At this time of year, a lot of people go to gatherings of friends and family. There are also the inevitable office gatherings. And if you pay attention to what people talk about, you’ll notice that there are things they don’t talk about as well: the proverbial elephant in the room.
At a company gathering, it may be an imminent buyout by another company. In a family get-together, it may be someone’s unemployment, or someone else’s worries about the choices a child is making. You get the idea. Of course those things are important, but a lot of people consider them too painful, or too divisive, or too something else to discuss. So they don’t, unless some outspoken person brings up the topic.
There are many examples of these ‘elephants in the room’ in crime fiction, and that makes sense. They can add an interesting layer of tension to a story; they can also make for solid motives for conflict – and worse.
Agatha Christie makes effective use of this social tendency in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). In that novel, the members of the Abernethie family gather at the family home, Enderby, when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. His will is read, and a few comments are made about it. Then, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, and even she says not to pay attention to what she’s said. But it turns out that that question has been the elephant in the room here. And when Cora herself is murdered the next day, it’s clear that she was probably right. Mr. Entwhistle, the family lawyer, asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and Poirot agrees. Without spoiling the story, I can say that the ‘elephant in the room’ plot point is used very effectively here.
It is in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, too. The story is written from the point of view of fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, who has autism. He’s high-functioning, but he doesn’t have a lot of social tact or the ability to read subtle social cues. Still, he’s very bright, and wants more than anything else to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes. He gets his chance when he discovers that the dog belonging to the people next door has been killed. They think he’s responsible, but Christopher knows he is not. So he decides to find out the truth. In the process, he finds out a great deal about himself. He also challenges his family to face an important elephant in their room: the loss of his mother.
In Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood, we are introduced to Orla Payne, who works at St. Herbert’s Residential Library. She’s intelligent, but emotionally fragile. In fact, one of the elephants in her family’s room is that her mother Niamh was also fragile and succumbed to alcoholism. The more important elephant, though, is that twenty years ago, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. His body was never found, and it’s haunted the family ever since – especially Orla. One day, she makes a call to Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett to ask her to look into the case. Unfortunately, Orla’s had far too much to drink, and doesn’t make her point coherently, so Scarlett doesn’t take the case seriously. She has good reason to later, though, when Orla commits suicide (or is it suicide?). Little by little, Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team connect Orla’s and Callum’s deaths; in the process, they uncover several family truths lying just beneath the surface.
Jane Casey’s How to Fall features eighteen-year-old Jess Tennant. After her parents’ bitter divorce, Jess travels with her mother Molly from London to Molly’s home town of Port Sentinel. The idea is to spend the summer visiting Molly’s twin sister Tilly and her family and taking some time to regroup. Not long after their arrival, Jess is confronted with the ‘family elephant’ – the death of her cousin Freya the year before. The family has handled it best by claiming that it was an accident, and that’s certainly possible, since Freya died of a fall from a cliff. And when Jess asks about it, she quickly learns that everyone wants to believe that explanation:
‘‘It was an accident, wasn’t it?’
‘As far as I know.’
‘Not suicide or something.’
The car lurched forward as Mum yanked the wheel, irritated. ‘Jess, I’m serious. Do not even suggest something like that to Tilly. Promise me.’
‘I was just asking.’
‘You can’t ask. It would be too hurtful.’
‘Because they don’t want to think Freya killed herself.’
‘Don’t they want to know the truth, though?’
Soon, though, all sorts of hints and bits of evidence begin to suggest that there is more to Freya’s death than a tragic accident. So Jess begins to ask questions on her own.
The elephant in the room at the beginning of Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests is money. It’s 1922 in London, and Emily Wray and her daughter Sarah have been left in a very difficult financial position after the death of Emily’s husband (and Sarah’s father). At that time, and in that place, it’s still extremely uncommon for ‘well bred’ ladies to take up careers, so neither woman has marketable skills. They decide that the only option they have is to open their home to lodgers – ‘paying guests’ is the euphemism – to earn some money. Soon, Len Barber and his wife Lilian respond to the Wrays’ discreet advertisement and take rooms in the house. It’s all very awkward, especially at first, and part of that comes from the whole issue of money. It’s just not something that’s discussed in ‘polite circles.’ Soon enough, though, the Barbers’ arrival begins to have more consequences, and they become increasingly drastic.
It’s always difficult to have an easy conversation among people when they share a room with a large elephant. But it happens often enough, both in real life and in crime fiction. Which examples of this have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jon McLaughlin’s These Crazy Times.