Let’s Get Lost
Everyone wants to disappear. Whether you’re a law-abiding citizen who simply needs a break from the grind of everyday life or a criminal on the brink of incarceration, you’ve imagined leaving your past in the dust and starting fresh somewhere shiny and new. The appeal of this notion, even to the non-felonious, goes beyond shrugging off a boring name, old job, and tiresome bills. It’s a chance for a do-over, to live your life the way you thought you would when you were a kid. It’s also a break from the monotony of being you. It seems unfair that a life can last decades, but you’re just one person the whole time.
For crime writers like me, an interest in this topic is practically a job requirement. But my fascination with leaving the past behind or starting over (however you want to look at it) predates even my earliest attempts at writing. Ever since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be somewhere else. Traveling has never scratched the itch; the only thing that has, at least temporarily, is a full-fledged move. The result is that I tend to commit to extreme relocations every few years. My name remains the same, but everything around me changes. For the briefest period of time, when I’m freshly planted in my foreign environment, I feel like someone new.
It’s not the most convenient way to live, but maybe Agatha Christie would have understood. On December 3rd, 1926, she disappeared. An intense manhunt ensued that eventually involved Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L. Sayers. Eleven days later she was discovered living in a spa hotel in Harrogate under the name Teresa Neele, which was coincidentally also the last name of her husband’s mistress. Hypotheses abound regarding the episode, a fugue state prime among them. But my uneducated theory is that she just wanted to try on a brand-new identity coat. Her own felt threadbare and tired.
In my most recent novel, The Passenger, I delved deeper into my fascination with reinvention. I wrote about a woman who sheds one identity after the next as she runs from her near and distant past.
In many books, TV shows, and films, well-connected people and gangsters often seem to have easy access to document forgers, plastic surgeons, and the funds to pay for such services—not to mention a knack for ingenious schemes to evade their followers. As a result, in their new lives they have proper homes, a circle of friends, and piles of cash under the floorboards.
I was more interested in what would happen if the character’s financial means and skills of deception were closer to my own. The result was a character who could only nickel-and-dime her way across the country, always looking over her shoulder, incapable of any kind of relationship beyond a cautious acquaintance. She scrapes by as a shadow of a real human being. It takes an enormous amount of work to stay unfound.
While the trope of changing identities is fairly common in the crime genre, I doubt there is an author better versed on the subject than Thomas Perry. His Jane Whitefield series is about a woman whose job is teaching people on the run how to assume a new identity. Because she’s everything my heroine is not—expert, meticulous, well-connected—I avoided the books while writing The Passenger. But later I contacted Perry, because if there’s anyone I know who has a solid grasp of eluding pursuers, it’s him. And I thought it was time I learned how. Just in case.
As a hypothetical, I asked him what he would do if, for instance, he were guilty of a capital crime and didn’t feel like going to prison.
“I would try to get to Ireland or France, where they wouldn't extradite me to a country with the death penalty. I would do this well in advance of being arrested. Then I would get used to drinking Guinness or red wine, apply for citizenship, and never cross another border,” he said.
But the restrictions, according to Perry, would be endless: “Never get fingerprinted. Never go to public events where there are television cameras. Stay away from commercial airplanes. Stay off toll roads, where there are cameras that take your picture when you approach the tollbooth. Avoid getting money in the above-ground economy, where taxes are paid, and work only for cash. Try not to get sick or require any prescription medicines. Don't get in touch with any relatives or anybody else you ever knew. In fact, it's best not to know anybody in the present, either ...”
These restrictions, which only scratch the surface, would severely cut into one’s quality of life. And yet people disappear all of the time. Some start new lives and stay lost, either through sheer discipline or because no one is looking for them. But the ones who get caught often do so because they gave themselves away as an impostor. Memory can’t be changed; fake memories can’t become part of your psychological fabric. (Or if they do, you’ve gotten farther gone than you probably intended.) You can move across the country, change your name, dye your hair, but you’re still you.
It’s been almost four years since my last move, and I have no pressing plans for another extreme relocation. Part of me wonders whether I exorcized the urge through fiction. Perhaps it’s just lying dormant, waiting for the right opportunity. But another part wonders if I’m still too close to home.