Mommy’s All Right, Daddy’s All Right, They Just Seem a Little Weird*

Dysfunctional Wealthy FamiliesLet’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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Kishwar Desai, Michael Dibdin, Michael Stanley, Raymond Chandler, Vicki Delany

36 responses to “Mommy’s All Right, Daddy’s All Right, They Just Seem a Little Weird*

  1. On a much lighter note – the family in a Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh is extremely odd and could be described as dysfunctional – but it’s hard to hate them. The heroine falls in love with the whole family, and the readers are expected to as well. And how could one of these people be guilty of murder, no matter how fierce the provocation….?

    • Moira – Oh, I know exactly what you mean! Perhaps the family isn’t exactly – er – conventional. But you just have to love ’em. Well, Roberta Grey does anyway. It’s really hard to want one of them to be guilty of murder isn’t it?

  2. It was interesting to find out that my review today (Hurt by Brian McGilloway) also refers to family relationships.

  3. kathy d.

    Is it any coincidence that “dys” as in “dysfunctional family,” rhymes with the first syllable of “mystery”? I think not.
    It’s an essential element of so much crime fiction. Even if a family member is not the murderer, he/she can do a lot of other damage.
    In Sara Paretsky’s latest book Critical Mass, so many families are dysfunctional, in Austria pre-WWII and in the U.S. going back decades to today, so many characters scarred.
    Witness the Night, though, takes the cake. “Dysfunctional” cannot begin to describe the families featured in the book.

    • Kathy – I must say I think you’re right about Witness the Night. Talk about ‘dysfunctional!’ And it’s true. That kind of theme really does run through a great deal of crime fiction. Interesting isn’t it? And it makes sense when you consider that it adds a terrific tension to a story and that it represents real life (at least for some families).
      Hmmm.. ‘dys’…’mys’…. yep.

  4. I doubt you can find a functional family in the work of Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler, James Cain and all the rest of those mid-century noirish writers. They leaned on that trope pretty heavily.

    • Patti – Now that’s a very well-taken point. Just thinking of those two authors brings to mind a list of badly damaged families. As you say, a very important theme in their work.

  5. Margot: Having a law practice with a significant number of family law cases I would say real life dysfunctional families are more likely to have below average income. Financial pressures when coupled with relationship issues have broken many families. In crime fiction I think it is more interesting to read of families with money having severe problems than families with no money.

    • Bill – I’m not at all surprised to hear that you’ve found financial difficulty just exacerbates family problems. It just makes sense. But as you say, perhaps in crime fiction, we simply find it more interesting to read about seriously dysfunctional wealthy families than about those without money.

  6. Col

    I’ve read a few books where the rich father tries to correct the sins of the errant son, by using his power, money and influence to buy off witnesses, police etc and make a problem go away.
    Similarly some books where crime is the family business and one son joins law enforcement and becomes estranged from the clan.
    Struggling for examples, but I’ve read these more than once.
    Re your examples – I have taken the plunge on Ratking and also got the 4.50 Christie book recently – thanks, I think!

    • Col – I think you’ll like Ratking. It’s a good ‘un. And of course, as I’m sure you know, I’m an unabashed Christie fan, so I’m quite biased about 4:50 From Paddington. That said though, I still think it’s terrific.
      And you’re right; there are plenty of examples in crime fiction of wealthy parents who try to make their grown children’s problems go away. In fact, I ought to do a post just on that. I appreciate the inspiration. And of course, crime families – that’s a whole other fascinating topic…

  7. An inspector who often runs up against powerful and dysfunctional families is H. R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote. In the first book of the series, “The Perfect Murder” Inspector Ghote of the Bombay (now Mumbai) CID finds himself investigating the murder of a man named Perfect – although Perfect seems to be alive, if wounded. The inspector finds himself being blocked by the rich family for whom Perfect worked as a secretary. At every step of the investigation, Inspector Ghote finds himself lied to, hampered and treated with contempt by the family of the powerful businessman – and he realizes that, if it ever came down to a direct confrontation, the businessman, with his connections to the influential in government and business, would easily win, while Inspector Ghote would probably be lucky to be demoted to a constable.

    • Les – I’m very glad you mentioned Inspector Ghote. I really do like his character and you’re right; he does run up against some powerful and dysfunctional families. And this one’s a great example of that. I think it’s very clever actually the way Ghote manages to get round the obstacles that power and influence put in his way.

  8. Following on Kathy’s “dye-” comment: mysteries put the “fun” in “dysfunctional.” 😉

  9. Interesting post, Margot. I have just finished reading a book about a dysfunctional family: The Prince of Tides. It’s not a mystery but right now after reading that overlong saga of abuse and misery, I’ll gladly immerse myself in a vintage mystery.

    • Neeru – Oh, I know what you mean. I’ve read The Prince of Tides too. Not exactly a happy, uplifting story, really, is it? And yes, it is long… And you’re right; when you’ve read a novel like that, a vintage mystery is a lovely change.

  10. kathy d.

    I would disagree that poorer families have more dysfunction than wealtheir ones. True, there are a lot more stressors regarding money, jobs, how to pay the bills, tensions, problems of survival. But wealthy families can be very dysfunctional, as with the men having personal relationship outside of their marriages, and in addition to them, sometimes even having children with both partners. This is socially acceptable to many wealthy families, even some with members who reach the presidency.
    But affairs, alcoholism, drug abuse, gambling and lots of other dysfunctions abound throughout society. And not to mention that the wealthy often have “handlers” take care of problems, and use money to pay off people, witnesses — and even cover up crimes. And spousal abuse crosses economic lines.
    Even during WWII, some wealthy industrial tycoons were somewhat pro-Germany.
    According to a NY Times article a few years ago, heavy drugs circulate on Well Street, and at parties of the rich and famous. That’s commonplace in my city.

    • Kathy – Dysfunction can happen in any family and at all socioeconomic levels really. And as you say, sometimes the problems of just surviving cause a great deal of stress in a family. But wealthy families are not at all immune, as you’ve shown, from serious dysfunction. And one of the things I found interesting about your comment is that one difference between dysfunction in powerful families and dysfunction in poor families is that that extra money and power allows one to have a ‘handler’ to make problems go away. And even families who don’t have such a person certainly have the means to ‘get rid of’ certain problems. But as you say, dysfunction’s hardly confined to the powerful.

  11. Dysfunctional family murders and other crimes seem to show up in the papers every day, but related more to mental illness or some form of cruelty than standard of living or wealth. There’s plenty of material for crime writers, that’s for sure.

    • Pat – Yes, indeed. There are so many stories of horribly dysfunctional families and a lot of it does have to do with abuse and/or mental illness. And that, as you say, transcends income or power. I’ll have to do a post on that aspect of dysfunction in crime fiction at some point…

  12. kathy d.

    Some of our “presidents” had high levels of certain types of dysfunction behind the scenes, especially with regard to extramarital affairs, while in the White House. Certain behavior comes with wealth and privilege, and a feeling of entitlement. Also, a certain former IMF “leader,” who felt entitled to abuse women he viewed as lesser than himself.
    Not to mention a former NYS governor and a NYC candidate for mayor/
    The list could go on and on.
    It’s just different types of dysfunction, and may not come to the office of a defense attorney, But lots of these families and politicians have law firms on tap, for business and personal matters.

    • Kathy – You make a very well-taken point about leaders who do all sorts of things ‘behind the scenes’ that they can cover up (for a time anyway) because they have the power, money and resources to do so.

  13. I don’t know why but I do enjoy reading about dysfunctional families. Also love to read about the rich. A lot of vintage mystery authors focused on the rich or at least the well-to-do.

    Lots of good suggestions here, in the comments too. Les Blatt’s comment makes me want to read some of H. R.F. Keating’s Inspector Ghote series.

    • Tracy – I think you’d like the Inspector Ghote series. I really like his character and that of his wife. And it is interesting isn’t it how there are certain kinds of characters we just enjoy reading about..

  14. kathy d.

    Cornelia Read’s Field of Darkness is all about the super-wealthy and their culture, with one a murderer. It’s a good book and full of her signature wit.
    She knows of what she speaks, as some of her ancestors came over on the Mayflower, and the author has quite a way with words in describing the wealthy in her book.

    • Kathy – Thanks for the suggestion. That’s exactly the sort of thing I had in mind when I put this post together. and someone whose family has Mayflower connections might certainly have the background to know what life is like among the powerful and rich.

  15. There’s plenty of disfunction in Christie’s novels, especially when it comes to family and marriage. I think she must have plenty of experience in that area.

  16. Merry Christmas and Best Wishes for the New Year! With love Maxima

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