One popular plot point in crime fiction is the person who doesn’t want to be found. I’m not talking here of fictional criminals who don’t want to be caught. Rather, I mean characters who want to leave their old lives behind and start over, and don’t want the past catching up with them. Sometimes it’s to escape a bad situation. Other times it’s a way of dealing with grief. There are other reasons, too, for not wanting to be found. There are a lot of examples of this sort of character in the genre. Here are just a few.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt, who is concerned about his American-born wife, Elsie. When they married, Elsie told him that she had nothing of which to be personally ashamed. But she’d had some unpleasant associations in her past, and didn’t want her husband asking questions or prying into her history. She wanted to cut off ties with her past, and start over. Cubitt agreed to his wife’s request. Lately, though, she’s been acting strange – on edge and secretive. She won’t tell her husband what the problem is, but he has one clue: a series of notes with characters that look like stick-figure drawings. When Holmes deciphers the messages, he learns that Elsie Cubitt faces a real danger from her past. It is with good reason that she didn’t want to be found.
Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead mostly takes place in the village of Broadhinny. A local charwoman has been murdered, and everyone believes the killer is her lodger James Bentley. In fact, he’s scheduled to be executed soon. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent, and he asks Poirot to investigate. Poirot travels to Broadhinny, where he learns that Mrs. McGinty had a dangerous habit of snooping, and that she had found out something about one of the villagers. One important clue is a newspaper article about women involved in famous crimes, and speculation as to where they are now. If one of those women is living in Broadhinny under a different name, and Mrs. McGinty found out about it, that person could easily have a motive for murder. Starting over, and not wanting to be found, is a main theme in the article, and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in the novel.
Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed introduces Douglas Brodie. World War II is recently over, and Brodie has returned from military service. He’s now living in London, trying to forget his Glasgow past and start over with a career in journalism. It’s not to be, though. He gets a call from an old friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan. It seems that Donovan has been arrested for abducting and killing a young boy, Rory Hutchinson, and is due to be executed in four weeks. Donovan claims that he isn’t guilty, and asks Brodie to help him. At first, Brodie is very reluctant. For one thing, he has no real desire to return to Glasgow; he would just as soon not have been found. For another, he isn’t entirely convinced that Donovan is innocent. Finally, though, he agrees to return to Glasgow and see what he can do. When he does, Brodie finds all sorts of obstacles in his way, put there by people who do not want the truth about the boy’s death to come out. In the end though, he and Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell, find out what happened to Rory.
In Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ Death of a Nightingale, we are introduced to Natasha Doroshenko. She’s left her native Ukraine to escape the thugs who killed her journalist husband Pavel. Her life, and that of her daughter, Katerina, have also been threatened. Natasha and Katerina have settled in Denmark, where they can start over, and where they are not likely to be found. At first, it seems that they’ll be able to have new lives. Then, disaster strikes. Natasha is arrested for the murder of her fiancé, Michael Vestergaard. While in police custody, she overhears a conversation that suggests her past in Ukraine has caught up with her. She escapes, and ends up in Coal House Camp, a Red Cross facility where Katerina has been staying. And that’s where the real danger starts for her, for Katerina, and for Red Cross nurse Nina Borg, who tries to help them.
Donna Malane’s My Brother’s Keeper is the second of her novels to feature Wellington missing person specialist Diane Rowe. One day, she gets a visit from Karen Mackie, who’s recently been released from prison for the murder of her son, Falcon, and the attempted murder of her daughter, Sunny. During her stay in prison, she stopped using drugs, ‘found religion,’ and is now determined to start her life again. And she wants to find Sunny, who is now fourteen. Rowe tells her new client that sometimes people who go missing do not want to be found, and that Sunny and her father, Justin, may not want any contact. Mackie accepts that, but wants Sunny found. Rowe takes the case and starts looking. Although Justin and Sunny have changed their surname, moved, and so on, they haven’t really taken serious pains to hide, and Rowe locates them without much effort. At first, Sunny has no interest in meeting her mother. But she finally agrees, and her father and stepmother give their very reluctant permission. When Mackie doesn’t show up for the meeting, it looks at first as though she’s changed her mind about this reunion. Then, she is found dead, and everything changes. Now, Rowe gets involved in finding out who would have wanted to kill Karen Mackie, and why.
Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man features Sergeant Nick Chester, who’s moved with his wife Vanessa and son Paulie from Sunderland, in the UK, to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island. They’ve had to make the move, because Chester was involved in an undercover operation that went very wrong. They are hoping to start a new life in New Zealand, and have no desire to be found. Then, the body of six-year-old Jamie Riley is discovered. Chester and his police partner, Latifa Rapata, start the work of finding out who the killer is. In the process, they learn that this isn’t the first time the killer has struck. As they search for the truth, Chester learns that his old nemesis, Sammy Pritchard, has found out where he is, and has sent some people after him. Now, Chester is going to have to protect himself and his family as best he can, while looking for a killer.
Sometimes characters go missing voluntarily, and do not want to be found. It’s not necessarily because they are criminals; there could be a number of reasons they’ve left. And those reasons can make for interesting plot lines and character development.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns and Money.
10 thoughts on “I’m Hiding in Honduras*”
I’m writing about this subject now! *checks for hidden cameras* 😀
*Quickly closes nanny-cam app* 😉 OK, that is a case of great minds, Sue! I think it really is a plot point with a lot of promise, and I look forward to reading what you’ll do with it.
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Margot: I thought Alan Carter was convincing in how he depicted Nick Chester. I believe it is difficult for a family to hide anywhere in the world. I suppose if you could get into North Korea it would be very possible.
In Louise Penny’s book The Brutal Telling a hermit lives unknown within a 20 minute walk of Three Pines. I could certainly accept a hermit but found the hermit being unknown not credible. I continue to believe the book could have been jsut as strong if the hermit was known but lived a life of isolation.
I greatly enjoyed the early Jane Whitefield books of Thomas Perry. Seeing the recent success of the series maybe it is time to read again. She was a great character helping people disappear.
I would like to add the villain in Jussi Adler’s book, A Conspiracy of Faith, had so many false identities he was never actually identified in the book.
I think Nick Chester is a realistic character, too, Bill. I’m glad you enjoyed reading about him. And thanks for mentioning The Brutal Telling. I’d intended to include that one, but I didn’t. I’m glad you did, although I agree with you that it’s hard to believe no-one would know about the hermit. Thanks, too, for mentioning the Jane Whitfield series. It’s a good fit for the topic, and it makes sense that there’s need to be someone to help people disappear. Just because someone wants to go into hiding doesn’t mean that person knows how to do it.
It’s a plot point that gets more difficult to make believable in this modern age of constant state surveillance. If I ran away and changed my name I’d find it almost impossible to get a job, for instance. (So I guess I’m stuck with my current tyrannical employers, T&T 😉 ) Two wartime novels come to mind, both showing how the disruption of war and destruction of records made getting lost easier – Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac and Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac.
Ha! Yes, I think you’re going to have to stay with your overlords, FictionFan. 😉 As you say, it isn’t easy to go into hiding with today’s reliance on surveillance, identification, and so on. Unless one’s in some sort of witness protection program, it’s not likely to be successful. And that means it isn’t easy to create a believable plot that involves hiding. But the books you mention show how a person could go into hiding if there is a wartime or other sort of destruction of records. I like Lorac, so I’m glad you mentioned that one. And I’ve heard good things about Vertigo.
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I love plots where someone has started a new life and is trying not to get rediscovered. Agatha Christie did do it very well – as well as Mrs McGinty’s Dead (which, as you say, does it marvellously) I like A Murder is Announced, where nearly everyone is not who they claim to be! She is very good at misdirection on eg whether we are looking for a man or a woman..
Oh, yes, Moira! Christie did it very well in A Murder is Announced! It’s hard to talk about that one without giving too much away, but yes, it’s a great example of people who are not who they say they are, and are hiding a past. And yes, that misdirection is at times, brilliant. Then there is Hickory Dickory Death and who people are in that novel…
Margot, I suppose I think more of the witness protection angle, which inevitably goes wrong in most books
That is an interesting plot point, Col. It can add suspense, too, since it does go wrong, as you say. And even when it works, there’s the tension of not wanting to be found out.