One popular crime fiction plot point is the link between a current case that the sleuth is investigating, and a past case (often – but by no means always – a case that the same sleuth was involved with in some way). That link can add a solid layer of plot to a novel, and it allows the author to introduce other characters, as well as provide background. It’s got to be done carefully; otherwise, the case from the past can become a little too convenient. But when it’s done well, the link between two cases can enrich a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, for instance, Hercule Poirot receives an urgent letter from Paul Renauld, a Canadian ex-pat now living in France. In the letter, Renauld says that he fears for his life, and wants Poirot to come immediately to investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings make the trip to France, but by the time they get to Renauld’s home, it’s too late; he’s been stabbed. Poirot wants to carry out his client’s wishes, so he investigates the murder. He and Hastings find that this murder is linked to a case of murder that occurred in Paris years ago. When Poirot discovers that link, he is able to find out who would have had a motive for murder. I see you, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.
Reginald Hill’s Recalled to Life brings up a case from Superintendent Andy Dalziel’s past. Cissy Kohler is released from prison after serving a long sentence for the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrup. Along with the release comes a set of allegations that the arresting officer, Wally Tallentire, had evidence that she was innocent, and hid it. In fact, there’s an internal investigation into Tallentire’s actions. This infuriates Dalziel, who is absolutely certain that Tallentire (his boss and mentor) did nothing wrong, and that Cissy Kohler was guilty. Determined to clear Tallentire’s name, Dalziel re-opens the case in his own way, and sets out to prove that Cissy Kohler is a murderer.
Craig Johnson’s The Cold Dish introduces Sheriff Walt Longmire. In it, Cody Pritchard is found murdered. Longmire is working on his investigation of that case when there’s another murder. The victims have in common that they were recently released from prison after serving time for the gang rape of Melissa Little Bird, who was sixteen at the time. It’s logical to suppose that someone among Melissa’s family or friends is taking revenge for the rape, so Longmire has to return to that earlier case to find out who is responsible for the killing. It’s difficult, because he is as sympathetic to Melissa’s situation as anyone, and he understands the anger and grief that might lead to vengeance. But that doesn’t mean that vigilantism is right, or that murder should be condoned.
In Christine Poulson’s Murder is Academic, we meet Cassandra James, who is a member of the Department of English Literature at St. Etheldreda’s College, Cambridge. One day, she goes to visit her boss, Margaret Joplin, to collect some final exam papers. When she gets there, she discovers Joplin’s body in the pool. On the surface of it, it looks like a terrible accident. But there are soon hints that suggest otherwise. It’s possible that the victim committed suicide, but there doesn’t seem to be any motive for that. More and more, it’s looking as though this was a murder. As James starts to ask questions, she learns that more than one person might have had a motive. And she finds a connection to another tragedy: the death of a student named Lucy Hambleton. Once she learns what links the two cases, James gets closer to the truth about who killed Margaret Joplin.
Ian Vasquez’ Lonesome Point is the story of brothers Leo and Patrick Varela. Originally from Belize, they’ve moved to Miami and built lives there. Leo is a poet who works at Jefferson Memorial, which is a mental hospital. Patrick has taken up politics and has a very promising career ahead of him. He’s being talked about as the next mayor of Miami, and after that, there’s no end to his career possibilities. Everything changes when Leo gets a visit from Freddy Robinson, who knows the Varelas from Belize. He’s come to ask Leo to release one of the patients, a man named Herman Massani. According to Robinson, Massani has information on voter fraud in the area, and if it’s true, it could implicate Patrick. Robinson’s working for some ‘associates’ who want that information. At first, Leo refuses for a number of reasons. But Robinson reminds him that everyone has secrets, and that includes the Varelas. They’ve been hiding a very dark truth about a terrible incident that happened in Belize, and their security is threatened. Now, the brothers will have to decide what to do. But it’s not long before things start to spin out of control for both of them, and it all ultimately leads to tragedy. And it’s got its roots in what happened in Belize.
As Jane Woodham’s Twister begins, a ‘flu virus has taken hold in Dunedin, and plenty of people are out sick. That includes several members of the police force. It doesn’t help matters at all that there’s been a five-day rainstorm. To make matters even worse, a twister strikes the area, causing its share of damage. Against this backdrop, the body of Tracey Wenlock is discovered in Ross Creek. She was missing for two weeks, and the news of her death devastates her family. The police investigation is headed by Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have been chosen for this role, because nine years earlier, his own daughter, Beth, went missing and was never found. But right now, no-one else is available, so Judd steps in. It’s a difficult case, and especially hard on Judd, because of his own personal tragedy. As the investigation moves along, he finds himself reviewing Beth’s case to see if it might have any connection with this new disappearance. And in the end, Judd and his team find out the truth about both cases.
Those links between past and present cases can be very helpful to investigators. And in fiction, they can make for effective plot lines and character development. But the links are best when they fall out naturally from a plot and are woven into the story in a realistic way.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain.