Disagreements between people happen all the time and many times people try to bury the proverbial hatchet. But every so often an argument escalates until it becomes a feud. Feuds between families or business rivals/adversaries can last for generations, long after the original argument is over. It’s interesting to see how the tension that feuds cause can play out in a crime fiction novel, even if the feud itself isn’t the reason for the murder.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye, we meet wealthy and successful Rex Fortescue, who owns Consolidated Investments. One morning he is suddenly sickened and later dies of what turns out to be poison. Inspector Neele is called in and begins the investigation at Yewtree Lodge, Fortescue’s home. It doesn’t take long before he uncovers more than one motive among the Fortescue family members. Then Gladys Martin, one of the family servants, is found murdered. Then there’s another death. Miss Marple reads about the deaths in the paper and since she herself prepared Gladys for service, she takes a personal interest in the case and travels to Yewtree Lodge where she and Inspector Neele, each in a different way, get to the truth of the matter. One of the important plot threads in this novel is a longstanding feud between Rex Fortescue and the family of his former business partner MacKenzie. The MacKenzie family claims that Fortescue killed MacKenzie and cheated them out of their share of the mine they co-owned. Fortescue of course denied it. That feud adds a solid layer of interest, as well as a sub-plot, to the story.
In Ellery Queen’s The Four of Hearts, Queen is drawn into the creation of a new Hollywood biopic featuring John Royle and Blythe Stuart. The two had a passionate romance, but an equally passionate breakup and spent the next years openly feuding. Each married someone else and now has a child, and those children, Ty Royle and Bonnie Stuart, have carried on the feud. To everyone’s shock, John Royle and Blythe Stuart agree to do the film. What’s more, they re-kindle their romance, even planning to marry. Quickly, the film executives arrange for an all-out Hollywood-style wedding at the airstrip where the two plan to board their flight for their honeymoon. The wedding goes off as planned, and the newlyweds and their children leave for the trip. By the time the flight lands though, the couple is dead of what turns out to be poison. At first, their children blame each other and the feud again rears its ugly head. But it’s not as simple as that, as Queen learns when he begins to investigate…
Sometimes feuds happen within a family as we learn in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a disjointed call from Orla Payne, who wants the twenty-year old disappearance of her brother Callum to be investigated. Scarlett doesn’t do much about it at first, in part because Orla is mentally unbalanced and was very drunk when she called. That decision comes back to haunt Scarlett when Orla apparently commits suicide. Now Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team begin to look into Callum Payne’s disappearance. In doing so, they uncover some long-simmering family disputes and a network of complicated relationships among the families living in the Keswick area of the Lakes District. With help and perspective from Oxford Historian Daniel Kind, who’s working at nearby St. Herbert’s Residential Library, Scarlett finds out the truth about those tangled relationships, and finds out what really happened to the Payne siblings.
Kerry Greenwood’s Heavenly Pleasures begins when Juliette and Vivienne Lefebvre’s Melbourne chocolate shop Heavenly Pleasures is sabotaged by someone who’s injected chili into some of their confections. When local bakery owner Corinna Chapman finds out the hard way about the sabotaged chocolates, she and her lover Daniel Cohen agree to help the Lefebvre sisters find out who has been trying to put them out of business. It’s more than just tainted chocolates too. Before long it’s clear that someone is trying to drive Heavenly Pleasures out of business. There are a few possible suspects too, and the more closely Chapman and Cohen look into the case, the more they uncover some of the intricate family dynamics going on in the Levebre family and between them and their employees. And I don’t think it spoils the story to say that feuding plays a role in the events in the novel.
In Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective we are introduced to Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, an Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate. McGill has very strong feelings (and the research to support them) on climate change and he’s been making a nuisance of himself to local authorities as he tries to bring attention to the problem. So he’s already come to the notice of local authorities. That makes it harder for him to follow up on an even more important and more personal quest. In one plot thread of this novel, McGill wants to find out what happened to his grandfather Uilliem, who disappeared during a sea voyage years earlier. In order to trace what happened to his grandfather, McGill makes a trip to Eilean Isagaich Mor, Great Fishing Island, where his grandmother Ishbel grew up and where his grandfather moved after they met. As he slowly uncovers the truth about his grandparents’ meeting and marriage, he learns about a long-simmering feud on the island, and he learns the role that it played in his grandfather’s disappearance as well as in some modern-day relationships and events.
Of course, not all feuds are within and between families. For instance, Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel features a feud between two groups of humans. Spacers are the descendents of humans who traveled into space and returned. Earthmen are the descendents of humans who remained on the planet. In this story, set in New York of the future, the two groups have developed a long-standing hatred of each other. They live in separate places and they have only absolutely necessary contact with each other. Everything changes when famous Spacer scientist Dr Roj Nemennuh Sarton is murdered. The Spacerrs suspect an Earthman, and Police Commissioner Julius Enderby wants the investigation to be as transparent as possible. So he taps Earthman homicide cop Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley to investigate. As an added measure of transparency, he assigns Baley to work with a Spacer R. Daneel Olivaw on the case. Baley doesn’t trust Olivaw at first, and even less so when he discovers that Olivaw is a positronic robot. But he does have a strong pull to solve the case, so he and Olivaw join forces and they discover who killed Sarton. In this case, the feud isn’t, strictly speaking, the reason for the murder. But it plays an important role in building suspense.
And that’s what fictional feuds do. They build tension and suspense and in murder mysteries, they add suspects too…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Burton Lane and Al Dubin.