You’re So Scared and All Alone*

Families of the AccusedAn interesting post from Mason Canyon at Thoughts in Progress has got me thinking about the families of those accused of murder. People who are suspected of murder often have parents, children, siblings, or other relatives; those people are deeply affected by the fact that one of their own may have killed someone. Their stories can add a compelling layer to a crime novel; they can allow readers to see just how much impact such an accusation can make, whether or not it’s true.

Agatha Christie addresses this in several of her stories. For example, in Ordeal By Innocence, Rachel Argyle is murdered with a fireplace poker. The evidence points to her stepson Jacko, who is duly arrested, tried and convicted. Later, he dies in prison.  Two years later, Dr. Arthur Calgary visits the Argyle family home, Sunny Point. He’s there to give them news that he thinks ought to please them: he can conclusively prove that Jacko Argyle was not a murderer. Calgary wasn’t able to provide that evidence at the time of the murder, because he was suffering from a case of amnesia. He’s since recovered, and now wants to put things right. To his shock, the Argyle family isn’t happy at all about his return or his news. If he’s right, it means that someone else within the family circle is a murderer. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow and of Five Little Pigs.

In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, we meet Juliet Spence, an herbalist who lives with her thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie in the village of Winslough. One evening, Robin Sage, Vicar of Winslough, has dinner with the Spences. He dies soon after in what turns out to be a case of poisoning by water hemlock. At first it’s put down to tragic accident. But that’s not how it seems to Simon St. James, who’s staying in the area with his wife Deborah. He asks his friend, Inspector Thomas ‘Tommy’ Lynley, to look into the matter, and Lynley agrees. Maggie Spence has a particularly difficult time during this investigation. For one thing, she is of course, worried about her mother, who is now the chief suspect in a murder case. For another, she has to deal with schoolmates and others who see her as a murderer’s daughter. It’s an awful situation for her, and George makes that clear.

It’s the Garrow family who comes under fire in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Angus Garrow is a successful attorney who’s being spoken of as the possible next mayor of Arding, New South Wales. He’s from a proud, ‘blue-blood’ family, and is highly regarded in the field. Everything changes when his wife Jodie becomes a murder suspect. It all starts when their daughter Hannah is rushed to a Sydney hospital after a car accident. That hospital happens to be the same place where, years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another daughter. No-one, not even Angus, knew about this baby. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie says that she gave the infant up for adoption, but the nurse can’t find any formal adoption records. Now, some very ugly talk starts. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If not, did Jodie have something to do with her death? That murder accusation changes the Garrow family forever.

Nelson Brunanski’s Crooked Lake introduces readers to John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife Rosie live in the small Saskatchewan town of Crooked Lake, and own Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge in the northern part of the province. Murder strikes Crooked Lake when the body of Harvey Kristoff is discovered on the green at the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The police start to investigate, and it’s not long before they settle on Nick Taylor, former head greenskeeper of the course. There’s evidence against him, too. For one thing, he blames Kristoff for getting him fired from his job. For another, it turns out that his wife Wilma had an affair with Kristoff. And the murder weapon belongs to Taylor. Still, Taylor claims that he’s innocent. And his lawyer Frank Hendrickson wants to defend his client as best he can. So he asks Bart, Taylor’s oldest friend, to help. Bart isn’t at all certain that Taylor is innocent, but he does agree to do what he can. As the story goes on, we see the impact on the Taylor family of a murder accusation. It’s all made even worse by the fact that Crooked Lake’s a small town; everyone knows everyone else. Even the Bartowskis feel the strain of being ‘on the Taylors’ side.’

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri gets a new client, successful attorney Ajay Kasliwal. According to Kasliwal, he had employed a maid, Mary Murmu, in his home for a time. Then, several months ago, she went missing. New evidence has come up that suggests that she was raped and murdered, and that Kasliwal might be responsible. The media is watching this case carefully, as there’s a sense that Kasliwal will get special treatment because of his social status. The police are well aware of this, and are determined to show that they don’t toady to the rich. And that’s Kasliwal’s problem. He says that he is innocent, and doesn’t have any idea what happened to his maid. He wants Puri to find out the truth and clear his name. Puri agrees, and he and his team get to work on the case. As they look for answers, we see what happens to a family when a member is accused of murder, even if that family has high social status. It’s difficult for all of them.

The Blligh/Dickson family has a terrible time of it, too, in Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red. Several years ago, Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam were murdered one horrific afternoon. Only their daughter Katy survived, because she wasn’t home when the killer struck. At the time, Angela’s brother Connor Bligh was suspected of the crime. The evidence against him was compelling, so he was arrested, tried and convicted. Since then, he’s been in Wellington’s Rimutaka Prison. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne learns of this case at a crucial time for her. She’s reached a plateau in her career, and is looking for a story that will ensure her spot at the top of New Zealand journalism. So when she hears that there’s evidence Bligh may not be guilty, she’s interested. If he is innocent, this could be the story she’s been wanting. Thorne begins to re-investigate the case, and soon learns that no-one in the family really wants to help her. One reason is that they believe Bligh is guilty. But just as important is the fact that it’s been awful for them to have family members murdered, and probably by a relative. Now, they just want to get on with their lives, and not rake things up again.

It’s very hard to be accused of murder, whether or not one’s guilty. It’s at least as hard on family members. But that, too, is a reality of criminal investigation. So it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction, too.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s Renegade.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth George, Nelson Brunanski, Paddy Richardson, Tarquin Hall, Wendy James

22 responses to “You’re So Scared and All Alone*

  1. Mrak Billingham’s new one, ‘Time of Death’, takes this aspect as one of the main strands of the plot. A man has been arrested for the abduction and murder of a young girl. His wife is an old friend of detective Tom Thorne’s partner and so he gets pulled into the case. Although there was quite a lot I didn’t enjoy about the book to be honest, I found the look at how the arrest impacted on the man’s family was believable and interesting.

    • Oh, that’s a good example, FictionFan. It shows, too, how being accused of murder can draw people into a case in unexpected ways. It can lead to all sorts of impacts, and I’m glad Billingham addresses that.

  2. Col

    Great post again Margot. No examples of my own spring to mind though!

  3. Margot, I’m with Col here. While I have no examples of my own, I can recall real life examples that resonate with your theme, particularly one recent high-profile case where the parents were convicted for killing their daughter and her “lover” (their servant). India is still debating whether there has been a miscarriage of justice.

    • Oh, that sounds like quite a case, Prashant. And so sad for everyone, especially if there has been a miscarriage of justice. And of course it’s terrible for everyone in their family. In cases like that, I always wonder whether we’ll ever know the truth.

  4. Margot, thanks for the mention. This is an intriguing subject. It makes me think of (sadly) so many real life serial killers and how their families handle matters. I know in most cases the killer doesn’t have any close family members, but what about those like the BTK Killer who do? In cases where the suspect is found innocent of the charges, the families still have to live with that dark cloud over their heads too. A subject to ponder and the source of gripping novels.

    • It’s a pleasure to mention your fine blog, Mason. And it is indeed an interesting subject. Whether or not an accused person turns out to be guilty, there is a dark cloud, as you say, over the family. And if the suspect turns out to be guilty, that adds its own burden. I’m thinking, for instance, of several high-profile cases where people were killed, and the killer’s parents had to make statements. It must be awful for them. Definitely a point to ponder…

  5. Not sure I’ve read a novel with this aspect, but the news certainly has reported on killer’s families before. I can’t even imagine realizing you’ve been married to a serial killer for years, or your father was one of the deadliest men in history. It’s unfortunate, too, that often times people blame the family when most times they were clueless. Great subject, Margot.

    • Thanks, Sue. I can’t imagine, either, what it would be like to learn that someone you cared about is a killer. It brings to mind the great Alfred Hitchcock film Shadow of a Doubt, where a young woman slowly comes to suspect her uncle is a murderer. And when all of this sort of thing goes public, you’re absolutely right; the family is always blamed, whether or not anyone in the family had anything to do with ‘making’ a killer. I suppose it’s a natural assumption, but it’s awful, anyway.

  6. Margot: I thought of Defending Jacob by William Landay where the teenage son is accused of murder. Complicating matters for the family is that the father is a prominent prosecutor. They experience the public tendency to believe because charged until proven innocent.

    • That’s a great example, Bill – thanks. That story certainly has a strong focus on the family and on what the public thinks of it all. I’m glad that you filled in that gap.

  7. Like Fiction Fan I found this aspect compelling in Time of Death by Mark Billingham.

  8. It was a favourite theme of Christie’s, wasn’t it? But any of the many crime books featuring a murder-in-the-past could be used as examples… eg several Sue Graftons, Ruth Rendell’s A New Lease of Death. And of course, our own Sarah Ward’s new book, In Bitter Chill. All show the varied ways that a murder has a terrible impact on families.

    • You have a good point there, Moira. Any one of those novels with a past/present link shows, sometimes starkly, what the impact of a murder on the people involved can be. That includes the murderer’s (or suspect’s) family as well as the victim’s.

  9. Margot – maybe this book fits your theme – Remember Me Like This
    Bret Anthony Johnston
    Looks at how the abduction of a child has repercussions for all – a great read

  10. Except for the Elizabeth George book, I haven’t read any of these books and they all sound good. I especially want to get to books by Nelson Brunanski.

    • Oh, I hope you do get to Brunanski’s work, Tracy. He tells a very good story, I think, and his characters are well-rounded and authentic. I like the Saskatchewan setting, too.

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