There’ll be One Child Born and a World to Carry On*

One of the many things that parents do is pass on certain traditions to their children. That’s one important way in which culture is perpetuated, if you think about it. Those traditions may be religious, but they certainly don’t have to be. It could be a family tradition of winemaking, or a particular way of cooking, or something else. And it’s interesting to see how many of those traditions people follow when they become adults.

We see that in crime fiction, just as we do in real life. For example, John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first of his Dr. Gideon Fell novels, features a family tradition among the Starberths. It seems that several generations of Starberth men served as governors of Chatterham Prison, until the place fell into disuse. The prison itself is in ruins now, but it’s still part of an important Starberth family tradition. Each Starberth male spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. As proof of his presence, he’s to open the safe in the room, and read and follow the instructions on a piece of paper that’s kept there. Tragically, too, many of those Starberth men have met with untimely ends. There’s even talk the family is cursed. Now, it’s Martin Starberth’s turn. He’s not looking forward to the experience, but he prepares himself to do what he’s supposed to do. On the night of his birthday, though, he dies of an apparent fall from the balcony of the Governor’s Room. It turns out, though, that Starberth’s death was no accident at all. Fell, who lives nearby, investigates with some help from an American guest, Tad Rampole. They find that this death has very little to do with a family curse. You’re right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Musgrave Ritual.

Sometimes, a tradition that’s passed on is professional. The child of a police officer or firefighter, etc., follows the same path. And that can lead to a lot of success. But it doesn’t always work out that way. For example, in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential, we meet L.A.P.D. officer Edmund ‘Ed’ Exley. He bears the heavy burden of being the son of revered police detective, Preston Exley. And Exley the elder intends that his son will go as far as possible in the department. So, he pushes him to climb the proverbial ladder, and berates him when he doesn’t achieve. For his part, Ed works hard and does everything ‘by the book’ – too much so for plenty of people. And the pressure he feels from his father turns him into a player of politics. That has an important impact when seven civilians are attacked by the police – and, two years later, when there’s a shooting at a nightclub. It’s an interesting look at the way a family professional tradition can impact the next generation.

Some family traditions are religious/spiritual in nature. That’s the case with Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee. He is a member of the Navajo Nation, and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Although he’s certainly familiar with dominant-culture society, Chee prefers to follow the traditions of his own people. In fact, early in the series, he studies to become a yata’ali – a singer/healer. Chee’s maternal uncle, Frank Sam Nakai, is pleased about this. He himself is a singer, and wants to pass along those rituals. And there aren’t as many young people interested in learning them as there were. So, Nakai works with Chee when he can, and teaches him what he needs to know.

We also see the passing on of religious traditions in Faye Kellerman’s Rina Lazarus/Peter Dekcer series. When we first meet these sleuths, Lazarus lives with her two sons, Jaakov ‘Jake’ and Shmuel ‘Sammy’ in Yeshivat Ohavei Torah, an Orthodox Jewish community near Los Angeles. Her religion is extremely important to her, so she wants to pass it on to her children. It’s a bit difficult, because she is a widow, but Lazarus keeps the house in the kosher style, speaks to her sons in both English and Hebrew, and so on. They study religion and religious history at the community’s school, too. The other members of the community do much the same thing. It’s part of the bond among the people who live there.

Peter May’s The Blackhouse explores a different sort of tradition. In that novel, Edinburgh police detective Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod is seconded to the Isle of Lewis when a murder occurs there that resembles one he’s already investigating. It’s hoped that, if the same person committed both crimes, it’ll be easier to catch the killer if both teams are working on the case. For Macleod, this is a homecoming, since he was raised on the Isle of Lewis. But it’s not a joyful prospect, as he had his own reasons for leaving in the first place. As Macleod works through the investigation, we learn about life on the Isle of Lewis. One of the traditions that’s a part of this story is that every year, a group of men travel to An Sgeir, an outcropping of rock fifty miles away. They spend two weeks there, harvesting guga, young gannet that nest on the rock. It’s dangerous and physically very demanding, and not everyone gets to go. In fact, it’s a real mark of distinction to be one of those who do. As new places in the group open up, people ‘sponsor’ sons, nephews, or even grandsons, to join the team. In that way, the tradition of harvesting the guga has been passed along for as long as anyone knows.

And that’s the thing about passing along traditions. People want to preserve parts of their culture, or they want to pass along their profession. So they teach their children, hoping that they will preserve what they’ve learned.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s And When I Die. Listen to her version,  Peter, Paul and Mary’s version, and the recording by Blood, Sweat & Tears, and see which one you prefer.

15 Comments

Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Faye Kellerman, James Ellroy, John Dickson Carr, Peter May, Tony Hillerman

15 responses to “There’ll be One Child Born and a World to Carry On*

  1. I seem to remember quite a few crime stories where the child does not want to take on the parents’ profession (the farm, the manor, the circus life etc.) and this can lead to all sorts of complications.

    • Yes, indeed, Marina Sofia. When young people go their own ways, and don’t follow those professions, all sorts of conflicts can arise. And that can add a lot of leaven to a story, too.

  2. Lovely post, Margot.

    Will you bookend with a piece on what happens in crime fiction when someone refuses to follow the family tradition?

  3. Margot: In Silver Totem of Shame by R.J. Harlick the plot involves the carving of one of the iconic images of the West Coast of Canada – totem pole. It is a tradition almost lost.

  4. Margot, now you have me wondering – are there books where criminals have children following in their footsteps passing on the tradition of murder and mayhem in a family? I know I’ve read stories where a killer will have an apprentice, but it’s usually not a family member. Great post.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Mason. And that’s a really interesting question. There definitely are books like that, and it’s interesting to see how the author uses the concept of passing along a tradition. In some books, the children take up the task eagerly. In some they’re reluctant or even completely unwilling. Either way, it makes for an interesting plot point.

  5. Pingback: Who Could Imagine I’d be Wandering So, Far From the Home I Love* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...

  6. Col

    LA Confidential – one of Ellroy’s best books in my opinion!

  7. In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, Carla Lemarchant has found out that her mother was convicted of murdering her father. Her fear is that she has inherited killer genes: she asks Hercule Poirot to find out the truth – she hopes her mother will be cleared so that she can marry and have children without fears.
    Christie often uses a plotline of inherited badness, or madness. But I always felt that she didn’t feel that herself, it was just a handy plot device for her.

    • That’s a really interesting take, Moira, on this question of carrying on of tradition. Thanks for inviting me to think about it all in a different way. And you’re right, too, about Christie. She did use that question of inherited madness or badness. Sometimes it’s a very clever red herring; sometimes it’s a clue. Either way, as you say, she could very well have not felt that way about inheritance herself. But she used it to good effect!

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