Can’t Know the Fears That Your Elders Grew By*

Parents' SecretsLots of people think they know their parents very well. After all, people who grew up with their parents have been around them for a long time. And in some ways, children really do have a better sense of their parents than we sometimes think.

But children rarely know everything about their parents. And sometimes they learn the most surprising – even shocking – things about people they always thought they knew intimately. Crime fiction uses this plot point quite frequently, so I’ll just mention a few examples.

In Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, biographer and crime writer Erica Falck is sorting through her parents’ things after their deaths. Along with the clothing and other things she’d expected, she is shocked to discover a Nazi medal. Certainly no-one in her family had ever hinted that there was Nazi sympathy among the members. Falck wants to find out more about this possible connection, so she visits local historian Erik Frankel, who may be able to shed light on those years. Two days after her visit, Frankel is killed. Falck’s husband, police officer Patrik Hedström, investigates officially; in her own way Falck investigates too. In the end, they find out the connection between the town’s history and Frankel’s murder.

Steve Hamilton’s Ice Run begins with the death of Simon Grant, an elderly man who seems to have died of exposure not far from the Ojibway Hotel in Sault Ste. Marie (Soo), Michigan. Former police officer Alex McKnight is at the hotel with his new love interest, Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Constable Natalie Reynaud when the death happens. Oddly enough, they had a strange encounter with Grant before he died, and Grant left them an odd message: a homburg hat filled with ice and snow and a note that says I know who you are. All of this makes McKnight very curious, so when he gets news of Grant’s death, he starts to ask questions. It turns out that Simon Grant had a history with the Reynaud family, and that that history still plays an important role in people’s lives. In the end we find that there are things about Natalie’s family that have been kept secret for a long time…

In Jane Casey’s How to Fall, eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant travels with her mother Molly from London to the small town of Port Sentinel, where Molly grew up. The plan is to spend the summer there as both Molly and Jess deal with Molly’s bitter divorce from Jess’ father. Also in the offing is a reunion with Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family. A year ago, Tilly’s daughter (and Jess’ cousin) Freya died in a terrible fall from a cliff, and everyone is still adjusting to life without her. Jess never met her cousin, so she’s curious about her. And the more she learns, the more she suspects that Freya might not have died by accident. Determined to find out the truth, Jess uncovers more than it’s safe for her to know. She also learns some very surprising things about her mother’s past – things she hadn’t suspected.

That’s also the case with Katherine ‘Kat’ Stanford, whom we meet in Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall. Kat’s a TV presenter who’s had more than her share of media invasion of her privacy. So she decides she’s had enough of the TV life, and plans to go into the antiques business with her mother Iris. Iris seems open to the idea as a way to move on after the death of her beloved husband Frank. Then one day Kat gets a surprising call from her mother. Iris has purchased the carriage house on the property of Honeychurch Hall in Little Dipperton, Devon, hundreds of miles from London. Kat’s shocked at this news and concerned about her mother, so she goes immediately to Devon. When she arrives, she finds that the carriage house is in sad need of repair and that Iris has broken her hand in a car accident. So she decides to stay on for a bit to help her mother. That’s how she gets drawn into the mystery of a strange series of events. There’s sabotage, a disappearance, theft, and finally the murder of Verga Pugsley, housekeeper at Honeychurch Hall. It turns out that all of these events are related. And all of them have to do with the Honeychurch family history. As Kat uncovers the truth, she also finds out important things about her mother – things she’d never imagined.

There’s also Scott Turow’s Innocent, which concerns the death of Barbara Bernstein. Her husband, Kindle County chief appellate judge Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, wakes up one morning to find her dead of what looks like natural causes. But before long, questions begin to arise about the case. For one thing, Sabich waited 24 hours after her death before contacting the authorities or his son Nat. For another, the toxicology report on her body shows a large dose of an anti-depressant. And then there’s the fact that Kindle County Prosecutor Tommy Molto suspects that Sabich might have been guilty of another murder twenty years earlier. This and other evidence suggests that Sabich might have killed his wife, so he is arrested and charged with murder. He asks Alejandro ‘Sandy’ Stern to defend him and the case moves to trial.The story is told in part from the perspective of Nat Sabich, who is an attorney himself. As the novel goes on, we see that Nat knows his father well. On the other hand, there are things about his father’s life that he never knew…

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls introduces us to Jane and Rob Tait and their daughter Jess. One day Jess attends a talk given by journalist Erin Fury, who’s working on a story about families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. Jess knows that hers is one of those families; in 1978, her mother’s cousin Angela Buchanan was killed and her body discovered with a silk scarf round her neck. At first the police investigated the family, but then, another young girl Kelly McIvor was killed, and her body also found with a scarf round the neck. Since then everyone has assumed that the deaths were the work of a killer the press dubbed ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ No-one was ever arrested for the crimes, and although Jess knows the story, she doesn’t really know the details. Through her, Erin Fury gets contact information for Jane and Rob and prepares to talk to the family. As she meets with the Taits and with Jane’s brother Mick, we learn about what really happened to Angela and Kelly. And Jess finds things out about her parents that she didn’t know.

And that’s the thing about parents. Everyone has a history, including parents. It’s sometimes really surprising what we find out about them. These are only a few examples (I know, I know, fans of Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs). Over to you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Teach Your Children.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Hannah Dennison, Jane Casey, Scott Turow, Steve Hamilton, Wendy James

26 responses to “Can’t Know the Fears That Your Elders Grew By*

  1. There’s a marvelous mystery by Catherine Aird, called “Henrietta Who?” which goes to the heart of your post, Margot. A woman named Grace Jenkins is run down by a hit-and-run driver outside a small English village. Henrietta Jenkins, comes home from school – and discovers that the woman who raised her as her own daughter could not possibly have been her mother. Worse, there is a break-in at her family’s house in which all documents (such as her birth certificate) which might have told her about her real background are stolen. When Inspector Sloan breaks the news to her that the victim could not have been her mother —

    “He saw the blush on the face of the girl in front of him fade away to nothing as she suddenly went very very pale.
    “‘But…’ Henrietta’s world seemed suddenly to have no fixed points at all. She struggled to think and to speak logically. ‘But who am I then?”

    That moment has remained in my mind over the years since I first read “Henrietta Who?” I do recommend it to you very highly.

    • Les – It’s a most powerful scene isn’t it? And I’m very glad that you mentioned Henrietta Who?, as it shows exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. Folks, Les is right. The entire Aird series is worth reading, and this one’s especially engaging.

  2. The Hidden Child is the first one I read in the Patrick Hedstrom series and I still think it the most powerful. This is a great subject for a post as even grown children often fail to grasp that their parents had a life before they existed. Your post has also reminded me that I have Lost Girls on my kindle to read.

    • Cleo – I think The Hidden Child is very well done too. ANd I agree with you that sometimes even adults find it hard to remember that their parents had lives before they came along, and that their parents still have parts of their lives that have nothing to do with their children. Oh, and I hope you’ll get the chance to read The Lost Girls. I admit I’m a Wendy James fan, but even so, I think it’s quite well done.

  3. JK Rowling’s The Cuckoo’s Calling (written under the name Robert Galbraith) has a lot of family mysteries being unravelled. It’s a very complex plot, but I thought it was well-done.

  4. Col

    I don’t think I would want to know everything about my parents TBH. What I knew-know is enough.

  5. Family secrets can add intrigue, even if it’s not in the main plot. Great post, Margot.

  6. Well, I won’t mention ‘Five Little Pigs’ since you already have, so instead I’ll mention ‘Sleeping Murder’ – Christie really was expert at using hidden secrets within families as the basis for her plots. So much more involving, in my opinion, than the random serial killer or gangland type of crime novel…

    • FictionFan – I’m glad you mentioned Sleeping Murder, as it’s a terrific example of the things you might not know about parents… And I couldn’t agree more about Christie’s talent at using family secrets to craft a great plot. Much better indeed than the stereotyped crazed serial killer…

  7. Loved The Lost Girls Margot – a great example.

  8. As parents we don’t want to tell our children about our lives before them. Not the unedited version anyway. And when they get older they can’t imagine we were ever at an age where we could ever be anything other than a parent. We lose the ability to be a person in their eyes so it does open up a whole host of opportunities for crime writers doesn’t it? 🙂

    • Rebecca – Right you are. As you say, there are things that we as parents don’t tell our children about our lives. And as they get to know us, they never see the people we used to be, so they don’t always have a sense of those ‘prior’ lives. Just as well, perhaps, and most definitely it’s perfect fodder for a crime plot 🙂

  9. Aline Templeton’s Bad Blood is all about this theme. A young girl’s mother disappears after a violent incident, the girl is brought up in care but as a young adult re-visits the country area where she and her mother lived. She gets a terrifying reception. A good read.

    • Ian – Oh, thanks for that suggestion. It’s a really clear example of what I had in mind with this post, and you’re not the first to recommend it to me. Time to upt it on the list, I think….

  10. A terrific topic. My parents were very closed-mouth and I am sure there is a to of stuff I don’t know about them. It wasn’t until I was forty that I learned they had been separated for two years after the war, for instance. Great idea for a story there. Thanks!

    • Patti – Thanks. Glad you enjoyed the post. It is always really interesting to learn how much you didn’t know about your parents. And as you say, it’s often not until mature adulthood that we learn some of those things – if we ever do.

  11. It is amazing, Margot, that families can hide so much from each other. Over the years my husband has learned more and more about his mother and her siblings and parents. I guess people want to forget, or deny, the past.

    • Tracy – That’s exactly the kind of thing I mean. People have things in the past that perhaps they want to deny or forget. And then when the younger generation comes along, those things are still there, hidden by that time.

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