Distant Cousins From Down the Line*

When you think of the word ‘family,’ you likely think of your partner, your children, perhaps your parents and siblings. You might also think of aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins. But not everyone thinks that way.

In many cultures, ‘family’ has a different meaning. Anyone who’s related by blood (distant cousins, for instance) is a member of the family. And that bond can be extremely important. One’s clan membership, if I may use that term, is a critical part of one’s identity, and one owes loyalty to that group. That social structure certainly matters in real life, and it matters in crime fiction, too. There are lots of examples in the genre; here are just a few.

Most of Tony Hillerman’s novels feature Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. Both men are members of the Navajo Nation. Both are also members of the Navajo Tribal Police (now the Navajo Nation Police). In the Navajo culture, kinship is very important, and goes far beyond parents and their children. That concept of family is woven throughout the series. In more than one novel, for instance, Chee introduces himself to people using the Navajo tradition of identifying both his mother’s clan and his father’s clan. And in more than one novel, kinship ties feature in the cases that Chee and Leaphorn investigate. Members of the same extended family protect each other and help each other, and both Chee and Leaphorn know this.

Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire series takes place mostly in fictional Absaroka County, Wyoming. Longmire’s jurisdiction is within striking distance of the Northern Reservation, which is home to the Cheyenne Nation, among other Native Americans. One of the members of that nation is Longmire’s good friend, Henry Standing Bear. He owns a bar/restaurant/local watering hole called The Red Pony, and he knows just about everyone in the area. He also has a strong and far-reaching group of kinship ties to many people on the Northern Reservation (and in other places, too). That network of family ties makes him a sort of community ‘hub.’

We see a similar concept of kinship ties in Stan Jones’ Nathan Active series. Active is an Alaska State Trooper. He is also a member of the Inupiaq people, although he was adopted by a white couple, and raised in Anchorage. In White Sky, Black Ice, Active is assigned to Chukchi, where his biological mother, Martha, happens to live. He soon learns how important kinship ties are among his people. In fact, one of the cases he investigates is the disappearance of Aaron Stone, who is a distant kinsman of Martha Active. Stone went on a hunting trip and hasn’t come back within a reasonable amount of time. Martha asks her son to look into the matter, and he agrees. Soon enough, Active finds the missing man’s body not far from one of his hunting campsites. On the surface, it seems that he committed suicide. But Active isn’t sure that’s true, and he looks into the case a little more deeply. In the end, he finds that Aaron Stone was murdered, and that his death ties in with another case Active is investigating.

Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney is an ex-pat Australian PI, based in Bangkok. In The Half-Child, she meets Rajiv Patel, who works in his uncle’s bookshop. Patel is from India, but he wants to have a chance to see more of the world. His family would have preferred him to stay nearby and settle down with a local wife. But that’s not his goal. As a way to avoid out-and-out conflict, Patel and his family reached a sort of compromise. The family agreed that Patel would spend some time in Bangkok. Patel agreed that he would live with his uncle and his family and help in the bookshop. It was assumed he’d be welcome in his uncle’s home as long as he stayed. It was also assumed he’d contribute to the family through his work at the shop. Everything changes, though, when Patel meets Keeney. Before long, the two begin dating, and they become partners in life as well as business partners. It’s very interesting to see the difference between the way Patel views family and the way that Keeney does.

One focus of Nicole Watson’s The Boundary is a legal battle between the Corrowa people and a development company. The Corrowa have filed a land title claim to Brisbane’s Meston Park. The development company wants the land for its own projects. Justice Bruce Brosnan rules against the Corrowa and is murdered just a few hours later. Then, there are other deaths, each of a person opposing the land claim. The murders are investigated by police officers Jason Matthews and Andrew Higgins, and they’re going to have a difficult time. The Corrowa people have strong kinship ties to each other and aren’t likely to help the police.

And then there’s Finn Bell’s Dead Lemons. In that novel, we are introduced to thirty-seven-year-old Finn Bell (yes, same name as the author), who’s at a crossroads in his life. His marriage is over, and a car crash has left him without the use of his legs. As a way of starting over, he buys a cottage in the small town of Riverton, on New Zealand’s South Island. He soon gets drawn into the mystery of what happened to the cottage’s former occupants, the Cotter family. In 1989, Alice Cotter disappeared and was never found. A year later, her father, James also disappeared. As Bell works to find some answers, he slowly gets to know some of the other people who live in the area. Several of them have kinship ties (cousins, second cousins, and so on), and over time, Bell gets to see how important these ties are.

And they really are. In many cultures, kinship goes far beyond parents and children. And it’s very interesting to see how those ties impact people’s lives and their motives.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Border Song.


Filed under Angela Savage, Craig Johnson, Nicole Watson, Stan Jones, Tony Hillerman

23 responses to “Distant Cousins From Down the Line*

  1. Interesting article. Many years since I indulged Shadowrun’s idea of the Amerindian aka Native American revival overwhelming the fouling USA and renewing the life in unison with the land…

    Contextually I think the flaw is obvious: Kinship. People with zero kinship to the tribe will have a hard time understanding it all, or the author needs extra efforts to entice & compel the readers. Other cultures are interesting to many people, but deep involvement needs more than a tourist level after all.

    Once more you mentioned works not found on any generic list, and brought details to attention. Kudos, Margot. I must return now, to rebellious translators who never deliver, and new publishers for an occult book I never wanted to be published…

  2. Alex

    Another intriguing topic, Margot. I always think of family and kinship as cousins rather than one in the same. For us, WASP, we tend to think in terms of family being those in our immediate family. Where as across the globe, family is akin to that wider range of family, as in, kinship. Something a lot of us have lost or forgotten, or never even think about.

    • I think so, too, Alex. So much of the world, though, sees kinship in those wider terms. And think there is something to considering it that way. At least for me, understanding the way a culture sees kinship and family is key to getting a sense of how members of that culture think. And thanks for the kind words.

      • Once more rude & crude, as I never wanted to be: Having read words from you throughout the years I still repeat, and in good faith & trust in your formidable abilities: Don’t overburden your mind with ‘generic knowledge’, as the real Margot Kinberg can cream it even with a mere short story & her embodied knack for crime fiction! I could be told I still need thorough research, but you became better than a lot of it, so don’t make it hold you back, until it is part of the plot, or a ruse to divert reader attention? 😉 I remember calling you a Queen of crime fiction, and I am not staring at a boring, little chessboard at all!

  3. Spade & Dagger

    As someone who grew up in a very small family unit, I identify most with the loner type detectives who rely on their own resources. However I’m always intrigued by the ones who are able to call on the assistance of an extended ‘family’ (of whatever type) as this provides a completely different viewpoint for problem solving. Plus, with well researched books, it’s always interesting to read about other peoples & places in the world.

    • It really is, Spade & Dagger. It gives one a much broader perspective. You make a well-taken point about sleuths who have extended families. I have in mind, for instance M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth, who has all sorts of cousins and second cousins and so on who help out from time to time. It’s an interesting layer to those novels.

  4. I think modern life in the Western world especially has meant that we tend to make our own ‘families’ out of those we associate with most rather than those we are related to by blood. Having said that there is something special about the bond I have with my cousins who knew me when I was a child.

    • I think you’re right about the modern Western world, Cleo. Our definition of family has, I think, been impacted by our increased mobility, among other things. But, as you say, there are cousins and other blood relatives who have a bond with us, too. It’s a different sort of bond, but it is special.

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post on the topic of distant family in crime fiction from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog.

  6. What an interesting angle! You cause me to think about some of my favorite fictional sleuths: most of them feature their families as important background and subplot. Off the top of my head, I choose as my favorite Maigret, his wife, and extended family (e.g., a hapless nephew gets involved in one of the cases)
    BTW, my blog now has a commitment to crime, and I welcome comments in the future from you and your army of followers.

  7. Bill Selnes

    Margot: In reading the post I thought about an international group of people with close family ties within their ethnicity. In Testimony by Scott Turow and Take Down by James Swain the Roma people have significant roles. I do not think there is a more insular people than the Roma.

    • Thanks, Bill. That is a really clear example of a group with extensive kinship ties. The Roma people are, as you say, quite insular. And they do support each other and take care of each other. I hadn’t thought of it, but you’re absolutely right.

  8. tracybham

    I loved White Sky, Black Ice by Stan Jones. Just read it recently. And I have Angela Savage’s The Half-Child on my bookshelf. This is a great topic, Margot.

    • Thanks, Tracy. I think it really is interesting how different cultures see the concept of family. And I’m very glad you have The Half-Child to read. In my opinion, you won’t be disappointed. Angela Savage is a talented writer.

  9. Pingback: The Half-Child, re-birthed | Angela Savage

  10. Col

    Another post reminding me of how much I haven’t read….Finn Bell, Tony Hillerman, Stan Jones…… heavy sigh. I’m looking forward to the day I can retire and start catching up!

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