One of the characters we see in a lot of crime fiction is the ‘dutiful’ child (whether young or adult). That’s the one who never causes trouble, who looks after the elderly parents, takes over the family business, and so on. On the surface, that sort of character may not seem particularly interesting. But the crime novelist has all sorts of possibilities when it comes to the ‘obedient one.’ That character may seethe with resentment. Or, may be quietly plotting who-knows-what. Or may be the protagonist. Or… Perhaps that’s the reason there are so many such characters in the genre.
Agatha Christie used ‘dutiful’ characters in a lot of her stories. For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), we are introduced to the Crackenthorpe family. Patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe lives at the family home, Rutherford Hall, with his dutiful daughter, Emma, who has never married. He also has three sons, Harold (also dutiful), Alfred (the ‘black sheep’), and Cedric (the family bohemian). Everyone gathers for Christmas, and right away there’s tension. In part that’s because Luther Crackenthorpe resents the fact that his father left the family fortune not to him, but to his children. There are other conflicts, too, and some of them stem from the fact that Emma and Harold have ‘behaved themselves,’ while the others haven’t. But they pale by comparison when the body of a woman is found on the family property. It seems that she was killed on a train, then thrown from it. The murder was witnessed by Mrs. Elspeth McGillicuddy, a friend of Miss Marple’s, but she couldn’t see the murderer’s face. And no-one knows who the victim is at first. Miss Marple finds out who the victim was, and is then able to work out who killed her and why. That sort of family dynamic shows up in other Christie novels, too, doesn’t it, fans of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas?
One of the main plot points in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit concerns the conflict between brothers Mason and Gates Hunt. They are both products of an abusive home, but they couldn’t be more different. Mason, the ‘good son,’ has taken advantage of every opportunity he’s gotten. He ended up with a scholarship to law school and has plans for a successful career. Gates, on the other hand, has squandered his considerable natural athletic ability, and now lives on his girlfriend’s Welfare payments and on money from the boys’ mother, Sadie Grace. One afternoon, Gates has an argument with his romantic rival, Wayne Thompson. The argument is put ‘on hold’ for a while, but flares up again later that night, when the Hunt brothers encounter Thompson again. This time, the outcome is tragic when Gates shoots Thompson. Out of a sense of loyalty, Mason helps his brother cover up what happened. But it comes back to haunt him years later. Now, he’s a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Gates has become a drug trafficker and is arrested for selling cocaine. He’s given a long sentence and asks his brother to help get him out. This time, Mason refuses. Gates then threatens to implicate Mason in the still-unsolved Thompson murder. When Mason calls his brother’s bluff, he finds himself indicted for a murder he didn’t commit.
Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses is the story of sisters Bridget ‘Bridie’ and Madeline ‘Midge’ Dolan. It’s 1966 South East London, and the sisters both want to experience the culture of experimentation and liberation going on. But they are very different. Bridie is a devout Catholic, obedient to her parents, and protective of her younger sister. Midge, on the other hand, is more daring, and questions her family’s religious beliefs. One Friday night, they persuade their mother to let them go to the Palais Royale to dance. Her only condition is that their cousin, Jimmy, take them and bring them back. That’s something the girls can easily accept, and the plans are made. The night starts off well but ends in tragedy that impacts Bridie and Midge for the rest of their lives. And the fact that Bridie is ‘the good sister’ plays a role in what happens.
In Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs, we are introduced to the Franco family. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco brings his family from Italy to New York City, to be a part of ‘the American dream.’ He gets a job in a shoe repair shop and, within a few years, has his own repair and sales business. The family prospers, and Ben has hopes for his children. But then one night, he gets into a bar fight with a man called Luigi Lupo and kills him. He’s promptly arrested and jailed. But that’s the least of his problems. It turns out that Lupo was the son of notorious gangster Tonio Lupo, who isn’t about to let this murder go unchallenged. He visits Ben in prison, and curses his family, promising that each of Ben’s sons, Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick,’ and Leonardo ‘Leo,’ will die at the age of forty-two, the same as Luigi was when he was killed. As the story moves on, we see what becomes of the brothers, and how the curse plays out. We also see how their personalities conflict. Al is the ‘good son.’ He works hard, spends wisely, and takes over the family business as expected. Nick becomes an actor and has his own successes and abject failures. And Leo gets into quite a lot of trouble, even though Al tries to take care of him. It’s not until much later that he matures. Those differences do make for some conflicts among the brothers.
And then there’s Charity Norman’s See You in September. Cassy Howells and her boyfriend, Hamish, have just finished university, and decide to spend the summer volunteering and exploring New Zealand before settling down to ‘adult life’ in the fall. The trip starts off well enough, but when Cassy discovers that she’s pregnant, Hamish lets her know that he doesn’t want to be a father, and that she’s on her own. Broken-hearted, alone, and vulnerable, Cassy becomes the perfect candidate to be taken in by a cult led by an enigmatic man named Justin. At first, she feels loved and accepted. But things start to change, and it becomes clear that the Last Day will be coming. Whatever that actually means, it could be tragedy for Cassy. Meanwhile, Cassy’s parents, Mike and Diana, and her younger sister, Tara, are terribly worried about her. When they discover that she’s joined the cult community and intends to stay there, Mike and Diana try to bring her home. But they may not succeed before the Last Day comes. And, even if they do, she may not be the same. One of the threads that runs through this novel is Tara’s feeling towards her sister. She loves Cassy, but she’s angry. She’s been ‘the good sister,’ trying to help keep things together at home. She’s been there to deal with her parents’ fears, her own concerns, etc., while Cassy hasn’t had to face any of it. And that impacts Tara’s perspective.
A character who’s ‘dutiful’ and ‘obedient’ may seem on the surface to be uninteresting. But things may not be that way just beneath. And that can add layers of character development and plot points to a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Maxi Priest’s It Ain’t Easy.