Sarah Ward – When Two Is Better Than One: Dual Timelines
Crime fiction readers demand more sophisticated novels than the ones I read as a teenager. While the golden age mysteries that I devoured had complex plots full of twists and turns, the action was usually linear. A crime would be committed near the beginning, a dedicated cast of suspects would be unveiled for the reader, a detective (amateur or professional) would arrive to solve the mystery and there would be a resolution at the book’s conclusion. But over the years, plots have become more complex.
There are often two or three narratives in a novel. While we still expect a resolution at the end of the story, parallel plot lines can include developing characters’ relationship that will continue in sequels, insights into the mind of the criminal and, even, voices from the victims. The latter has never quite appealed to me. Do we really want the dead to speak to us? Written well, the personality of a victim can be revealed by those they leave behind. Another plot device that we see more and more in crime novels are narratives split over time. A case might be investigated in the present day but relate to a crime that’s taken place years, decades or even centuries earlier. It’s a potent theme that combines the pull of the excellent historical thrillers being written with the immediacy of a modern day crime story.
There are early examples of this, of course. Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs looks at a past miscarriage of justice but it is left to Poirot to interview survivors from the period and rely on their memories to solve the crime. Colin Dexter’s The Wench is Dead has a hospital-bound Morse looking at a canal murder from the previous century. But he uses historical documents to examine the details of the crime. We only see the period through his assessing eye. Interestingly, when both these books were televised we, as viewers, were transported to the period in question.
It makes for more interesting television than second-hand accounts. Dual timelines, alternating between the past and present, have become popular in crime fiction. My own book, In Bitter Chill, published by Faber and Faber this week looks at the impact of a child abduction in the 1970s. It’s based on an experience that happened to me, a near abduction while I was walking to school. In my book the child is kidnapped and remains forever missing until, thirty-five years later, the events of the past begin to be discovered. Of course, I could have just written the tale in the modern day and not moved some of my narrative to the past. But the seventies we a special decade in which to be a child. There was a freedom that has now been lost. I played on the street every day after school and my mother didn’t know where I was until I came home at dusk. It feels like a time of innocence and I wanted to take the reader into my reminisces of that era.
To do so, I felt I had to write these sections from a child’s point of view and evoke the feeling of that period. Dual narratives do have their problems. If the reader doesn’t engage with your prose then you run the risk of those sections being skipped. I’ve done it myself with some books I’ve read. But, done well, a book that allows modern policing and attitudes to be contrasted with the mores of an earlier period can draw a reader into a narrative and give them the plot complexity that is so important today.
SARAH WARD is an online book reviewer whose blog, Crimepieces, reviews the best of current crime fiction. She is a judge for the Petrona Award for Scandinavian translated crime novels. Sarah lives in rural Derbyshire where her debut novel, In Bitter Chill, is set.