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?

The Executioner Weeps by Frédéric Dard, translated by David Coward

Book Details

Originally published in 1956 as Le Bourreau pleure
English translation first published in 2017

The Blurb

On a quiet mountain road near Barcelona, a woman steps out in front of a car. When the driver, a well-known artist, stops to some to her aid, he finds she is alive, but without any memory of who she is or where she has come from. As he tries to help her remember her past, the artist finds himself falling in love, but as secrets from the woman’s forgotten life start to come to light, he finds his new romance turning into a nightmare…

The Verdict

A powerful and effective noir story which delivers a suitably punchy climax.


My Thoughts

Frédéric Dard was tremendously prolific author and only a tiny fraction of his work has so far been translated into English. I have previously read and reviewed two of his other novellas on this blog, both of which were also part of the Pushkin Vertigo range, and I liked both tremendously. Happily I am able to say that this my experiences with this book were equally pleasing.

I had found both of the other Dard titles I read to be short but punchy reads and this is no exception. He writes with a splendid sense of economy that helps focus on what he establishes as the themes of his work, really immersing the reader in the dilemma the protagonist finds themselves in.

This novella, like the others I had read, belongs to the noir style of storytelling. Here the protagonist is Daniel Mermet, a French artist who is on vacation near Barcelona. Here he finds himself in a situation in which his actions, though generally well-intentioned, only seem to lead him towards misery and disaster.

Daniel is driving late at night when a woman carrying a violin steps in front of his car. Everything happens so suddenly that he cannot avoid the collision and she is knocked to the ground, her violin and the case smashed in the impact. Daniel is worried but finding that she is still breathing decides to take her back to his hotel and get her some medical attention.

It is easy to empathize with Daniel as he finds himself in a difficult and possibly dangerous situation. We are told in the first couple of pages that the collision was no accident – that the woman had leapt in front of the car. With no witnesses and a very limited command of the Spanish language or knowledge of the area, his choice to take her to his hotel and summon medical attention there is understandable. It may not be the perfect choice but it was certainly not malicious either.

The physical damage from the accident is fortunately quite limited so she makes a swift recovery. Unfortunately though when the woman wakes she has no memory at all of who she is beyond that she is French. When the consulate tells Daniel they are unable to help her, he decides he will piece together the mystery of the woman’s identity.

The mystery of the woman’s identity sits at the heart of the story. Daniel will play investigator, using small clues and observations about the woman and her possessions to try and discover who she is. This is necessary both because he cannot leave her alone without a memory but also because he is falling in love with her. Something within him needs to know.

Based on the circumstances of the injury though the reader will already be aware that the answers will not provide happiness or the closure Daniel seeks. This realization on the reader’s part is the source of the tragedy of the uncomfortable situation he finds himself in. The woman she is now is someone he loves but he will not feel comfortable unless he can be sure of the woman she was.

Dard handles this simple idea extremely well, setting up a credible scenario in which Daniel will have to confront this question. The choice he has is either to abandon her or to see the investigation through in the hope it will enable them to be together. As we follow that brief investigation we are aware of how his discoveries are affecting him and how he struggles with the question of what to reveal to the woman.

Just as it was easy to empathize with the very likeable Daniel at the moment of the accident, it is equally easy to understand how difficult each of his decisions are. Dard is really effective at communicating Daniel’s shifting emotional state as well as that of the woman, all the while building to a dark and devastating conclusion. This emotional journey is really effective and I found myself completely engrossed in the story, aware that what I wanted and what was likely to happen were clearly not going to be the same thing.

I am reluctant to write much more about the plot for fear of spoiling it too much – this is, after all, a very brief work. I should probably take a moment however to judge the mystery elements of the novella in their own right.

Earlier I described this as a brief investigation and what I meant by that is that while the mystery has enormous significance, Daniel will not need to work particularly hard to uncover the truth. This is a matter of following up on the leads he already has – the question is whether he will have the nerve to see the matter through to the end.

The reader may well deduce some aspects of the woman’s past based on the early clues but too much is revealed to the reader right before the solution is given to be able to effectively play armchair detective. I think that fits Dard’s focus on the emotional component of this story and was broadly in line with my expectations but were someone to read this primarily for the mystery I think they would be underwhelmed. For Dard the mystery is a device to instigate uncertainty and drama rather than the point of his tale.

It is a superbly well crafted story with some strong characterization and a compelling problem to explore. I was, once again, impressed with Dard and I am certainly not regretting having previously bought up all the other Dard titles published in translation. It seems I have some good reading ahead of me!

The King of Fools by Frédéric Dard, translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

The King of Fools
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1952

Frédéric Dard made a strong first impression on me last year when I read The Gravedigger’s Bread, a gritty inverted crime story that I ended up nominating as one of my reprints of the year. Since then I have been eager to experience more of his work so when I received a gift card for my birthday last month I knew precisely whose work I would be seeking out.

The King of Fools introduces us to Jean-Marie, a man who is holidaying alone on the Côte d’Azur. He had been meant to be vacationing there with his girlfriend but they split very shortly before the trip leaving him to take the trip solo.

One morning he returns to his car to find an Englishwoman sat in it. He confronts her and she reveals that she had confused it for her own similar vehicle. Later that evening he meets her again in a casino and his annoyance turns to a feeling of strong attraction. She reveals that she is married but they arrange to write to each other.

A few days later she writes a short note to him, suggesting that he meet her in a hotel in Edinburgh at which she will be staying for a few days before her husband joins her. Impulsively he decides to travel to her but when he gets to Scotland he finds his romantic dreams begin to crumble around him and soon he finds himself caught up in a murder investigation.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this work is the way it manages to switch between several styles of storytelling in a way that feels quite natural. The opening chapters are presented like a romance, beginning with a chance encounter. The reader should anticipate it all going wrong for them (it is, after all, a Dard novella) but the question will be how and why.

This style continues into what might be seen as a sort of bridging section of the novel when Jean-Marie first arrives in Edinburgh, gets his bearings and waits. In this phase of the story the reader will be alerted to things not following characters’ expectations and yet the reasons for that remain a mystery.

To me this bridging section of the novel was its most intriguing and certainly the most atmospheric. Here we get Jean-Marie’s impressions of Edinburgh as a tourist with evocative descriptions of the buildings, landscape, weather and food. Having spent a little time in the city, albeit about fifty years after this was written, I found these passages to be really quite effective and I appreciated that they not only gave us a sense of place but also of Jean-Marie’s own character.

It is harder to describe the sections of the book that follow without divulging too many of the book’s developments. Still, I can say that we follow a murder investigation into the death of one of the characters and this introduces us to a new character, Brett, a Scottish detective who takes charge of the case. While the story continues to be told from Jean-Marie’s perspective, we see enough of him to be able to follow the case as it builds up and justice is delivered.

I found this final section of the book to be really quite compelling and I appreciated that it played out quite contrary to my expectations. Coming into the book I was anticipating something in the style of a James M. Cain story and while I think we do get that to an extent, the story is more complex than it initially appears both in terms of the plot and the themes it discusses.

There are some issues that come with that added, unexpected complexity. In order for the story to work we have to accept a few developments that may seem a little unlikely. Dard actually does address the most problematic of these directly towards the end of the novella and I think I was persuaded that there was a solid rationale behind that choice.

I was less convinced by the way the detective story element of the book relies a little too heavily on coincidence in building to its resolution. Once again Dard attempts to provide justification for those moments but I think less persuasively. This is no problem at all for readers who may be approaching this as a thriller or human drama but those hoping to be dazzled by the detective phase of the novel may feel a little cheated.

Thematically though I found this book to be incredibly strong, packing quite a punch. I always enjoy when a book is able to surprise me with the ideas and issues it raises and this book certainly manages to do that. Questions of guilt and about human relationships abound, some directly suggested while others may simply occur to the reader in the subtext of the ending.

I felt it was a surprisingly ambitious book and a much lighter read than The Gravedigger’s Bread in tone but not in its themes or ideas. It is sharp, entertaining and well worth seeking out. What excites me most about my experiences reading this is that most Dard fans’ reviews describe it as a second tier work so I am even more interested to check out one of his ‘classic’ works such as Bird in a Cage at some point soon!

Reprint of the Year: The Gravedigger’s Bread

If everything has gone according to plan the chances are you have seen several of these Reprint of the Year posts appearing on your blog feeds today so by now you are probably aware of what it’s all about. For those who stumble on my post first however I should say that Kate at CrossExaminingCrime came up with the idea of creating a Reprint of the Year award. This is a chance to highlight some of the classic and less well-known titles making their way back into print.

I was one of several bloggers asked to contribute two nominations for your consideration. The only requirements were that the books must have been republished in 2018 and that they must not be released for the first time. Later this month you will have the opportunity to make your own nominations and on the 22nd of December voting will open with the winner being announced a week later.

While I am happy to report that I have read and enjoyed a number of vintage reprints this year I was a little daunted by the task of narrowing my options down to just two titles. The books would have to be great reads of course but I felt that my nominations needed to have something extra that set them apart and makes them feel a little special.

I am an enormous fan of the design of the Pushkin Vertigo range. Sometimes when a publisher develops a house style for their covers the titles lose some of their individuality but that cannot be said for these reprints. Each title features a piece of black and white photography and a striking, vivid background color that make these books stand out on the shelves while the matte covers look attractive and modern.

GravediggersThe title I am selecting from this range to be my first nomination is Frédéric Dard’s The Gravedigger’s Bread (my original review can be found here). Originally published in 1956, this is an inverted mystery story about a young man who arrives in a provincial town to find work and is offered a position as a salesman at a funeral parlor. While he doesn’t care for the work, he is attracted to his employer’s wife and stays to get close to her.

The story soon takes a murderous turn as the young man murders the funeral director and tries to cover up his crime. The remainder of the book is incredibly tense as we try to work out how he might be caught. Though it is quite economically plotted, Dard provides several surprises along the way and the book builds to a powerful and satisfying conclusion.

So, why does The Gravedigger’s Bread deserve your vote? If you haven’t tried the Pushkin Vertigo range, this is a great place to start. It is a fast, engaging read that stayed with me long after I put it down. This book is a striking French thriller that challenges the reader to predict how the situation will be resolved. It features bold and sometimes quite provocative characterizations and I think noir fans will appreciate its tone and sense of style.

Next Saturday I will be making my second nomination so be sure to check back then to see what I suggest. In the meantime, why not check out some of my reviews of other Pushkin Vertigo reprints and be sure to check out what Bev, Brad, Curtis, Daniel, JJ, John, Kate, Moira and the Puzzle Doctor select for their first nominations!

The Gravedigger’s Bread by Frédéric Dard, translated by Frank Wynne

Gravediggers
The Gravediggers’ Bread
Frédéric Dard
Originally Published 1956

Frédéric Dard has been on my list of authors I wanted to try for an age so when I read that The Gravediggers’ Bread was an inverted novel I couldn’t resist starting there.

The book’s premise bears some similarities to James Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, at least in terms of the initial scenario. Some elements and moments may seem familiar – particularly a biting of a lip that draws blood during a kiss – which led me to wonder if this was an intentional homage. Ultimately though the two novels take quite different paths and should be considered entirely separate works.

The story concerns a young man, Blaise, who is visiting a small provincial town in the hopes of securing a sales job for a factory. On arriving he discovers that he has got there too late and someone else was already hired. He is telephoning the friend who encouraged him to try to let him know the bad news when he discovers a woman’s wallet. When he returns it to her, the woman’s husband suggests that he could take him on to assist with sales for his funeral business. Blaise does not care much for the work but is drawn to the man’s wife and chooses to stay for her sake.

The Gravediggers’ Bread is a very short novel being just 160 pages long so I want to avoid going into too much detail about what prompts the crime or the circumstances in which it is done. What I can say is that there is a murder committed by the narrator and we follow Blaise’s attempts to avoid detection. While the identity of the victim will likely be quite obvious, the circumstances of the death and particularly the cover up are entertaining.

Where the novel is most successful is the building of tension as the reader wonders just how Blaise may be caught. Dard builds suspense very effectively in the second half of the novel in a couple of ways. Firstly by reminding us how precarious his position would be should the murder be discovered and secondly by allowing the reader clues as to some of the ways that might happen. But even then Dard has a further twist or two in store for the reader. Even if you work out where this story will ultimately be headed, the execution of these moments is quite sublime, building to a very satisfying conclusion.

While the characterizations within this story initially seem quite simple and familiar, I was surprised by some of the depth that Dard is able to give the relationships between Blaise, the undertaker and his wife given the short page count. Blaise’s role in particular is complex, befitting his role as the narrator, and we may question whether he is as different from the undertaker as he imagines.

There is a moment in the development of that relationship that did leave me somewhat uncomfortable and a little unsure how to interpret it. There is a moment where Blaise exercises some force to initiate a sexual encounter, apparently against the other character’s will. While it seems to begin without consent, following the encounter it never seems to be referred to and Blaise implies that part of the reason for this is the inadequacies of her husband as a lover.

Now Blaise is certainly not a hero, no matter how he may perceive himself and it should be said that the character is the narrator and may not be capable of putting his actions in any sort of context. It is certainly not surprising that this character would not be troubled by his actions and there are some possible character-based explanations for her acceptance of this treatment but as his narrative and perception of those events is never challenged and her feelings are never explained, it is left to linger uncomfortably a little like with a comparable scene in Gone With The Wind. At least for me.

Though I found Germaine’s reaction problematic, I can’t deny that their relationship is interesting and it becomes only more so as the novel nears its conclusion. Dard’s plotting is excellent and while I have read enough inverted stories not to be surprised by the conclusion, it is one of the better examples of that type of ending to an inverted mystery. I think fans of noir fiction will also appreciate elements of that ending too.

Dard creates some striking moments in this story and shows an admirable economy in his plotting. The 160 pages seem to whizz by and each plot twist is superbly executed, even if you pick up on clues as to where this story is going. I was left feeling very satisfied by the resolution to the novel and felt that it struck some interesting and, at times, provocative points in terms of its characterizations.

I am interested to try some other works by Dard and if anyone has any recommendations (in English translation, please) I would be very happy to receive them.

Review copy provided by the publisher. The novel is being published by Pushkin Vertigo in the UK on June 28 and in the US on August 28.