When a crime is committed, especially something like murder, it’s not just the victim and the perpetrator who are affected. The public’s memory can be long; so, even a generation or two (or more) later, a family can be associated with a crime. And that can impact family members, and even be very difficult for them (e.g. ‘Are you any relation to that man/woman who…?’).
Having an infamous crime or ancestor in one’s past can make for an interesting layer of character development. How, for instance, do you deal with the fact that your parent, or grandparent, or great-grandparent, etc., killed someone? Or stole a lot of money? This sort of plot point can add tension to a story, too. So, it’s little wonder we see it in crime fiction.
For example, Ruth Rendell’s first novel as Barbara Vine was A Dark-Adapted Eye. In it, Faith Longley Severn has to come to terms with a terrible crime in her family’s past. Many years earlier, Vera Longley Hilliard was arrested, convicted, and executed for murder. The Longley family had always prided itself on its respectability, so this was an especially hard blow. No-one’s spoken of it since. But now, a journalist, Daniel Stewart, finds out about the story, and decides to write a book on the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith to see if she’ll cooperate, and provide him with whatever family history she may have. It’s a wrenching topic, but Faith agrees. And, as she and Daniel look into the past, we learn what happened in the Longley family, and how and why the death happened.
John Grisham’s The Chamber features the Cayhall family. Former Ku Klux Klansman Sam Cayhall is in prison in Mississippi, on death row for a bombing murder. He says he’s not guilty of the bombing. In fact, he’s had several stays of execution, but has run out of options, and is scheduled to be executed. His case is taken pro bono by a Chicago law firm. They send one of their attorneys, Adam Hall, to their Memphis office to defend Cayhall. As we soon learn, Hall was born Alan Cayhall, and is actually Sam Cayhall’s grandson. It turns out that Adam/Alan’s father, Eddie, was disgusted with his father’s Klan activities and bigotry, and left for California, never to return. He didn’t want to be associated with the Cayhall name. As the novel goes on, and Adam/Alan works on behalf of his grandfather, we learn the family’s history, and we learn the truth about the bombing.
Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs is the story of the Franco family. At the turn of the 20th Century, Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco and his family leave their native Italy to settle in New York. He gets a job at a shoe repair shop, and starts to do well. In fact, he ends up opening his own shoe repair and sales company, and the family prospers. Unfortunately, he starts drinking, and ends up killing a man in a bar fight one night. He’s arrested and taken into custody. Then he discovers that the victim was Luigi Lupo, son of notorious crime boss Tonio Lupo. When Lupo finds out who killed his son, he visits Franco in jail, and curses his three sons, saying that they’ll die at the same age as his son was when he died. As the story goes on, we learn what happens to those three sons, and how they deal with being the sons of a man who committed murder.
Steve Robinson’s In The Blood introduces his sleuth, genealogist Jefferson Tayte. In this novel, business executive Walter Sloane hires Tayte to trace his wife’s ancestry. Her family, the Fairbornes, split into two branches, one of which returned to their native England during the American Revolution. So, Tayte travels to England to contact the modern-day Fairbornes and see what he can learn. He discovers that some of the family members when missing, so he decides to find out what happened to them. Soon enough, he’s warned off, and it’s clear that someone does not want the truth about the family to come out. It turns out that even things that happened as long ago as the late 1700s still impact the family today.
We see a bit of similarity in Hannah Dennison’s Murderous Mayhem at Honeychurch Hall. In one plot thread of this novel, the small Devon town of Little Dipperton is preparing for a Skirmish – a re-enactment of a battle between the Cavaliers, who supported King Charles I, and the Roundheads, who supported Oliver Cromwell. As it happens, the Honeychurch family were Cavaliers; so Rupert Honeychurch is taking on that role. His wife, Lavinia, was a Carew before she married; and the Carews were Roundheads. As the story goes on, it’s interesting to see how crimes that were committed (or alleged to have been committed) by one side or other still play roles today.
There’s also Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass. Pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman returns from London to her native Auckland with her partner, Yossi Shalev, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Roimata ‘Roi.’ She had her reasons for leaving Auckland in the first place, so she’s reluctant to go back. But it’s very important to Yossi, so she agrees. At first, all goes well enough. But then, one of her patients, two-year-old Rory Peteru, is diagnosed with a tumour on his kidney. From Claire’s perspective, it’s best to remove the growth as soon as possible. But the child’s parents, Isa’ako and Kate, refuse the procedure on the grounds of their religious beliefs. The media take an interest, and before Claire knows it, she’s the focus of publicity – some thing she didn’t want. Years earlier, her father, Patrick, was arrested and convicted for the 1970 murder of Kathryn Philips. Although he was jailed, there was never enough evidence to truly determine whether he was guilty, so he was released. Still, plenty of people think he was guilty, and they associate Claire’s name with that case. For Claire, it’s as though she can’t shake the stigma associated with her father.
And that does happen when a family member commits a crime. Sometimes it even happens when there’s just suspicion. Either way, it can cast a very long shadow.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Midnight Oil’s Forgotten Years