Soon as I Get Home*

FamilyLifeOne of the major changes we seem to have seen in crime fiction, especially over the last few decades, is the crime novel in which we follow the protagonist’s home life as well as the criminal investigation. In fact, in some cases, the protagonist’s family is caught up in the web of crime.

I decided to take a closer look at this phenomenon and see whether there really are as many novels that detail the home life of protagonists as we think there are. To address this question, I chose 301 books from among those I’ve read. Then, I sorted them into two categories: those that feature home life scenes and sub-plots; and those that do not. This wasn’t as easy as you might think. Does a scene in which the sleuth has a cup of tea at home and then goes off to investigate ‘count’ as a home life scene? What’s more, the data was, as always, limited to books I’ve read. There are many thousands of crime novels I’ve not read. But that said, here’s what I found.

 

Protanoist Home Life

 

As you can see, there’s absolutely no question that the vast majority of novels (80%) in this data set are stories in which we learn more about the protagonist then, perhaps, whether she or he is married.

Why is this? One possibility is that readers all have home lives, too. It could be that authors and publishers have found that readers identify more closely with, and prefer, books in which the protagonist has a family and other home life obligations and interests. Or, it could be that that ‘home life’ dimension offers authors more possibilities for conflict, tension, story arcs and the like. The one thing we can say is that such books sell. Otherwise, I doubt that editors and publishers would go along with the ‘home life’ dimension.

Is this a recent phenomenon, or has it been going on all along, but we just haven’t noticed? I decided to look at my data a bit more closely to see if there might be some sort of answer there. I sorted the books in the data set into four categories, based on date of original publication. Here’s what I found.

 

Home Life Scenes Over Time

 

As you see, we’ve got a really interesting trend here. Of the 37 books published before 1950, 28 of them (76%) have either no information about the sleuth/protagonist’s home life, or very little. For instance, we know that Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is not married, and we do see some domestic scenes in those novels. But there aren’t really story arcs about her family, and we don’t really see her trying to juggle home life and her sleuthing. That seems to be the case with the majority of novels in this category.

As we move to the period between 1950 and 1980, things start to change. Of the 44 books in this category, 25 (57%) feature home life scenes. There are 19 (43%) that have no such scenes. Basically, it’s a more or less even match. Why the change? It might be the impact of developing interest in psychology. Or it might be growing reader interest in more fully rounded characters. And those aren’t the only possibilities. But we do see more books featuring protagonists’ home lives.

If this data is representative of what’s happening in the larger crime fiction world, there’s been a major shift since 1980. Among the 63 books in this set that were published between 1980 and 2000, 58 (92%) feature sub-plots or at least several scenes that involve the protagonist’s home life. That pattern is also quite obvious in the 157 books in this set that have been published since 2000. In that group, 149 (95%) feature such scenes and sub-plots.

Many readers enjoy stories where they feel they’re getting to know the main character beyond the criminal investigation. For the author, such scenes and sub-plots do offer some flexibility and lots of possibilities for conflict, tension, depth of story and the like. So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that publishers have seen this, have noticed what’s happened to sales of such books, and encourage authors to weave such scenes and sub-plots into their stories.

What do you think of all this? Do you enjoy books with domestic scenes and sub-plots? Do they annoy you? If you’re a writer, do you include such scenes? Why(not)? I’d love to hear from you about this. Please feel free to let your voice be heard in the poll below, too, and we’ll talk about this again in about a week.

 


 
 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Charlie Smalls, Timothy Graphenreed, Zachary Walzer, Harold Wheeler and Luther Vandross.

37 Comments

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37 responses to “Soon as I Get Home*

  1. That’s really interesting – how much our appetite for the detective as a ‘complete person’ and character in his or her own right has grown! The focus was very much on the puzzle itself initially (although Tommy and Tuppence, Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane – even if the emphasis there is on sparkling conversation rather than domesticity)…

    • I think it’s really interesting, too, Marina Sofia. And you’re right; you do see some glimpses of home life in books such as the Wimsey/Vane books and the Beresford books. But as you say, you don’t see long scenes of the protagonist’s domestic life in older novels, as a rule. Overall, it seems that we’ve gotten a taste for domesticity, so to speak, in the last few decades.

  2. Tim

    Yes, setting matters a great deal, especially when it advances theme and characterization, but plot trumps everything else (in my book).

  3. How interesting to see how this trend has increased substantially over the years. Perhaps this is in line with the more traditional puzzle of the murder mystery (i.e. whodunit) to one when we want to know who but also why? My thought process being is that if we want to understand the perpetrator more then we are also interested in the men and women who catch him.

    • That’s a really interesting point, Cleo! As readers have moved to an interest in the background of a crime (the whys and wherefores), it makes sense that they would also be interested in the people who go after the criminal. That really does make sense to me. I think it goes along, too, with readers’ interest in books that are less linear and more ‘fleshed out’ with sub-plots and the like.

  4. There are many readers these days who enjoy reading about the character & their homelife almost more than the plot itself. Personally i prefer books where the character’s homelife takes a backseat to the mystery, for example the Vera Stanhope series. We learn a little more about her in each book but not so much that the mystery becomes secondary.
    How do you feel about all this Margot?

    • You bring up an interesting example with Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope series, Anne. As you say, we learn some things about her, so that she’s a three-dimensional character. At the same time, Cleeves keeps a firm focus on the mystery at hand. And I think a lot of people like it that way.

      As for my own thoughts, I like a focus on the plot, myself. Don’t mistake me: I like fully rounded characters, especially in series where, one hopes, they evolve over time, or at least grow and change somewhat. But I do think there’s such a thing as too much emphasis on domestic scenes. It’s not always easy to get the balance just right, is it?

      • That’s for sure! An example of a series where i felt that some of the details of the main character’s person life could have been shortened, was the Sal Kilkenny series by Cath Staincliffe.
        I met Cath in person and she’s just lovely – but i found her character’s struggle with being a mom, problems with work, men etc, detracted from the mystery.
        As you mentioned, it’s difficult to get the perfect balance 🙂

        • Oh, I admit I’ve not read that series, Anne, ‘though I have read some of Staincliffe’s other work. It’s good to hear she’s pleasant in real life. Actually, I’ve found that a lot of authors are. And as that home life/work life balance in fiction? It certainly is tricky!

  5. I enjoy stories where the author includes a bit of home life for the protagonist. It just makes it more realistic I think. Interesting stats you compiled, especially to see how it figures in the timeline.

  6. I don’t mind a bit of home life, but what I can’t stand is a lot of home angst! Yes, it’s nice to think the detective has a nice spouse or partner in the background and maybe even a couple of kids. But if the spouse is driving the detective to drink with his/her multiple affairs while consorting with villains and suffering from a mysterious and prolonged illness brought on by his/her drug addiction and perverted lifestyle choices, then I vote the spouse should be the next murder victim… 😉

    • 😆 Oh, I know what you mean, FictionFan! It does get more than a bit much, doesn’t it? As you say, there’s a difference between showing a protagonist as fully fleshed out (which often means a home life) and adding another layer of unremitting drama and angst to the novel. Among many other consequences of doing that is, I think, that the main plot – the murder(s) being investigated – gets lost. This can take a book off course, and make it seem more like a soap opera than a crime novel.

  7. Margot: I come clearly down on wanting family life a part of the plot. For all but a few mysteries I want credible sleuths and that requires families. What really defies credibility in the mystery world is the absence of family life for villains. One of the reasons I love the Saskatchewan mysteries of Gail Bowen, Anthony Bidulka and Nelson Brunanski is their involvement of family life for both sleuths and murderers.

    • Family life is a reality for just about everyone, Bill. So I’m not at all surprised that you also want to see it portrayed in the books you read. It makes sense that both sleuths and murderers would have some sort of family. And I agree with you that Bidulka, Bowen and Brunanski do that very, very well.

  8. It seems we all think similarly. Without question I become curious about the protagonists I read about. To not include the home life would be a let down for me. As a writer, I always include the home life. Not only is it a crucial part of the character arch, but readers get a better sense of who the characters are, I think. Love your pie charts!! I can’t wait to see what you have planned. These posts are important to us, as writers, and interesting to us, as readers. Thanks for breaking it down.

    • I’m so glad you find this interesting, Sue. And I think it’s only natural that you’d get curious about the home lives of the main characters. If they’re to come across as real people, then they likely have some sort of home life. And you’re by no means the only one who thinks that should be portrayed in novels.

  9. Margot, a very insightful analysis of home life in crime fiction. I voted for fewer domestic scenes and found that I was in a minority, I’d rather the protagonist was in someone else’s home life investigating crime. I’m not sure about this but when I think of home life in crime fiction, I instantly think of cosies.

    • I think a lot of people associate home life descriptions with cosies, Prashant. And there certainly is a risk that the story will stray too far from the main plot if there are too many scenes of family life. So I can understand your thoughts.

  10. This is fascinating Margot, thanks for putting the information together. I think it was PD James who said that if you want to learn about the social mores of an era than you must read some crime fiction from that time. (I may have quoted this before). This is never more true than here. Our obsession with reality TV shows, show that we are concerned with ordinary people and their lives, the human interest factor is big and perhaps that’s why domestic scenes now feature so heavily in our crime fiction.

    • Oh, that’s really an interesting thought about this whole thing, D.S.. We really do get interested in others, as you say, so it makes sense that readers would want to learn about the lives of the characters in their stories. That includes their home lives and family interactions. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned that P.D. James quote; it’s fabulous and, I think, quite true.

  11. So much depends on how it is handled. I think it can work very well in a series if we see a character developing – falling in love, maybe having children, but the bottom line is that none of that is any good if the mystery is no good.

    • Well put, Christine. Without a solid and clear plot, it doesn’t matter whether the protagonist has a home life or not, or what sort of home life it is. And I like the way you’ve couched it in terms of character evolution. That’s what I think you’ve done with your Cassandra James novels, and in my opinion, it works quite well. The key is, I think, to keep the the focus of the story, so that those domestic scenes and home life developments don’t overwhelm it.

      Psst…Hey, folks! Check out Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James novels. I think they’re great academic mysteries, and a solid mix of home life, too, so that we see James as a human being.

  12. Kathy D.

    Always fun to see those pie charts and “scientific” studies. I think it adds another layer of interest to read about detectives’ home lives. And one example I’d give of a successful series with this feature is Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti books. His spouse, Paola Falier, is a great character, with her own opinions. They have teenagers and enjoy superb meals every day. (My problem is when I read about them, I want to run to the nearest trattoria.) The home scenes give Brunetti a chance to discuss his cases, but also to enjoy himself. And his reading of Greek and Roman history adds another point of interest.
    And then there’s the aging Sicilian curmudgeon, Salvo Montalbano. His home life, complicated relationship with his fiancee and personal foibles, problems with aging, add a lot of interest and humor to the books. Here, even more, the Italian food is a character in and of itself, too.
    Irene Huss, as serious as she is about solving murders, has a good marriage and children. The home life is interesting but doesn’t take away from the mystery.
    Even Sjowall and Wahloo gave Martin Beck marital problems and children with whom he deals throughout the series.
    But then there are others, like Commissaire Adamsberg in Fred Vargas’ fascinating series, who barely have a personal life, or it’s mentioned in passing. But the writing is so original that it doesn’t matter here.
    I don’t look for a detective’s home life, but if it’s there and adds more to the stories, fine.

    • You’ve given some very good examples here, Kathy, of series where we learn about the home lives of the sleuths. And in those cases, those parts of the stories are woven into the larger plot so that most people think that they don’t take over the plot, or take too much attention away from the main focus of the plot, which is the investigation. The key seems to be whether it serves the story.

  13. Fascinating! Your results make sense when I think about crime stories over the years – home life is very much foregrounded these days. And fun to speculate why. We do want our detectives to be more like us these days, not the exotic types of the past who bear no relation to us.

    • That’s exactly the question, Moira. More and more, we seem to want detectives who are like us, and with whom we can identify. We want to connect with them, if I may put it that way. And that entails, I think, knowing something about their families and home lives. You put it very well, too, that that sort of information is foregrounded now in a way it never was before, or at least seems to be based on what I found.

  14. I’m with FictionFan and other comments above: too much angst in a character’s personal life is not my thing. I like reading about angst different than my own, at least most of the time 🙂

    • 😆 I know what you mean, Rebecca. It’s nice – important, even – to see characters as fully fleshed out people. But I think there is such a thing as personal angst taking over a story.

  15. Pingback: Have Myself a Home Life* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  16. I like a balance of some home life but not too much. No home life discussed at all seems unrealistic. The home lives of detectives in books by Catherine Aird and W. J. Burley are mentioned but play a small part (at least in the ones I have read). There are definitely some series I am very fond of where home life is a part of the story but it isn’t really filled with angst (Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ Bill Slider series and Carolyn Graham’s Inspector Barnaby series).

    But really, if the writing is good and I like the characters, I can go either way and I can deal with angst, etc.

    • Writing quality matters more than anything, doesn’t it, Tracy? In the end, that’s much more important than exactly how much home life we see in a given novel or series. And you’ve given some good examples, I think, of both kinds of series: series where there is plenty of home life, and where there isn’t. In both cases, the writing is high-quality, and the focus is on the case at hand. I’m glad you mentioned Caroline Graham series in particular; in my opinion, that series really weaves together home life scenes and ‘case’ scenes skillfully.

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