What I Didn’t Realise Was How You Would Change My Life*

One of the most common types of blended families is the stepfamily. In fact, there’ve been stepparents and stepchildren for so many years that we could even think of it as one of the traditional family structures.

Blending a family in this way can work, especially if everyone involved is willing to be flexible. But ‘stepping’ almost always presents challenges, even when family members love one another, and really want the relationships to be successful. And when there’s spite or malice, things can turn very bad, indeed.

There’ve been many, many crime novels that involve stepfamilies. One post couldn’t possibly do the topic justice. But I’ll mention a few examples, to start the conversation. Oh, and you’ll notice I don’t include examples of what a lot of people call domestic noir. Too easy…

Agatha Christie used stepfamilies many times in her work, so there are several examples. One is Evil Under the Sun. In that novel, Captain Kenneth Marshall and his daughter, Linda, travel to the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay for their holiday. With them is Marshall’s second wife (and Linda’s stepmother), famous actress Arlena Stuart Marshall. It’s soon clear that Linda dislikes her stepmother heartily. It’s not so much that Arlena is cruel to her, but she is self-involved, and mostly, she ignores Linda. What’s worse, Arlena is beautiful and graceful, and Linda is at an awkward point in her life, as young people often are at sixteen. One day, Arlena is found strangled in a cover not far from the hotel, Linda becomes a ‘person of interest,’ as does her father. Hercule Poirot is also staying at the hotel, and he works with the police to find out who killed the victim and why. And as far as the ‘evil stepmother’ stereotype goes, there’s Christie’s Appointment With Death

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, we are introduced to the Priam family. Roger Priam and his business partner Leander Hill ran a successful company for years. But then, they both began receiving macabre ‘gifts’ that unsettled them. In fact, Hill died of a heart attack shortly after getting one of them. Hill’s daughter, Laurel, asks Ellery Queen  to find out who has sent the parcels, because she believes her father’s death is directly related to them. At first, Queen demurs, but he’s finally persuaded. When he learns that Priam also received packages, he tries to get his help. But Priam is unwilling to get involved at first. Still, Queen meets Priam’s wife, Delia, and her son, Crowe ‘Mac’ MacGowan. Mac is a very unconventional person. He lives in a treehouse he’s made on the Priam property, and wears as little as possible – sometimes nothing at all. He’s convinced that nuclear bombs are about to be unleashed (the book takes place in the early 1950s, during a particularly tense part of the Cold War), and wants to be ready to live in a world where not much is left. Priam has little to do with his stepson; he’s a businessman through and through. There’s an interesting, if dysfunctional, dynamic in the Priam household…

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity begins when insurance sales representative Walter Huff decides on a whim to visit one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger. Huff happens to be in that area, and wants to see if he can get Nirdlinger to renew his policy. When Huff gets to the house, he finds that Nirdlinger isn’t there, but his wife, Phyllis is. The two get to talking and Huff soon finds himself attracted to her. She does nothing to discourage him, and before long, they’re having an affair. Then, Phyllis reveals that she wants her husband killed. By this time, Huff is so besotted that he falls in with her plan, even going so far as to write the double indemnity insurance policy she’ll need in order to collect from the company. The murder is duly pulled off, but that’s really only the beginning of Huff’s problems. He’s going to have to protect Phyllis as best he can if he’s going to protect himself. Then, he meets Phyllis’ stepdaughter, Lola. The two form a friendship (which Huff would like to be more than a friendship), and Lola tries to warn him about her stepmother. There is no love lost between the two, so there’s a possibility her attitude might simply be spite. But it turns out that Huff is in much deeper than he thought…

M.J. McGrath’s White Heat is the first in her series featuring Ellesmere Island hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. As the story begins, Kiglatuk is escorting two hunters, Felix Wagner and Andy Taylor. During the trip, Wagner is fatally shot. Taylor says he’s not responsible, and the evidence supports him. So, at first, the death is put down to a tragic accident. But Kiglatuk is fairly certain that’s not the truth. Evidence that she saw suggests that another person shot Wagner. But she’s told that the Council of Elders, on whom she depends for her guide license, wants the ‘accident’ explanation ‘rubber stamped.’ Still, she starts to ask some questions. There’s not much she can do officially, but she tries to get answers. Then, there’s a disappearance. Then, her former stepson, Joe, with whom she’s still close, dies. On the surface, it looks like a suicide. But Kiglatuk is now sure that it was murder. In the end, we learn what connects all of these events; it turns out that there’s something much bigger going on than most people knew. The relationship between Kiglatuk and Joe is an undercurrent throughout the novel. It’s clear that they see each other as family, and take care of each other as close family members do. Not much of the ‘wicked stepmother’ stereotype here…

There’s also Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy. In that novel, former safecracker/lockbreaker Jeet Singh has decided to ‘go straight.’ He now owns and runs a small keymaking business. Everything changes, though, when he gets drawn into just one last job, for the sake of his former lover Sushmita. She married wealthy industrialist Pursumal Changulani, but now, he’s been murdered. At first, the murder looked like a carjacking gone wrong. But now, there’s evidence that it was a pre-planned murder. Sushmita is the main suspect, since her husband’s death means she now stands to inherit a considerable fortune. However, Changulani has three children from a previous marriage, and they claim that she was never legally married to their father. They argue that their stepmother was really just their father’s live-in lover. Sushmita needs money to pay a good lawyer to defend her interests, so Singh decides to help her. He ends up, though, being framed for murder. Throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how stepmother and stepchildren view each other when a lot of money is involved.

Many stepfamilies work well, function as a unit, and love each other (right, fans of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve?). But there are always some complexities, and sometimes, they play out in unexpected ways.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Peter Andre’s Unconditional.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Gail Bowen, James M. Cain, M.J McGrath, Surender Mohan Pathak

16 responses to “What I Didn’t Realise Was How You Would Change My Life*

  1. My family was always boringly traditional so I never got to have any step-siblings, but I always found it a fascinating concept (especially when my real siblings were being particularly annoying). I used to hint to my parents that perhaps they should consider divorce and remarriage but selfishly they refused… 😉

    • How inconsiderate of them, Fiction Fan! 😉 – Stepfamilies really are interesting, aren’t they? I can see how you’d find them fascinating. And, of course, when your real siblings are being irritating, it’s fun to imagine what it would be like to have different ones… In all seriousness, though, I do think that forging a family unit from disparate people, as stepfamilies do, has its share of challenges. I salute those who create really solid units in those situations.

  2. Col

    I’ll have to bump McGrath’s White Heat up the pile, I’d forgotten about it.

  3. Spade & Dagger

    This is a real challenge – I like it :).
    I’d forgotten about White Heat as it’s so long since I read it, and annoyingly can’t bring to mind any examples of a ‘step character’ vital to the mystery.

  4. Great post Margot and blended families certainly bring their own set of challenges, perhaps more so when the children are older but they do offer perfect opportunities for fiction writers to come up with all manner of conflict. Stepmothers had a bad reputation in the fairy tales after all…

    • They did, indeed, Cleo. And you’re right; I think there is a difference for stepchildren when they are older v when they’re very young. In either case, there are many challenges that blended families face – even the families that love one another and really work to make a unit. Those interactions can be great sources of possible plot threads and characters, I think.

  5. While reading this post it reminded me of a book I read years ago, where a child went missing and the stepfather immediately became a suspect. Nowadays the step-parent-did-it trope has been done to death. However, some authors have the ability to make it work, as your examples have proved.

    On a more personal note … Growing up with a step-parent, our family considered the word “step” a dirty word, because to some it implies separation of the heart. Which couldn’t be further from the truth. Why do you think society feels the need to classify “step”? If we adopted a child, we wouldn’t say “I’m so-and-so’s adopted mother.” No. We’d simply say “mother.”

    • You ask such a good question, Sue. I’ve often thought the same thing, being the parent of an adopted child. Society really does have a history, doesn’t it, of classifying stepparents/stepchildren as ‘different,’ just it does of classifying the adoption relationship as ‘different.’ I was even asked once what I knew about my daughter’s ‘real mother.’ Really? As you point out so well, a loving family is a loving family. It doesn’t matter how it got to be that way. Yes, there are challenges when you blend families, but that doesn’t make such a family any ‘less.’ I don’t know why there’s this history of seeing those relationships as ‘less.’

      • OMG, I think I would’ve slapped that person! #andtheywonderwhywewritecrime I hope you turned her into a victim and murdered her in unspeakable ways!

        • It was most tempting, Sue, let me tell you! Mostly it revealed that unhealthy attitude that there is something ‘not quite as good’ about adoptive families and stepfamilies. #ignoranceisnotbliss I’m not surprised that your family didn’t like that word ‘step.’

  6. Kathy D.

    How many step-families and relatives of a deceased person fight over the inheritance in real life and in fiction? Plenty.

  7. I recently discovered Paula Daly, who writes good police procedurals – her The Trophy Child has a strange blended family, used to very good effect in a complex plot.

    • I’ve heard good things about that one, Moira. I admit, I’ve not (yet) read it, so I’m glad for the nudge to keep it on the radar. Thanks for filling in the gap.

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