If you’re married, or you ever have been married, then you know that in general, you don’t just marry a person. In a sense, you marry that person’s family, too. In-laws are an important part of a lot of married people’s lives. Sometimes they’re fabulous people. Sometimes… not so much. But either way, getting married often means one’s life gets intertwined at least to some extent with an entirely new group of people. That of course brings with it a whole new dynamic and set of relationships – just the thing to add a layer of interest and sometimes tension (or even suspense) to a crime fiction novel.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), Simeon Lee invites all of the members of his family to spend Christmas at the family home at Gorston Hall. Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, so no-one really wants to accept the invitation. But for different reasons everyone does. On Christmas Eve, Lee is brutally killed. Hercule Poirot is spending the holiday with a friend in the area, so he gets involved in the investigation. As the story evolves, we see how stressful the visit is for Lee’s children-in-law. For instance, Lee’s son Alfred still lives at Gorston Hall with his wife Lydia. Lydia dislikes and distrusts her father-in-law, and with good reason. He’s manipulative and disrespectful of her and her husband. That causes quite a lot of tension, especially since she does love her husband and has no real desire to leave him. The same is true of Lee’s son David and his wife Hilda. Hilda intensely dislikes her father-in-law, but she does love her husband and wants him to be able to put his unhappy childhood to rest. That undercurrent of tension among in-laws adds to the suspense (and the list of suspects) in this novel.
Margaret Yorke’s Speak For the Dead is in part the story of the Matthews family. Gordon Matthews has recently been released from prison after serving time for the killing of his wife Anne. At the trial, Matthews, his family and his legal team portrayed Anne Randall Matthews as a drunken and promiscuous shrew who made her husband’s life miserable and who instigated the final argument in which she was killed. Anne Randall’s father Oliver though has always contended that Gordon Matthews is a cold-blooded murderer. Now that Matthews has been released, Randall is concerned that he’ll try to take the couple’s two children, who’ve been living with the Randalls. So Oliver Randall hires private investigator Michael West to find out the real truth about the killing of Anne Randall, to clear the memory of her name and prevent Gordon Matthews from gaining access to his children. West agrees and looks into the case. In the meantime though, Gordon Matthews has married again. His new wife is the former Carrie Foster, who married Matthews with no idea that he could be a deliberate murderer. When West discovers this, he knows he has to redouble his efforts to find out the truth about Gordon Matthews’ first wife before it’s too late for his second wife. Throughout the novel, Gordon Matthews’ mother Hannah will not believe any ill of her son. She is convinced that her two daughters-in-law are responsible for all of her son’s marital problems and won’t consider that he could be a murderer.
Ruth Rendell’s Neil Fairfax has his issues with his parents-in-law (later ex-parents-in-law) Reg and Dora Wexford. For several of the novels, he’s married to their daughter Sylvia and both of the Wexfords dote on their grandchildren. But Sylvia and Neil have their share of problems and Sylvia’s parents sometimes find themselves caught in the middle. On one hand, Wexford in particular finds it challenging to keep up with his headstrong, opinionated daughter, especially when it comes to women’s issues. On the other hand, he loves her and doesn’t want her to be unhappy. Besides, when she leaves Neil (which happens a few times in the course of the novels), her decision has the tendency to make his own home life all the more complicated. And although Wexford doesn’t entirely blame Neil for the younger couple’s problems, he also isn’t blind to Neil’s faults. It’s a complex and sometimes difficult relationship.
We see a less tense relationship, especially over time, between Caroline Graham’s DCI Tom Barnaby and his son-in-law Nicolas “Nico.” Barnaby’s daughter Cully is the apple of her father’s eye, so when she falls in love with Nico, who’s not yet made his name as an actor, both Barnabys have their doubts. But Cully Barnaby is not easily swayed. So she marries Nico and over time, Barnaby and his son-in-law establish a solid relationship, especially when Barnaby sees that Cully has found happiness. Besides, Barnaby knows his daughter very well. Here’s his thought about their wedding:
“His son-in-law Nicholas had shown just such a combination of emotions on his nuptial day. Pride, deep satisfaction, elation even. The look of a hunter-gatherer who has not only come across a species thought to be extinct but has brought back a specimen for all the world to wonder at. Yet the strain showed. The wonder of being chosen was clearly grazed over by anxiety, for would not every man be seeking such a rare prize? Poor Nico. He was still hanging on in there but Barnaby sometimes wondered for how much longer.”
And in A Ghost in the Machine, Cully and Nico prove helpful in Barnaby’s investigation of the murder of financial advisor Dennis Brinkley, who’s killed in an apparent tragic accident. Brinkley’s friend Benny Frayle is sure he was murdered though, so she takes the case to Barnaby. In the end, it turns out that Benny Frayle was right. One evening, Cully and Nico attend a séance featuring self-styled medium Ava Garrett. It’s strange enough that she gives specific details of Brinkley’s murder, but when she’s later killed, it’s clear that something very dangerous is going on in the village of Forbes Abbott. The experience that Cully and Nico have the séance give Barnaby helpful information about the two cases.
There’s a fascinating in-law relationship depicted in Donna Leon’s series featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti. Brunetti is married to Paola Falier, who is a genuine “blueblood.” Her parents are Conte Orazio Falier and his wife Donatella. Interestingly, the class differences between Brunetti and his parents-in-law don’t cause an undue amount of strain on the relationship over the years although it takes Brunetti some time to get used to the Faliers. And in fact, the Faliers and Brunetti help each other more than once. For instance in The Girl of His Dreams, Donatella Falier proves very helpful as Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello look into the case of a so-called minister who may be stealing from his congregants. And in About Face, Orazio Falier relies on his son-in-law to help “vet” a proposed business associate Maurizio Cataldo. Falier doesn’t want to invest any money with Cataldo until he knows something about the man and Brunetti is willing to find out what he can. He finds a lot more than just “business ventures” though when it turns out that Cataldo and his wife Franca Marinello could be involved in a case of murder as well as allegations of illegal trucking activities that Brunetti is also investigating.
And then there’s the complicated relationships within Teresa Solana’s Martínez family. Eduard Martínez and his twin brother Josep “Pep” (who prefers to be called Borja) are Barcelona private investigators who undertake matters that require a lot of delicacy and discretion. Eduard is happily married to his wife Montse. That means that he also spends his share of time with Montse’s mother and her sister Lola. The family relationships get a little entangled in A Not So Perfect Crime when Montse and Lola plot to get Lola involved with Borja. What they don’t know (and Eduard won’t tell them) is that Borja is already involved with another woman Merche, who has a husband of her own. Borja doesn’t want family strife to get in the way of solving the brothers’ first murder case, the death of Lídia Font, wife of a locally powerful politician. So Borja begins a relationship with Lola which continues through the next novel A Shortcut to Paradise.
In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover series, we meet retired teacher Myrtle Clover, whose son Red is the police chief of Bradley, North Carolina. Red is married to Elaine Clover, who has a good relationship with her mother-in-law. She’s very busy – sometimes stressed – with her own life and concerns, but she’s never too busy to take her mother-in-law shopping, see that she’s well and so on. And sometimes, Elaine has to run interference, so to speak, between her husband and his mother. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Myrtle gets very annoyed at her son for “volunteering” her to join a local church group. As a way of retaliation, she drags out a whole group of ceramic gnomes and “decorates” her yard with them because she knows it will thoroughly annoy her son. Elaine’s not happy with the gnomes either, and doesn’t want be the subject of local gossip. So she persuades her husband to patch up his differences with his mother. For her part, Myrtle grumpily agrees to go to a meeting of the church group – only to find the body of local real estate developer Parke Stockard lying in the church. Against her son’s wishes, Myrtle decides to investigate, to show him she’s not quite ready to be “put out to pasture” yet.
Sometimes one’s fortunate enough to have wonderful in-laws who add richness to the family. Sometimes not. Either way, they can add an interesting layer to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Where Were You (On Our Wedding Day).