Never Heard Nothin’ but Bad Things About Him*

FatherhoodNot 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Annie Hauxwell, James Craig, Martin Edwards, Raymond Chandler

19 responses to “Never Heard Nothin’ but Bad Things About Him*

  1. I haven’t read The Cipher Garden but thanks to you highlighting it in this post, I really want too.

  2. What about Nero Wolfe as a dysfunctional father? Granted, he didn’t see his daughter from the time she was three until she walks into Rex Stout’s “Over My Dead Body,” and, later, she is a victim in “The Black Mountain.” But…

    Wolfe blurted “I don’t believe it. It’s flummery. My daughter disappeared. I have no daughter.”
    “You haven’t seen her since she was three years old. Have you?”
    “You should. Now you will. She’s very good-looking.”…

    • Les – Now, that’s an interesting point. With that in mind I can see how you’d consider Wolfe a dysfunctional father. He certainly doesn’t behave like a loving and caring ‘dad.’ Perhaps not malicious or abusive or worse, but not present. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  3. I read The Big Sleep a long, long ago. Your analysis of it made me put in on my to read list.

  4. Ah – I was just about to nominate Dr Grimesby Roylott from ‘The Speckled Band’ but as I was typing I remembered he was actually a wicked stepfather. Coincidentally two of my most recent crime reads have both involved bad dads but in such a way that to explain why would take us into spoiler territory – ‘Watching You’ by Michael Robotham and ‘That Dark Remembered Day’ by Tom Vowler. Dads don’t really get a very good press in crime, do they? 😉

    • No, they really don’t, FictionFan. And you know, I thought of Roylett too, but for the same reason I didn’t mention him. And it’s funny, as I was thinking about this post, there were about a half-dozen novels I wanted to mention, but for each one of them, it would have revealed too much to mention it. A bit tricky, this topic…

  5. The bad fathers I can think of are either spoilers, or else those Christie-style patriarchs, controlling their families, and you’ve covered that one very well will HP’s Christmas. But I did go and listen to the other version of Papa Was a Rolling Stone. I’m very familiar with the Temptations, but didn’t even know of the existence of the other one. It’s very good.

    • Moira – Oh, I think so too. I’m more familiar with the version that The Temptations did, but that earlier one is great. And you know, it was hard to think of examples for this topic that weren’t spoilers. As you say, they’re out there. You have a good point too about Christie; she did several of those sorts of stories about patriarchs controlling their families.

  6. Col

    I’ve never read Martin Edwards, something I ought to correct though I’ll probably try his other series first. Bad fathers – struggling to think of anything, ;(

    • Col – I think you’d like the Harry Devlin series. He’s a well-drawn character and the stories have a little ‘grit’ to them. Plus Edwards is a skilled writer. I hope you’ll get the chance to read some of this series.

  7. This could be an awesomly long list, couldn’t it, with the genre stuffed with remote parents apparently hated by all and sundry – and indeed tends to be a cop out (i.e. just blame the parents). I really like the Big Sleep example, as he is also one of the few sympathetic characters in the book despite self-confessed and manifest faults. In Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool, the hero, Archer, quite likes the mother and sees her as a victim, but it’s hard not to think that she and her husband also truly deserve the hate their child directs at them.

    • Sergio – You know, I felt the same way about the family in The Drowning Pool. As you say, those parents are not ‘cardboard cutout evil.’ But loving and caring parents? No. Same thing I think about General Sternwood in The Big Sleep. On the one hand, I don’t think anyone could call him a loving and devoted father. But he’s not without any sympathy and that’s what makes his character more interesting.
      You make an interesting point too about how often bad parenting is used as an excuse in crime fiction. In so many of those ‘crazed serial killer’ novels, it’s one or the other parent who responsible for the killer’s psychosis. It gets to be an easy out and rather tiresome. To me it takes a deft hand to do it well.

  8. I recently read and reviewed Bill Granger’s “Public Murders” which is about a serial rapist-killer and one of the prime suspects is a man who is believed to have butchered his daughter for being a porn star. On the other hand, investigator Jack Donovan, chief of the criminal division for the state’s attorney’s office, is separated from his insane wife and places his two teenage children under his personal care. The two fathers are a study in contrast. Donovan has a lot to deal with—the murder cases, peer and political pressure, his runaway wife, a petrified teenage daughter, and a son who hates him. But he hangs in there.

    • Prashant – That sounds like a terrific example of exactly what I had in mind with this blog post. And it’s interesting that Ganger would choose to do this kind of contrast (as opposed to simply describe what a bad person the suspect is. Thanks for sharing this.

  9. Interesting topic, Margot, as always. I can’t think of any additions. Well, The Father Hunt by Rex Stout could be. I think in that case he is a missing father who abandoned his family, and I don’t actually remember if he is bad or good. A lot of policemen or private detectives seem to have had absent or difficult fathers who affected their lives.

    • Thanks, Tracy. And thanks for mentioning The Father Hunt – I wouldn’t have thought of that myself. You make such an interesting point too about absent/difficult fathers. There really are a lot of cops now I think of it who have fathers like that. Perhaps that’s a topic in and of itself. Thanks for the inspiration.

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