We Are All Branches, Branches on the Family Tree*

Many people are interested in learning more about their family’s history. In the US, for instance, there’s a television show called Who do You Think You Are?, in which famous people follow their families’ histories and learn about their ancestries.

Family roots and stories from the family tree play roles in crime fiction, too. And that isn’t surprising, really. You never know what you’ll dig up when you search around your roots. And even if your ancestors weren’t notorious or famous, you could still find some interesting stories in your family past. And some of those stories can play roles in the present.

Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead includes an interesting discussion of the impact of family roots and family history. In the novel, Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate the murder of a charwoman. Everyone thinks the killer was her lodger, James Bentley, but there are other possibilities. One evening, Poirot is invited to a cocktail party, where tongues are somewhat loosened with alcohol. Later, a group of the guests goes to visit the home of one of the residents who couldn’t go to the party. There’s an interesting discussion about breeding dogs, and one of the people says,

‘‘You can’t get away from heredity – in people as well as dogs.’’

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, so it’s a lively conversation. As it turns out, there is a connection between family pasts and the murder of Mrs. McGinty. It seems that the victim found out more about one particular person’s history than was safe for her to know.

Family stories and history play an important role in John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook. When Tad Rampole finishes his university studies, he decides to travel. His mentor suggests that he go to England to visit Dr. Gideon Fell, and Rampole takes that advice. On his way to Fell’s home, Rampole meets Dorothy Starberth, and it’s not long before the two are taken with each other. And Rampole soon learns that she has an interesting family history. Two generations of Starberth men were Governors at the new-disused Chatterham Prison. Even today, the men of the family undergo an odd sort of ritual because of that old connection. Each male Starberth spends the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room. There, he opens the room’s safe, and follows a set of instructions listed on a piece of paper that’s kept there. It’s now the turn of Dorothy’s brother, Martin. He’s reluctant to go through with the ritual, because several Starberth men have died unusual deaths. Some people even call it a curse. But, he goes along with the plan in the end, and spends the night at the prison. Tragically, he dies of what looks like a terrible accident. But was it? Fell discovers that this death was most definitely a murder, and finds out who the killer is.

Fans of Steve Robinson’s Jefferson Tayte novels can tell you that family stories play a major role in that series. Tayte is a genealogist, who often uncovers surprising (sometimes dangerous) secrets in families’ stories. For instance, in In the Blood, Tayte is hire by wealthy Boston business magnate Walter Sloane. Sloane wants Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry as a gift for her, and Tayte agrees. One branch of her family went to England with a group of Royalists during the American Revolution, so Tayte gets the ‘green light’ to go there and find out what happened to that family. And what he finds still resonates today, with the family’s modern descendants. And it all brings real danger to him.

Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind introduces readers to archaeologist Chloe Davis. She, her business partner, Bill, and a group of their students, get clearance to go to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They want to excavate the remains of a religious community that burned down in the 1880s. For Chloe, this is a homecoming of sorts, since she grew up in the area. But it’s not a joyful family reunion. For one thing, Chloe’s cousin, Shane, is a leader of a group of people who do not want the excavation to go on. They want the land for development. There’s also the fact that Choe has a troubled relationship with her sister, Phaedra, who has inherited a house in the contested area. Still, the excavation goes ahead. And, as the team members work the site, they find more there than a burnt-out set of mission buildings. There are some surprising connections to the present, and some family-ancestry links, that someone doesn’t want uncovered.

And then there’s Hannah Dennison’s Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall. In one plot thread of this novel, the village of Little Dipperton, in Devon, is preparing to re-enact a battle that was fought there between the Cavaliers, who supported King Charles I, and the Roundheads, who supported Oliver Cromwell. The Honeychurch family, who’s been in the area for hundreds of years, were Cavaliers. So, Rupert Honeychurch, the current Lord Honeychurch, will take on that role. His wife, Lavinia, was a Carew before she married, and the Carews were Roundheads. So, there’s some interesting tension in the family. Those generations-old connections still matter in this village. The main plot of the novel has to do with the murder of the local postmistress. But it’s interesting to see how family roots, and family history, play a role, too.

And, for many people, that’s as true in real life as it is in fiction. Little wonder there’s so much fascination with ancestry and family pasts. Which stories have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Londonbeat’s It’s In the Blood.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Fowler, Hannah Dennison, John Dickson Carr, Steve Robinson

17 responses to “We Are All Branches, Branches on the Family Tree*

  1. Family histories are a rich tapestry we can definitely tap into as crime writers. I don’t have to go back beyond my grandparents to find a zillion stories. The Granddad I knew was a police officer. The other Granddad was a murderer.
    No wonder I write crime thrillers … 🙂

    • Wow, Cat, you do have a very rich family history. And I’m sure that you’ve heard a lot of great stories in your time. And I agree: those histories can definitely be rich resources for crime writers. You’re right, too: I think crime thrillers are woven into your DNA… 😉

      • So many great stories came from Granddad about being a country cop and also being a cop in Wellington during the war. One day there might be a wartime cop story from me … one day. 🙂

        • Oh, and I’d love to read it, Cat. I’m sure it’d be great. He must have had some amazing stories! 🙂

        • One day (I know I need to make time to make this happen), I will sit down with the tapes we recorded before Granddad died and transcribe his words so I can write about his life. There was a book written about policing here in NZ and there are a few stories about Granddad in that. 🙂

        • Oh, cool, Cat! I’d love to read it. And I think it would be a fantastic idea to write a book about your grandad’s life. I’m sure there’d be a lot of great stories in it, and what a fascinating look at that part of NZ’s history. 🙂

  2. tracybham

    My husband is a fan of the Jefferson Tayte novels, as I sure I have mentioned before. I want to try them too.

  3. Alex

    I never really thought about genealogy as coming up anywhere in Crime Fiction, Margot, but yes, you’re right. Like anything in real life, it can be used and adapted to become a trope. And I’m sure if I though hard enough, I could come up with a couple of examples. You do come up with some great posts!

  4. Col

    Christie and Carr – two authors I ought to try at least once.

  5. Margot, I read this post early in the morning, then Bob interrupted me before I could comment. Men. *head shake* Anyway, family roots is a popular subject nowadays, especially with celebrities tracing their genealogy. It’s no wonder it’s turned up in crime fiction. Excellent examples, as always. You nailed it!

    • Thanks for the kind words, and for stopping back, Sue. I think you’re right that ancestry and family roots are increasingly popular and interesting. It makes sense, and it’s little wonder that we see that interest reflected in crime fiction.

  6. Ruth Rendell’s A New Lease of Death involves someone finding out more information about whom she is descended from – but I can’t really say more than that for fear of spoilers! It’s always a fruitful area for crime writers.

    • Yes, I think it is, too, Moira. And thanks for sharing that Rendell example. Didn’t want to say anything about it, myself, but trust you to come up with a way to bring it up…

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