Secrets and Mysteries

By Pat Remick

The main characters in mystery fiction should have at least three or four secrets that are revealed through the course of the book, according to SinCNE author and writing instructor extraordinaire Hallie Ephron.

I think about this a lot, both in terms of constructing fiction plots and also about how our secrets can change people’s lives — and even history. In this age of instant communication and everything that’s so openly shared on reality TV and through social networking, it’s difficult to believe anyone keeps secrets.

But they do.

I bet you can think of some right now – either secrets you have or ones that have shocked you when revealed about others. It’s the stuff of life – and also great fiction, right?

How many of us have three or four secrets – or more?

Pat Remick

Not long ago I learned a family secret so shocking that I remain flabbergasted that none of my relatives alive today knew it either. The entry in the official City of Portsmouth Death Ledger tells the basic facts:

Margaret Blute: DOD: December 25, 1886; 34 years old 10 months and 28 days; Birthplace: Portsmouth, NH; Father: William Quinn; Mother: Johanna Crowley; Father’s Birthplace: Ireland; Mother’s Birthplace: Ireland. Cause of Death: Kicking and Bruising.

What the ledger doesn’t reveal is the name of the person who inflicted the kicking and bruising: my great-great grandfather. According to newspaper reports from that time, brewery worker Patrick Blute, 42, murdered his wife Margaret in a drunken rage on Christmas Day 126 years ago in the presence of their four children, one of whom was my father’s grandmother.

My father’s half-sister uncovered the details while doing genealogical research and handed me copies of the original news stories. I called my parents. Neither knew about the murder. Nor did my aunt or their cousins. When I expressed surprise that something like this was kept quiet for so long, my father noted that it isn’t exactly the type of information one shares at the dinner table. Perhaps, but you’d think someone might have been whispering at some point.

The only details we have are from the official death record and the newspaper reports, which are grim but compelling. “Christmas Revelry Ends in Murder” proclaimed one headline under the heading “Shocking Tragedy.” According to the reports, the “pair have had a reputation of living unhappily together, owing to strong drink.”

The newspapers contain varying accounts of the murder, although most indicate she died of her injuries after being beaten and thrown down the stairs. According to one witness, Patrick Blute calmly admitted he had been beating his wife for years and told the marshal: “I don’t care what you do with me, I just as soon you’d take me down to the wharf and throw me overboard.”

We also know their children were ages 2 to 12. One of them was Julia, my great-grandmother who died a year after I was born. I wonder today who raised her after her mother was murdered and her father sent to prison, where he died in 1891. There is no one alive to tell us.  

As a mystery writer, their story intrigues me. But as their descendant, it unnerves me to realize I walk the same streets and their DNA is inside me. I think about them whenever I drive by the location where the murder occurred, although their tenement was replaced by a commercial enterprise long ago.

I also find it oddly fascinating that the murderer’s grandson later headed the police force in our city, my cousin served as a police officer in the next town, and now my child—their great-great-great grandson—also is a policeman.

In the writing world, we might call those ironic twists.

What three or four secrets do you think would help make a good mystery plot?

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13 Responses to Secrets and Mysteries

  1. Beth Kanell says:

    What a wonderful story, Pat! I agree about the odd feeling one gets, walking the same streets … The secrets I like best in mystery plots involve why someone chose a particular career or place to live — often in reaction to something “formative” that happened earlier.

  2. Ruth McCarty says:

    How sad for the children to have seen this happen, but also to have to remember it every Christmas. It breaks my heart.

  3. thiemba says:

    Since I am a daughter of two war Veterans in a military household I can say that keeping secrets is a familiar subject to me. Personally, I always love the secret of a characters work/career before their current one. Nothing is more intriguing than having military people, when given the clearance, tell you their stories about the past.

  4. Amazing story, Pat. I love uncovering the secrets as I write, sometimes not even realizing they were there until I write about them. A father who disappeared when the protagonist was 19. An allusion to a child being left alone in a burning building. Love it.

  5. I know a person–a dear friend, also wife, mother, responsible citizen–who has a whopper of a personal secret. A real jaw dropper. I am one of two or three people who know it. From time to time, I look at her and think: “You? Really?” Once she told me she does the same thing: “Me? Really?” But your DNA comment intrigues me. is this a nurture or nature question?

  6. Ah, the joys of genealogy–you never know what you’re going to find. Your family story puts the attitudes of society, or at least your family, in perspective: you do not talk about a murder in the family. Ever. Other “things one does not talk about”? Babies that mysteriously appear in the family, or an ancestor who was never quite acknowledged by his father’s family (I call them “oops” babies). A divorce that never quite happened, despite subsequent marriage by one or both people. A “person of color” who was “passing” and succeeded (even through later generations, when genetics might have betrayed them). In the old days, the excuse given when the story surfaced (before news coverage) years later: “oh, the church burned down and destroyed all the records.”

  7. barbaraross says:

    I guess you could see it as a story of resilience–somehow (though the how is lost to time) those children moved on from that day and, among other things, created the line that led to you.

  8. Rusty Fairbanks says:

    Somehow, discovering family secrets long after the fact can generate deeper thinking about why certain people became or acted the way one thought they were naturally. I learned long after my mother died that she had been left alone at the age of 3 in a boarding house with no other relatives. It came out via a long-ago census report. Another piece to the puzzle of my mother’s family. And then there is the “story” of how her aunt supposedly threw my mother’s baby brother out a window to his death…

  9. Rhonda Lane says:

    That’s tough. I got hooked on Ancestry and have wondered what the lives of my ancestors had been like. We’re they victims of brutality or brutes themselves – or both, considering the times? (History shows some of both and all of the above.) Also, those of us who grew up or have ancestral ties in the rural south get a wake-up call when we look at genealogy sites and see the wills of our ancestors with slaves being passed down as property.

  10. patremick says:

    Some very interesting secrets either shared or hinted at here… and all novel material!

  11. Gloria Alden says:

    Fascinating story, Pat. And yes, all novel material unless you feel too attached to the story to want to write about it. I had a great aunt, who at the age of 16 fell and hit her head. She experienced horrid headaches and tried to commit suicide. She was put in a mental home for a while, and wrote poignant letters wanting to come home. When she was brought home, she ended up going after her mother, my great-grandmother, with a butcher knive. She was put into a state institution for the insane and lived there until she was in her late eighties. It’s a sad story made even sadder because today an operation could probably relieve whatever was pressing on her brain causing the problem. I wrote a story about her when I was sixteen.

  12. patremick says:

    That really is such a sad story, Gloria. As was Rusty’s and so many others I’ve heard. Helps somewhat that we can talk about them in our fiction, too.

    • Rusty Fairbanks says:

      There was so much “dysfunction” in my family growing up (in a time long before that word became commonplace) that I thought I was the strange one. It was only by getting far, far away and thinking through what I knew and what I thought I knew and then analyzing it into mashed potatoes that I was able to “understand” they were who they were and I wasn’t. Took many years and a great career in the law enforcement business where I met all sorts of strange personalities. Now I have extensive materials for the stories I write and the characters within. Times were different and so were/are we (thank God). Your column was a potent reminder. Thanks.

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