The roots of many fictional crimes lie in the past. So it’s not surprising that a lot of crime fiction involves a trip to the victim’s or murderer’s home town (sometimes, of course, they are from the same town, and that’s part of the plot). It’s been done in enough novels that it’s arguably a trope. But it can still work well if it’s done effectively, and it can add some variety of setting to a story (to say nothing of character background).
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, we are introduced to Norma Restarick. She lives in a London flat with two roommates: Claudia Reese-Holland and Frances Carey. She goes to see Hercule Poirot, and tells him that she may have committed a murder. When he asks her to elaborate, though, she changes her mind about seeking his help, and says he’s ‘too old.’ It turns out that Poirot’s friend, Ariadne Oliver, knows Norma, and tells Poirot where the Restaricks live. By the time he finds the family, though, Norma has gone missing. She hasn’t been back to London, and she’s not at the family home. So, each in a different way, Poirot and Mrs. Oliver work to solve the mystery. They find that there was actually a murder, and that its roots are in the past. Poirot’s visits to Norma’s home in the country give him useful information about the case.
Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die tells the story of crime writer Frank Cairnes. He has been devastated since the death of his young son Martin ‘Martie,’ who was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Cairnes is determined to find out who was responsible, so he goes back to the town where he and Martie lived when the boy was killed. It’s not exactly his hometown, but it is a place where he has some history. When he gets there, he learns that the driver of the car that hit Martie was a man named George Rattery. He manages to meet Rattery and wangle an invitation to his home. When Rattery is killed, Cairnes asks private investigator Nigel Strangeways to clear his name. Cairnes claims that he had intended to kill Rattery, but his plot was unsuccessful, and Rattery was later killed by someone else. And in fact, Rattery was poisoned, not drowned as Cairnes had planned. Strangeways looks into the matter and finds out the truth about the murder. For both Cairnes and Strangeways, a trip back to another town gives the answers they seek.
A trip to a hometown is also key to the mystery in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. In that novel, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to the private island of munitions tycoon ‘King’ Bendigo. It seems that someone’s been sending threatening letters to him, and his brother Abel fears for his safety. The Queens arrive and begin asking questions. They find that several people might have a motive for murder, but it’s hard to determine exactly who the would-be killer is. Then, someone shoots Bendigo late one night while he’s in his hermetically sealed study with only his wife Karla in the room. It can be proven that Karla did not fire the gun, and that there was no gun in the room when the incident occurred. It’s a complex puzzle, and it has its roots in the small New England town of Wrightsville, where Bendigo grew up. So, Queen takes a trip there, and learns about Bendigo’s life there. This information helps him find out who the shooter is.
In Miyuki Miyabe’s All She Was Worth, Jun Kurisaka is concerned because his fiancée, Shoko Sikine, has gone missing. He doesn’t think she would simply leave without even contacting him, so he asks his uncle, Tokyo police detective Shunsuke Honma, to look into the matter. Honma is recuperating from an injury, so technically he’s on leave. But Kurisaka is family, so he agrees to see what he can do. As he follows the trail, he learns that the woman his nephew was to marry is not the real Shoko Sikine. So now, he’s faced with a case involving two missing women. The matter continues to get more complex, and finding out the truth will mean a trip to Shoko’s home town of Utsunomiya. Several people she knew are still there and can possibly shed some light on the situation. Honma turns out to be right about the value of visiting Utsunomiya . He finds out a great deal about Shoko, her family, and what might have happened to her. He also finds out the truth about the other young woman.
Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind introduces Stephanie Anderson, who’s beginning her career as a psychiatrist in Dunedin. She gets a new client, Elisabeth Clark, who tells an eerie story. Years ago, her younger sister Gracie was abducted and never found. There was never even a body. Elisabeth’s story is very much like Stephanie’s own tragic family story. Seventeen years earlier, her (then) four-year-old sister Gemma disappeared. She was never found, either. Stephanie decides to find out the truth about both cases and lay her own ghosts to rest. So, she makes a trip back to her home town of Wanaka, where Gemma went missing. In doing so, she learns the truth about what happened to Gracie and to Gemma. She also gets a new perspective on herself and her family.
Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass also features a missing girl. In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips went missing. Patrick Bowerman was arrested for abducting and murdering the girl, but he claimed innocence. He wasn’t believed and was jailed. But not enough evidence was found to keep him in prison, so he was released. Still, plenty of people still think he’s responsible. Years later, Bowerman’s daughter Claire, who’s now an orthopaedic surgeon living in London, returns to her home town of Auckland, where the incident occurred. She had no desire to go, but her partner, Yossi, wants to make a new start. So, they travel to Auckland with Claire’s fifteen-year-old daughter Roimata ‘Roi.’ At first, all goes well enough. But then, there’s a very public feud between the hospital where Claire works, and the parents of one of her young patients over whether their child should have surgery. Claire gets drawn into the conflict and becomes the object of media interest. That, in turn, brings attention to the 1970 disappearance. Now, Claire has to protect her family as best she can, deal with her past, and try to keep her job at the hospital. In the end, we find out the truth about that long-ago incident, and Claire faces the prospect of coming to terms with her own life.
Home towns often have long memories, if I can put it that way. So they can provide very valuable information for a sleuth. They can also be places both of solace and of sorrow, and that can add a layer to a story. These are just a few examples. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s Homeward Bound.