So Welcome to Our Family Tree*

Most of us have what you might call ordinary families. No particularly long history, great wealth, or titles. But some families have pedigrees. On the surface, it may seem as though a pedigree is a good thing to have, especially if it comes with money. But that’s not always the case. Just a quick look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.

There are several examples of such pedigrees in Agatha Christie’s work (right, fans of The Hollow?). One family like that is the Chevenix-Gore family, whom we meet in Dead Man’s Mirror. Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore is inordinately proud of his family lineage. In fact, he’s working on a book about the Chevenix-Gore history. That pride is what makes it so difficult for him when he comes to believe that one of his own family members may be cheating him. He writes to Hercule Poirot asking him to look into the matter, and Poirot decides to accede. By the time Poirot arrives at the family home, though, Sir Gervase is dead. On the surface, it looks as though he’s shot himself. But small pieces of evidence suggest that he might have been murdered. And it turns out that there are several suspects, too.

Several of Raymond Chandler’s stories feature pedigreed, or at least very wealthy, families. One of them is the Sternwood family of The Big Sleep. General Guy Sternwood hires PI Philip Marlowe to help solve an embarrassing problem. It seems that a book dealer named Arthur Geiger has sent Sternwood an extortion letter that makes reference to Sternwood’s daughter, Carmen. Marlowe’s task will be to find Geiger and get him to leave the family alone. When Marlowe tracks down Geiger, he discovers that the man’s been murdered – and Carmen is in the room. She’s either too drugged or too dazed to say what’s happened, though, and Marlowe’s instinct is to get her out of the way and keep suspicion from her. He does just that, thinking that he’s now done with the family. That doesn’t prove to be the case, though. When the Sternwoods’ chauffer is found dead of an apparent suicide (that’s later identified as a murder), Marlowe ends up being drawn into the investigation, and right back into the Sternwoods’ drama.

John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook features the Starberth family. The Starbeths have lived in the area for many generations. And, for two of them, the Starberth men served as governors of nearby Chatterham Prison. The prison’s been abandoned, but the Starberths are still associated with it. On his twenty-fifth birthday, each male Starberth spends the night in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. During his stay, he has to open the safe in the room, and follow the directions written on a piece of paper that’s stored there. Now it’s the turn of Martin Starberth; and, although he’s reluctant to follow the ritual, he sees no good way out. On the night of his stay at the prison, Starberth dies of what looks like a tragic accident. But there are clues that this was murder. Dr. Gideon Fell (for whom this is a first appearance) makes sense of the clues, and discovers who’s responsible for Martin Starberth’s death.

In Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town, Queen travels to the small New England town of Wrightsville, where he’s hoping to get some peace and quiet, so he can write. He settles into a guest house owned by the town’s undisputed social leaders, John F. Wright, and his wife, Hermione ‘Hermy.’ The family’s been integrally woven into the town’s life for generations, and that becomes part of the problem in this story. It was embarrassing enough for them when their youngest daughter, Nora, was jilted by her fiancé, Jim Haight, three years earlier. But now Haight has returned. What’s worse, he and Nora resume their relationship. In fact, they marry. Then, suspicions arise that Jim may be planning to kill his bride for her money. Matters come to a head on New Year’s Eve, when Jim’s sister, Rosemary, is poisoned by a cocktail that was meant for Nora. Now, Jim’s arrested for murder, and the whole town assumes he’s guilty. Queen isn’t so sure, though, and he works with Nora’s sister, Pat, to find out who really killed Rosemary Haight.

In Rita Mae Brown’s Wish You Were Here, we are introduced to Mary Minor ‘Harry’ Haristeen. In this novel, she’s the postmistress of the small town of Crozet, Virginia. Her job puts her in contact with all of the local residents, since just about everyone comes to the post office on a regular basis. That’s part of how she comes to know so much about what’s going on in town. But there’s another factor, too. Harry is, on her mother’s side, a Minor, which makes her a member of one of the oldest families around. She’s one of the First Families of Virginia (FFV), and that gives her status, even though she’s neither wealthy nor politically powerful. In that culture, being from such a family gives one cachet. In Harry’s case, it gives her an ‘in’ that plenty of other people don’t have. So, she’s able to find out a lot of things as she solves mysteries.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has a similar ‘in.’ He’s a member of a very old, titled family; in fact, his brother is the Duke of Denver, and his mother the Dowager Duchess of Denver. Wimsey’s pedigree is sterling enough that he can move in the highest social circles, and sometimes does. He doesn’t judge people by their wealth or family names, but he certainly has both.

And then there’s Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti. He himself isn’t from a ‘pedigreed’ background. But his wife, Paola Falier is. Her parents are Conte Orazio Falier and his wife, Donatella. They have impeccable social credentials, and are quite well-connected. This gives Brunetti a very valuable resource in his investigations, as his trails often lead to high places.

As you can see rich family histories, and pedigrees, can give a person status in some places. For some sleuths, it’s quite helpful. But that doesn’t necessarily make life any easier for them. That sort of background can come with a price…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s (Our) Family Tree.

19 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Dorothy Sayers, Ellery Queen, John Dickson Carr, Raymond Chandler, Rita Mae Brown

19 responses to “So Welcome to Our Family Tree*

  1. amazing and wonderful story, the title itself is unique and important.

  2. And of course Elizabeth George steals a page straight out of Dorothy Sayers’ book when she created her own aristocratic policeman Lynley. Then, of course, there is the pedigree of being members of the police from father to son or daughter…

    • That’s quite true, Marina Sofia. I hadn’t thought about it, so I’m, glad you brought it up. And, of course, you’re right about Elizabeth George. What a great pedigreed character. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  3. Patti Abbott

    Not as common as it used to be when so many writers came from the upper classes, especially in UK.

  4. tracybham

    I thought I had a good example but it turns out not to be quite the same thing. In John Lawton’s Inspector Troy series, Troy is the son a Russian emigre who founded a publishing empire. Thus he comes from a rich family and doesn’t have to work but chooses to become a policeman.

  5. Tea

    Thank goodness! A pedigree I recognize.

  6. I can’t think of any literary examples to add but I very much enjoyed reading this post.

  7. I’m all out of examples although deep in the recesses of my memory there must be at least one – another fascinating post!

  8. Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion is operating under a pseudonym – there are very heavy hints in the book that he is actually titled, and he may be related to Royalty. And of course he knows everyone who is anyone.

    • You know, he really does, Moira. He’s one of those people who are always on the ‘also present..’ list. He’s a bit like Agatha Christie’s Mr. Satterthwaite in that way, in my opinion.

  9. Ah, yes, it’s a dangerous thing to be part of a rich, aristocratic family – that’s why I’ve always been so glad to be a poor nobody… *sobs, but tries to look brave* 😉

  10. Col

    It does seem to feature more in older books than more contemporary novels.

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