Let’s face it; dysfunction and worse can happen in any family, no matter what the family’s socioeconomic level is, or where the family lives. But as any crime fiction fan can tell you, it seems that the richer and more powerful a family is, the more likely it is to be plagued by real dysfunction. Not being a family therapist or psychologist, I can’t say exactly why that is. It may be the pressure of being at the top of the proverbial social tree. It may be that being able to have anything one wants removes social restraints. Or it may be something else. But whatever the reason, there seems to be an awful lot of emptiness, unhappiness and worse among wealthy and influential families. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean (but you probably know it already).
Agatha Christie addresses this issue in several of her novels. For example, there’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGilliguddy Saw!). When Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a woman being strangled on a train, no-one wants to believe it really happened. There is no body, and no-one’s reported anyone missing who fits the description of the victim. But Mrs. McGillicuddy’s friend Miss Marple believes her. Miss Marple establishes that if there was a body, it probably ended up on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the property of the Crackenthorpe family. With help from her friend professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow, Miss Marple discovers the connection between the dead woman and the Crackenthorpes. In the process, we get to know the various members of this wealthy family, and there’s plenty of dysfunction, spite and worse to go round. And that’s just one instance of Christie’s treatment of the topic (I know, I know, Christie fans. There’s the Leonides family, the Lee family, the Abernethie family…)
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe gets involved with a very wealthy, powerful and dysfunctional family in The Big Sleep. It all starts when General Guy Sternwood hires Marlowe to stop book dealer Arthur Geiger from blackmailing the family. Marlowe goes to visit Geiger only to find out that he’s too late: Geiger’s just been murdered. In the same room is Sternwood’s daughter Carmen. Is she a murderer or a victim? She’s in such a dazed (or drugged) state that she can’t be much help, but Marlowe doesn’t think she’s a killer. So he gets her away from the scene as quickly as possible. He thinks his involvement with the family ends there, but really, it’s only beginning. One of the threads that run through this novel is the decadence and dysfunction in the family. Here for instance is what Sternwood says about his own daughters:
‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’
Not exactly a healthy family…
Neither is the Wynant family, whom we meet in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man. Nick and Nora Charles have come from their home in San Francisco to visit New York. Dorothy Wynant happens to spot Nick and immediately asks for his help. She hasn’t seen her father Claude since his not-exactly-amicable breakup with her mother Mimi, and she’d like to track him down. Nick is at first reluctant to take on the case. Then, Claude Wynant’s secretary Julia Wolf is murdered and before he knows it, Nick’s drawn into the case. He’s also drawn into the Wynant family circle and it’s not exactly a happy one. For one thing, Mimi Wynant cannot seem to tell the truth about anything. And there’s all sorts of dislike and spite in the family too. That dysfunction makes for an interesting thread of tension in the novel.
Michael Dibdin’s Ratking introduces us to the Miletti family. This is an extremely powerful family that basically runs things in and around Perugia. Then, family patriarch Ruggiero Miletti is abducted. With a family that powerful, the police naturally get involved right away, even though the family is wary of ‘interference.’ Finally, the Perugia Questura requests assistance and Aurelio Zen is seconded from Rome to take over the investigation. As he gets to know the members of the family, we learn just how much dysfunction there is in the group. Each member has a personal agenda, and the layers of hatred, greed and malice run very deep. Not at all the kind of family with whom one wants to spend holidays…
That’s also true of the Hofmeyr family, whom we meet in Michael Stanley’s A Carrion Death. This very powerful family has the controlling interest in the Botswana Cattle and Mining Company (BCMC), which is considered extremely important to the country’s economy. When the body of an unknown man is discovered near rural Dale’s Camp, Botswana CID Assistant Director David ‘Kubu’ Bengu launches an investigation to find out who the man was and how exactly he died. It’s not very long before Bengu finds a connection between the dead man and BCMC, so he begins to suspect that someone at the company may have had something to do with the death. This brings him into direct conflict with the wealthy and powerful Hofmeyrs, to say nothing of the Botswana authorities who have a vested interest in the company’s success. As Bengu and his team get to the truth, we get to know the Hofmeyr family, and there is plenty of dysfunction in it. What makes this case even more interesting is that the family tries hard to maintain an image of unity.
In Vicki Delany’s Winter of Secrets, we meet the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Wendy Wyatt-Yarmouth and her brother Jason take a skiing holiday with four friends in Trafalgar, British Columbia. Tragedy strikes when the SUV the group has rented goes off an icy road into the Upper Kootenay River. Constable Moonlight ‘Molly’ Smith and Sergeant John Winters investigate what first seems like a tragic accident. In one sense it is; Jason Wyatt-Yarmouth is proved to have died as a result of the plunge into the river. Then it turns out that his passenger and friend Ewan Williams had already been dead for several hours when the accident occurred. Now there’s a possible murder case and Smith and Winters look more deeply into it. That’s when they get to know the members of the Wyatt-Yarmouth family. Drs. Jack and Patricia Wyatt-Yarmouth are wealthy and influential, and Jack uses that fact in every way possible. But as we learn, that money hasn’t resulted in any real happiness in the family.
Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant meets a rich but very dysfunctional family in Tapas on the Ramblas. Charity Wiser is not just a wealthy heiress, but a successful business executive, and her family has quite a lot of power and influence. She claims someone in her family is trying to kill her, and hires Quant to find out who it is. She invites Quant along on a family getaway cruise with the idea that he’ll get to know the various members of the family and figure out who the would-be murderer is. During the cruise there are two attempted murders. Then ‘would be’ turns real when there is a killing. As Quant gets to the truth about the events on the cruise, he also learns more about the Wiser family, and a lot of it isn’t very happy. He has to negotiate a proverbial minefield of jealousy, spite, repressed anger and more as he works to solve the case.
And then there’s the powerful Atwal family, the focus of Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. One awful night, thirteen members of the family are poisoned and several stabbed. The house is burned too, presumably to hide the evidence of murder. Only one member seems to have survived: fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal. She’s the most likely suspect, but she hasn’t said anything since the tragedy. Besides, there are also clues that she may have been a victim who just happened to survive the attack. Social worker Simran Singh is asked to travel from her home in Delhi to the Punjab town where the Atwals lived to try to get Durga to talk about what happened. As Simran slowly unpeels the layers of the incident, she learns more and more about the Atwals. Superficially wealthy, successful and powerful, they were also a desperately unhappy and dysfunctional family. That dysfunction plays a major role in Durga’s view of life and in a lot of what happens in the novel.
There are of course lots of other examples in crime fiction (and other fiction too) of that correlation between wealth/power and real dysfunction. Maybe it’s not so bad to be a ‘regular’ family…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Cheap Trick’s Surrender.