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.