Today, the concept of ‘family’ extends far beyond the stereotypical ‘Mum, Dad and kids.’ There are adoptive families, foster families, step-families and a lot more. It makes sense that that diversity in real life would also come up in crime fiction, and we certainly see a lot of it. Space doesn’t permit me to mention all of the examples out there, but here are a few.
Agatha Christie mentions blended families several times in her stories. I’ll give just one example. In Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Among his fellow guests are famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall and her step-daughter Linda. This particular blend is not a happy one. Linda dislikes Arlena, who in turn pays very little attention to her step-daughter. And the Marshalls’ marriage is shaky, a situation which doesn’t improve when Arlena begins a not-very-well-hidden affair with another hotel guest Patrick Redfern. One day Arlena is strangled on a beach not far from the hotel. Since Poirot is at the same hotel, he works with the police to find out who the murderer is. As you can imagine, both Marshall and his daughter fall under suspicion, and it’s interesting to see how the family dynamic plays out as the book ends.
Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn not far from the village where she lives. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate, and of course they begin at home, so to speak. Annie’s parents Ada and Eddie are devastated by her death. Her half-sister Sølvi is upset too, but she’s an adult, more or less on her own now, and she and Annie were never very close. And then there’s Ada’s first husband Axel Bjørk, Sølvi’s father. He and Ada had a bitter break-up and he has a lot of resentment against her. The blended family of Ada, Eddie, Sølvi and Annie hasn’t been as tightly knit as it may seem on the surface. There are other possibilities though as to who killed Annie. So Sejer and Skarre continue to dig into the case. As the novel unfolds, we see how the blended nature of this family has affected the characters, and how Annie’s murder affects them as well.
Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant isn’t what you’d call a family man. But in Sundowner Ubuntu, he meets Ethan Ash, who runs Ash House, a retirement home. Ash is the single father of Simonette, who usually goes by the name Simon. Quant and Ash begin a relationship in Aloha Candy Hearts, and we see how these three people work to put together a loving family life.
There are other sleuths too who have blended families. For example, fans of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux will know that he is the adoptive father of Alafair, whom he rescued from a plane crash that killed her biological mother. In A Morning For Flamingos, Robicheaux is reunited with his high school sweetheart Bootsie Mouton Giacano. The two resume their relationship over the course of the stories, and they marry and build a family with Alafair. There are many stresses and strains on the family, including the dangers of Robicheaux’s job, his wife’s health problems, and the fact that Robicheaux strays more than once. But they all care deeply about each other and their family dynamic is an important part of this series.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is also part of a blended family. In Deadly Appearances, the first novel in this series, we learn that Kilbourn’s first husband Ian was murdered when he stopped to help two young people who were having car trouble. For a time Kilbourn raises her three children Mieka, Peter and Angus on her own. She also takes in Taylor, whose mother, one of Kilbourn’s former friends, has been murdered. Later in the series Kilbourn marries attorney Zack Shreve. By this time, the three older children are more or less on their own, although they are still very much a part of their mother’s life. So the day-to-day family life mostly consists of Joanne, Zack and Taylor, and it’s not always an easy dynamic. Taylor is a supremely gifted artist, but she has her own issues to deal with. And both Joanne and Zack are intelligent, strong-willed people who don’t always agree. But they do love each other and they work hard to keep their family solid. Here’s how Joanne puts it in The Nesting Dolls:
‘Ours was not an easy marriage, but it was a good one.’
And Taylor benefits from this blended family too.
Fans of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series will know that Mma. Precious Ramotswe has helped to create a successful blended family. In Tears of the Giraffe, Mma. Ramotswe learns that her fiancé Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni has taken in two orphans, Motholeli and her younger brother Puso. He didn’t exactly consult her about the matter either, and it makes for awkwardness between them. But Mma. Ramotswe and her fiancé love each other and what’s more, they care very much for the children and learn to love them too. As the series goes on, they form a solid family unit even though there are stresses and strains at times.
And then there’s Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty. He’s a writer whose specialty has been adventure travel guides. But he also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found, and for solving problems. Rafferty lives in Bangkok and has grown to love the place. Mostly though, he loves the family he’s cobbled together there. His wife Rose is a former bar girl/prostitute who’s left the business to start her own cleaning company. He’s also working to formally adopt Miaow, a former street child he’s taken in. Each of the three of them has a past to cope with, and plenty of personal scars. But they love and care about each other, and they work very hard to be a family.
And that’s the thing about blended families. It can take extra work to forge a real set of bonds in those situations. But blended families can be a tremendous source of love and support. And let’s face it: stereotypical family life isn’t always easy or successful either. Which crime-fictional blended families stand out in your memory?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul McCartney’s With a Little Luck.