Friday, October 1, 2010

Coming Apart at the Seams*

The family is a very important – and fascinating – social unit. For many of us, it’s the most important social group to which we belong. Some families have strong and stable bonds. When trouble strikes, the members stick together out of a sense of love and commitment. Other families, though, are more fragile. When trouble and tragedy strike, they disintegrate, so that what seemed like a happy family ends up falling apart. The disintegration of family bonds is a frequent theme in crime fiction and that makes a lot of sense. Murder is a tragic, traumatic thing to happen. So when it strikes, family bonds can be tested to the limit. That family splintering also adds suspense to a novel, and can make the characters all the more interesting – even appealing.

We see family disintegration in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). Richard Abernethie is the wealthy patriarch of the Abernethie family. When he suddently dies, the members of his family gather for the funeral and the reading of Abernethie’s will. At first, the members of the family seem united enough. However, when Richard Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet suggests that he was murdered, things begin to change. Everyone protests at first, but secretly, everyone begins to wonder if Cora was right. Then the next day, Cora herself is brutally killed. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, consults Hercule Poirot, who agrees to look into the matter. Throughout the novel, the members of the family gradually begin to mistrust each other, especially when it becomes clear that one of them probably committed both murders.

The Cloade family begins to unravel in Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide). In that novel, wealthy Gordon Cloade shocks everyone in the family when he suddenly marries a much-younger widow, Rosaleen Underhay. Cloade had always led the other members of the family to believe that they need have no fear for their financial future – that he would take care of all of them. But shortly after his marriage, Gordon Cloade dies in a tragic bomb blast. Now, the other Cloades are left without their financial security. This in itself rocks the family and sets the other Cloades against Rosaleen and her brother, David Hunter. Then, a stranger arrives in the village and hints that Rosaleen’s first husband may still be alive. When that st ranger is murdered, the family comes even closer to falling apart. Although the members of the family don’t set themselves against each other, we do see clearly how the stress of being without money and then mixed up in a murder investigation affects the family.

We see that same kind of stress in Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer). That’s the story of the death of Gabriel “Uncle G” Lord Wutherwood. His younger brother Lord Charles Lamprey has a financially irresponsible and eccentric family. Only Lord Charles’ wealthy but unpleasant brother can save the family from financial ruin. When Lord Charles asks his brother for financial help, though, Uncle G refuses. He’s tired of coming to the rescue and is determined not to do so again. The two brothers argue and shortly afterwards, Wurtherwood is murdered in an elevator. Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigates the murder, and we can see how the stress of the loss of money, the murder and its investigation add to the family’s stress.

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, Ruth Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine, we see a stark difference between the united, respectable surface of the Longley family, and the reality underneath of a family coming apart. Daniel Stewart is an investigative journalist who wants to do a story on Vera Longley Hilliard, who was hanged for murder several decades earlier. He approaches Vera’s niece Faith Longley Severn about the execution and persuades her to help him write his story. As Faith begins to learn more about the case, we learn about the Longley family. The Longleys were a proud, ultra-respectable family about whom there’s never been any scandal. On the surface, they seem to be a perfectly happy, ideal family. And yet, the family comes apart to the point of murder. That disintegration adds an important element of suspense to this novel.

The disintegration of the Davies family is the subject of Elizabeth George’s A Traitor to Memory. The story begins when twenty-eight-year-old Gideon Davies, a brilliant violinist, suddenly can’t play. But really, the story of the Davies family’s disintegration begins years earlier, when two-year-old Sonia Davies, Gideon’s younger sister, is drowned in what looks at first like an accident. When it was established that the death was a murder, Sonia’s governess Katja Wolf was arrested and imprisoned for drowning. The death took its toll on all of the members of the Davies family, and we see those effects many years later. In fact, Gideon Davies undergoes psychoanalysis to try to figure out how Sonia’s death, and the falling apart of his family, are related to his inability to play. And then, Eugenie Davies, Gideon’s mother, is killed one night by what seems to be a hit-and-run accident. Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers and their team investigate the death, and find out how it, too, is related to Sonia Davies’ death.

In Karen Osborn’s The River Road, we meet the Sanderson family. David and Michael Sanderson have been close friends as well as brothers all their lives. They’ve also been close friends with Kay Richards, who lives next door. The children grew up together, spent their adolescence together and are now in college. Then, during a trip home from college, everything changes for both families. The three young people go out for a night of partying and drinking and late that night, find themselves on a local bridge. Drunk and under the influence of drugs, David Sanderson climbs up on the bridge rail and prepares to jump off. He invites Kay to join him and she does. Then, before any of the young people knows what’s happened, David has fallen in the water and has drowned. Kay is soon arrested for murder, and it’s alleged that she pushed David off the bridge. David’s death, the murder accusation shatters both families and changes them forever.

Shona MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows also tells the story of a disintegrating family. The O’Neill family is a proud old family living in 17th Century Ulster. Their matriarch, Maeve O’Neill, has dreams of the family returning to its ancient greatness and on the surface, the O’Neills are powerful and well-respected family. But underneath that surface, religious and political tensions are helping to tear the family apart. One night at a family celebration, Maeve O’Neill hires a local poet to entertain her guests in the old tradition. Instead, the poet curses the O’Neill family. Then, parts of the curse begin to come true. So Maeve sends her grandson, Sean O’Neill Fitzgarrett, to Scotland to find his cousin Alexander Seaton. Maeve believes that Seaton is the only one who can find the poet and prove the curse wrong. At first, Seaton is reluctant to go. He’s got a solid job as a teacher in Aberdeen, and he’s got his sights on Sarah Forbes, a servant in the home of friends of his. But Fitzgarrett eventually persuades his cousin to go to Ireland, and Seaton goes. What he finds when he goes there is that the O’Neill family has been coming apart for some time. The political, religious and economic issues that were tearing Ireland apart at the time have also taken their toll on the O’Neill’s. In the end, that disintegration leads to tragedy.

There are many other novels that feature families that disintegrate, despite what might seem like a superficially happy exterior. Murder can have that effect on people. You’ll notice, for instance, I didn’t mention any of the numerous fictional sleuths whose family lives have come apart as a result of what they do. That’s because there are so many of them. Which crime fiction novels have you enjoyed where a family falls apart?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Best of My Love.


  1. The book that came to mind first was Edward Martin's novel, The Cipher Garden. There are actually two families have have been torn apart and bad enough to cause a person to take their life. Yeah, we see how it affects families to be in the investigation of crime as well, cops are often portrayed as alcoholics and single or divorced. Another great post, Margot.


  2. Clarissa - Thank you :-). And thanks for mentioning Martin Edwards' terrific work. The Cipher Garden really is a strong example of two families that come apart, isn't it? And there are so many good examples of sleuths whose families fall apart that some people think it's become cliche. So, yeah, there certainly are plenty of cases of that in crime fiction.

  3. New Zealand novelist Paddy Richardson has a wonderful example in her novel A Year to Learn a Woman, of the disintegration of the relationship between a mother and daughter, precipitated by a manipulative friend.

    I love novels that show family dynamics, whether between the family of the victim, or also the relationships of the detective. It adds depth and a human drama element to the story and makes for a satisfying read. I recently finished Saints of New York by R.J. Ellory, in which family dynamics play quite a role.

  4. Vanda - I absolutely must get to know Paddy Richardson's work. I've read such good things about it, and she did a great interview with Craig at Crime Watch. And A Year to Learn a Woman sounds like exactly the kind of thing I mean.

    I agree with you that family dynamics are really fascinating stuff, and make such a great backdrop (or even core) for a crime novel. And of course, they do add depth and humanity to characters.

  5. Fascinating topic. Yes, so many families come undone during the course of a mystery novel. So many mystery novels are driven by families coming undone.
    At the heart to almost half the mystery novels I have read would be some kind of family coming undone.

  6. Another great post that sends my mind racing in all directions. I can never seem to think of a book title, but I can think of all sorts of plots. The examples you gave would peak anyone interest in reading. I keep thinking there was a book about two brothers - one was a killer and tried to blame the other. That would put stress on a family. Thanks for always inspiring my mind to work.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Rayna - You are right - so many families come apart as a mystery novel progresses. The stress of the investigation and the horror that there's been a murder really take their toll. And it is interesting to think about the number of novels that center on just that - the shattering of a family.

    Mason - You've paid me quite a compliment, Mason :-). Thank you. I wonder if perhaps you are thinking of Marin Clark's The Legal Limit? That's the story of the Gates brothers, one of whom commits a murder, and the other of whom helps to cover it up because he feels that he should be loyal to and protect his brother. The family isn't exactly loving to begin with, but that event really does unravel the family even more.

  8. Great post Margot - it must be a lot of work to write a thourough posts as you do! No wonder you're so popular:)

  9. Alexandra - What a nice thing to say - Thank you :-). I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. I love to write and I love crime fiction, so I suppose I can't help writing the kinds of posts I's nice to hear that you like them. That means a lot to me.

  10. I think Karin Fossum is good at pointing out how the consequences of crime spread like rings in water and affect the family of the deceased - as well as the criminals.

  11. Dorte - Thank you for bringing up Karin Fossum. I confess I haven't read all of her books. However, from what I have read, you're absolutely right. She shows what happens to everyone in the affected families when there is a murder.

  12. As usual, a great and imaginative post, Margot. I liked the way that the mother tried to hold the family together in C. J. Box's Blue Heaven. Everything came apart at the seams pretty much in that book, for them. If you're a parent yourself, I think disintegrating families have a special power in crime fiction, well, speaking for myself, anyway.

  13. Maxine - First, thank you :-). And I agree with you completely; being a parent really does give one a real connection to families that are falling apart. You're quire right, too, about Blue Heaven; we can really feel Monica's fierce determination to keep her family whole. Folks, Maxine's excellent review of Blue Heaven is here.