Saturday, November 21, 2009

Shaking the Tree

One of the fascinating things about crime fiction is how often murder mysteries focus on families, and murders within families. If you think about it, though, there’s logic to it. Family ties are strong and long-lasting, and have profound effects on people. Families may be close-knit, loving, dysfunctional or abusive. They may be wealthy or poor, caring or apathetic. Regardless of the kind of family structure in one’s background or one’s life, those family ties play a critical role in life. They can also be a driving force behind murder, and family inter-relationships sometimes play very important parts in crime fiction.

In some crime fiction, family ties mean access to an inheritance. The opportunity to inherit a lot of money can be a very powerful motive for murder, and there are many examples of such novels; I’ll just mention two of them. In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot receives a letter from Miss Emily Arundell, asking his help on a delicate matter. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t receive the letter until two months after it was sent, so by the time he and Hastings go to Littlegreen House, Miss Arundell’s home, it’s too late; she’s died of what seems like liver failure. However, all is not as it seems, and Poirot soon realizes that Emily Arundell’s nieces, Theresa Arundell and Bella Tanios, and her nephew, Charles Arundell, were all desperate for Aunt Emily’s money, and that one of them was desperate enough to kill for it.

There’s also a large fortune at stake in Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer). In that novel, we meet the very eccentric Lamprey family, a “well-born” and charming, but extremely financially irresponsible, group of people. The Lampreys are facing financial ruin, and only their wealthy but unpleasant “Uncle G.,” Gabriel Lord Wutherwood, can save them. When Lord Charles Lamprey asks his older brother for help, Wutherwood refuses, as he’s had enough of supporting his irresponsible family. The two brothers argue and shortly afterwards, Wutherwood is murdered. Inspector Alleyn is then called to sift through the various alibis and figure out which one of the Lampreys killed Wutherwood.

Sometimes, family members are murdered not so much because of money, but because of family animosity. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s A Holiday for Murder (AKA Murder for Christmas and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas). Simeon Lee is an unpleasant womanizer who’s been abusive to his wife, his children and his children’s spouses. He’s also made a fortune in mining. One Christmas, he invites all of his children and their spouses to send the holiday at the family home; he claims he’d like to patch up old grievances. No-one believes him, but everyone accepts the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee berates his family, verbally abusing his sons and letting everyone know how disgusted he is with nearly the whole group. Later that evening, Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot, who’s staying nearby, is called in to investigate. What he finds is that, while Lee’s wealth was important to the family, it was really old family animosity that led to his death.

Family animosity is also a driving force in Robert Barnard’s Death of a Mystery Writer. That’s the story of Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs, a successful and very obnoxious mystery novelist. He’s obese, overbearing and delights in stirring up trouble. In fact, he’s succeeded in alienating everyone in his family (to say nothing of his neighbors and acquaintances). On Sir Oliver’s 65th, birthday, he collapses and dies, and at first, his death seems natural enough; he was, after all, obese, and not in good health. Soon, though, it’s clear that he’s been poisoned. Inspector Meredith investigates the case and finds that there are plenty of suspects. For example, Sir Oliver’s eldest son, who hated his father, has inherited most of his fortune. Furthermore, a manuscript of Sir Oliver’s, that’s potentially worth millions, has disappeared. Merdith has to sift through the suspects to find which one hated Oliver enough to kill him.

In Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to Bendigo Island, a private island owned by wealthy munitions magnate “King” Bendigo. He wants the Queens to find out who’s been sending him threatening letters. Living with Bendigo are his brothers Abel, who’s his assistant, and Judah, who’s a drunkard with no particular purpose in life. Also living on the island is Bendigo’s wife, Karla. One night, Bendigo is shot while he’s locked into his hermetically-sealed private office. Judah is the first suspect, since he’s admitted to sending the threatening letters. However, he couldn’t have killed Bendigo, because his gun’s empty, and he spent the entire evening with Queen; he’s had no opportunity to commit the crime. As the Queens unravel the mystery, they find an undercurrent of animosity among the Bendigo brothers that goes back to their childhood in Wrightsville, a small New England town. So Queen pays a visit to Wrightsville to find out who shot Bendigo and why.

There’s also plenty of family animosity in Rhys Bowen’s Evanly Choirs, in which Evan Evans, constable of the Welsh town of Llanfair, investigates the murder of a visiting famous son of Llanfair, tenor Ifor Llewelyn, who’s been ordered by his doctor to take a rest. His visit doesn’t make him popular with the locals, though, as he has frequent shouting matches with his wife, Margaret, he spends too much time at the pub, and he’s threatening to include some local names in his very revealing memoirs. When Llewelyn is found dead on the floor of the family’s rented house one day, his wife, Margaret (who’s on the point of leaving him) and his children, Justine and Jasmine, are prime suspects. As he investigates the murder, Evans finds that their inter-relationships are more complicated than he first thought.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden also deals with family animosiy. In that novel, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her newly-formed cold case team investigate the ten-year-old killing of Warren Howe, a landscaper who was murdered with his own scythe, and his body left in one of his own landscaping ditches. Howe was an unpleasant philanderer, abusive to his family and disliked by nearly everyone, so everyone in his family was suspect. At first, it was thought that his wife, Tina, committed the murder, but since she had an alibi, the police were never able to make a case against her. When an anonymous note later accuses Tina of the crime, Scarlett re-opens the case. She and Oxford history don Daniel Kind find that there’s much more to Howe’s death than the sudden anger of a jealous wife; the network of family and village relationships has everything to do with the murder.

One of the very suspenseful aspects of murder committed in families is the effect of suspicion on the members of the family. After all, it can be hard to accept that one of one’s relatives could be a murderer. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Funerals are Fatal (AKA After the Funeral), where Hercule Poirot investigates the sudden death of Richard Abernethie, the wealthy owner of a family business, and patriarch of his family. When Abernethie’s relatives assemble for his funeral, his younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, hints that he might have been murdered. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, the family attorney begins to believe that Cora might have been right about her brother’s death. He calls in Poirot to investigate both deaths. As the novel progresses, we see Abernethie’s relatives begin to suspect each other. In fact, one of them, Abernethie’s niece, Rosamund Shane, speculates aloud about who might be the murderer. That same suspicion hangs over the Argyle family in Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence. In that novel, Rachel Argyle is murdered, supposedly by her adopted son, Jacko. In fact, Jacko Argyle died in prison. Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary, who’s been suffering from a bout of amnesia, recovers and comes forward with evidence that clears Jacko of the crime. Instead of being glad of Calgary’s revelation, the other members of the Argyle family have to face the reality that one of them is a murderer.

When they’re done well, murders within a family can be suspenseful and add real layers of depth and interest to a novel. Even when the murderer doesn’t turn out to be a family member, the complex interplay of relationships can make for a fascinating subplot.

What’s your view? Do you enjoy “family” murders? Or do you prefer murders where there’s a wider range of suspects?

*Note: The title of this post is the title of a song by Peter Gabriel, who once was part of the U.K. group Genesis, and later had a very successful solo career.


  1. I think long-standing anomisity in a family makes for a good and credible plot. Besides, it often gives the writer occasion to offer insight in two-three generations of a family (with lots of skeletons in various old cupboards), and when it is done well, it makes for some of the very best mysteries, I think.

  2. Dorte - Oh, I agree completely! Those multigenerational family secrets and "skeletons in the closet" are fascinating topics for a good mystery plot, aren't they? Buried animosities just add a fascinating depth to a story.

  3. Thank you so much for the lovely book which arrived yesterday. It is so pleasant to hold in my hands. Just the perfect size and weight. Can't wait to read it-and nice to read for my tired eyes.

  4. Patti - So glad you finally got it! I hope that you enjoy it : ).

  5. I enjoy reading mysteries involving family members because there always seems to be more at stake. Families are supposed to be all-supportive, all-loving environments, which of course, is seldom the case. Histories are long; and everyone knows them. Grudges can be long-held and even more intense because of the notion one cannot hold a grudge against someone in one's family.

    Blood is supposed to be the ultimate bond but sometimes, it can be the ultimate motive. (wow, I should use that in a query letter!)


  6. Elspeth - You put that so well! There is so much more at stake when a murder mystery is "in the family." Grudges, histories and secrets are all the more meaningful because they're among people who are supposed to love and care for each other. Well said!!! You're absolutely right that you should use that last sentence in a query letter; I would sure read your manuscript carefully if I got a letter like that! : )

  7. I think family animosity is very believable for readers. :) And can generate a very credible motive for murder.

    Another great post, Margot.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  8. Elizabeth - Thanks : ). I agree; it's important that a murder plot be credible, and family animosity is something with which lots of people can identify. It adds interesting twists, too.

  9. The cliche is that most real-life murders are committed by family members - well, people who know each other well, perhaps not quite the same thing.
    The family and murder is explored in several ways by Johan Theorin in The Darkest Room. The central family is a young couple in which one gradually realises that a close relative has died prematurely before the start of the book - and this event is what is underlying the main plot. Also, the story shifts back in time so one becomes aware of the family history of one member of the couple, and we come to learn truths from her life too. And the young policewoman who is one of the main protagonists, spends time talkig to old Gelof, her great-uncle, to find out about her grandfather's (Gelof's brother's) life - again, with shocking consequences for the modern descendants.

    So, a very good book that looks at various aspects of family relationships.

    The book I'm reading now, Truth by Peter Temple, has just had some passages that beautifully convey sibling rivalry between two brothers, and their relationship with their father. I am not sure if this is going to be relevant to any murders, yet, though, as I am quite near the start of the book!

  10. Maxine - You're right - It's often said that murders are committed most frequently by people who know each other well; often they're family members (although of course, that's not always the case). I don't have evidence to support me on this, but I suspect that it's because the better we know someone, the more we have have to gain (or lose) by that person's death.

    Thanks for mentioning The Darkest Room. I'm really looking forward to that one, but I've decided to take your advice and start with Echoes from the Dead. TDR, though, certainly explores the whole issue of family relationships, secrets and animosities! Thanks also for bringing up the Temple. It's a great example of a novel that explores family relationships, and what's fascinating about this one is that many of the relationships it explores are Villani's (the sleuth's) own. I hope you'll enjoy this one.