Not long ago I did a post about bad mothers in crime fiction. There are plenty of them in the genre. But never let it be said that I am sexist; there are plenty of equally dysfunctional fathers in crime fiction too. Now, in real life and in crime fiction, the majority of fathers love their children deeply. They would do anything to protect them and they would never dream of causing them harm. But there are some truly awful fictional fathers out there – the kind that will make you dads feel much, much better about your own parenting, even if you’ve made mistakes, as we all do. Let me just give a few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday for Murder and Murder for Christmas) we meet Simeon Lee. He’s an unpleasant and tyrannical patriarch who made a considerable amount of money in the mining industry. He invites the members of his family to spend Christmas at the family home Gorston Hall and although no-one wants to go, no-one dares to refuse. As everyone arrives and Lee interacts with his guests, we see what a deeply dysfunctional and abusive person he is, and how that’s affected everyone. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is spending the holiday nearby and when news of the murder gets out, he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who killed Simeon Lee and why. The better Poirot gets to know the Lee family and the kind of person the victim was, the more motives he sees for murder.
We also meet a dysfunctional father in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires private investigator Philip Marlowe to stop book dealer Arthur Geiger from blackmailing him. Geiger had sent Sternwood an extortion letter that mentioned Sternwood’s daughter Carmen, and Sternwood wants the man to leave the family alone. By the time Marlowe tracks Geiger down though, it’s too late. Geiger has been killed and it seems that Carmen Sternwood is a witness. Marlowe doesn’t want her mixed up in the case and does his best to protect her. With Geiger dead, Marlowe thinks he’s done with the Sternwoods but when their chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide, everything changes. Throughout this novel, we can see how dysfunctional the Sternwood family is, and Guy Sternwood bears quite a share of the responsibility for that. He’s aware of that too, as we see when he says this about Carmen and her sister:
‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’
It’s certainly not the story of a caring father who raises his daughters with love.
Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden begins with the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. At first the police suspect his wife Tina. That makes sense too as Howe was abusive and adulterous. What’s more, he was a very dysfunctional father to their children. The police can’t get the evidence they need to arrest Tina though, and the case is left to go cold. Ten years later, anonymous notes suggest that Tina really was the killer. So DCI Hannah Scarlett, who’s recently been named to head the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, decides to re-open the case. As the team slowly sifts through the case, they discover that Tina might be the murderer, but so might several other people as well. One important key to this case comes from Oxford historian Daniel Kind. He’s trying to make sense of the curious shape of the garden at the cottage he’s recently taken, and discovers that the landscaping company who did the garden was Howe’s employer. As the threads of the case come together we see how past incidents have affected an entire group of people.
In one plot thread of James Craig’s Never Apologise, Never Explain, Inspector John Carlyle of Charing Cross Station gets a request from an acquaintance. Amelia Jacobs is a former prostitute who now works as maid for Sam Laidlaw, who’s still in the business. Jacobs is worried about local gangster Michael Hagger, the father of her employer’s son Jake. She thinks Hagger is a threat and wants Carlyle to warn him to stay away from Laidlaw and their son. Carlyle agrees and makes plans to do so. But he’s busy on another case, so by the time he turns his attention to Hagger it’s too late. Hagger has disappeared and so has Jake. Now Carlyle has to find them before something terrible happens to Jake – if it hasn’t already. I won’t spoil the book for those who haven’t read it yet, but I can say this. Hagger is far from a loving, caring and supportive father.
And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. In that novel, London investigator Catherine Berlin has been building a case against loan shark Archie Doyle. One day one of her informants, who goes by the name Juliet Bravo, is found dead in Limehouse Basin. Berlin feels that she put ‘Juliet’ at risk, so she feels a sense of responsibility for the young woman’s death. She decides to look into the matter and see if she can find out who’s responsible. But then she’s suspended for not following protocol in the process of dealing with her informant. This means she no longer has official access to any information about the murder. As if that’s not enough, Berlin faces a personal crisis. She is a registered heroin addict who’s been getting her supplies from Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts program. When she goes to Lazenby’s office for her regular appointment one afternoon, she discovers that he’s been murdered, and she becomes a suspect. With only seven days’ supply of heroin left, Berlin will have to find a new supplier before she goes into withdrawal and is no longer able to pursue either case. But she believes Archie Doyle may be the key to the whole thing. As we learn more about Doyle, we see that he is more complex than just a loan-sharking thug. He has a complicated family life and fairly awful fathering has been a big part of it. It’s a thread that runs through this novel.
There are lots of other cases too of truly dysfunctional, bad fathers. I won’t mention some of them because it’d give away spoilers. But I’ll bet you have a few examples of your own to share. And even these few examples should be enough to satisfy all of you fathers that you’re doing a pretty fine job.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong’s Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone. Listen to both versions – by The Undisputed Truth and The Temptations – and decide which one you like better.