This is Your World, I’m Just Livin’ In It*

Matriarchs and PatriarchsOne of the more enduring character types in fiction is the patriarch or matriarch. She or he is the head of the family and, formally or informally, has the final say on family decisions. Sometimes these heads of families are warm, loving people. But that’s not always the case. There’s a wide variety of patriarchs and matriarchs in crime fiction, and only space enough to mention a few of them. But this should give you an idea of what I mean.

Agatha Christie created several head-of-family characters. One of them is Roger Ackroyd, whom we meet in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. He’s a retired manufacturing magnate who’s amassed a large fortune. He does ‘rule the roost,’ but although he’s thought of as frugal, you couldn’t really call him despotic. In fact, Christie shows a sympathetic side to his character. One night he is stabbed in his study. The most obvious suspect is his stepson Captain Ralph Paton, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. But his fiancée Flora is sure he’s innocent. So she persuades Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Needless to say, with a large fortune like that, there are plenty of suspects.

Ross Macdonald’s The Drowning Pool lets readers into the wealthy Slocum family. Maude Slocum hires PI Lew Archer to find out who sent a slanderous letter to her husband James. The letter alleges that she’s been having an affair, and Maude is sure that if James finds out about it, he’ll divorce her. Archer takes the case and begins to look into the matter. He soon finds that the Slocum family is headed by Maude’s mother-in-law Olivia Slocum. She’s the one with control over the family fortunes and as Archer finds out, she also has control over her son James. The family isn’t what you’d call happy, so when Olivia is found dead in the family’s swimming pool, Archer starts looking close to home for suspects. There are other people to consider though. The Slocum property includes land that oil company executive Walter Kilbourne wants for drilling, and Olivia refused to grant drilling rights. There are other possibilities too.

Michael Dibdin’s Ratking introduces us to the Miletti family, the wealthiest and most powerful family in Perugia. When their family patriarch Ruggerio Miletti is abducted, Aurelio Zen, who works with the Ministry of the Interior in Rome, is seconded to Perugia to help find him. He soon finds that the searching out the people who abducted Miletti is just one of his challenges. The members of the Miletti family have been told not to involve the police, so they’re wary of accepting help or input from anyone in law enforcement. And the Perugia police, who aren’t too happy about Zen’s presence as it is, are unwilling to upset the family or to appear too eager to toady to the rich. So the process of solving this case is difficult. It gets even more difficult when there is a ransom demand and a lot of disagreement about how to handle it. The family finally agrees to involve Zen in their plan, but things don’t go as intended. Throughout this novel we get a look at the dynamics in the Miletti family, and we see through their eyes what Ruggerio Miletti is like.

In Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, journalist Mikael Blomqvist is hired by Vanger family patriarch Henrik Vanger. Nearly forty years earlier, his grand-niece Harriet disappeared, and was always thought to have drowned. But he has reason to believe she may still be alive. He wants Blomqvist to find out what happened to Harriet. In exchange, he agrees to help Vanger bring down industrialist Hans-Erik Wennerström, who won an expensive libel suit against Blompvist and his publication Millennium. Blomqvist agrees, and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander go into the background of the Vanger family and the history of the day that Harriet disappeared. And that history yields all sorts of family and business secrets.

Wendy James’ The Mistake features the Garrow family. Helen Garrow is the matriarch of this ‘blueblood’ family, and is none too pleased when her younger son Angus falls in love with Jodie Evans. Jodie is from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ as the saying goes, and only managed her scholarship to a good school through hard academic work. Helen believes that Jodie is ‘not our sort,’ and too ambitious, and discourages Angus getting serious about her. But Angus and Jodie are in love, and they marry anyway. Over the years, Helen and Jodie get used to each other, and they have in common Angus’ well-being. But then comes a bombshell. It’s discovered that Jodie had a baby years earlier – a baby she never discussed with Angus. When she’s first asked about it, Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption. But no formal records of adoption can be found, and before long, some ugly questions are asked. If the child is alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with it? Once the questions begin to threaten the family’s reputation, Helen Garrow does her best to ‘close ranks’ and keep the family’s social position intact. It’s easy to see though, that although she loves her grandchildren, Jodie’s well-being and the truth about the other baby are not her prime concerns.

Anthony BIdulka’s Tapas on the Ramblas is the story of the wealthy Wiser family, which is led by matriarch Charity Wiser. She believes that someone in her family is trying to kill her. At her behest, her granddaughter Flora hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who the would-be murderer is. Her plan is to invite Quant to join the whole family on a cruise on her private boat, so that he can sleuth the various family members. Quant finds he’s got more than he bargained for when first, there’s an attempt on Charity Wiser’s life and then, there’s a murder. Woven throughout the novel is the indomitable and powerful personality of Charity Wiser. She is most definitely a matriarch.

There are a lot of other fictional powerful heads of family. I’ve probably not mentioned the ones that most stick out in your mind. Who are they?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Willa Dean Parker, Homer Banks and Bettye Jean Crutcher’s It’s Your World. It’s best known as a Sam & Dave song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Michael Dibdin, Ross Macdonald, Stieg Larsson, Wendy James

22 responses to “This is Your World, I’m Just Livin’ In It*

  1. Ah, money one of the great motives for crime. Probably the greatest.
    I’ve been meaning to tell you how I like where you get the titles for your posts. Very neat.

    • Carol – Thanks for the kind words. I can’t help it; I always have a song in my mind. And you’re right about money. Such a powerful motivator, and it’s always patriarchs and matriarchs who seem to control it.

  2. Oh there are some dark families on your list there Margot – and Christie had several more. But the big one that sticks in my mind is Mario Puzo’s The Godfather: he created a whole world, which lives on, and the Corleones are the ultimate Family….

    • They are indeed, Moira. I’m really glad you mentioned the Corleones. Such a strong portrayal of a family patriarch there, I think. And some complicated family relationships too.

  3. Margot: How old do you have to be a matriarch? I think of you as too young to be your family matriarch.

    For the same reason I doubt Gail Bowen’s character, Joanne Kilbourn, considers herself a matriarch. If she is old enough she is a matriarch.

    • Bill – Now, that’s an interesting question. I certainly don’t feel like a matriarch and I don’t think Joanne Kilbourn is one either. I don’t have a certain age in mind as I think of what makes a matriarch or patriarch though. Whatever age it is, it’s not mine. I wonder too whether it’s not just age, but the way one’s treated and the way one is perceived. That’s good ‘food for thought’ – thanks.

  4. Col

    Moira, beat me to it with the Godfather, which I haven’t yet read. Dibdin and MacDonald are on the pile as well.

  5. Like others here, the fictional mafia families were the first to come to mind. 🙂 Thanks for sharing other ideas here…interesting theme in mysteries.

    • Elizabeth – You know, now you’re making me think of other Mafia families too that I’ve read about in fiction. You’re right – prime examples. And it is an interesting theme in crime fiction.

  6. J.R.Barker

    And who can forget Mrs Haversham from Great Expectations?

  7. The one that springs immediately to mind is Christie’s greatest monster, Mrs Boynton. Though it was a theme she used often – Aristide Leonides was another. In fact she so often bumped off matriarchs/patriarchs that you have to wonder if there was more to it than just coincidence. Always makes for a great plot though, since there’s a nice bunch of suspects ready to hand…

    • FictionFan – I’ve often wondered that too about Christie. And you’ve given some excellent examples of that kind of matriarch/patriarch. I’m thinking of Simeon Lee, too. It certainly is a recurring theme, isn’t it? And as you say, plenty of suspects.

  8. It is interesting that Christie’s books featured so many patriarchs and matriarchs. I wonder why that is?

    • Tracy – I don’t know for a fact. But I’m sure there must have been something that Christie experienced, or knew about, that affected her. It’s just there in too many stories for there not to be something. Perhaps it’s simply a commentary on what she saw as her society? Hard to say…

  9. Margot – My contribution isn’t exactly original, but there’s always General Sternwood from The Big Sleep. Speaking of matriarchs, there’s the sinister lady who was the head of the smuggling ring on the latest series of The Bletchley Circle. She was a little young for the part but may have inherited the position in the family.

    • Bryan – You know, I actually thought of General Sternwood when I was writing this. He certainly qualifies as 100% patriarch. In the end I didn’t bring up up so I’m glad you did. And your comment about The Bletchley Circle made me think of Maggie Smith in the role of Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey. I know that’s not crime fiction, but she is most definitely a matriarch in my opinion.

  10. I love Mrs Boynton in appointment with death. Now *there* is a matriarch. Probably one of the least likeable characters in her books.

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