Kerrie’s Alphabet of Crime community meme over at the Mysteries in Paradise blog has returned for 2012. Each week those participating will post a review, author biog or a thematic item in which either the first letter of the title or the name or surname of the author match that week’s. To sign up just click here. Last year I got in on the act a little bit late but I’ve learned my lesson and today I begin at the beginning, with a thematic post …
A is for … Agatha Christie (who of course knew a thing or two about ABC)
and her small case of Amnesia.
When putting together this post, I was reminded of the fact that the first Agatha Christie novel I ever owned (I would have been about 10 years old) what not by her but about her. Kathleen Tynan’s Agatha creates a fictional tale about a real mystery in the author‘s life. I remember picking it up as I was intrigued by that frequently used phrase, ‘Soon to be a major film’. Actually, it’s not a greta book as I recall and the movie doesn’t really work either, despite the excellent Vanessa Redgrave in the title role (I mean, would you cast Dustin Hoffman as her romantic interest? Well, maybe if you he were a co-producer, which he was …).
On 2 December 1926 the young Agatha Christie kissed her daughter goodbye and walked out on her family and would not be seen again by them for 11 days. Her car was later found but her disappearance made the national newspapers. Was it a publicity stunt? She was eventually found at a Hydro Spa in Harrogate where she had registered under the assumed name ‘Teresa Neele’, which provides a clue perhaps. The author had been going through a severe emotional crisis at the time. Her mother had recently dies and her marriage was falling apart. Indeed her husband, Archibald Christie, was suing for divorce so he could marry another woman – one with the same surname as the one she picked when she went on the run (so to speak).
It is now thought by many that Christie was acting in a ‘fugue state’, a rare kind of amnesia in which the sufferer travels and can create a new persona, escaping from their actual problems and creating a new identity as refuge as part of a strategy of escape. She would later claim not to be able to remember anything from her blackout period, which was certainly some kind of breakdown. In Tynan’s version Christie was in fact planning an elaborate crime – if you are interested, the film version (which certainly looks a peachy thanks to the shimmering cinematography of Vittorio Storaro) is easier to track down that the original book. Despite its wonderful look, it’s fairly awkward movie with Redgrave and Hoffman making for a very poor pair and director Michael Apted seems determined to emphasise the disparity in their acting styles and physical appearance so as to make their romantic scenes together fairly ludicrous.
Christie’s own stories rarely feature amnesia in their plots (The Secret Adversary and Ordeal by Innocence are the only obvious candidates that spring to mind) but plenty of other authors been drawn to the dramatic possibilities. To my way of thinking, as dramatic and disconcerting as it may be in real life, in fictional terms memory loss can be nigh on irresistible as a storytelling gambit There are so many permutations within fiction of this condition, either when presented as real or feigned, and it is certainly a well-used scenarios in mystery stories – and for me, when done well, truly one of the most seductive. Such differing genre writers as LP Davies and Cornell Woolrich returned to the notion time and again, producing several ingenious variations on it.
Woolrich frequently went for the temporary blackout so that in such fine examples of Noir as The Black Curtain (1941) and The Black Angel (1943) the characters usually wake up after a bender unable to remember what they did for several crucial hours. A variant on this, with the protagonist waking up unable to recall how they came into the possession of a gun, a bag full of money, a smoking gun or all three can be found in such different novels as Eva Figes’ Nelly’s Version (1977) and Jonathan Latimer’s Sinners and Shrouds (1955).
One of Woolrich’s best memory loss plots can be found in ‘And So to Death’, a 1941 story originally published under his William Irish byline, which has been republished under various titles including ‘Nightmare’. This story involves hypnotism and lead the away from tales of accidental bumps on the head leading to temporary amnesia to darker narratives featuring brainwashing as a deliberate conditioning technique. One of the first classic examples of this can be found in the satirical conspiracy thriller The Manchurian Candidate (1959) by Richard Condon in which it’s Communist China who is using the technique to destabilise the US government. LP Davies seemed to spend most of his career writing variation on the theme of the protagonist suddenly awakening and either being completely unaware of who they are or becoming convinced that the they are not the person they previously thought they were. I previously reviewed what may be Davies’ best such novel, Man out of Nowhere (aka ‘Who is Lewis Pinder?’) for last year’s Alphabet of Crime (see here). As Davies’ stories were mostly written in the 60s and early 70s and often veered into SF territory they frequently plumped for the brainwashing solution to his protagonists’ existential problem, though one can see that it was the battle-scarred veterans of the Second World War that also led to an increase in this kind of story, both int he cinema and at the movies.
The men and women coming home after the war certainly found that many things had changed and this device helped dramatise this sense of malaise and discontinuity in an exciting and different way, and threw in some of that new fangled Freudian psychiatry too. Robert Bloch, Margaret Millar and Helen Eustis all came up with classic novels in which characters works through a form of dissociative disorder for some very surprising results. Richard Matheson gave it a whirl his first novel, Someone is Bleeding (1953), for instance while Evan Hunter used it for a more mainstream tome, Buddwing (1964), as did Victor Canning in The Finger of Saturn (1973). Even Mickey Spillaine used the plot in The Long Wait (1951), a book that doesn’t feature Mike Hammer however but which, like I, the Jury (1947), is a story of a man out to avenge the murder of his buddy.
Howard Fast came up with a cracking example in Fallen Angel (later republished as ‘Mirage’), which I previously reviewed here. More recent examples include Richard Neely’s The Plastic Nightmare (1969), which added cosmetic surgery to make matters even more confusing, as the title suggests (it is now more easily available under the title ‘Shattered’). Brainwashing became something of a stable from Richard Condon’s magisterial story onwards, especially in spy fiction after the success of Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS file (1962). Even James Bond suffered, attempting to kill M in the opening to The Man with the Golden Gun (1964). An agent with amnesia became the premise for the Jason Bourne series by Robert Ludlum (and subsequently others).
The trauma of memory loss has thus also only occasionally befallen some of crime fiction’s most beloved series characters. While Bond briefly flirted with it and then got over it (at the cinema he has had to deal with a different kind of identity crisis every few years or so as his face keeps changing), while Bourne would be defined by it. On the other hand, the supremely rational and apparently easy-going Albert Campion in Traitor’s Purse (1941) by Margery Allingham is suddenly unable to remember who he is just as Britain goes to war against the Nazis. In Puzzle for Fiends (1946) by Patrick Quentin, his (well, their) urbane and usually level-headed (if occasionally drunk) hero Peter Duluth, now with the war recently over, also finds his memory at a loss and caught up in a criminal enterprise. Even the supremely rational Ellery Queen had to deal with similar cases of mental instability, though not with himself affected, in Ten Day’s Wonder (1948) and later The Player on the Other Side (1963), stories in which damaged people are used as pawn by unscrupulous murders with godlike delusions.
But in the era of Orwell’s 1984 (1948), Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), RD Laing’s The Divided Self (1960) and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), it was increasingly hard for the protagonists of fiction to know if they were even the heroes of their own narrative. Thus some of my favourite examples in the amnesia sub-genre include such works as William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel (1978; later filmed as Angel Heart), a Woolrich homage that takes us into hitherto unexplored areas of existential annihilation; and perhaps my absolute favourite of those books with a more modern flavour, The Running of Beasts (1976) by Bill Pronzini and Barrry Malzberg, in which the hunt for a serial killer is delayed somewhat by the fact that one of the detectives may well be the killer without knowing it. The surprise at the end is well worth waiting for.
This has been a slightly higgledy piggledy trawl though mystery fiction featuring amnesia as a theme and is partly intended as a preview of coming attractions as I hope to review at least some of these as part of the weekly posts for the Alphabet of crime. Watch this space.