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.