Cognitive psychologists will tell you most adults can remember back to when they were six years old. Those early memories can vary from favorite toys to major events like switching schools, but they almost always involve family.
While such recollections may be powerful enough to stand the test of time, they can also be unreliable. In fact, research shows some of our most prominent childhood memories aren’t real experiences at all, but fragments of the past assembled into events that we convince ourselves are real.
Unsettling, isn’t it? That’s what makes memory the perfect theme for a mystery.
In The Dead Season, my newest book in the Shana Merchant series of mysteries, interpreting early family memories – and separating fact from fiction – is paramount to solving both a cold case involving her estranged uncle and a present-day crime. Knowing the criminal she’s hunting is a figure from her past, Shana must rely on her memories to decode messages she alone can understand. At the same time, those memories may have been manipulated, and that puts her at a disadvantage against the clever killer she seeks.
Tenuous memories of family events factor heavily into several other mysteries released this year as well.
Let’s take a look.
The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda
Imagine being the focus of a national news story as a young child. Now imagine you gained that celebrity status because you were swept into a drainage pipe while sleepwalking during a storm.
Arden Maynor has no memory of this traumatic experience. Virtually everything she knows about that night comes from the book written by her mother. Today, Arden goes by her middle name, Olivia, and lives hundreds of miles from Widow Hills where she clings to her hard-earned anonymity. As the twentieth anniversary of the notorious incident approaches, though, a series of strange events – including the appearance of a dead body outside her home – makes Olivia question how much she can trust the story she thought she knew.
Megan Miranda’s newest psychological thriller follows Olivia as she grapples with her memory and possible connection to the murder. The integrity of her rescuer, her neighbor and friends, and even her own mother are thrown into question as she attempts to unravel the mystery of her own vanishing.
Saint X by Alexis Schaitkin
Claire Thomas is only seven years old when her college-aged sister disappears during the family’s Caribbean vacation, but Claire’s memories of the sibling she adored and the events leading up to her untimely death endure. Years later, when Claire is an adult living in New York City, a chance encounter puts her face to face with a suspect in her sister’s case. Fixated on the former resort employee, Claire finds herself revisiting her memories of her last days with Alison and how the authorities handled the racially-charged case.
In this considered story of loss, grief, and white privilege, Schaitkin explores the role that memory plays in Claire’s obsession with her sister’s death. At first, she depends on her recollections of Saint X to help her determine who’s responsible for wrenching Alison from her life, but as the story unfolds, Claire begins to see her family memories in a new light.
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
To Maggie Holt, Baneberry Hall isn’t just another childhood home. She and her parents lived in the historic manor, the site of multiple deaths and purported murders, for just three weeks when she was a young girl, but if the bestselling book her father wrote about that experience is to be believed, the “House of Horrors” was so terrifying it led the family to flee in the middle of the night. In spite of playing the lead in a ghost story, Maggie’s memories of that time are vague. What’s more, she doesn’t buy the tale of her family’s haunting. When she inherits the estate from her father, she tries to relive the infamous experience that put the house – and her family – on the map.
Here too, memory is central to the story’s plot. “House of Horrors” plays mischief with Maggie’s mind, and the effect on her psyche is profound, particularly when she starts to experience supernatural events that mirror those from her father’s account. But Maggie’s determined to unearth what really happened during those three weeks, and when it comes to being haunted, she’s not about to play it by the book.
Stories constructed around memory can be thrilling, thought-provoking, and unnerving all at once. Do you incorporate memory into your own writing? What are some of your favorite books that feature memory as a central theme? Share your comments below!
A former freelance writer and contributor to publications like Forbes, The Huffington Post, and The Economist, TESSA WEGERT is the author of the Shana Merchant series, beginning with DEATH IN THE FAMILY. She grew up in Quebec near the border of Vermont and now lives with her husband and children in a hundred-year-old house in Coastal Connecticut.