Buried in the Family Well*

Have you ever researched your family? Some families don’t have a long history, but others have a very long history indeed. And those families that have been around for a hundred years or more collect all sorts of stories. Some of them can still have an impact, too, even after generations.

Family histories are interesting in and of themselves, and they can add a real dimension to a crime novel. They can build suspense, add layers of character development, and even make for a motive for murder. They can also add context to a story.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles, for instance, we learn the history of the Baskerville family. The story goes that, in the 1600s, Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he’d become infatuated. Since that time, there’ve been several strange deaths in the Baskerville family. They’re said to be caused by a curse on the family that takes the form of a phantom hound. And the latest victim seems to be Sir Charles Baskerville, who’s been found dead in the park on the Baskerville property. Is the Baskerville history really the cause of Sir Charles’ death? If so, then there is real danger ahead for the newest Baskerville, Sir Hugh, who is coming from Canada to take on the title and property. An old family friend is concerned about Sir Hugh’s safety, and asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. He agrees, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. They find that this mystery has a very prosaic explanation. I know, I know, fans of The Musgrave Ritual.

Agatha Christie wove family histories into several of her novels and stories. One of them is Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client). In that novel, we are introduced to wealthy Miss Emily Arundell, the last of her generation of the Arundell family. She’s well aware that the next generation is eager for her money, and she’s often told them that they’ll get everything when she dies. But, when she takes a fall down a set of stairs, Miss Arundell begins to wonder whether someone isn’t willing to wait that long. During her recuperation, Miss Arundell writes a letter to Hercule Poirot, asking him to look into a delicate matter for her (‘though she doesn’t specify just what that is). By the time Poirot and Captain Hastings get to the Arundell home, though, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died of what her doctor claims is liver failure. Poirot isn’t so sure, though, and he and Hastings search for the truth. In the course of their investigation, they meet Miss Caroline Peabody, who knows quite a bit about the Arundell family history. What she tells them doesn’t solve the case, but she gives them helpful background information. I see you, fans of After the Funeral.

The Blackwood family is the focus of Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. As the story begins, we meet Mary Katherine ‘Merricat,’ Blackwood, her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian, who live a rather isolated life in their old Vermont home. As the story moves on, we learn about a tragedy in the Blackwood history: the deaths of three other family members. And it’s soon clear that the other residents of the village think that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible. Still, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian go on with their lives, doing as much as much as they can to keep the outside world at bay. Then, Charles Blackwood, a cousin to Merricat and Constance, pays a visit. His arrival triggers a series of events that spins out of control and ends in more tragedy.

In Shona (S.G.) MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows, we are introduced to Maeve O’Neill. She is the matriarch of the old and once-powerful Irish O’Neill family, and what she wants most is to see her family once again dominate Ireland. But it’s the 17th Century, and the English have taken control of Ulster, where she lives. This has led to several conflicts and a lot of scheming, as some people have sided with the English in exchange for power within the new order. Others resist, determined to maintain their Irish identity and religion. Against this background, there’s a wedding in the O’Neill family, to which a traditional Irish poet has been invited. Instead of using his poetry to celebrate the occasion, though, the poet curses the O’Neill family. What’s worse, parts of the curse seem to be coming true. So, Maeve sends her grandson, Sean Fitzgarrett, to Scotland to ask his cousin, Alexander Seaton, to help lift the curse. Seaton is reluctant, but is finally persuaded to go to Ireland, where his mother was born. He soon finds himself drawn into the religious and political conflicts of the day, and learns that the deaths and tragedies mentioned in the curse have more to do with greed and politics than with the curse. Despite everything, Maeve O’Neill still dreams of her ancient family’s return to power.

Peter May’s Entry Island is the story of the Mackenzie family. Sergeant Enquêteur Sime Mackenzie of the Sûreté du Québec lives and works in Montréal. But he’s sent to Entry Island, one of the Îles-de-la-Madeleine/Magdalen Islands, to help investigate the murder of James Cowell. It’s believed that, since Mackenzie is a native speaker of English, he’ll find it easier to get information from the island’s mostly English-speaking residents. As soon as he arrives, Mackenzie is struck with a sense of déjà vu, although he’s never been to Entry Island. What’s more, he begins to have vivid dreams about stories his grandmother used to tell him about his Scottish ancestor, also called Sime, who lived in the mid-19th Century. In one plot thread, we follow the investigation into Cowell’s murder. In another, we learn the history of the Mackenzie family, and how that history has impacted the present-day Sime.

And then there’s Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte mysteries. Tayte’s a genealogist, so he’s very accustomed to looking into family backgrounds. And sometimes, what he finds there is dangerous. More than once in this series, Tayte uncovers secrets from the past that still impact modern-day descendants. And that puts him at grave risk.

Long family histories can often include fascinating stories and people. There’s a lot of opportunity there for character development, too. But there’s also risk, and sometimes, motive for crime.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Chris Ward and David Michael Tyson’s Family Secret.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Peter May, S.G. MacLean, Shirley Jackson, Steve Robinson

31 responses to “Buried in the Family Well*

  1. Love this post… combines mystery, fiction and genealogy! Nice one!

  2. We Have Always Lived At the Castle is one of my favourites! Such a dysfunctional family…

  3. Family history is always so fascinating to read about, and often real life can seem like fiction. Years ago a man turned up at my father’s place of work and said he believed he was his cousin. He’d been researching his family tree and discovered our branch of the family. He then traveled all the way from America to the UK on a whim without attempting to contact us any other way first. The man was the double of my Great-Great-Grandfather so my father was intrigued enough to want to find out more. It turned out that this man genuinely was closely related to us but we’d had no idea of his existence!

    • Oh, that’s fascinating, Hayley! And what a surprise to find that you’d had relatives you knew nothing about! And that man found he had a whole new family, which must have been quite a surprise for him, too. Those things do happen in people’s lives, and stories about family histories can make for excellent plots, too.

  4. I believe I’ve mentioned before that the late Ross Macdonald often used how “the sins of the fathers (or grandfathers, mothers, etc.)” can be passed down to adversely affect the present generation with unintended consequences. His Lew Archer mysteries are still tops in my book. His writing was brilliant far beyond being superb mysteries.

    • I’m very glad you mentioned Macdonald’s work, Michael. I agree that his Lew Archer is a terrific character. And you’re right, of course. Those mysteries often deal with generations and families. Thank for filling in that gap.

  5. I researched our family tree a few years back, really on behalf of my uncle (by marriage) who is Canadian and wanted to find out more about his Scottish ancestry. It turned out his family had been well off – the type of people who had servants – while our family were the type of people who were servants! My uncle thought it was all very funny – my aunt less so… 😉 But more seriously, it showed me how differently even one generation can make people feel. I came across one ancestor who’d had an illegitimate child and, while I found it fascinating to try to work out who the father might have been, my mother was shocked and horrified – clearly she still felt it as a real scandal even though it had happened more than a century ago. I suspect some plots from older books that are based on such ‘scandals’ might seem fairly incomprehensible to younger people now that attitudes have changed so much…

    • Oh, that’s really interesting, FictionFan! It’s fascinating that your family has two such different sorts of histories, if I can put it that way. It’s true, too, how different generations can feel about things. Both my aunt and a cousin of my mother’s were adoptive parents. At that time, adoption was only discussed in whispers, and children weren’t always told they were adopted. When I became an adoptive parent, my husband and I sent out notices, the whole thing. And our daughter has known she was adopted all of her life. Different generations, different mindsets…

      You make an interesting point, too, about the plots of some books. Certainly generational attitudes impact a lot!

  6. This is a really interesting post, Margot! 🙂 Pride in one’s family or family name is certainly pivotal in crime..

  7. Col

    Not familiar with any of your examples, Margot and I’m struggling to find an example of the trope occurring in my own recent reading. More caffeine needed!

  8. I am fascinated by family history and trying to imagine the lives of those names you read on their certificates so this is a perfect post for me. My father’s family is Jewish and my Uncle passed on collective research of this side which extends back to the 17th Century when my family were in Turkey – the majority of my branch came to the UK through Amsterdam at the end of the 19th Century but sadly I was able to see some relation’s names in the list of names of those taken from their homes to concentration camps when we visited Anne Frank’s House. Sobering to think how the decision for one couple to move to London meant that I’m in existence at all! The other side were agricultural labourers and servants in Essex for the most part but as a reflection of FictionFan’s response, my Grandmother deliberately obscured dates of birth and marriages that weren’t to hide what she saw as scandals amongst her parents and siblings!
    Through my love of family history I came across Steve Robinsons Jefferson Tayte series although his exploration into his family tree has proved far more dangerous than mine.

    • You really have a fascinating family history, Cleo! How lucky for you that your uncle passed on to you what he’d learned. And it is both fascinating and sobering to think about how one decision (like where to move) can have such far-reaching consequences. Your mention of the Anne Frank House reminded me of my own visit there; I think one can’t help but be moved, and it’s so sad to think of many people were lost to concentration camps. And it’s interesting, too, to think about how differently many people thought about births and marriages. I’m sure your grandmother wasn’t the only one to change dates of births or marriages to make sure everything looked ‘respectable.’

      And as for Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte series? I can see how you were drawn to it. Robinson does a fine job with this whole concept of family history.

  9. When I started reading your post, it is definitely the Hound of Baskerville that came to my mind…What you said is absolutely true…Family histories can make a perfect backdrop for murder mysteries. Loved your post…

    Shalet Jimmy

    • Thank you Shalet – that’s very kind of you, and I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right about family histories. They really can prove to be deadly!

  10. I’ve been sorting through my mom’s photos to send some to a family member who’s researching my maternal grandmother’s family. When I look at all those pictures, I study the faces and wonder about their secrets–the things we’ll never know. One can imagine, though, because it seems every family offers up at least one shady character. 😀

    • I think you’re right, Pat 🙂 What an interesting experience, too, to look through those old ‘photos. You do have to wonder what those people might have been like, what mattered to them, whether they were anything like you, that sort of thing. Or, at least, I do.

  11. Pingback: Writing Links 5/29/17 – Where Genres Collide

  12. In Dorthy L Sayers’ Unnatural Death, a character fears she will not inherit from her ‘aunt’ – this is a loose designation, they are more distant relations than that implies. It turns out there is a legal limit as to how far you could go along the family tree to inherit – and the rules were being changed. I think most people think the family tree can go in all directions, but apparently not in this case. It’s a great crime story, but I have always wondered if DLS heard about the anomaly and rule change, and built the novel round it…

    • You know, that’s an interesting question, Moira. She might have done exactly that. And that particular story is a great example of how family trees can be manipulated, if I can put it that way, when people think they’ll inherit. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  13. kathy d.

    Peter May’s “Entry Island” was fascinating to me, not the current story, but the history of poor croft dwellers who were forced to leave Scotland, pushed out of their homes and onto ships going to Canada. I learned a lot from that book which led me to further investigate that history.
    And his trilogy set on the Outer Hebrides Isle of Lewis and Harris also explained the main character’s history back to his childhood when children were forced to speak English in school when they all spoke Scottish Gaelic at home. Further googling here to learn more.
    And Sara Paretsky sends V.I. Warshawski to Vienna to investigate Dr. Lotte Hershel’s family history which was quite sad. Her family, except for the children sent to England, were sent to concentration camps.
    My own family history is complicated. My Jewish grandparents came to the U.S. fleeing anti-Semitic pogroms in imperial Russia-occupied Poland in 1907. I’m sure glad they did.
    And my grandmother, Sophie, very luckily escaped the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, as she was out sick on that day.
    The Irish relatives I don’t know much about, except a great-grandmother came from County Sligo. And my great-uncle, George, was a bootlegger and a bookie and had the greatest twinkle in his blue eyes. He was a character.

    • You’re right, Kathy, about May’s Lewis trilogy. That, too, explores the long family history on that island. You yourself have a fascinating history! A shirtwaist factory survivor, a bootlegger, survivors of pogroms… all of it is really interesting. I’m sure you’ve been glad to learn of your roots.

  14. kathy d.

    I know quite a bit about my maternal grandparents. I knew them. My grandmother lived to be 98! She had a strong backbone and determination in everything and was principled. And I knew her siblings. Listening to them was a lot of fun. There was a lot of Jewish humor.
    I do not know much about my Irish ancestors. I didn’t know my grandparents, except I met my grandfather a few times when I was quite young. My uncle listened to Irish singers, but my father didn’t. Not much Irish history or culture there.
    However, one thing both sides of the family, including my parents, had in common! They all loved potatoes! We ate potatoes in one form or another several times a week.
    I’ve thought about this. Of course, the Irish grew potatoes and suffered from the potato famine. And my mother’s family, being poor in Russia, ate a lot of potatoes. And my mother was creative in cooking them.
    Interesting bit of family culinary history.

  15. Never occurred to me to see Hound of the Baskervilles as family history, but you have a good idea there. We’re all full of stories.

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