Five to Try: Memory Mysteries

I first began compiling this list in response to Curtis’ Friday Fright Night meme (more on that here). You see, being of a somewhat squeamish disposition I don’t typically read books that really fit with the trappings of the horror genre and so I thought rather laterally about things that scare me.

The first thing that came to mind was the idea of losing my memory or my sense of awareness of my own actions. The odd thing is that I cannot really identify the origin of that fear. There is no great incident in my own life I can think of, nor do I have any reason to think that it is likely to happen to me. Still, the idea unsettles me and so I often find myself drawn to stories that use it in some fashion.

One work that does this well, though I have not included on my list, is the fascinating short story Diary of a Serial Killer by Young-Ha Kim. I decided against this book because only one of the stories, the titular one, is really a genre work. That story however is fascinating as we experience the thoughts of a serial killer who is suffering from dementia and struggles to keep his memories and thoughts in order – a dangerous prospect for someone whose life is comprised of secrets that might someday slip out. The presentation of what that would be like and, particularly, how distressing it could be is really effective and makes for a really powerful reading experience.

Looking at the five titles I have picked, none of them are really horrific or spooky in their presentation though I think some create horrific situations for their protagonists. I will try harder next time!

What I tried to do was select five books that handle the idea of memory in different ways, each focusing on some different aspect of it. In some you experience, quite directly, the narrator’s sense of confusion about their actions as they try to piece together what happened. In others the reader is kept at a distance from that character whose memory loss might be treated more ambiguously.

As always with these Five to Try-style posts, I invite you to share your own favorites of stories that play with memory-loss or manipulation in the comments. I love reading your thoughts and expanding on my wishlist of titles to read in the future!

One final note – I might very well have selected Great Black Kanba for this list had I not previously chosen it as part of my Railway Mysteries list just a few weeks ago. That offers a great example of how a character’s memory loss leaves her utterly confused about just who to trust and is definitely worthy of a closer look if you can track down an affordable copy. And so with that out of the way, on with the list!

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Ordeal by Innocence (1958) by Agatha Christie

If Only I Had Remembered…

I think it is fitting to begin this list with a book by Agatha Christie since she herself was supposed to have experienced one of the more mysterious cases of amnesia herself. For more on that story, check out this episode of the excellent Shedunnit podcast.

Ordeal by Innocence begins with Arthur arriving at the home of the Argyle family to share some information with them. Several years earlier the matriarch of the family had been murdered and her adopted son, Jacko, had been sent to prison for the crime. He had claimed that he had been given a lift by a stranger at the time but that stranger could never be found. Arthur reveals he had been that man and the reason he could not verify the information was that he had lost his memory due to a car accident.

Unfortunately this piece of newly remembered information does not bring the peace Arthur had hoped for. Jacko had died in prison some time before and, as everyone soon realizes, if it wasn’t him then someone else in the house must have been responsible.

While the premise to this one is rather convoluted, it explores some interesting issues and family dynamics. Christie uses a structure where the story is told from the perspectives of each of her characters which allows us to understand how they are feeling and explore the sense of paranoia that Arthur’s revelation causes in most of them. Though not wholly successful, the book was one of Christie’s favorites and feels quite different from much of the author’s other work.

The Executioner Weeps (1957) by Frédéric Dard (Translated by David Coward)

Who Is She?

Most of the examples I have chosen on this list feature a protagonist who is struggling to piece together their memory of some events that happened to them. This work by Dard takes a different approach by having the person trying to piece that memory together be someone who finds the woman experiencing memory loss and falls in love with her.

What this book deals with, very effectively, is the idea that someone losing their memories might develop a secondary or different personality and that – in time, as their memories return – the original personality may reappear. It makes for a really compelling slice of noir drama and a great introduction to Dard’s work.

The Good Son (2016) by You-Jeong Jeong (Translated by Chi-Young Kim)

Why Did I Do It?

A young man wakes up to the smell of blood and a confusing telephone call from his brother asking if everything is okay. As he explores his house he finds his mother lying dead in a pool of blood at the foot of the stairs with her throat slit.

The main character suffers from seizures and frequently does not remember things following them. Slowly his memories come back as he decides to try and cover up what he did.

While I prefer You-Jeong Jeong’s Seven Years of Darkness, this book is a better match for the theme of this list and does a really good job of portraying how disconcerting this experience is for the protagonist.

Net of Cobwebs (1946) by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding

Did I Do That?

Malcolm Drake served as a merchant seaman before his boat was torpedoed leaving him quite nervous and volatile. He is staying with his brother and their family to convalesce which includes his rather domineering Aunt Evie. During a party Aunt Evie drops dead of alcohol poisoning. Several members of the party are sure that Malcolm was responsible and one, the butler, even claims to have witnessed it.

Holding is a superb writer who explores compelling psychological situations. Several of her stories incorporate some aspect of memory or the idea that the mind is playing tricks on a character. I think Malcolm’s volatility makes him an interesting protagonist however and left me quite unsure how this story would end.

The Red Right Hand (1945) by Joel Townsley Rogers

Why Don’t I Remember?

My final selection is also one of my favorite reads on this list. The Red Right Hand is told from the perspective of a character who ought to have been a witness to a murderer fleeing. The way the road is laid out they must have passed him and yet he cannot remember seeing anything. As he delves deeper into his memory, replaying events, we may begin to doubt the trustworthiness of those memories and if there might be some other reason that he cannot recall seeing a killer pass him.

This was recently reissued by Penzler Publishing as part of their American Mystery Classics series and is one of my favorite releases of this past year. Part of the reason for that is the book is not simply an unsettling suspense or thriller story but it also plays fair with the reader.


So those are my selections on this theme. What are some of your favorite mysteries that play with the idea of memory?

Lady Killer by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Lady Killer
Lady Killer
Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
Originally Published 1942

I had my first taste of Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s work just a few weeks ago when I read and reviewed Net of Cobwebs. I was deeply impressed with that novel’s clever and thoughtful presentation of its unreliable protagonist and was hungry for more so when I came across a copy of Lady Killer I couldn’t resist putting it to the top of my To Be Read pile.

Seven months before the novel begins Honey married Weaver Stapleton, a wealthy older man primarily for his money. While their courtship had been pleasant, the couple find themselves arguing constantly and she is wondering if she has made a terrible mistake.

The novel begins with them taking a Caribbean cruise together but as the voyage gets underway Honey begins to become suspicious of a fellow passenger whose new wife seems sick, complaining that the food tastes strange, and whose luggage mysteriously vanished before they set sail. She soon begins to worry that the husband plans to kill his wife but whenever she tries to raise the matter with Weaver or her fellow passengers her fears are dismissed.

The blurb you will find on popular e-book sites will give you more details about the plot but this novella is short enough that I don’t want to spoil too much about where it goes. Suffice it to say that there is a body and the latter half of the novel has elements of the detective story about it, albeit couched in the style of a psychological thriller.

Lady Killer is about the relationships between men and women and their comparative statuses within 1940s society. Honey is intuitive and persistent but she is hindered in her efforts to protect her new friend by gender expectations and roles. Whenever she discusses her fears she is treated as hysterical by the crew and by her fellow passengers, male and female, forcing her into a position where she has to act on her own. Even the person she believes will be a victim appears to refuse her help.

While Holding writes in the third person, she frequently slips into a first person perspective for a line or two to share Honey’s thoughts or state of mind and she does not show us events from anyone else’s perspective. This means the reader only really gets to experience them as Honey interprets them, making her a potentially unreliable narrator.

The reader feels Honey’s growing isolation throughout the novella and her building sense of desperation as her efforts to intervene keep being blocked. I was also quite struck by how I started to question the opinions I had formed about what had happened in light of the responses of her fellow passengers and the authority figures on the boat. Could she really be imagining it? You feel her powerlessness in those moments and though Honey can at times be quite rude and unpleasant, I found her determination in the face of these obstacles to be quite endearing.

The tension steadily builds throughout the first half of the book, climaxing with the discovery of a body on the boat. That moment is effective, not only because it transitions us to a new phase of the story in which Honey becomes a more active detective-type figure but also because it allows from some further ideas and themes to be introduced, complicating Honey’s relationships with her husband and her fellow passengers.

Honey’s relationship with Weaver is simultaneously the most intriguing and the most underwhelming part of the narrative. This is initially presented to the reader as an example of an uneven power dynamic where Weaver feels he is better than Honey and so resents what he regards as her shortcomings yet later in the novel we get to hear an alternative perspective on that relationship.

The reason this aspect of the story ultimately underwhelms is because of the way it is resolved or, perhaps more accurately, is not resolved at all. The narrative seems built towards having a major confrontation between the two and yet Holding never gives us that sort of moment.

I was far more impressed with the resolution to the mystery element of the novel which I found to be very cleverly worked. I was particularly taken with the final few pages of the novel which strike a sharp yet ambiguous note that I am sure will stay with me for a while. I can’t remember the last time I was so struck by an ending that managed to simultaneously feel like it came from nowhere and yet is the logical culmination of all that had gone before.

It was an impressive end to a novella that I found to be highly engaging both as a mystery and as a piece of social commentary. Not only is it an even better read than Net of Cobwebs, it is a book that makes me want to run out and buy copies of everything else that Holding ever wrote.

Net of Cobwebs by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

NetofCobwebs
Net of Cobwebs
Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
Originally Published 1946

Malcolm Drake is suffering from shock after the ship he was on is sunk by a German U-boat. He holds himself personally responsible for the death of a fellow crew member and while staying in the Caribbean to convalesce he fell into the habit of taking barbiturates and alcohol to help him sleep.

His physician disagrees with that course of action, regarding it as dangerous, and refuses to prescribe any more of the drug. He returns to live in his brother’s home, secretly acquiring further supplies of the drug to the consternation of his family including his judgmental Aunt Evie.

After being criticized for his drinking one afternoon, Malcolm dares Evie to drink an alcoholic drink and mixes a splash of liquor in with her ginger ale. He is sure he didn’t give her enough to even give her a buzz but she soon drops dead, apparently from the effects of the alcohol, and several of the other people in the room claim they saw him put a much heavier dose of the liquor into the glass than he remembers.

This is my first experience reading anything by Holding and I was impressed by the way the novel’s psychological focus. The disconnect between what Malcolm recalls and what people around him claim he did is one of the themes that runs throughout this novel as we are encouraged to question his judgement and memory, perhaps wondering if he might be the killer after all.

Holding does a superb job of managing to sustain this doubt through much of the narrative. While this novel is not a first person account, it is sympathetic enough to Malcolm’s experiences that we may wonder if we are being misled. One of the reasons for this is his uncanny ability to turn up right where a person is found murdered and in each case he seems tied to the means that are used. Another is that while everyone in his family does not want to hold him accountable, it seems clear that they all appear to believe him guilty.

It helps that Malcolm is an interesting character, haunted by his wartime experiences and that he already has a strong sense of his own guilt. It is interesting to learn just what lies behind those feelings and to see his struggle to talk about the things that affect him. Today we would identify him as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and certainly it is one of the more compelling renderings of those experiences in Golden Age fiction.

The story unfolds at a quick pace with Holding writing in quite an economical style. It took me a moment to adjust to the brisk pacing which, coupled with Malcolm’s unreliability, made a few moments and character relationships a little hard to follow. I soon made that adjustment however and found the story to be quite compelling and intriguing.

The solution as to what has happened is quite clever and perhaps could not have been achieved as effectively in a longer work. I think it fits with the overall themes of the novel fairly well though and while I was not shocked or surprised, the moment of the reveal still had impact.

Overall, I was impressed with this and enjoyed it a lot. The story was clever and I think Malcolm is an interesting protagonist. I will certainly be interested to try more from Holding and, if anyone has a favorite title, I’d be glad of the recommendations!