An interesting post from Natasha at Coffee Rings Everywhere has got me to thinking about how important family reputation – family honour, you could say – is. Most of us do care what others think of us and our families and sometimes, that sense of family honour goes awfully far. In real life and in crime fiction, people do all sorts of things to keep up a family’s reputation, and sometimes (at least in crime fiction) that includes murder.
Family honour is of paramount importance to wealthy and titled Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, who features in Agatha Christie’s short story Dead Man’s Mirror. Chevenix-Gore is obsessed with his family’s reputation and convinced that few if any other families are as good as his. When he becomes convinced that someone in his close circle may be trying to cheat him, the last thing he wants to do is to involve the police and put his family’s reputation on the line. So he writes to Hercule Poirot, asking him to discreetly visit the family home and find out what’s going on. Poirot dislikes the feeling that he’s being summoned, but he agrees and makes the trip to the family home Hamborough Close. Within a very short time after Poirot’s arrival, Chevenix-Gore is shot, apparently a suicide. There’s even what looks like a suicide note. But little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise, so Poirot begins to look more deeply into the matter. In the end, he finds that family and Sir Gervase’s obsession with it had a lot to do with his murder.
In Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal, we meet Horace Croyden. He comes from an utterly respectable family against whom there’s never been even a whisper of scandal, and respectability and family honour are very important to him. He gets a job at a bank and does quite well there, always making sure that the people he hires are just as much above suspicion as he and his family are. His one hobby is ciphers; he loves more than anything else to “crack codes.” Then one day he meets his boss’ cousin Althea and the two soon begin a relationship. Before long they’re married, of course in good taste, and settle in together. That’s when Horace’s perfect, respectable life turns (for him) into a nightmare. Althea is too vivacious for him and has very different ideas on just about everything, including home décor. The proverbial straw comes one day when Horace comes home to find that his wife has destroyed his beloved ciphers, thinking they were useless scraps of paper. Horace takes dramatic action, and when he’s asked later why he simply didn’t leave his wife he says,
“Leave her? And risk the horrid scandal of a divorce?”
To Croydon, his reputation and that of his family are more important than anything else.
Family honour and reputation are also important to the Longley family whom we meet in Barbara Vine’s (Ruth Rendell) A Dark-Adapted Eye. The Longley family has always had an excellent reputation in the community, and family honour, if you want to call it that, has always been important to them. But for years the family has hidden a dark secret: Years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was convicted of and hung for murder. No-one’s really spoken of what happened but journalist Daniel Stewart has gotten hold of the story and wants to write a book about the family and about Vera Hilliard’s trial and execution. He asks her niece Faith Longley Severn to help him. Faith’s decision to help Stewart means that she’ll have to completely re-examine her assumptions about her family, and that several family secrets that no-one suspected will have to come to life.
Family honour can be important enough for families who aren’t “in the limelight.” It’s even more so for families who are. For instance, in Margaret Truman’s Murder in the White House, US President-elect Robert Webster and his family come under intense scrutiny when Secretary of State Lansford Blaine is murdered in a private part of the White House where only a limited number people would be allowed to go. The members of the Webster family are among that group. They’ve always been considered a respectable family; nothing in their pasts kept Webster from being elected. And Webster knows that if this murder isn’t investigated in a transparent way, he’ll be accused of covering up the murder for politics’ sake. So he assigns Special Counsel to the President Ron Fairbanks to investigate, making it clear that no-one is above suspicion. Fairbanks soon finds that a number of people had a good motive to kill Blaine. As the novel moves on, we see the conflict between the desire to preserve the Webster family’s reputation (and that of the Webster administration) and the equal need for a transparent investigation.
We also see how important family honour and reputation are in Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances when university professor and campaign worker Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into the murder of up-and-coming Saskatchewan politician Andy Boychuk. Boychuk is set for a very promising career in politics and is beginning to make a speech one August afternoon when he’s poisoned right on stage. Kilbourn attends the speech and is quite certain, right from the start, that someone killed Boychuk. She and her family were good friends with Boychuk and she is grief-stricken at his murder. In part to cope with her loss, Kilbourn decides to write his biography. As Kilbourn starts to do the research for her work, she discovers that there was a lot more to the Boychuk family and particularly to Andy Boychuk’s life than she ever knew. In the end, she does discover who killed Boychuk and why, and in the process, we see just how important family honour and family reputation often are to success in politics. We also go “behind the scenes” to see how politicians’ family lives are “spun” to make them appealing to voters.
Family honour is a major theme in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant. In that novel, Delhi private investigator Vishwas “Vish” Puri takes on several cases, all of them involving family honour in some way. In one case, the family of Vimi Singla wants Puri and his team to dig into the background of Vimi’s fiancé Ramesh Goel. They don’t want the marriage to take place until they know that he and his family are completely above suspicion. Brigadier Kapoor also hires Puri because for a reason he himself can’t identify, he believes that his grand-daughter Tisca’s fiancé Mahinder Gupta may not be all he seems, and he wants Puri to investigate the young man. And then there’s the case of Ajay Kasliwal, a successful attorney who’s been accused of raping and murdering a family servant Mary Murmu. He claims that he is innocent and that he and his family are being targeted because of his success. In all of these cases, reputation and family honour are at stake and it’s very interesting to see the role they play in the way the investigations turn out.
There are a lot of other novels, too – more than I have space for here – in which family honour and reputation are extremely important themes. Even for those who aren’t wealthy, titled or famous, reputation can matter an awful lot…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s James.