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Oh what a tangled web we weave,Mystery stories are mostly about unraveling secrets to find the thief, kidnapper, killer, or the person who has disappeared. Why did they do it? Where did they go? Who knew? Who cared?
When first we practice to deceive!
Sir Walter Scott, Marmion, Canto vi. Stanza 17
Secrets are hard to keep. They have a habit of popping up out of the ground like a crocus in the spring to surprise relatives, to comprise motives, to open locked doors. Who is in the attic where Jane Eyre is a governess? Why does the guest see a face in the wild storm outside his window in Wuthering Heights?
In some stories the secrets are respected and people are left in peace as Boo Radley will be protected in To Kill a Mockingbird, but in most stories the secrets must come out for the puzzle or problem to be solved.
In some books much is going on between relatives that makes up a strong subplot.
In Miranda James’ story Classified as Murder, the hero worries about why his son has come home. Something is eating him alive and yet he won’t talk about it. This part of the story was much more interesting than the murder and the victim’s family who were suspects. That plot was pretty mundane, but the pain of the father who waits to see if his son will share his heart with him is heart-rending.
Of course, it is human nature to have secrets and not wish to share them. Privacy is important. Ian Rutledge in Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd has a very big secret. He has returned from WW I and is still traumatized. He feels guilt about the death of his friend Hamish that is so strong he hears Hamish speaking in his head. He has to take time out when he has “spells” or flashbacks of the war. He never knows what will trigger them. He has bad dreams and he is afraid of being heard screaming in the middle of the night. He can not bear small places or tiny rooms because he was buried in a trench when a shell hit.
Yet, he must not be found out or he will lose his job. He doesn’t want the pity of his friends and he is afraid that an older lady who knows him well will see right through him. He keeps on going, but his troubles and secrets are a main part of the story. Once in a while a kind person like the rector of a church will speak to Ian about getting help and tell him that he is always willing to listen. As readers, we too listen and learn.
In the true story We Die Alone by David Howarth, a young Norwegian named Jan Baalsrud is trying to escape the Germans. Many, many people have to be let in on the secret to keep him alive and to try to get him to the Swedish border including young children. The penalty for being found to help Jan is death. Until the war ended many of the people worried day and night that the secret of their help would be discovered.
A careless word, too many people visiting a house, a wrong question, a wrong look, not having a good reason for going into Tromso or crossing the fjord, scraping together extra food…all of this was extremely dangerous.
Jan has to ask himself if his freedom is worth the lives of so many.
Secrets can cause a lot of trouble. They can cause bitter misunderstandings. In a lot of stories having one person to talk with is critical. But not everyone has that one close friend who will listen and understand and keep the secret. In Louise Penny’s mystery series a young detective has a secret somewhat like Ian’s. He has not recovered from the physical pain of his injuries and the mental pain of being told he was betrayed. He cannot deal with the fact that the man he loved and admired seemed to have left him to die. The pain of that secret leads to more. He tries to use drugs to stop the pain which if found out would cause him to lose his job.
The reason that I ask readers to read Penny’s series in order is to watch the development of this relationship that builds to a crescendo. Again, this subplot is often more important to me than what else is going on in the books. I care about the characters. I want all to end well. The author has made me trust Inspector Gamache. I believe he knows what he is doing. But how very dangerous it is. How the Light Gets In is the newest in the series and seems to bring that story arc to an end with a heart-rending conclusion.
It is the knowledge that there are secrets that causes suspense in a story. We are curious to find out the answers.
People often have a secret love that causes them to behave in a certain unbalanced way as Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina does or to mourn its loss as Anne does in Jane Austen’s Persuasion. In Austen’s Emma, Jane Fairfax must keep silent as she watches her loved one tease Emma. She has to wonder if he will be true since every one wishes him to win Emma who is an heiress. I have always been upset by the way Frank Churchill behaved, and I am still not really sure if he meant to be true to Jane.
In McCaffrey's story The Dragon Riders of Pern, Lessa has to hide to survive, but she cannot maintain the disguise from the dragons who hunt for prospects to bond with a Queen hatchling. Her secret is revealed and her power.
Some characters must keep secrets to protect others. Nicholas, in Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, must pretend not to know about a betrayer through eight books to keep his family safe from the predator.
The narrators in both McEwan’s Atonement and Atwood’s Blind Assassin begin bit by bit to face the secret they have been hiding from themselves. The story has been buried deep and finally it must come out. Both stories are very powerful.
Secrets can cause harm. Carolyn Cooney asks us to imagine how we would feel to find our face on a milk carton listed as missing when we believed our home life to be secure.
Face on the Milk Carton
What Happened to Janie
Voice on the Radio
In many, many stories characters learn that the people who raised them are not their real parents and it causes so much trouble. They feel betrayed.
In Margaret Craven’s story I Heard the Owl Call My Name, the Bishop asks a Native American lady to not let the young priest know that he is dying. How hard is it to keep that kind of secret? When it is time to tell the truth, how do you do it?
Sometimes there is a prophecy that is kept a secret. Is that wise or harmful? Can a hero beat a prophecy of defeat if he doesn’t know about it? The secrets kept from Oedipus lead to a terrible tragedy. The prophecies by the three witches lead Macbeth into deeper and deeper trouble.
The secret revealed at the very end of Sanderson’s Way of Kings is devastating. Also, one young woman must put aside all that she might wish to become to help her family. Keeping the terrible secret of why she is there and what she hopes to steal, debilitates her. We readers fear for her as we watch her torn apart by longing to be true, and her family’s need of her betrayal of those she has learned to respect.
Finding out that a loved one has betrayed you is a terrible shock. In Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife, we explore the wife’s terrible effort to learn about her husband’s secret life.
In The Girl of the Limberlost by Gene Stratton Porter, Elnora doesn’t understand why her mother can’t bear to hear her play the violin that she loves so much and why her mother seems to hate her. When her mother finally explains the secret, they both can come to terms with it and have a hopeful future.
Harry Potter is not told that he is a wizard, but denying it does the Dursleys no good.
Many characters must leave home and face many dangers to discover who they really are. Unraveling that secret is a huge undertaking. It keeps us turning the pages as we journey with the hero.
My list of books with secret in the title that I have enjoyed:
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ by Sue Townsend
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
The Secret of Santa Vittoria by Robert Crichton
When we open a book we expect to find secrets. So many good books, so many secrets to unravel. Which are your favorite books that have secrets?
Diaries of the Week:
Write On! Who do you write for?
SNLC, Vol. CDXI / UDKCJ 30: Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra Edition
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