Living in Michigan With Uncle Ray*

‘Family’ often consists of a lot more than just parents, siblings, or spouses/partners and children. In many cultures, the concept is a lot more extensive, and may include aunts, uncles, distant cousins, great-grandparents, and more. Even in cultures with a more nuclear concept of family, the belief is often that ‘blood is thicker.’

Because of this, there are a lot of cases of people staying with aunts, uncles or cousins, either for a certain period of time, or even permanently. Those situations can certainly be awkward, but they’re interesting. And we see them a lot in crime fiction.

Agatha Christie used that plot point in several of her stories. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Hercule Poirot investigates the killing of retired magnate Roger Ackroyd, who is stabbed in his study one night. The prime suspect is Ackroyd’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. And it doesn’t help matters that Paton has disappeared. But his fiancée, Flora, doesn’t believe he’s guilty; it’s she who asks Poirot to look into the matter. As the investigation goes on, we learn about the Ackroyd household. Living with the victim are Flora and her mother, Ackroyd’s widowed sister-in-law. They are what used to be called ‘poor relations,’ and both are very much in need of money. So, they certainly become ‘persons of interest’ as the story goes on.

In John Bude’s Death on the Riviera, DI William Meredith and Sergeant Freddy Strang are sent to the French Riviera to follow up on an investigation into a counterfeiting scheme. It’s believed that an Englishman named Tommy ‘Chalky’ Cobbett is behind the operation, so the French authorities want support from their English counterparts as they go after Cobbett. The trail leads to a place called the Villa Paloma, which is owned by Nesta Hedderwick. Staying with her is a motley crew of people, including her niece, Dilys Westmacott. Dilys’ parents were killed in a WW II air raid; and, since that time, her aunt has been her guardian. Now that she’s done with finishing school, she’s moved in to the Villa Paloma. Meredith and Strang begin to get to know the people at the villa, and they discover that just about everyone, including Dilys, is keeping secrets. Then, murder strikes…

Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the story of the Blackwood family. Constance Blackwood and her younger sister, Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ live with their Uncle Julian. We soon learn that they are isolated from the small community in which they live, so they really only have each other. We also learn that, six years earlier, there was a tragedy in which three other members of the family were killed. No-one was convicted, but it’s clear that that villagers believe that one of the Blackwoods was responsible. Still, Constance, Merricat and their uncle have made a life for themselves. Everything changes, though, when a cousin, Charles Blackwood, comes to stay. His unexpected arrival touches off a chain of events that ends in disaster.

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn begins as twenty-year-old Mary Yellan travels from her home in Helford to a place called Jamaica Inn, which is owned by Mary’s Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn. In making this trip, Mary is fulfilling a deathbed promise to her mother, Aunt Patience’s sister. When she arrives, Mary is dismayed to find that the place is dilapidated and forbidding. Things get even worse when she meets her relatives. Uncle Joss is unpleasant and abusive, and Aunt Patience is frightened and completely submissive. Still, Mary tries to settle in. Little by little, she begins to suspect that something is going on at the inn, and it turns out she’s right. Mary ends up being drawn into a web of crime that includes murder.

There’s an interesting instance of going to stay with relatives in Rennie Airth’s River of Darkness. There’s been a horrible set of murders in the small village of Highfield. Colonel Charles Fletcher, his wife, Lucy, their maid, Sally Pepper, and the nanny, Alice Crookes, have all been killed. The only survivor is the Fletchers’ daughter, Sophy. She’s a very young child, so she isn’t in a position to help the police at the moment. So, the local physician, Dr. Helen Blackwell, wants Sophy to be sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Scotland. At first, DI John Madden, who’s sent from Scotland Yard to investigate, wants Sophy to remain in Highfield. But Blackwell insists that the child has been through far too much to stay, at least for the present time. Finally, Madden agrees. And in the end, as Sophy begins to accept what has happened, she provides some useful information.

There’s also Rob Pierce’s Uncle Dust, which features a bank robber named Dustin ‘Dusty.’ Dusty isn’t exactly cut out for domesticity, but it’s not a bad thing for him to have a sort of ‘cover story’ family. And Theresa, the woman he’s sleeping with, fits the bill, since she has a ten-year-old son named Jeremy. To Jeremy, Dusty is ‘Uncle Dust,’ and he develops a kind of friendship with his ‘sort of uncle.’ I’ll admit, I’ve not (yet) read this one, but it’s an interesting look at how the relative-moving-in dynamic can happen. I was alerted to it by Col, who blogs at Col’s Criminal Library. I look forward to your review, Col! In the meantime, folks, do pay a visit to Col’s fine blog. Lots of well-written, honest reviews await you there!

There are all sorts of possibilities when a relative (or a ‘might as well be a relative’) moves in. Sometimes, it all goes beautifully. But not always….


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Josh Rouse’s Michigan.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, John Bude, Rennie Airth, Rob Pierce, Shirley Jackson

16 responses to “Living in Michigan With Uncle Ray*

  1. Pingback: Living in Michigan With Uncle Ray* | picardykatt's Blog

  2. I’m always interested in another aspect of cousins – nowadays people are rather doubtful about the idea of cousins married, worrying about the genetic implications. But in older books there’s often an assumption that your cousins are exactly where you should be looking for a spouse, that this would be a happy outcome… things have changed.

    • You know, you’re right, Moira. Things aren’t the same at all these days, are they? I can think of a few books by Christie and some of the other authors of her era (and slightly before) where cousins get married. I suppose I see what people might have thought of in those days: property in the family, similar dispositions, ‘known quantities,’ and so on. But now that we know the realities of genetics, you simply don’t see that anymore.

  3. And it’s very often those tricky inheritance issues that tear families apart, don’t they? In the US and UK you can disinherit your heir or settle upon a different one, but in France, for example, your children are protected against any such disenfranchisement. There is only a small proportion of your estate of which you can dispose freely. So I wonder if this inheritance motive for murder has been used less in French crime fiction…

    • Oh, now that’s an interesting question, Marina Sofia! I don’t know the answer to it, but it’s fascinating. I can certainly see why the French law is the way it is. It makes sense in a lot of ways. But…what if you have a very good reason for wanting to disinherit a child? Hmmm…interesting how different cultures go about this whole issue of inheritance. As you say, it really can tear a family apart…

  4. Margot: For Kinsey Millhone, in the series by Sue Grafton, her life and character has been deeply influenced by her Aunt Gin who raised her after her parents died. Kinsey’s quirks usually go back to her beloved aunt.

  5. Col

    Margot thanks for the kind mention – much appreciated. The Pierce book was very good!

  6. kathy d

    V.I. Warshawski had to deal with her pesky cousin for awhile and investigate the murder of another cousin in an earlier book. Her family looms large in the books by Sara Paretsky, including the memories of her parents. In one book, she’s trying to figure out if her father, a cop, was involved in police brutality.
    In a TV episode about Irene Huss, a Swedish detective, she has to find her kidnapped teenage daughter.
    Rich aunts and uncles, disinherited heirs are catnip for Hercule Poirot.
    It was good for cousins to marry until geneticists discovered that in-breeding can lead to terrible hereditary diseases and developmental disabilities. Even within closed communities this can happen.

    • It certainly can, Kathy. And you’re right about V.I. Warshawski’s cousin. I’m glad you brought that up, because Warshawski’s family is important in her life. I like the way Paretsky weaves that in to the stories.

  7. tracybham

    You have reminded me again that I need to reread The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I have forgotten a lot about the story since I first read it.

  8. As in anything the wider concept you have of a ‘group’ the more likely you are to get disagreements which is fantastic starting point for a crime fiction writer – now families are smaller you don’t hear a particular person being labelled the ‘black sheep’ so often either!!

    • No, you really don’t, Cleo. And that’s very interesting in itself. It’s true, too, that smaller families have completely different dynamics to the larger families. And that discord you can get in a larger group can add so much to the tension in a story.

  9. Pingback: Wiing Links 5/8/17 – Where Genres Collide

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

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

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

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ 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 )


Connecting to %s