Some of the most influential relationships we ever have are those we have with our parents and our children. The parent/child bond is so powerful that it affects nearly everything that we do, in one way or another. That may be one reason for which that bond is featured so often in crime fiction. It’s realistic to believe that someone might do just about anything – including kill – to protect one’s child. It’s realistic to believe that a parent might have so much influence over a child that the child is affected forever by what the parent says and does. Whether the bond is a healthy one or not, the parent/child bond is complex and fascinating.
There’s a saying that there is no beast more ruthless than a parent protecting its young. If you’re a parent, you know how true that statement is. Even if you’re not a parent, you can imagine. That’s why we can identify so strongly with novels in which parents protect, defend, and sometimes enable their children. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, wealthy American businessman Rufus Van Aldin’s only child, Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, is the light of his life. He’ll do anything to make her happy, including using some questionable contacts to buy her the famous “Heart of Fire” ruby. The one thing Van Aldin can’t protect his daughter from, though, is her own bad judgment. When Ruth decides to take the famous Blue Train from London to France’s Iles d’Or to meet her lover, the Comte de la Roche, Van Aldin can do nothing to stop her. The Comte de la Roche has a notorious reputation and a history of stealing his lady-friends’ fortunes, and Van Aldin knows this. His warnings do no good, though, and Ruth heads off for her rendez-vous, although she’s already married to someone else. When Ruth is murdered on the train, it seems at first that the Comte de la Roche must be responsible. Soon enough, though, he’s able to establish an alibi. Hercule Poirot, who traveled by the same train, gets actively involved in the investigation when Van Aldin asks him to find out the truth. Throughout this novel, we can sense the strength of the bond between Van Aldin and his daughter, and although we can see that he’s spoiled her, we can forgive him that fault.
We also see a powerful parent/child bond in C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, in which Jack McGuane and his wife, Melissa, get the devastating news that the biological father of their adopted daughter, Angelina, wants her back. The McGuanes are given twenty-one days to surrender their daughter. McGuane can’t imagine why, after never having expressed an interest in Angelina, her biological father would suddenly want to assert his rights, and he suspects that something is wrong. So, with help from several friends, McGuane begins to investigate and to do everything he can to keep from having to give up his daughter. Along the way, he’s blocked at every turn by the baby’s biological father and grandfather. In this novel, we see in stark detail the lengths to which a parent will go to protect a child.
There’s also a fascinating example of that theme in Michael Gilbert’s short story, The Amateur. David Collett, the son of a wealthy shipping magnate, is kidnapped and held for ransom. His father, desperate for David’s safety and sure that he’s still alive, wants to be involved in the search for his son. Inspector Hazlerigg isn’t sure that’s a good idea, but he agrees. Collett turns out to be just as skilled in his own way as the police are, and in the end, it’s Collett’s specialized background that actually helps the team defeat the kidnappers.
That strong instinct to protect one’s child can have tragic results, too. That’s what happens in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling death of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker while she’s at a fête. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional detective story writer, has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt, where contestants are given clues and a synopsis of a fictional murder, and are challenged to find out who the murderer is, what the motive is, and what the weapon was. When the Murder Hunt goes tragically wrong, Poirot and the local police inspector investigate the case. In the end, Poirot finds that Marlene Tucker’s death, and that of another character, are both caused by a parent’s misplaced loyalty to a child. The loyalty has led to a coverup that ended in two deaths.
We also see the tragjc side of parental protectiveness in Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph. Deborah St. James, wife of Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley’s friend, Simon St. James, is coping with the sense of loss she feels at having had several miscarriages. One day, she’s visiting a local museum when she meets Robin Sage, vicar of a church in the small town of Wimslough. His words give Deborah some peace, and, drawn to this vicar, she persuades her husband to take a holiday in Wimslough, so that she can meet the vicar again. When they arrive, though, they find that it’s too late. The vicar has been poisoned by water hemlock. At first, the death looks like a tragic accident. But Simon St. James isn’t sure, so he enlists Lynley’s help in finding out what really happened to the vicar. Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers investigate the case, and find out that several people in Wimslough are keeping dark secrets, and that that fierce, protective parental instinct has led to more than one tragedy, including the death of Robin Sage.
For their part, children are also often fiercely loyal to their parents. We see that, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant, the daughter of famous painter Amyas Crale and his wife, Caroline, asks Poirot to investigate the poisoning murder of her father, who was murdered sixteen years before the novel begins. Caroline Crale was almost immediately arrested for the murder and convicted shortly after. There’s plenty of evidence against her, too, as her husband had told her he was going to leave her for another woman. The poison used in the murder was found in her possession, and she’d threatened her husband. Loyalty to her mother drives Carla Lemarchant to ask Poirot to clear Caroline Crale’s name if he can, and Poirot agrees. He asks each of the people present on the day of the murder to write an account of what happened, and uses those accounts, as well as interviews with each person, to figure out who really killed Amyas Crale and why.
There’s another example of this kind of loyalty in Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, in which eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce resolves to solve the murder of a stranger whose body she finds one morning in her family’s cucumber patch. She doesn’t know who the man is, but she knows that he and her father had an argument the day before. When her father, Colonel de Luce, is arrested for the murder, Flavia is determined to clear his name. So she uses her passion for chemistry, her keen observation, and the help of several friends to find out for herself who the stranger was and who killed him.
There are many examples, of course, of crime novels that feature very dysfunctional parent/child relationships. Those, too, have powerful effects on the characters and the events of the story. For instance in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet Mrs. Boynton, an American widow who exercises a tyrannical, mentally sadistic control over her daughter and step-children. When she’s murdered, her children finally begin to learn what it’s like to enjoy the freedoms that most of us take for granted. In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe. Howe was an unpleasant person whose abuse of his children has powerful effects on them long after his death. Those effects are an important thread in the story. There are other novels, as well, where there's a very dysfunctional parent/child bond.
Even when the parent/child bond isn’t a main theme in a novel, it’s still sometimes woven through the story. For instance, Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby dotes on his daughter, Cully, a talented actress. Cully features in several of the Barnaby novels, and it’s clear through all of them that she and her father enjoy a strong bond. Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Reg Wexford also has daughters, Sheila and Sylvia. He’s closer to Sheila than he is to Sylvia, but he loves both of his children, and that bond, too, is integrated throughout the series. We also see that bond in Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon series. Bengtzon is devoted to her children, Kalle and Ellen, and often finds herself conflicted between her role as their mother and her roles as a journalist and sleuth.
The parent/child bond permeates our lives, and is an important part of crime fiction. Do you enjoy novels that feature that bond? Which are your favorites?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Lullaby (Goodnight, My Angel). Readers who know me are probably wondering why it took me this long to use some Billy Joel lyrics in my posts ; ).