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.