I’m Forever Yours Faithfully*

A tragedy like murder can shatter a person or a family. It can also have a way of bringing people together who’ve been apart, physically or metaphorically, for a long time. In fact, that’s one positive thing that can come out of a violent death, if you can say anything positive can result from a murder. There are all sorts of cases of that kind of thing happening in real life, and it happens in crime fiction, too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), we meet the Lee family. Brothers Albert, George, David and Harry haven’t been much in contact in the last years. Harry and Albert especially have fallen out; in fact, Harry hasn’t been in England for a long time. One of the main reasons for the dysfunction in this family is its patriarch, wealthy and unpleasant Simeon Lee. One Christmas, Simeon Lee invites all of the members of his family to spend Christmas at Gorston Hall, the family home. All of the brothers and their wives gather for the holiday and despite their awkwardness, they try to make a go of the visit. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby for the holiday and is persuaded to work with Superintendent Sugden and investigate the killing. All of the members of the family are suspects, since each of them had either a financial or personal motive (or both) for the murder. As the different members of the family come under direct suspicion, there is a sense of distrust in the family. There is also, though, a sense that everyone’s in the situation together. In the end, when Poirot has discovered who the killer is and how the murder happened, there is also a sense of healing. Now that Simeon Lee is gone, the other members of the family can repair their relationships. Even Albert and Harry Lee, who were the most at odds, make efforts to reach out to each other and that adds a touch of hope to this novel.

We also see a kind of healing of relationships in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Weschler. Weschler is a Professor of Classics at Hewes College. Ordinarily a peaceful place, the college is rocked by student unrest and by a set of thefts. College President Winthrop Dohrn believes that Weschler’s brother David, who’s been involved with a student radical group, may have knowledge of subversive activities. Understandably, Dohrn wants the student unrest on campus to stop, and certainly doesn’t want it carried any further. So he asks Weschler to contact his brother and ask him to influence the group to stop. Weschler is at first very reluctant. Not only does he not want to get involved in anything as divisive as a radical student movement, but also, he’s been estranged from his brother for quite some time. Dohrn makes it clear, though, that it’s in Weschler’s professional interest to do as he’s asked. So the Weschler brothers make contact. Then, there’s a kidnapping. Not long afterwards, there’s a bombing that results in a death. Now it looks as though David Weschler is implicated in those crimes, and the brothers will have to work together to find out what’s behind these disturbing crimes and clear David’s name. In the process of this investigation, the two brothers make their peace. That aspect of the novel is handled realistically, too. They don’t become “best friends;” they’re far too different for that. But they do realise they have a bond, and they bridge the gap that has divided them.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Mallory Lawson and his wife Kate have just inherited a great deal of money from Mallory’s deceased aunt. Her will stipulates that the Lawsons must move into her home in the village of Forbes Abbott. They must also hire her companion Benny Frayle. The Lawsons agree to these conditions and settle in. One thing they’re hoping is that the move will be good for their family life. Their daughter Polly has been mixed up with a number of dubious people and has been making some unwise decisions, and both Mallory and Kate are worried about her. They have different views of how to help her, and this makes for some friction between them. And then there are their relationships with Polly, which are not exactly smooth. Not long after the move to Forbes Abbott, the body of local financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is found underneath one of the mediaeval torture machines he collected. At first, it looks like a terrible accident. But Benny Frayle, who was a friend of Brinkley’s, doesn’t believe that. So she goes to the police with her concerns. At first, no-one believes her. But finally, Inspector Tom Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate the death. Then there’s another death. The Lawsons get involved in the case because Dennis Brinkely managed their inheritance. So Barnaby and Troy have to consider all of them suspects. And at one point, Polly Lawson gets herself into very serious trouble and then disappears. Mallory Lawson’s desperate search for his daughter, and the family’s reunion when she is found, make for a real layer of tension and an interesting sub-plot. And once Barnaby and Troy have discovered who killed Brinkley, we can see that the experiences the Lawson family goes through have the effect of drawing them together. Again, there’s nothing “fairy tale” here; the Lawsons have a lot of work to do and they aren’t magically a happy family. But we can see that they are in the process of healing.

We also see that kind of healing in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. In that novel, the Taylor family has owned and operated Aunt Pat’s Barbecue for several generations. The restaurant is one of the more popular Memphis barbecue eateries and has a devoted clientele. The family has always been fairly close, so when Sebastian “Seb” Taylor, who’s been living in New York, runs into trouble there and gets in above his head, he decides to come home. The decision isn’t as easy as he thought it would be, though, and there’s plenty of friction in the family. But when the Cooking Channel’s food scout Rebecca Adrian announces a visit to Aunt Pat’s, everyone’s excited about it. Only hours after Adrian’s visit to the restaurant, she dies of what turns out to be poison and it’s not long before rumours begin to spread about the Taylor family and about the quality of the restaurant. So Lulu Taylor, the family matriarch and current owner of the restaurant, decides to find out what really happened to the victim. There are several suspects, since Rebecca Adrian was vindictive and malicious, and not above making all sorts of false promises when it was expedient. In the end, Lulu Taylor, with the help of some friends, finds out who the murderer is. We also see how this tragedy draws the family closer and even plays a role in bridging the gulf between Seb Taylor and the rest of the family.

And then there’s Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, the first of his novels featuring Inspector Erlendur. Erlendur hasn’t exactly had a happy family life. He and his ex-wife divorced many years ago, and he hasn’t been close to his son Sindri Snaer or his daughter Eva Lind for a long time. Sindri Snaer has had a lot of trouble with addiction, although he’s just completed a course of rehabilitation, and Eva Lind has been in even worse trouble. Then, Erlendur and his team are assigned to investigate the murder of Holberg, a seemingly inoffensive elderly man. At first the killing looks like a burglary gone very wrong. But it’s not long before it’s clear that there’s more to this than meets the eye. As Erlendur and the team investigate, they find that Holberg has a very unpleasant and twisted past, and that his death may be related to long-ago crimes, and to the forty-year-old death of a young girl (no, Holberg didn’t murder the girl). That death affects Erlendur deeply. It also affects the way he reacts when Eva Lind suddenly appears with a request from her mother. Erlendur’s ex-wife wants him to look into the disappearance of a young woman on her wedding day. Erlendur begins to ask some questions and with help from Eva Lind, he finds out what happened to the bride. The relationship between Erlendur and his daughter adds a powerful element to this story. Eva Lind is, in many ways, lost. She’s been using drugs, she’s in trouble with some local toughs, and she has no clear direction. And Erlendur isn’t very skilled, at least at first, at communicating with her, so the two have some very bad moments. And yet, underneath it all, one can see that they care about each other. As the novel goes on, they reach a real understanding. You can’t say they become good friends, but we can see how they reach out to each other as a result of these two cases. There is definitely hope for them in this story.

And that’s one of the things about characters who reach out to each other, even across very tall barriers. That act of starting to heal can add a layer of interest and certainly a layer of hope to a novel. But what do you think? Do you think that kind of reaching out is too unrealistic? Or do you think it benefits a novel?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s Faithfully.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, Caroline Graham, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Alexander Graham, Riley Adams

26 responses to “I’m Forever Yours Faithfully*

  1. Patti Abbott

    Jar City is a real favorite of mine.

  2. You’ve made an interesting observation, Margot – sometimes it takes a tragedy in order to heal wounds. This has really got me thinking. That can’t be good.

    • Elspeth – I know what you mean about thinking too much…. But you put that quite well, actually. Sometimes people are drawn together by a tragedy in ways that wouldn’t happen if all were going well. That’s an interesting phenomenon, I think…

  3. I believe that a tragedy or serious crisis will either bring a family closer together – or separate them. Good examples, and I can see I will have to read that Caroline Graham (I have watched plenty of episodes but only read a couple of the books behind the TV series).

    • Dorte – Thanks for the kind words :-). I admit, I happen to like Caroline Graham’s work quite a lot. So I am biased. But the story of the Lawson family in A Ghost in the Machine is, I think, quite a well-drawn one. As full of flaws as the members of the family are (and they all are), you want them to heal. Graham makes the reader (at least this one, anyway) care about them and want them to be happy. I hope you’ll enjoy this story..

  4. I am reading Stef Penney’s new book THE INVISIBLE ONES at the moment and it would definitely fit into the category of books exploring the theme of tragedy bringing a family close together…though at this point (I’m about two thirds of the way through) I am wondering if this can be a bad thing too. The book is about a family of gypsies in 1980’s England and they have undergone more than their fair share of tragedies…premature deaths, inherited disease in the bloodline and that sort of thing…I suspect all of this has led to one of them killing someone but I won’t know until the end. It’s a terrific book.

    • Bernadette – You raise a really interesting question! One wants to think that family and friends should draw closer when there is a tragedy, but is it all roses? Good, good question. Just because people draw closer doesn’t mean there are no risks and perhaps even greater consequences. That’s what I love about discussing these questions; there isn’t a pat, easy answer.
      I’ll be interested, too, to see what you think of The Invisible Ones. I’ve read a few books (e.g. Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams) that discuss gypsies/Roms. But I really don’t know as much about them as I would like to know. I’m glad you think it’s terrific thus far. Assuming it doesn’t fall apart for you before the end, I’ll add it to my already-groaning TBR list.

  5. Families handle tragedies in such varied ways in real life so it’s interesting when an author can show that same pattern in writing. These are great examples and I see there are a couple of books to add to my TBR list.

    Thoughts in Progress
    Freelance Editing By Mason

    • Mason – Thanks 🙂 Families do vary a lot in the way they face tragedy, don’t they? Some families draw closer together, while others seem to tear apart. I always think it’s a fascinating topic, too, and I respect it when authors portray those differences.

  6. kathy d.

    My TBR list is combusting . It’s caused by the contradictions of a rapidly expanding list meeting the confines of my budget.
    Glad to hear Stef Penney’s new book is good.
    I read Donna Leon’s book that discusses the Roma people, and liked it. In Jo Nesbo’s excellent Nemesis, a key character is Roma and surprisingly, so is another. Both authors bring sensitivity to the discrimination and suffering they have experienced, which they are increasingly facing in Europe today.

    • Kathy – LOL! I know what you mean about the TBR list. Mine does the same thing! And thanks for bringing up Nemesis. You’re quite right that the Roma people have been through a great deal (and continue to go through a lot). That’s a fascinating topic in and of itself…

  7. I don’t think this kind of reaching out is unrealistic if – as in the examples you cite – it’s clear that it isn’t happy ever after, that there is still work to be done. As Elspeth said, in life a tragedy will draw a family together or drive them apart, so why not in fiction? Knowing you, I bet you know of plenty of examples where families have been torn apart too 🙂

    • Sarah – You’ve hit on something really important. When fictional families are drawn closer after a tragedy such as murder, it has to be done in a realistic way. There really isn’t a “happy ever after.” Whatever might have driven the family or couple apart in the first place is still there and still has to be faced. What happens, though, is that first important step: the realisation that the relationship should be salvaged, and the will to do that.
      And yeah, I can think of a few examples where families are torn apart, too…

  8. Thanks so much for the mention, Margot! I think it can be a realistic theme–tragedy can bring people closer (or push them farther apart, depending.) And maybe, the reminder of the brevity of life (by the murder) has the ability to heal relationships.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, my pleasure! I really like your Taylor family very much. You make a very well-taken point, too. Life is short and that horrible reminder of how quickly a life can end can help people decide to work to heal those relationships. It certainly adds a sense of urgency, doesn’t it?

  9. I don’t think it’s unrealistic at all. In fact, most novels that include death feature a gathering of family with different consequences. I think at first it divides because each person grieves their own way (and each may be at a different stage in the grieving process) but in the end, they realize how much they need each other to get through the hurt. I love Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs for this. Although it took a long time for the family to get together over the death, eventually it did with great consequences.

    • Clarissa – You make a very interesting point! People do grieve each in a different way. Nd people may, indeed, be at different points in healing. That’s one of the things the author needs to keep in mind when s/he portrays a family caught up in the tragedy of a murder. At some point, a lot of families do realise they need each other, and that’s when the healing of those “gaps” in families can happen. And I agree with you that there is some real healing among the people caught up in the murder in Five Little Pigs. Such interesting characters, I thought.

  10. In real life I’ve noticed that families who have been apart anyway still have those same reasons to stay apart after a tragedy so they go their separate ways again. Families who have always been close are more inclined to stay close. It’s the same with groups of friends who reunite, as in A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve that I read recently. If there has been something tragic in the background, it will still drive a wedge between them.

    • Barbara – That’s profound. Whatever either drives a family or group of friends apart or keeps them together doesn’t usually go away because of a murder. After the tragedy, the group still has to face whatever reality it has. Sometimes, the group chooses to do the work it takes to come together, and there can be healing, the group can get closer, etc.. Other times, though, the group doesn’t do that. In those cases, while the tragedy may temporarily get everyone working together, they may very well not stay that way. Thanks

  11. One of the reasons I read crime fiction is because of the predictability that I cannot get in my real life. The tragedies I have encountered in my life have felt nothing like what I’ve read in mysteries. To my mind, mysteries are highly stylized — i.e. with an investigator, a perpetrator, red herrings, and so on. And that’s no criticism. The stylization is one of the big reasons I like crime fiction. But the tragedies in real life I find messier, longer lasting, and confusing. Mystery books come to closure about tragedies. In life, that doesn’t seem to happen, at least not as neatly.

    • J.P. – You’ve got a well-taken point. Life is often lots messier and more complicated than crime fiction can be. And you are by no means the only one who likes crime fiction that gives closure, that allows tragedies to end and that lets people heal. Life isn’t always like that, and some crime fiction fans prefer crime fiction that is more naturalistic and that really reflects what life is like. That, to me, is one of the great things about the genre – there’s something in it for just about everyone.

  12. Nice post, Margot. I’ve recently read a few books where the murder has been rooted in family dissention in the past, but often this bringing to the surface does not result in the survivors being closer – to the contrary (eg Mons Kalllentoft’s Midwinter Sacrifice or Hakan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery. Perhaps one exception in my recent reading is Camilla Lackberg, in The Hidden Child.

    • Maxine – Thank you :-). You’re quite right, too, that when a murder comes from family dissension, even solving the crime doesn’t necessarily make things better. That makes sense, too, when you consider why the murder occurred. I confess I’ve not read Midwinter Sacrifice, but I see what you mean in The Unlucky Lottery. There are just families and groups like that where the hurt goes that deep….

  13. kathy d.

    Oh, luckily, amidst this serious post, a reminder for me to read more by Hakan Nesser, whose books are good.
    Interesting discussion about mysteries, about closure. There isn’t always a nice, pat ending, however. Donna Leon’s books hit on issues and usually the culprit is found, but is rich and well-connected, and so avoids trials and punishments. That is something U.S. readers want and European readers don’t, as I’ve read.
    I’m fine with Leon’s endings as I know who did it, and as she has said, including in a recent excellent interview, in real life the wealthy and well-connected don’t get prosecuted, convicted and serve jail time. She’s reflecting reality, or most of reality, with a few exceptions. However, maybe in Italy, this is even more so.

    • Kathy – You make a very interesting point here. Many real-life criminal investigations don’t have happy endings. The detective(s) may know who committed the crime. The criminal may even admit to being guilty. But money talks and when one is rich and powerful, it’s much easier to get away with all sorts of crimes. You’re right, too, that Donna Leon’s books frequently have criminals like that, who are well-enough connected and rich enough that they’re confident they won’t suffer any consequences. She’s right in saying that really does happen. So it makes sense that her books would reflect that reality.

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