With a Little Love We Can Lay it Down*

Blended FamiliesToday, 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Anthony Bidulka, Gail Bowen, James Lee Burke, Karin Fossum, Timothy Hallinan

24 responses to “With a Little Love We Can Lay it Down*

  1. Jimmy Perez from the Shetland quartet by Ann Cleeves has to raise his step-daughter after her mother’s death… and her real father is there too, and sometimes more than a little ready to interfere.

    • Oh, that’s a great example, Marina Sofia. And in that small community, where everyone knows everyone, it’s even harder for Perez to be a father to her. Everyone knows who her biological father is, and as you say, he has no compunctions about stepping in when he wants to.

  2. I was going to quote the same author and book as Marina Sofia. Interesting piece, Margot, particularly since every day I read of more crimes being committed upon (more often than not) children, often by step-father’s and live-in boyfriends and sometimes the mother of the child. Tensions build and often there’s no outlet for anger, frustration and stress, then violence ensues. It is only normal to reflect the tensions within these complex family structures in writing – real life after-all. I hadn’t given it much thought until you highlighted it, but books and their authors have dealt with this for years but I can only think if Jimmy Perez off-hand.

    • Jane – Thanks – glad you enjoyed the post. I think you’re right that there are high tensions at times in blended families. Of course, there are in non-blended families too. I don’t suppose one can escape tension when a group of people spend time together. But with blended families you have added challenges I sometimes thing. And you’re right, you so often see things like that in the news – tensions that lead to violence. Little wonder writers mine that resources…

  3. ‘Evil Under the Sun’ was always one of my favourite Christie stories, especially because of the characterisation of Linda. I thought Christie’s portrayal of that teenage jealousy of a new woman appearing in her father’s life was just right – and Linda’s own guilt over her feelings was very well done. As usual, my mind goes blank when I try to think of other examples though…

    • FictionFan – No need to think of other examples. You’ve made a very well-taken point about the way Christie portrays Linda. Yes there’s the jealousy and bitterness. There’s also the childlike sense of good/bad. And I love the Christie depicts Linda’s teenage awkwardness and sensitivity about her appearance. Spot on in my opinion.

  4. I was happy to hear about Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back. Thanks for this interesting post. Blended families can lend to some red-herring suspects and intriguing dynamics.

  5. Margot: Let me tell you of the real life challenges of defining families in Saskatchewan. If you cohabit with a person for 2 years in a spousal relationship you are deemed to be married. Complications come when someone separates from their spouse in a marriage but does not get divorced. If they establish a new common law relationship for 2 years they have a deemed new spouse. Thus they have two lawful spouses. It is not often people separate and do not sort out property issues. It is a bigger issue with regard to what happens to a pension if the deceased has two lawful spouses and no agreements with the first spouse and the second spouse on the pension. The issues of two lawful spouses are being gradually sorted out by courts and legislatures but family is far more complex than when I graduated from law school.

    • Bill – Two legal spouses? That really is a complex matter, especially if the people involved don’t sort out issues like pensions before one of them dies. If you add in things such as custody of minor children, it must get even more complicated. I don’t envy those who have to sort it out later. It’s one of the challenges of a wider definition of what counts as a family.

  6. Another Christie comes to mind – Ordeal by Innocence, in which a rich old lady has adopted several children from very different backgrounds to create her own family. Of course, given the author, this is not going to end well. There is a rather touching part of the book where one of the ‘lucky’ children – removed from a very poor and deprived family – makes it clear in his thoughts that he would much rather have stayed with his loud, cheerful and loving family, for all their disadvantages, than come to his privileged new home.

    • Moira – Oh, that really is a perfect example of what I had in mind with this post. Interesting I think how often Christie explores the dynamics of blended families and she certainly does in this case. As you show, she explores class and classism really effectively too in this novel. And it’s a good example I think of one of her stories that feature neither Poirot nor Miss Marple.

  7. While I’m placing THE GODFATHER on record, predictably, a book that I read and enjoyed last December was “A Stranger in the Family” by English crime novelist Robert Barnard. A child born to an English family is kidnapped during a holiday in Sicily and returns home years later, to indifferent parents and siblings, to find out what happened to him and who was behind his abduction. Barnard, who passed away last year, was miserly with words. Here’s an example:

    ‘Kidnapping’s pretty rare these days. Where did this one take place?’
    ‘In Sicily.’
    ‘Sicily? That explains it. Dicey sort of place in my experience. And what’s the information you have that you want to report?’
    ‘I am the child that was kidnapped…’

    You can’t help thinking, “Does this really happen to families?” I could’ve said more but I’d be spoiling it for those who haven’t read the book.

    • Prashant – Oh, that’s a great passage – thanks for sharing. And A Stranger in the Family is a terrific example of the strange dynamics there can be in families, whether they’re blended or not. Oh, and I’m glad you’ve mentioned Barnard. He wrote some very good things, and is much missed.

  8. I did really enjoy “Evil Under the Sun”–maybe Christie’s inclusion of a blended family made the story seem more modern than others.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, now that’s an interesting point. The way that family is handled really does seem modern doesn’t it? it makes the story more timeless if that makes sense.

  9. aaron

    Excellent timing for a post on this subject, given that Andrew Solomon just won the Wellcome Award for science writing for Far From The Tree, which explores family, identity, and difference, although in non-fiction rather than crime fiction! Just in case anybody wants to explore further!

  10. Col

    Great post Margot. I enjoyed reading about Robicheaux and his family through a large number of the series. Struggling to come up with any examples myself though.

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