It can be hard to leave a familiar place, even if it’s to go to a nicer place, or a better job opportunity, or a more appealing location. Being in a familiar place means you know where the library is, where the best grocery store is, who has good pizza, and when the trash is picked up. Those things all have to be learned again in a new place. And yet, there’s something exciting about leaving, too, in a way. There are new possibilities, perhaps great new people to meet, and a new place to live. All of that can be very positive.
Leaving the familiar often causes some anxiety and tension, even though it’s often positive. So it’s little wonder we see that plot point in crime fiction. It can add to the suspense of a novel, and it can be an interesting (and very human) experience in and of itself.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. For ten years, she served as paid companion to the elderly Mrs. Hartfield, who has recently died. To everyone’s surprise, Mrs. Hartfield willed her entire estate to Katherine, who is now set to be a very rich woman. The one thing Katherine hasn’t really been able to do is travel, so she decides to take a trip to Nice on the famous Blue Train. On the one hand, it is a little anxiety-producing. She’ll be staying with a distant cousin whom she’s never met and who she rightly suspects wants her money. What’s more, she’s never lived among the ‘upper crust’ before, so she’ll need the ‘right’ wardrobe, etc. On the other hand, the trip promises to be exciting, and Katherine is eager to see a bit of the world. Little does she know that she’ll be drawn into a case of murder when a fellow passenger is strangled…
Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives is the story of Joanna and Walter Eberhart. They’ve decided to move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’ve been drawn in by the promise of lower taxes, good schools for their two children, and a nice place to live. On the one hand, Joanna’s had a good life in the city. She’s a skilled photographer who’d like to make a name for herself. She and her family will have to leave their friends and live a completely different, suburban, lifestyle. On the other hand, Stepford is beautiful, peaceful, less expensive, and family-friendly. At first, it looks like the right move, despite Joanna’s anxieties. But then, Joanna slowly becomes concerned about a few things that are happening in the town. She puts it down to nerves as long as she can, but in the end, she discovers that some very dark things are happening in the town.
In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker is worried for his family’s safety. They live in a city, and he’s concerned about the crime rate and about the influences on his two children. So, he persuades his wife, Sarah, to agree to move to Valley Forest Estates, a new suburban development. Their children are, to put it mildly, less than thrilled about the move. They’re already established at their schools, and they have local friends. Sarah’s not overjoyed, either, as she has social and professional networks in the city. And the whole family is familiar with where things are and how things work. Still, they make the move, hoping for the best. It’s not long before everything starts to go wrong. First, there are repair issues that haven’t been addressed. When Walker goes to the development’s main office to complain about the repairs, he witnesses a loud argument between local environmentalist Samuel Spender and one of Valley Forest’s sales executives. That’s awkward enough, but later that day, Walker comes upon Spender’s body. Now he’s drawn into a case of murder. And this in a place he thought would be safer!
Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons tells the story of a man, also called Finn Bell, who’s come to a crossroads in his life. His marriage has ended, and he’s lost the use of his legs due to a car accident. He’s been advised to make a new start somewhere else, so he chooses the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. The life he had may not have been great, but it was familiar, and he doesn’t know what to expect from Riverton. It’s a small town, and he’s not at all sure he’ll be accepted. Then, he discovers that there’s a mystery about the cottage he’s bought. The previous owners’ daughter disappeared and was never found. A year later, her father also went missing, and later turned up dead. His curiosity now piqued, Bell decides to find out more about this family and about what happened. He ends up being drawn into a dark and very dangerous case. But he also ends up becoming a part of this community and settling into his new life in a way he hadn’t thought possible. It turns out that Riverton was a positive move for him.
Kate Grenville’s The Secret River begins in London, in 1806. William Thornhill has lived in London all his life. He’s a poor bargeman, so finding money for food, a doctor, and so on is difficult. But he loves his wife, Sal, and his children. Then, he is caught taking a load of wood with the intent to sell it. At first, it’s believed that he’ll be executed – the standard punishment for this crime. Instead, he is sentenced to transportation to Australia. The Thornhill family makes the long journey and ends up in Sydney Harbour. It’s very difficult for them at first. They’re used to London, despite their poverty, and Sal especially misses it. Her dream is to go back someday. Australia is new and very different, and there’s a lot to get used to in this place. Still, it’s exciting, and there’s a real chance for success. Thornhill soon finds a job delivering goods by barge, and Sal sets up a makeshift pub. Of course, there’ve been people in that area for over 40,000 years, and tensions rise between them and the new arrivals. Some horrible crimes are committed, and Thornhill will have to choose whether to support his fellow newcomers, or side with those who’ve always been there. This isn’t per se a crime novel, but it does show how crimes are woven into history. And it shows that pull between the familiarity of an old life, and the anxiety and possibilities of a new one.
And that’s the thing about leaving the familiar behind. It’s not easy to do, but it happens to a lot of us. And it makes for an effective plot line to a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Say Goodbye to Hollywood.