She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. 🙂


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

26 responses to “She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

  1. One of my favorites, Margot, is John Dickson Carr’s “Hag’s Nook.” It’s the story of the Starberth family – a family whose patriarchs for more than a century used to be in charge of the local prison, where convicts were regularly executed. That job – in which, frankly, those ancient Starberths reveled – may have led to a curse on the family, for several of those patriarchs died with a broken neck. It is all tied up with a secret ritual, which the male head of the family must undergo on his twenty-fifth birthday: he is required to visit alone the Governor’s Room in the disused prison, open a safe in the room, and then carry out some ritual, some instruction known only to the family members and passed from father to son. When there is a murder, the question is, is it the result of the family curse? Dr. Gideon Fell has other ideas…

    • Les – Oh, that is a good one! In fact, I came this close to mentioning that novel, but I didn’t. I’m very glad you did because it’s an excellent example of af family saga that lasts for generations. And of course, one of Carr’s signature ‘impossible-but-not-really’ crimes…

  2. When it comes to families, my favourite is the one in Ngaio Marsh’s Surfeit of Lampreys. I’m not the biggest fan of her work, but this one stands out, and the weird eccentric family is wonderful.

    • Moira – Oh the Lampreys are terrific, aren’t they? And I like the way Marsh shows them to us ‘from the outside,’ so to speak. The trick of having an ‘adopted’ family friend be the narrator works quite effectively in my opinion.

  3. Margot, thank you so much for the mention of my blog, particularly for your kind words. I’m thrilled the inspiration meant that you featured one of my favourite crime reads, A Dark Adapted Eye. Barbara Vine also used family history in some of her other books too, notably Asta’s Book and The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy, perhaps this is why I like her books so much?

    • Cleo – It’s my great pleasure to mention your excellent blog. And I couldn’t agree more about how excellent A Dark-Adapted Eye is. And as I think of it, you’re right that Rendell/Vine has dealt with family sagas in several of her novels (and you’ve mentioned some excellent ones, too). It’s a theme she does very well, so I’m not surprised that you’re drawn to those novels.

  4. I love a food family saga. Sp interesting with so much history at your fingers and such and emotive subject with great potential for conflict. Yup, family’s where it starts 😉

    • It absolutely is, D.S. And what’s interesting about family sagas is that you get the history as well as the family’s own story. And then of course there’s the potential for conflict, as you say. Family relationships and history can be so tangled and complex too that all sorts of plot threads are possible.

  5. One of the things I like the most about the later Ross Macdonald books is how far into the family’s past Lew Archer must go to find the source and solution to the crimes he investigates – there must be a genealogist who is also a detective in fiction, right? If not, there should be – I expect you to know these things Margot 🙂

    • Sergio – Well, thank you – I think. 😉 – There actually is at least one fictional genealogist sleuth out there. He is Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte. In his first outing In the Blood, Tayte goes all the way back to the late 18th Century to find out the root of a modern-day crime…
      And yes, the later Macdonald novels do go back into the past. Glad you mentioned them.

  6. When I say the words ‘family saga’ for some reason John Grisham’s book, The Chamber, came to mind. The young lawyer has to deal with his grandfather’s actions and in many ways they have helped make him who he is.

  7. I love family sagas in any genre. THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters is a great one–ghost story.

  8. I don’t think these novels have been mentioned here but THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo, THE THORN BIRDS by Colleen McCullough, and KANE AND ABEL by Jeffrey Archer would qualify for some gripping fiction about family sagas. The theme has got me thinking further.

    • Prashant – I completely agree that the three novels you mentioned are excellent examples of family sagas. They take different approaches and have different themes. But they all draw the reader into the long-term story of a family.

  9. I read A Dark-Adapted Eye in the last year…definitely the family saga! For some reason I hadn’t been expecting the way the book was laid out and spent a while waiting for the mystery to begin. I should have realized I was reading a Vine and not a Rendell. 🙂 It was a great book, though, once I caught on.

    • Elizabeth – That one really is quite a family saga isn’t it? And as you say, it’s a Vine, not a Rendell in its theme, tone, and so on. Interesting how the same person writes such different books isn’t it? I’ve noticed too that this is one that sort of sneaks up on you…

  10. kathy d.

    This is such a theme in mysteries. Fred Vargas’ The Ghosts of Ordebec has a family of strange members, one that speaks backwards. Adamsberg uncovers its history.
    Often, Salva Montalbano uncovers strange family sagas in Camilleri’s books; often they’re quite humorous and/or bizarre.
    Tana French’s Faithful Place also peels the onion to its core about a particular family of the featured police investigator.
    Definitely, an integral part of crime fiction.

    • Kathy – Those are all really clear examples of families with strange backgrounds and sometimes secrets. And it’s interesting how those past secrets can affect the present isn’t it? I think that’s one thing that really comes out in a well-written family saga.

  11. kathy d.

    Yes. That’s one sure thing about a mystery: The past is never the past. Secrets and eccentricities find a way into the present case.

  12. Col

    I’ll second Prashant’s mention of the Godfather books.

  13. Once again the long shadow of Chandler suggests in my memory an example … The family saga plays an integral part in his novels, some of them anyway, none more so than in The Big Sleep, with the spectacularly dysfunctional Sternwood clan.

    • Bryan – Oh, I’m glad you mentioned both Chandler and The Big Sleep. You’re exactly right that Chandler deals with that whole issue of family sagas quite frequently. And the Sternwoods are a perfect example of that. In fact, I almost mentioned them but didn’t Thanks for filling in that gap.

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