Family businesses can be very interesting contexts for a crime novel, too. They can be sources of conflict, they can add character development, and they can give interesting insight into a community. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal) begins directly after the funeral of wealthy family patriarch Richard Abernethie. In this case, the family built its fortune in the making of corn plasters and other, similar remedies. The business was very successful, and Abernethie has quite a lot of money to leave. His will distributes his money evenly amongst his nephew, two nieces, brother, sister-in-law, and younger sister. On the one hand, it seems on the surface like an equitable distribution. On the other, it also suggests that he didn’t have enough faith in any one member of his family to leave everything to that person. At the funeral gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. At first, everyone hushes her up, and even she tells the others to pay no attention. But privately, everyone begins to wonder if Cora was right. And, when she herself is murdered the next day, everyone is convinced that she was. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. He finds out that more than one person could have wanted to kill both people.
Ellery Queen’s The French Powder Mystery features family-owned French’s Department Store. The store does well, and store owner Cyrus French and his family are well off. Then, one tragic day, French’s wife, Winifred, is found dead in one of the store’s display windows. Inspector Richard Queen is called in to investigate, and of course, his son, Ellery, takes part. The Queens soon discover an interesting thing about family businesses: sometimes it’s hard to separate ‘family’ from business. Was Winifred killed by a family member? A business associate? It’s not an easy case to solve.
Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig)’s Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor. She is the current owner of Aunt Pat’s Barbecue, one of Memphis’ popular eateries. It’s a family-owned business in which she takes great pride. She inherited the restaurant, and is planning that her son, Ben, will take over as owner when she is ready to step aside. As it is, he does plenty of work in the restaurant, and even Lulu’s two granddaughters help out at times. Part of what makes Aunt Pat’s special is that it isn’t an impersonal chain restaurant.
We also see several family-owned businesses in Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… series featuring James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. He is a journalist who’s moved to the small town of Pickax, Moose County – ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ Most of the local businesses are owned by families, rather than by large companies. For example, the local department store is owned by the Lanspeak family, the local newspaper is owned by the Goodwinter family, and so on. Some of those families have been in the area for generations, too. It’s that sort of place. And that plays its roles in the mysteries that Qwill encounters.
Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs tells the story of the Franco family, who emigrate from Italy to New York at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco brings his wife and children to the US in hopes of a successful ‘American Dream’ sort of life. He gets a job in a shoe repair shop, works hard, and in a few years, has been able to open his own shoe repair and sales shop. The business does well, and he is hoping to pass it along to his three sons. He changes the family name to Frank, and everyone prospers at first. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. Ben gets into a bar fight one night, and kills a man named Luigi Lupo. It turns out that his father is notorious gangster Tonio Lupo, and that Lupo has every intention of getting revenge. He visits Ben in prison and curses his family, promising that all three of his sons will die at the age of forty-two, the same age Luigi was at his death. The story goes on to follow the lives of Alessandro ‘Al,’ Niccola ‘Nick,’ and Leonardo ‘Leo’ Frank, and it’s interesting to see how the family business shapes them. Al Frank takes over the business and oversees real success for it. Nick Frank wants to be an actor, and he has a little talent. For a while, he does well enough in Hollywood, which suits him, because he doesn’t want to be in the family business. Leo takes several wrong turns and has his own issues. But after a number of years, he also chooses the family business. As the book goes on, we see what happens to each son, and how the curse plays out in their lives.
And then there’s Rajiv Patel, whom we meet in Angela Savage’s The Half-Child. Originally from India, he wanted a chance to see more of the world. His family wanted him to stay nearby, find a local woman to marry, and settle down. But that wasn’t in his plans. As a way of keeping the peace, and still doing what he wanted to do, Patel went to Bangkok’s Little India, where his uncle’s family keeps a bookshop. The agreement was that he would live with the family and help in the bookshop. And that’s where he meets PI Jayne Keeney, who loves to read. The two get to talking, find that they like each other, and begin to date. And Patel gets involved in the case Keeney’s working on, which involves the mysterious death of a young volunteer at an orphanage/children’s home. Later, they become business partners as well as partners in life.
Family businesses have been with us for a very long time. Perhaps you even have a business in your own family. They add much to the economy, and a lot to crime fiction, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s Levon.