies works with his psychoanalyst, he slowly realises that his musical block stems from memories associated with the long-ago drowning death of his baby sister Sonia. At the time, her nanny Katja Wolff was blamed for the death and imprisoned. She’s recently been released, though, and that event, coupled with Gideon’s increasingly clear memories of the past, paints a picture of long-hidden family secrets. When Lynley and Havers get to the truth about Eugenie Davis’ death and her son’s inability to play, they find that it’s all related to those secrets and to Sonia’s death.

Schoolteacher Jurgen Mitter’s memory, or more precisely, lack thereof, is an important part of Håkan Nesser’s Mind’s Eye. Mitter wakes up one morning with a terrible hangover. As he slowly gets up and moves around, he discovers to his shock that his wife Eva Ringmar has been murdered and her body is in the bathtub. He calls the police and they begin to investigate. In short order he himself is arrested for the murder. Mitter recalls nearly nothing about the night of his wife’s death because he was extremely drunk. He is sure, though, that he is innocent. The prosecutor and jurors don’t see it that way, though, and Mitter is soon convicted of the crime. Because he has no memory of the murder, Mitter is remanded to a mental institution instead of a regular prison. Inspector Van Veeteren attended Mitter’s trial and based on some points of Mitter’s testimony, and some of the evidence, he wonders whether Mitter might be innocent. Meanwhile, Mitter is beginning to recover his memory. Bits and pieces of the night that Eva died come back to Mitter, mostly in dreams. Then, he remembers that someone else was at their home that night. When Mitter remembers who it was, he writes that person’s name in a Bible that’s been left in his room. He also writes a letter to that person, telling the killer that he’s remembered what happened. Those memories cost Mitter his life when the killer receives the letter and kills Mitter before he can tell anyone about Eva’s murder. When Van Veeteren and his team find out that Mitter has been killed, they launch a full-scale investigation his death and that of his wife. Once they find out about the letter, and track it down, they are able to collect the evidence they need to catch the killer.

Michael Robotham’s Lost also focuses on how much we remember – or don’t – and how our memories are triggered. Inspector Vincent Ruiz wakes up in a hospital bed with little memory of how he got there. It turns out that he was rescued from the Thames after nearly drowning there. He’s also got a bullet wound in his leg. In order to try to find out what happened to him, Ruiz asks his friend psychiatrist Joe O’Loughlin to help him put the pieces of his memory together. Bit by bit, with help from O’Loughlin, Ruiz begins to recall what happened. At the time of his injury, Ruiz was working a three-year-old “cold case.” Seven-year-old Mickey Carlyle has disappeared and everyone thinks that she was killed by Howard Wavell. Wavell is a known paedophile, and there is other evidence against him. In fact, he was arrested and imprisoned for the crime. Ruiz, though, thinks that Wavell might be innocent and that Mickey Carlyle might still be alive. As his memories continue to be triggered, Ruiz returns to the case and pursues the truth, despite a great deal of pressure to leave it alone. In the end, he finds out the real truth about Mickey Carlyle.

Nancy Bush’s Unseen also treats the way memories can be repressed and triggered and how they affect us. Paedophile Edward Letton is about to target a new victim when he is struck and fatally wounded by a hit-and-run driver. A few days later, Gemma LaPorte wakes up in the same hospital where Letton is being treated. She’s injured, herself, although not as severely, and has no memory of the last few days. Detective Will Tanninger, who’s been investigating the hit-and-run incident, thinks that Gemma may be responsible for killing Letton. Gemma can’t account for herself for the last few days, and her injuries are consistent with the kinds of injuries one would expect Letton’s killer to have. Will and Gemma try to piece together what happened, but it turns out that this isn’t Gemma’s first episode of memory loss. As she gradually recovers, Gemma also begins to remember the day of the accident and some other long-buried memories. But the closer she gets to really remembering what happened, the more danger she is in from her past and from the real killer.

Lots of different things can trigger memories; a sound, a scent, an image, any one of those can bring back recollection. Memories hold the key to a lot of who we are, and to a lot of crime fiction. Which novels have you enjoyed that focus on people’s memories?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Code of Silence.


  1. I love the subject of repressed memories. In fact, a book I'm writing features that subject.

    The books you've mentioned are wonderful. Especially the Five Little Pigs (one of my favorites) and how even years later things can be remembered and the truth found out.

    Hmm, I just remembered the scene from another AC novel After the Funeral. Remember when the crime is solved because a family member remembered a funny quirk (body language) of another family member even after not seeing the person for years? Don't want to give details away.

  2. Great topic! I've always enjoyed mysteries that deal with memory. Faulty memories of witnesses, memories from long ago that can help solve cold cases, etc. You've brought up some great ones here. :)

  3. Clarissa - Yes I do, indeed, know exactly which scene you're referring to in After the Funeral. That's such a great example of how memories can come back... Thanks for mentioning that :-).

    And I think it's absolutely fascinating that you're writing a story that features repressed memories - what a great idea for a topic :-). I'll be really looking forward to reading it.

    Elizabeth - Thank you :-). I enjoy that kind of novel, too, that focuses on long-ago memories. There is so much one can do with a plot like that :-).

  4. Memory is such a fascinating subject. Nobody ever remembers things exactly the same way. It's always weird to get together with family and find they have totally different memories of a holiday five years ago that is still vivid in your head. It simply didn't happen the way they remember. Did it?

    Five Little Pigs is one of my favorites, too. Funny how many Christies were renamed in the US. I never can figure out why.

  5. Anne - Oh, I agree; it is always so interesting to see how our memories differ about the same things. It really is. I think our different perspectives give us different memories.

    And it is also interesting how many Christies were given different names when they were published in the U.S. It can be a little confusing, and I've always sort of wondered about that, too. I think it's something that publishers decided.

  6. I'm fascinated by memory and how the mind works.

    Another book that hinges on memory and the interpretation of events, highlighting the unreliable nature of witnesses and their memories is Agatha Christie's Elephants Can Remember.

  7. The book I'm working on now has to do with repressed memories and what the protagonist is willing to do to stop the memories from haunting her. I think these kinds of books are almost studies of how the past can haunt or destroy the future.

  8. Margaret - Isn't it interesting how memory works? And you are quite right about Elephants Can Remember. That one, too, hinges on what witnesses do and don't remember. Thanks for reminding me of it :-).

    Helen - Oh, that sounds like a fascinating story! I think there definitely are people whose memories are so traumatic in one way or another that they do whatever they can to repress them. And you're quite right; memory really shows how the past is tied to the future...

  9. I greatly enjoyed Elephants Can Remember and Five Little Pigs. It's always fascinating to discover what certain people remember and how each of their prejudices colour their memories. Each of us see the world in our own way. Last year's movie The Social Network dealt with this issue too; each character sees the events in their own light.

  10. Elspeth - That is, indeed, one of the most interesting things about memory. What we remember and don't remember, and what we repress and accept as memory, are all very much affected by our views and prejudices. That's one of the important things a sleuth has to do, I think: put together an accurate picture of what really happened from listening to everyone's prejudiced perspective. And thanks for mentioning The Social Network. That's a really interesting portrait of different people's views and perspectives.

  11. Repressed memory adds another layer of intrigue to a mystery to me. As a reader you wonder if what they are remembering is going to be true or if they are going to be influenced by someone to believe something happened when it really didn't.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Mason - You're so right. In a well-written book, the author can make you wonder whether what a person remembers is something that really happened, or something the character is afraid happened, or thinks might happen, or something else. Memory is such an interesting phenomenon!