Monday, June 08, 2009

Echoes from the dead

Is it my imagination, or have many recent acclaimed crime novels built their plots around the lingering echoes of a decades-old crime , often involving a child? Tana French's In the Woods, The Sinner by Petra Hammesfahr and Dennis Lehane's Mystic River come to mind, and I'm pretty sure there are more. And have Scandinavian writers written more than their share of such books?

What other novels fit this plot profile? And are such plots really more popular these days? If so, why?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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38 Comments:

Blogger Bill Peschel said...

Harlen Coben's "The Woods" from 2007.

It's a pretty standard template. I remember reading Ellery Queen's "The Murderer is a Fox" years ago, in part because it was an excellent mystery.

June 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I just read a bit about The Murderer Is a Fox. Indeed, the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the book could apply to any number of contemporary novels: "Ellery Queen investigates a murder that took place a number of years ago and has blighted the present-day lives of members of the Fox family."

Still, I wonder what was the first crime story to use this theme. And I wonder if it has, in fact, interested more crime writers in recent years. Håkan Nesser is yet another Scandinavian crime writer who has used it in recent years.

Does something in the zeitgeist of our era or any other make authors want to write stories about probing the past? Just a thought for your next idle barroom chat.

June 08, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Coben's book might fuel my idle speculation in this matter. I remember there was some apprehension that there might be confusion between his book and Tana French's similarly titled debut novel. Of course, her book went on to enjoy the kind of suiccess that would dissipate such worries.

June 08, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

It's been awhile since I read either of them, but I was struck when I read both Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height and Peter Robinson's In a Dry Season to discover that both involved discovering bodies after vallies that had been dammed up for awhile, but obviously not for centuries, were drained. Both told their own tales based on this, but I did wonder if there had been some major dam draining in England at the time which made two books, published within a relatively short time of each other, use this premise. I thought they were both excellent, by the way.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Arnaldur Indridason wrote The Draining Lake inspired by a lake that had started draining in Iceland, I believe after an earthquake. I've read two of his novels, and this was one more example, to me, of his superb use of his own land is a setting. Or peerhaps my impression is colored by the deep feeling for his own land that expressed at Bouchercon.

Themes just seem to crop up for whatever reason. A number of Scandinavian crime novels written toward the end of the 1990s and into the early years of this decade included the fear of Satanism, for example. I always figure there must be a reason for these things, something about a given theme that strikes authors' imaginations.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Yes, probably I was being too literal minded in my approach. There may have been a drained lake that drew their attention, but it was probably something more about the historical moment that drew their minds toward the image.

Oddly, I just discovered tonight that Peter Robinson is not in fact English. He's a Canadian.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I have one of the better v-words: deadlys

A draining lake is such a powerful and suggestive image. One can well understand its appeal, I think. Still, if a bunch of writers started writing about draining lakes around the same time, one might want to ask why.

I think Peter Robinson lives part time in England or has done so. Everyone seems to be surprised upon learning that he's Canadian.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Philip said...

Peter Robinson was born and bred in Yorkshire, you know. He moved to Canada in his mid-twenties. In that sense he's Canadian, the same sense as say, Michael Ondaatje. It would help if he were termed 'British-born Canadian'. The thing is with writers, as with others in the arts, is that their adopted nationality and what informs their works may be very different indeed. I've always thought the Americans are very good in this regard. Claudio Arrau, for example, lived in the US from 1938, but never once have I seen him called an American pianist, a description that would be ludicrously wayward.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Bernadette in Australia said...

I read Anne Holt's What is Mine around the same time as Echoes from the dead earlier this year and I remember thinking the plots shared similarities - earlier case of killed child mixed with current case of missing child.

Laura Lippman's What the Dead know could also squeeze into this plot line - child considered dead turns up many years later. But perhaps this doesn't count as Lippman isn't from beyond your borders :)

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Re: national identities, there's also the issue of how people choose to identify themselves, and indeed whether it's expedient for others to apply certain labels. (Australians are notorious for co-opting New Zealanders, to give a fairly harmless example.)

"On Belulah Heights" is one of my favourite Reginald Hill novels, and it should also win a prize for one of the most interesting uses of classical music in crime writing. (Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.) The difference between the deliberate drowning/draining in it and the unplanned revelation Indridason makes for absorbing reading.

Robert Wilson's "A Small Death in Lisbon" is another example of a story where a present crime raises the spectres of (several different aspects of) the past. It's an excellent book - actually, it's very close to being my desert island crime novel.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

Philip, thanks for clearing up Peter Robinson's origins for me.

I liked Wilson's A Small Death in Lisbon quite a lot too, Lauren, and yet for some reason I've never gone on to read anything else by him.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Juri said...

Michael Connelly's CITY OF BONES.

Joe Lansdale has a Hap and Leonard novel that might fit the bill, but I have trouble remembering the details.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Well, Thomas Cross has _Breakheart Hill_, and Peter Robinson has another novel, besides the one already mentioned, about an unsolved murder of a youngster. In this case, I think it resembles the Tana French novel in that it was Alan Banks' friend who disappeared and was never found. Unfortunately, I can't come up with a title just now.

My impression is that this theme isn't a new one. In fact, I just finished reading Leslie Thomas' _Dangerous Davies: The Last Detective_ in which he attempts to solve the case of a missing young girl ("believed dead") that happened over twenty years ago. This novel was first published in 1976.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Philip. I have never explored the matter in great detail because I have never read Peter Robinson. I will say that I now think less of all those references -- some of them snide, perhaps -- to his choosing to identify himself as British or being content to be known as English. I don't recall any accompaning explanations that he was born in England.

Peter Robinson by no means deserves my current verification word, which the whimiscal v-word gods may think is phonetically appropriate: traters

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Bernadette: Anne Holt would certainly fit my Nordic hypothesis. Laura Lippman is just down the road from me in Baltimore. But she was a guest of honor along with Mystic River's Dennis Lehane, who I think is a friend of hers as well, at Bouchercon last year. Perhaps the zeitgeist is similar on both sides of the Atlantic

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Lauren, do Australians claim well-known New Zealanders as their own? Lots of people in the U.S. assumed that Russell Crowe was Australian all the way, though he was born in N.Z. I don't know what his citizenship is or how he identifies himself.

Guy Pearce, that other Australian, was born in England, I have just found out. For years publicists and reviewers seemed to assume Mel Gibson had been born in Australia. As far as I'm concerned, Antarctica would not be far enough for him, though I would not wish him on the penguins.

Thanks for the tantalizing assessment of "On Beulah Heights." I have read several laudatory assessments of the novel. I don't know the "Kindertotenlieder," but I love "Das Liede Van der Erde," so I have some familiarity with Mahler's preoccupation with death.

One might also count Jo Nesbø's "The Redbreast" among those novels driven by events in the narrative past, but I don't. Rather, I think of the novel as telling parallel stories, one in the present, one in the past.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Juri. Michael Connolly gave a good interview at CrimeFest, so he's a candidate for my reading list should I decide to explore the crime fiction of my own adaopted country.

I've read one of Joe Lansdale's short stories -- superb and chilling, but the one Hap and Leonard novel that I tried was too jokey for me to get far with it.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger seanag said...

I had no idea that Gibson was born in New York.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Fred, in that case the crime from the past haunting the present may be one of those timelessly evocative themes, and the hint ot the gothic is no accident. Even such a novel as Stuart Nevill'e upcoming Ghosts of Belfast is probably related to such stories (and in a particularly interesting way, from what I know of the novel and from the selection I've read).

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, I didn't know that odious person was born in New York, but I knew he was American. I suspect that his publicists were for years content to let it be thought he was Australian -- the whiff of exoticism and all that, plus the contemporary fascination in American popular culture for things Australian.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Lauren said...

Since Guy Pearce emigrated at three, I think he can justifiably be called Australian. And I remember being delighted when I discovered Mel Gibson really wasn't.

Oh, and Nicole Kidman was born in Hawaii to Australian parents, but they went back to Australia fairly soon after. (I'm not that fond of Kidman as an actress, but as she went to the same high school as me - though not at the same time - I'll certainly defend her claim to national identity!)

Russell Crowe is from New Zealand, though tends to identify himself with both NZ and Oz. (From his speeach at the Oscars: "God bless America. God save the Queen. God defend New Zealand and thank Christ for Australia.”) Since he lives in Australia most of the time, a lot of people are quite happy to sweep the Kiwi part of his heritage under the carpet.

Sam Neil is another actor whose identity is sometimes confused in an Aussie direction - he was born Northern Ireland but his New Zealand-born father took the family back there when he was a child. (I'd known this already, but was amused to discover while checking for this comment that his real name is Nigel!)

And slightly more obscurely, the musicians Neil and Tim Finn often get nationality-napped by Australians, despite both having been awarded OBEs for their contribution to the music of New Zealand!

Umm...I can't see a way to make this topical, except to suggest a new plot whereby a serial killer from Auckland takes gruesome revenge on all those who've ever asked if he's from Sydney...

June 09, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Crowded House weren't bad, but I still like Triffids, Go Betweens, Mental as Anything and Wedding Parties Anything better.

June 09, 2009  
Anonymous marco said...

Arseman. That's rude.I was never insulted by a v-word before. Maybe the verificator really likes the Finn brothers.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No one said comments have to be topical here.

Good acceptance line from Guy Pearce, and here's a plea that if we had more men named Nigel, ours would be a gentler society.

Could the serial killer in question puzzle police by leaving a lamb chop on his victims' foreheads?

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, my rock and roll currency probably withered some time before the Sex Pistols, but I've always thought that Mental as Anything and Crowded House were pretty good names for bands.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Er, make that a good acceptance speech from Russell Crowe, though if that speech was for Gladiator, the movie was not that great.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Marco, that's a rude v-word, but pretty funny nonetheless. One may even find it reassuring that the v-word generator is human enough to have a rude sense of humor.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

"the crime from the past haunting the present may be one of those timelessly evocative themes"

I believe it is. One of the earliest I can think of, and one of the most powerful works known, is Oedipus Rex, which at the heart is the story of a crime involving an infant which comes to haunt the parents several decades later.

June 09, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Very good! Oedipus Rex has come up from time to time here in discussions of crime elements in classical and other great literature. It's a perfect example for the current discussion. Thanks.

June 09, 2009  
OpenID maxine said...

I'm glad Philip corrected the record about Peter Robinson above. He was one of the star guest authors at Harrogate last year, very popular there as a "local author", and he spoke entertainingly (and with a broad Yorkshire accent - nobody who has heard him speak would think he's Canadian) about his life in the two countries. I think most of the audience were more surprised to learn of the Canadian aspect to him, unlike in this discussion where the Yorkshire aspect was less well known.

Returning to the question, I agree with those who say that the old case/body is a standard crime fiction template. As I read a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction I would answer "yes", that plot device occurs quite often. But also, it does in any crime fiction. I am currently reading Black Out by Lisa Unger (USA), the last book I read was August Heat by Andrea Camilleri (Italy) and before that, Sacrifice by S J Bolton (UK) - all three had this theme. And as commented here, authors like Michael Connelly are making whole series out of "cold case" plots. (Also Michael Harvey etc).

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I can't yet differentiate my English accents with any degree of precision, but I have heard Peter Robinson speak, and he definitely sounded English to me.

If I have a few idle moments, I could study this out-of-the-past question further to see if it crops up with particular frequency at particular times and in particular places. Perhaps I could refine (or confuse) my thinking by considering novels in which the past itself is a kind of character. And don't ask me what that means, at least not yet.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Sounds like you are thinking about a time travel story in which the past is a character. If so, you should take a look at Jack Finney's superb time travel novel, _Time and Again_. It even has a mystery to be solved.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

No, I wasn't thinking of that kind of a story. I must have indulged in too extravagant a metaphor. I meant a story in which the crime or other act that comes back to drive the story occurred so long ago that that very length of time becomes an important element -- that is, in my clumsily metaphorical way of speaking, a character.

Thanks for the recommendation, though. I'll take a look at Time and Again. Fantasy and science fiction are not normally my cups of tea, so it will be interesting to see if I like this book.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

If you do get a chance to read _Time and Again_, I think you will enjoy it.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks. I've surprised myself by enjoying the occasional supernatural element in crime stories (when such elements are handled rationally and soberly, of course), so perhaps there is hope that I could enjoy a time-travel story as well.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Fred said...

Peter,

Agreed. I usually don't enjoy supernatural elements in mysteries either, unless it's considered more of a fantasy than a mystery. That's what surprised me (and disconcerted me) so much about a recent Martha Grimes novel which featured a telepathic cat and dog.


An exception is the Eliot Pattison novels, which do have a touch of Buddhist mysticism/religion to them. But, the novels are set in Tibet, which, for some reason, makes it ok for me. In fact, Pattison is one of my favorite writers today--he's one of the few in that "if it has his name on it, I'll buy it, without thinking about the library first" category.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've read two of the Eliot Pattison novels, and two copies of the most recent one have just come into my hands.

I like also Colin Cotterill's incorporation of such elements. He sets his novels in Laos, and I assume the supernatural practices and beliefs he ascribes to his characters reflect traditional beliefs of that country. He makes those beliefs a plausible part of his characters' lives, which is all one can ask of an author, really.

I had a short chat with Eliot Pattison at a book event in New York two weeks ago. We talked about Celtic music, of all things. He's a man of varied interests.

June 10, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

If you send me a mailing address at detectivesbeyondborders (at) earthlink (dot) net, I can send you a copy of the book, which is called The Lord of Death.

June 10, 2009  

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