One of the themes we see a lot of in crime fiction is the family that seems very nice and pleasant on the surface – even enviable – but is hiding a different reality. And that plot point makes sense when you think about real life. It’s the custom in a lot of places to put on a nice, pleasant front no matter what’s going on privately. For example, when acquaintances ask, ‘How are you?” one’s first reaction is often a version of, ‘I’m fine, thanks.’ Except to friends and family members, people don’t generally reveal what’s going on under that ‘happy’ exterior. And perhaps that’s just as well. After all, do you really want to know that a work colleague had a fight with her partner this morning? Do you really want to tell the neighbour down the block that your spouse overdrew the bank account – again? We have this tendency to appear as though all’s well, even when it isn’t, and that may be part of why we identify with that theme in crime novels. And of course, it can add to the tension and interest in a novel when the sleuth has to uncover those layers of ‘Everything’s just fine’ to get to the truth about a crime.
We see that for instance in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead. When a local charwoman is murdered, everyone in the village of Broadhinny is just as well pleased that her lodger James Bentley is convicted of the crime. In the first place, they really believe he’s guilty. In the second, this is a village of ‘very nice people’ who like to give the appearance that all’s well and they’re happy. But Hercule Poirot finds that these families are not at all the ‘nice, happy’ people they seem to be. He’s persuaded to travel to Broadhinny and re-open the investigation and it’s not long before he finds that several of Broadhinny’s families are not at all happy. There’s greed, jealousy, questionable pasts and other things going on under the peaceful and friendly surface. Mrs. McGinty found out one family’s truth and it turned out to be knowledge that was too dangerous for her to have. But what’s just as interesting is that in the main, the rest of the families are simply doing what’s expected: being polite and ‘happy’ regardless of what’s really going on.
We see a similar kind of tendency in Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar. In that novel, we meet Dr. Sponti, head of Laguna Perdida, a private (and expensive) school for troubled students. He hires private investigator Lew Archer to find Tom Hillman, a student who seems to have run away from the school. Sponti doesn’t want the boy’s wealthy and well-connected parents to make trouble, so he’s interested in having the boy found as soon and as quietly as possible. Archer agrees and is just about to leave Sponti’s office when Tom’s father Ralph Hillman bursts in saying that Tom’s been kidnapped. Archer immediately changes his plans and begins working on the kidnapping angle. But he soon learns that beneath the polite, ‘everything’s just fine’ exterior, the Hillman family is troubled. In fact, there is even evidence that Tom may be with his alleged kidnappers by choice. Neither Ralph Hillman nor his wife Elaine will really confide in Archer so bit by bit he has to uncover what’s going on for himself. In the meantime, one of the people Tom’s with is murdered. And then there’s another death. Archer finds out the truth about the murders and about what happened to Tom Hillman and in the process, takes off the Hillmans’ ‘happy’ mask.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas, Saskatoon private investigator Russell Quant is hired by wealthy heiress and business executive Charity Wiser. She believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her and wants Quant to find out who it is. She’s planned a family getaway cruise and arranges for Quant to go along so that he can sleuth everyone. As Quant gets to know the various family members, he finds out all sorts of things about them – things that this ‘happy’ family don’t generally reveal to just anyone. He also finds out that several members of the family have reasons to want to kill Charity Wiser. After two attempts at murder and another successful murder, Quant finds out who’s behind everything that happens. As he does we find out how important it is to several members of the Wiser family to pretend publicly that everything is just fine.
In Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot, Canadian journalist Kathryn Morrissey writes a controversial book about the way certain wealthy and celebrated families treat their children. In doing so, she blows the proverbial lid off of the lives of these ‘nice’ people. And one of them, Sam Parker, is so incensed by what Morrissey has done that he shoots at her, wounding but not killing her. Parker is arrested and put on trial for the crime, with Zack Shreve as his attorney. Shreve’s lover is political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn, who covers the trial for Nation TV. When Morissey is later murdered, both Kilbourn and Shreve get involved in the investigation. As they do, we find out how important it is to many people to appear to be happy and doing well, even when they are neither.
We also see that in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans Garrow is living what most people think of as a happy life. She’s in a lasting marriage to a successful attorney, she has two healthy children and she herself is as you might say ‘just fine.’ Then her daughter Hannah is injured and taken to the same Sydney hospital where years before, Jodie herself gave birth to another child Ella Mary. When a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie, she asks what happened to the baby. Jodie says she was given up for adoption but there are no adoption records. It’s not long before other people also start wanting to know what happened to the baby. That leads to the question of whether Jodie herself might have had something to do with Ella Mary’s disappearance. Matters steadily spiral out of control until Jodie is an outcast. One of the worse ‘sins’ she commits, from the viewpoint of both her husband Angus and his mother, is letting anyone suspect that everything isn’t fine and happy in the Garrow family. For both of those people it’s extremely important to preserve the ‘happy family’ front. In the end, as we find out what really happened to Ella Mary, we also find out how removing that mask has torn the family apart.
Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal also addresses this theme. Eva Wirenström-Berg and her husband Henrik appear to be a happy family where things are ‘just fine.’ They have a healthy son Axel and good jobs. And that’s just exactly the safe, happy life Eva always wanted. Still, Henrik’s been distant lately and Eva can’t get him to tell her why. Then her world falls apart when she discovers that Henrik’s been unfaithful. Not only is she personally devastated by his betrayal, but she also sees it as a real threat to her happy family life – the one she’s always dreamed of having. Eva takes a fateful (I know – cliché – but it fits here) decision and that choice, plus her reaction when she finds out who Henrik’s mistress is, lead to a chain reaction of tragedy. Through most of this, Eva maintains publicly the illusion that everything is fine with her family, especially to her parents. That ‘cover’ adds to the suspense of this novel.
One of the most powerful examples of the importance of ‘everything being fine,’ is in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night (at least in my opinion). Social worker Simran Singh gets a call from an old college friend Amarjit, who is now Inspector General of the state of Punjab. He wants Simran’s help in finding out the truth about a terrible crime. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been accused of poisoning all of the members of her family and stabbing some of them. There’s evidence against her, but there is also evidence that she was bound and raped, so although everyone wants to believe it’s a clear-cut case, there are some questions. Durga has been silent about the tragedy so Amarjit wants Simran to interview Durga, to get to know her and try to get her to talk about what happened on the night of the murders. Bit by slow, dangerous, painful bit, Simran learns about the wealthy and well-connected Atwal family. She learns about how nice and happy the family appeared in public, but she also learns some harrowing truths about what the family was really like. As the novel goes on, we also see how several other people Simran interviews give the appearance of being nice, happy people and how very important that appearance is. It turns out that the need for everything to be ‘just fine,’ plus the social prominence of the Atwal family, have helped to cover up an awful reality.
Of course most of us aren’t hiding horrible secrets. But most of us do have the habit of showing a pleasant public ‘face.’ It’s an interesting socio-psychological phenomenon and it can be a really effective tool in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s Shiny Happy People.