Saturday, February 26, 2011

It's a Family Affair*

Family relationships are among the most powerful bonds we have. Whether it’s our family of origin or the family we’ve created, those ties link us in unique ways. In fact, in many cultures, family is considered more important than anything else. And I’m not talking just of the nuclear family, either (i.e. parents and children). Extended family also plays a very important role in many, many people’s lives. So it’s no wonder that we see so much crime fiction that features family bonds and the roles they play.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels involve those close family ties. For instance, in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder), we meet the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee invites all of his family to spend the Christmas holiday at Gorston Hall, the family home. Lee himself is an unpleasant man who’s treated his family very badly, but for different reasons, the various members of the family accept the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who’s staying in the area with a friend, is asked to investigate. As he searches for answers, suspicion seems to fall on different members of the family in turn. In the end, Poirot finds out who the murderer is. One interesting thing about this novel is what happens to the various members of the Lee family as the investigation goes on. At the beginning of the novel, there’s definitely conflict among some of the members of the family for different reasons. And there’s more than one argument about the large estate that Simeon Lee left. But as the novel continues, and especially at the end, we see the development of closer family ties. It’s almost as though with Lee’s unpleasant presence gone, the rest of the family can get to know each other better, and we get the feeling that they’re going to be a stronger unit.

Family is a very important aspect of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey’s life. In Whose Body? we meet his mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, who asks him to help clear her architect Alfred Thipps of suspicion of a murder he didn’t commit. Wimsey agrees and we can see right away that he’s devoted to his mother and she to him. Then in Clouds of Witness, we learn more about Wimsey’s brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, and his sister Mary. When the Duke is accused of murdering his sister’s fiancé, Wimsey determines to clear his name. In both of those novels (and in later novels, too), we see that the members of the Wimsey family are a strong unit. In fact, in Busman’s Honeymoon, that’s one of mystery novelist Harriet Vane’s concerns. She’s just married Wimsey, and knowing how strong the Wimsey family ties are, she’s worried that her new mother-in-law won’t accept her. But as she soon discovers, Wimsey’s mother puts her son’s happiness first and welcomes her warmly.

Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer) introduces us to the eccentric but charming Lamprey family. New Zealander Roberta Grey meets the Lampreys during a visit they’re making to that country. Later, after her own parents die, Roberta goes to London to live with an aunt and meets the Lampreys again. In fact, they all but adopt her. The Lampreys are delightful; they’re charming, witty and bright. The only problem is, they’re not particularly good financial planners. In fact, more than once they’ve faced financial ruin. When ruin faces the Lampreys yet again, Lord Charles Lamprey asks his brother Gabriel “Uncle G” for financial help. The unpleasant Uncle G refuses. Shortly afterwards, he’s murdered. All of the Lampreys are suspects, since all of them were desperate for money. Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigates the murder and in the end, finds out who killed Uncle G. Throughout the novel, the Lampreys remain a unified family even though the family bonds are strained by suspicion. And (this is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me) the family members are so charming and funny that the reader doesn’t want any of them to be guilty. This is an interesting portrait of a family as seen through the eyes of a visitor.

The Sutherland family is the focus of Alex Scarrow’s Last Light. The world’s oil supply is suddenly and dramatically cut off, not by a terrible accident but by malevolent design. Andy Sutherland is an oil engineer who’s stranded in Iraq when the crisis happens. His wife Jenny is also stranded; she’s in Manchester where she’s had a job interview. Their daughter Leona is away at university and their son Jake is at a London boarding school. As the world they’ve always known collapses around them, the Sutherlands struggle desperately to get back together. One of Scarrow’s main points in this novel is the world’s dependence on oil, but the real appeal (at least in my opinion, so no need to agree with me if you don’t) is the Sutherland family and the bonds that they have.

In Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious, Lulu Taylor is the matriarch of her family. Together with her sons Ben and Sebastian “Seb,” Lulu owns and runs Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ most popular eateries. When the Cooking Channel’s food scout Rebecca Adrian chooses Aunt Pat’s as a finalist for Best Barbecue in Memphis, everyone’s excited. Then, Adrian is poisoned just hours after her official visit to the restaurant. At first, gossip goes around that the food at Aunt Pat’s is bad, and Lulu is determined to quell that talk. Then, to make matters worse, it becomes clear that Rebecca Adrian was murdered. There are several suspects, too, since Adrian was malicious and self-serving. Lulu resolves to salvage her restaurant’s reputation and clear her family’s name, so she investigates Adrian’s death. Although the focus of this novel is the mystery, as it should be, there’s a strong sense of family ties here, too.

And then there’s the Puri family, whom Tarquin Hall introduces in The Case of the Missing Servant. Vishwa “Vish” Puri owns Most Private Investigators, Ltd., a Delhi detective agency. Most of his work involves background checks and other investigations of prospective brides and bridegrooms. One day, though, he gets a visit from Ajay Kasliwal, a successful attorney who’s been charged with raping and murdering his servant Mary Murmu. He claims he isn’t guilty, and wants Puri to prove him innocent. Puri agrees and sets his investigation team to the task of finding out what happened to Mary. As Puri looks into the matter, we also get to meet his family, with whom he has very strong ties. There’s his wife Rumpi, who’s devoted to her husband but not afraid to say what she thinks, especially about his habit of eating food that’s bad for his health. There’s his mother, Mummy-ji, whom he respects greatly but does not think should be involved in any investigation. And there are his three children. It’s a real portrait of a strong family.

Family ties are among the most important bonds we have, whatever our relationship with our family is. Which novels have you enjoyed where this is a theme?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sly and the Family Stone's Family Affair.

15 comments:

  1. Great examples, as usual, Margot. It is interesting how family relationships often form the (previously hidden) motivation for a crime plot, when one gets to the end of a book. I am glad you highlighted Last Light, and I agree with your take on its appeal. The second book, AfterLight, is in my view even better, particularly for this (family) reason.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I noticed you had scheduled the Tarquin Hall book for one of your upcoming "spotlights" so I am reading it right now and am finding it is an interesting look at family relationships in a culture that is different to the one I'm used to.

    I've found it interesting how Sue Grafton has handled her main character's lack of family over the course of the series (Kinsey was orphaned young, is an only child etc). Though even she has been given some cousins of late so maybe even fictional people need some kind of family to get through the tough times :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Maxine - Thanks :-). And you're quite right; there are lots of cases where family relationships are at the bottom of a crime. In fact, it was tricky to write this post because of that. I kept thinking of novels like that, but didn't want to give away spoilers ;-).

    Actually, I liked Afterlight very much, too, and you've got a point that the family angle makes that a terrific book. I think it's better than the first, too, but not everyone agrees. Folks, please do check out Maxine's fine review of Last Light and her fine review of Afterlight

    ReplyDelete
  4. Bernadette - You know, I found that aspect of The Case of the Missing Servant really interesting, too. I also very much enjoyed the look at modern Delhi that that novel gives.

    And you're quite right; some protagonists like Kinsey Millhone are kind of interesting in that they don't have really strong family ties and have had to cope with that. As you say, though, who knows what's going to happen to Kinsey with those new relations? When I read your comment, I also thought of characters like Carol O'Connell's Kathy Mallory and a few others who've really got terrible backgrounds. Hard for an author not to make that contrived, and when I think about characters like that, I have to agree with you; family is too important a part of life for it not to play a role in characters' lives.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It is interesitng to find that while the concept of 'extended family' is prettry well rooted in Latin and Mediterranean countries, our detectives have, usually, few family ties.

    ReplyDelete
  6. José Ignacio - Oh, that is interesting. That notion of familia is such a strong part of just about every Latin/Mediterranean culture I know about, too. Interesting irony.

    ReplyDelete
  7. It always amuses me to wonder how many readers are aware a lamphrey is a fish, one species of which is a parasite feeding on the blood of other fish. Did Ngaio choose the name with that in mind?

    ReplyDelete
  8. John - I've always thought that really funny, myself. I'd be willing to bet that Marsh thought of that. She was quite skilled in word choice and I'm sure that probably occurred to her.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I've been thinking of a series I want to re-read. The Brotherhood of the Rose series by David Morrell. Have you read it? It's not family exactly but they are adoptive brothers that are closer than brothers. I should get those books for kindle.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Clarissa - You are quite right. Chris and Saul in The Brotherhood of the Rose do become very much like family. That's an absolutely fascinating depiction of that "family feeling" even when there is no blood relation...

    ReplyDelete
  11. As usual, I find it difficult to come up with my own examples, but Clouds of Witnesses and Elizabeth´s book are fine examples I enjoyed a lot.

    And you could probably say family is also fairly important in "The Cosy Knave".

    ReplyDelete
  12. Dorte - I enjoyed those books, too :-)

    You know, you're absolutely right about the importance of family in The Cosy Knave. I didn't want to give away too much, but it does matter in the solution and it's certainly evident in the Gershwin family. I actually like the Gershwins a lot :-).

    ReplyDelete
  13. Delicious and Suspicious came to mind as I began reading your post. It is one that definitely has close family ties. I see several other books I need to add to my wish list. Another interesting post, thank you.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

    ReplyDelete
  14. Mason - Thanks :-) - That's nice of you :-). And actually, when I was planning this post, I thought of it first, myself. It's such a solid depiction of family ties, isn't it?

    ReplyDelete
  15. There are so many books where the family plays a part. Agatha Christie has written some fine ones - After the Funeral, 5:xx from Paddington, that Christmas story with the Lee family, Pocketfull of Rye. Being an only child and not having too much family I am close to, I really enjoy reading about all those almost disfunctional families.

    ReplyDelete