And None Shall Ever Harm Cosette as Long as I am Living*

One way that crime writers ramp up the suspense in their novels is to put the sleuth’s loved ones in danger. The challenge with that plot point is to make the situation believable (and not melodramatic). This strategy has been used quite a bit in the genre, so authors who use it also run the risk of their stories seeming stale.

All of that said, though, it can be a useful plot point, and when it falls out naturally from the plot, it can work well. Here are just a few examples. I know you can think of many more than I can.

Agatha Christie’s The Big Four sees Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings pitted against a syndicate of four super-criminals who are bent on world domination. They’re responsible for several murders and abductions, and Poirot and Hastings know that, if they don’t catch and stop all four of the members, there will be more havoc. At one point, Hastings himself is abducted, and his wife (whom readers will remember from The Murder on the Links) is threatened. All of this spurs both Poirot and Hastings to even more action against the criminals, and Poirot, especially, uses some innovative strategies to stop them.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science fiction writer Zack Walker decides that his family would be safer living in the suburbs than in the city where they currently live. So, he buys a house in a new suburban development called Valley Forest Estates. Everyone tries to settle in and adapt to the changed environment. But soon enough, things start to go wrong. First, Walker notices several repairs that need to be made to the new house. He goes to Valley Forest’s sales office to complain, only to witness an argument between one of the sales executives and an environmental activist. Later, he finds the activist’s body near a local creek. Before long, Walker finds that all is not as it seems in peaceful Valley Forest Estates, and he gets drawn more and more into a web of fraud and murder. At one point, his family is threatened, and placed in real danger. And that’s part of the tension that drives the plot (and Walker).

C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye isn’t a part of his Joe Pickett series; it’s a standalone. In it, we meet Jack McGuane, a Travel Development Specialist for the Denver Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau. He and his wife, Melissa, are the loving adoptive parents of baby Angelina, whose teen mother chose to give her up for adoption. Then one day, everything changes. McGuane gets a call from the adoption agency through which he and Melissa found Angelina. It seems that her biological father never waived his parental rights and has now chosen to exercise them. At first, the McGuanes hope that the matter can be resolved. But that’s not to be. The baby’s biological father is eighteen-year-old Garrett Moreland, whose father, John Moreland, is a powerful local judge who’s squarely on his son’s side. The Morelands pay a ‘friendly visit’ to the McGuanes, during which Judge Moreland tries to bribe the McGuanes to give up custody of Angelina in return for the money to finance another adoption. The McGuanes refuse this, and the Morelands go from cajoling and bribes to threats, including a crude threat against Melissa. When that doesn’t work, Judge Moreland issues a court order requiring the McGuanes to relinquish custody of Angelina within twenty-one days. The McGuanes decide to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter, and ‘whatever it takes’ turns out to be more than either had imagined.

Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin is a London psychologist who sometimes gets involved in very dark murder investigations. And some of the people he goes up against are very dangerous threats to his family. For instance, in Shatter, he is called to a bridge where Christine Wheeler is prepared to commit suicide. He tries to intervene but isn’t successful. Then, the victim’s daughter, Darcy, visits O’Loughlin. She tells him that her mother was manipulated into committing suicide. O’Loughlin doesn’t see how that could happen, but he does agree to look into the matter. Then, there’s another death. It’s now clear that a vicious killer is at work, and once O’Loughlin gets close to the truth, the killer prepares to strike very close to home. It’s a terrible situation for O’Loughlin and for his family.

And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man, which features police detective Nick Chester. He and his family have been moved from England to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island for their own protection. Chester was involved in an undercover operation that went wrong, and now some of the people involved are determined to kill him. They settle into their new home, and Chester starts working on the disturbing case of two child abductions and murders, five years apart, that seem to have been committed by the same person. Then, there’s another abduction. Now, the investigation team know that they only have a limited time to catch the killer. And the killer has targeted Chester’s family. That’s not to mention the danger they face from Chester’s former ‘associates’ in England. He’s going to have to work fast and effectively if his family is to stay alive.

There are many other examples, too, of plot points where sleuths’ family members are in danger. Sometimes, that element of suspense and tension works very successfully. Other times, of course, it can be overdone and pull the reader out of the story. These are only a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Fantine’s Death (Come to Me).


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Carter, C.J. Box, Linwood Barclay, Michael Robotham

17 responses to “And None Shall Ever Harm Cosette as Long as I am Living*

  1. I recently saw a movie where the bad guys decide not to threaten the hero’s family. This was an action movie, not a mystery, but still that moment came as kind of a surprise for the audience. It was sort of the first hint that maybe the bad guys weren’t that bad after all.

    • Oh, that is interesting, J.S. And it’s unusual for an action film, which makes it even more intriguing. I like it when characters are not portrayed as ‘all good’ or ‘all bad.’

  2. tracybham

    I never rule out a topic in mystery fiction, but the family or loved one of a main character being threatened is not my favorite type. Usually it just gets too unrealistic, too unbelievable. But sometimes it works.

    • It’s definitely difficult to do it well, Tracy. As you say, it’s too easy for it to become unrealistic and melodramatic. It can work, but it has to be done carefully, in my opinion.

  3. It’s a plot point that works better in standalones than in series, I think. In fact, I’ve given up on one or two series because it became ridiculous that the detective’s family ended up in peril during every case.

    • I know what you mean, FictionFan, and you have a well-taken point. That plot point can work very well – once. If it keeps happening, it can get tiresome. Little wonder you’ve given up on series where that happened.

  4. Col

    A recent read – Wallace Stroby’s Some Die Nameless has this as a part of the story, not the major plot point but it happens. Looking forward to reading Marlborough Man and trying something from C.J. Box

    • Oh, I hope you’ll like both Marlborough Man and C.J. Box’s work, Col. I think both have written strong novels, and I honestly think you’d enjoy them. Thanks also for mentioning the Stroby. That’s not one I’ve (yet) read, but it sounds like a solid example of what I had in mind with this post. Folks, do check out Col’s review of Some Die Nameless

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out another great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog. This one is on the tactic of putting the detective’s loved one in danger in the story. I have used this one myself.

  6. Great post. I have used this technique in one of my detective novels and it is interesting how the main character’s demeanor changes when it’s a loved one that is in danger. Suddenly, the rules change or don’t apply any longer when they are willing to bring back the loved one at all cost.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Don. You’re right, too, about how different it all is for the protagonist when a loved one is in danger. Everything changes, including the rules. And that can really ramp up the tension in a story.

  7. So true, Margot! The level of tension always increases when the MC’s family or someone close to them is threatened. It’s a good way to draw the reader in as well; it encourages them to care more about the characters.

    • You make a strong point, Julie. When it’s done very well, putting someone close to the protagonist in danger can invite the reader to engage more with those characters. I think it can also give the reader more of a stake in the outcome of the story.

  8. Spade & Dagger

    Michael Connelly’s Nine Dragons has Harry Bosch who is assisting the LA Asian Crime Unit, rushing off to Hong Kong to deal with the triads who appear to have taken his missing teenage daughter. I didn’t feel this was the strongest or most convincing book in the Bosch series, but Connelly is always a very readable author.

    • He is, indeed, Spade & Dagger. In my opinion, he’s a very skilled author, and even his less-than-convincing books are worth a read. And that’s such a good example of the sleuth trying to protect a family member. I’m glad you added it in.

  9. There’s jeopardy for a detective’s family in Elly Griffiths’ latest, The Dark Angel, but to say more would be to spoiler. But I can say it is extremely dramatic!

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