One of the tropes we see in crime fiction is the sleuth who hasn’t been able to forget a certain case, often (but not always) an unsolved case. On the one hand, that trope can be overdone, melodramatic, and not realistic. So it has to be done very carefully and effectively. At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine someone who feels haunted by a particular case. And it’s credible to believe that person might still want closure on the case even years later. So it can be an effective way to add character development and plot points to a crime novel.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, we are introduced to Carla Lemarchant. Sixteen years earlier, her father, famous painter Amyas Crale, was murdered. At the time, everyone believed that his wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was responsible. There was evidence against her, too, and she was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter. But Carla has always believed her mother was innocent. And she hasn’t given up hope of clearing her mother’s name. She approaches Hercule Poirot to ask him to investigate, and he agrees. He interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder and in the days leading up to it. Along with this, he gets written accounts from each of them. From that information, he’s able to find out who really killed Amyas Crale.
Don Winslow’s The Dawn Patrol features Boone Daniels, a former San Diego police detective who’s become a PI. His main interest in life is surfing, so he doesn’t often let a case get in the way of a good wave. Everything changes when he is hired to locate a stripper who goes by the name Tamera Roddick. She’s an important witness in an insurance case, and the company wants Daniels to find her. Then, a young woman dies from a fall off a balcony at a cheap hotel. At first, it looks as though she’s the missing Tamera, since she has Tamera’s ID with her. But it turns out this is another woman, a friend of Tamera’s who calls herself Angela Hart. Now, Daniels wants to find out who killed the young woman and why. And he’s partly driven by an old case from his years on the police force. A six-year-old girl was taken from her front lawn and was never found. Daniels still wants to know what happened to the girl, and it impacts his thinking.
One plot line of Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels concerns retired police detective Will Sloane. He doesn’t have a lot longer to live, and he’s come to terms with that. He’s now living in Spain, where he plans to spend the rest of whatever time he has left. Things change, though, when he comes across something in a curio shop that reminds him of a case he’s never really forgotten. He has a real longing to return to his native Wales, and he does want to solve the case, even after forty years. At that time, a child went missing, and was never found. Despite a massive search, no trace of the child was discovered, not even a body. Now, Sloane wants to see if he can find out what happened.
In John Hart’s The Last Child, thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon has been devastated since the disappearance of his twin sister, Alyssa. She was pulled into a car one day and hasn’t been seen since. Not even a body has been found. But Johnny hasn’t given up hope that one day he’ll find out what happened to her. He’s sure that if he keeps looking, he’ll find something that will point him to the truth. Detective Clyde Hunt feels the same way. He investigated the original disappearance, and has always regretted not being able to find Alyssa. Hunt has maintained a relationship with the family, and he knows Johnny is still looking for information about Alyssa. He tries to dissuade the boy, since it’s so dangerous. But Johnny won’t listen, and secretly, Hunt can’t blame him. Then, a local professor named David Wilson is killed. Just before his death, he claims to have found ‘the girl that was missing.’ Convinced he is referring to Alyssa, both Johnny and Hunt find new energy (and some clues) to lead them to the truth.
And then there’s Nathan Blackwell’s The Sound of Her Voice. The protagonist here is Detective Matt Buchanan, who’s been with the Auckland police force for a long time. He’s seen plenty of horrible things in his time, but he’s especially haunted by the 1999 disappearance of Sandra Coates. She went missing while on her way home from school, and hasn’t been seen since. Buchanan wants more than anything to find out what happened to her, so that at least her family might have some peace. When some fresh leads come up, Buchanan pursues them eagerly. And he finds that they just might be connected to some other cases he’s been working. As he gets closer to the truth, Buchanan has to decide just how far he’ll go to get the answers that he and Sandra’s family want.
There are a lot of other examples of this trope, too. It can work well when the character is solidly developed and the plot point isn’t melodramatic. But it’s very tricky to pull off. Which examples have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Leonard Cohen.