Put Under the Pressure of Walking in Your Shoes*

Famous ParentsOne of the big challenges that young people face is finding their own paths in life, and becoming their own selves, separate from their parents. That sort of individuation is hard enough as it is; it’s even more difficult if those parents are well-known, or even famous. There are all sorts of expectations, and of course, there’s the insecurity about following in well-known footsteps.

It adds up to a lot of pressure, and that can add an interesting layer of tension and conflict to a crime novel. It can also make for a solid plot thread of family dynamic as well as character development. Little wonder that we see this dynamic in the genre.

In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She feels the awkwardness that’s common to many teenagers, and it doesn’t help matters that she has a famous stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall. Arlena is a well-known and somewhat notorious actress, who’s beautiful, graceful, sophisticated – in short, everything Linda feels she’s lacking. And although she’s not cruel to Linda, Arlena certainly doesn’t pay her much attention or support her in any way. One day, during the Marshalls’ holiday on Leathercombe Bay, Arlena is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel where the family is staying. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. As he does, it’s interesting to see the role that that family dynamic plays.

In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, we are introduced to Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who in this novel is a prosecuting attorney for fictional Kindle County. He gets drawn into a very difficult case when a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered. It’s important that the case be solved as quickly as possible, and ‘by the book,’ especially since the victim is part of the prosecution team. It turns out that Sabich had an affair with Polhemus – a relationship he doesn’t mention at first. When that’s discovered, he’s removed from the case. Then, little pieces of evidence begin to suggest that he himself might be guilty. He’s indicted and soon finds himself on trial. One of the sub-plots in this novel (and, actually in Innocent, too) is the relationship Sabich has with his son, Nat. It’s not as though Nat and his father don’t care about each other. But there’s certainly awkwardness in the relationship. And part of it comes from the fact that Sabich is first a successful attorney, then a successful judge. Nat himself becomes a lawyer and, in Innocent, we see how that plot thread of following in famous footsteps plays out. In that novel, Sabich is once again accused of murder – this time of his wife, Barbara.

One of the plot points in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot has to do with the relationships between Canadian celebrities and their children. Investigative journalist Kathryn Morrisey is doing an exposé of these families, and there are plenty of people who are upset about it. In fact, Sam Parker is so infuriated that he shoots (but does not kill) Morrisey. Parker hires Zack Shreve to defend him in court, and that lands Shreve and his partner, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, in the middle of this controversial case. As the story unfolds, we see how having a famous parent has a real impact on some of these young people, whether the relationship is dysfunction or not.

Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) features the de Poitiers family. CC de Poitiers has achieved a great deal of celebrity as a life coach and, if you will, lifestyle guru. Her book Be Calm has created a lot of interest and eager fans. CC’s daughter Crie faces enough challenges, being both brilliant and socially awkward. She’s also not what you’d call beautiful or graceful. So having a mother who’s good-looking and famous is awfully hard for her. Matters are made worse by the fact that CC is selfish, malicious and cruel. She’s very hard on her daughter, taking every opportunity to belittle her. CC makes plenty of other enemies, too. So when she is murdered during a Boxing Day curling match, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team have more than one likely suspect.

And then there’s Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Singapore Police Inspector Singh is called in on a very delicate case. Susan Tan is First Secretary to the Singapore Embassy in Beijing. Recently, her son Justin was murdered, and his body found in one of Beijing’s older, run-down blocks. The official police theory is that this was a robbery gone wrong. But Susan doesn’t believe it, and she wants Singh to look into the matter. Singh travels to Beijing, with the idea being that he’ll review the police report and probably come to the same conclusion. But when he gets there, he begins to believe that Susan Tan was right: this murder was planned. And it turns out there’s more than one suspect, too. For one thing, Justin had a romantic rival. For another, he was involved in research with Professor Luo Gan, who has opposed certain land development plans for Beijing. There are other possibilities as well. As Singh investigates, we see a gradually-developing portrait of a young man who was trying to find his own place, and of the challenges he faced being the son of a well-known diplomat.

And that’s the thing about having a well-known parent. It’s hard to escape the fame (or notoriety) and make one’s own way. And that can create an interesting context for a crime novel.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Scott Turow, Shamini Flint

23 responses to “Put Under the Pressure of Walking in Your Shoes*

  1. Tim

    And, just to expand but not derail the conversation, think about all the parent-child tensions with sleuths’ families. Indridason’s Erlendur comes to mind. Your legion of followers, Margot, will probably add dozens of other examples.

    • You’re quite right, Tim. Friction in sleuths’ families (and Erlendur is an excellent example, in my opinion) is an integral part of some fine crime fiction. And I know my brilliant readers could list dozens more examples than I could.

  2. Oh yes, the famous parent can be a huge burden on a child and you’ve picked some great criminal examples here. I must read Presumed Innocent too – another book I know I’d love but simply haven’t got around to.

    • I think you would enjoy Presumed Innocent, Cleo. It’s a fine legal novel, a great psychological study, and a fascinating look at family dynamics, among other things.

  3. A theme Agatha Christie returned to more than once, children being affected by famous or successful parents. The children and grandchildren of Aristide Leonides in ‘Crooked House’ for instance, each of whom was affected in some way or another by attempting to either live up to or escape from his shadow.

    • Quite true, FictionFan. Christie really did address that theme more than once, didn’t she? And quite effectively, too. And thanks for mentioning Crooked House, as that’s a great example that I left out. I appreciate your filling in the gap.

  4. I don’t think I’ve read Evil Under the Sun — thanks for adding this one to your list, Margot. I’m going to check it out.

  5. Pingback: Put Under the Pressure of Walking in Your Shoes* | picardykatt's Blog

  6. I read a crime novel not too long ago with this element in it. A wealthy, well-known couple’s daughter went missing and the media wouldn’t let them rest. I want to say the title is, Gone Baby Gone, but don’t quote me.

    • Hmm…. I’d love to know what the book was, Sue. I am familiar with Dennis LeHane’s Gone Baby Gone, but that family’s neither wealthy nor well-known. But it certainly could’ve been another book with the same title. If so, I’m not familiar with it. If you could let me know the author, that’d be great – I’m interested.

      • Nope. It wasn’t Dennis LeHane. I saw the movie adaptation of his book. Geesh, I’m so bad with titles. I’m lucky I remember my own, some days. LOL When it comes to me, I’ll let you know. Which will probably be just as I’m drifting off to sleep tonight. 😉

  7. The awkward teenage daughter or stepdaughter is quite the feature of crime fiction I think – several, as you say, in Christie alone. In Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds, the superstar actress Georgia has a son who is rather tucked away and sad. She is too beautiful and too public and too ‘young’ to have a schoolboy son. There is a tremendously affecting scene where Campion finds the boy grieving alone for his stepfather, and tries to give him the attention he is sadly missing.

    • What a great example, Moira! Thanks for sharing it. And you’re absolutely right about Christie. Several of her stories have that sort of character, don’t they? Makes me wonder whether she had a soft spot for such people…

  8. Your first part of this article hit the mark once more, as I literally just returned from a debate of ‘the movie industry’ hiring disturbed teenagers as cheap actors… Something between movies like ‘Long Time Dead’ to ‘Satanic’.

    One pure CF example I remember is the Swedish author Stieg Larrson,
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stieg_Larsson who really wrote some dark truisms into his tougher way of crime fiction.

    Agatha Christie had the benefit of writing in an age within which novels were still the preferred medium of choice. And I really think that your dedication did show us one fine example of you, who is among much more a ‘worthy disciple’ following-up on such inspiration.

    And while I once more just watched the 2014 movie I mention this as another bonus of a pretty callous crime fiction:

  9. Col

    Great song choice Margot. Turow’s Presumed Innocent waits on the pile!

  10. tracybham

    It is very hard to try to live up to a parent’s accomplishments or expectations, and even harder as a teenager. The Louise Penny book was a perfect example.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s