It’s interesting how things get passed along in families. I’m not really talking here about physical appearance, although that, of course, is passed along, too. I’m talking more about things such as mannerisms, traits, and, sometimes, special talents. If you’ve ever caught yourself saying something exactly like one of your parents, or using a mannerism that one of your parents used, you know what I mean.
We see this in crime fiction, too, and it can make for an interesting layer of character development. It can even add to a plot point. It’s realistic, too, so it can also add some credibility to family dynamics.
Agatha Christie addressed this in several of her stories. There’s even one (I’m not giving title or sleuth, so as to avoid spoilers) in which family traits prove to be a major clue to a killer. Appointment With Death, for instance, features the Boynton family, Americans who are on a tour of the Middle East. Family matriarch Mrs. Boynton is a malicious, tyrannical person whom Hercule Poirot calls a mental sadist. She has her family so much under her control that they do whatever she says, and never risk displeasing her. The family takes a trip to the ruins of Petra, during which Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies. Colonel Carbury is in charge of the case, and he’s not quite satisfied that this was a natural death. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and it soon comes out that the victim was murdered. The most likely suspects are the members of her family, each of whom had a very good motive for murder. One of those family members is seventeen-year-old Ginevra ‘Jinny’ Boynton. She’s become mentally quite fragile as a result of her mother’s psychological abuse, and on the surface, she doesn’t seem much like her at all. But, she has a rare acting ability. When she gets the chance to live her own life, free of her mother’s influence, we see just how talented she is – and that she has more in common with her mother than it seemed. Here’s what one character says:
‘‘Looking at Jinny, I saw – for the first time – the likeness. The same thing – only Jinny is in light – where She was in darkness…’’
It’s an interesting commentary on the way certain mannerisms and personality traits can be passed down.
In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, we are introduced to Trevor Sharp. He’s a teenager who’s a bit at loose ends. He doesn’t fit in well at school, and he doesn’t have a lot of friends. So, as you can imagine, he’s quite drawn in by a local delinquent named Mick Webster. His father, Graham, warns him away from the boy, but Trevor doesn’t listen. That’s how he gets mixed up in several cases that Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks is investigating. For one thing, a voyeur has been spying on several of Eastvale’s women. For another, there’s been a series of home invasions. Then, there’s a murder. And Banks wants to know what role, if any, Trevor has played in these crimes. As we get to know the Sharps, we see that on the surface, they’re different. But they really aren’t that different after all. And, in the end, we see how much Trevor has inherited, if that’s the right term, from his father.
One of the main characters in James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential is an LAPD officer named Edward ‘Ed’ Exley. He is the son of LAPD legend Preston Exley, and that fact makes his life extremely complicated. His older brother Thomas, was, in many ways, just like their father, and slated for a highly successful police career. In fact, Exley senior placed all of his hopes in Thomas. But Thomas was killed in WW II (the novel takes place in the early 1950s) shortly after his graduation from the police academy. Now, the burden of excelling on the police force falls to Ed, who’s not nearly as much like his father as his brother was. Still, as the novel goes on, we see that he has more in common with his father than it may seem on the surface.
Herman Koch’s The Dinner features the members of the Lohman family. One evening, Paul Lohman and his wife, Claire, meet up with his brother, Serge, and Serge’s wife, Babette. They’re having dinner at an ultra-exclusive and extremely expensive Amsterdam restaurant. On the surface, it’s just a getting-together of two couples. But under the surface, there’s a lot more going on. Each couple has a fifteen-year-old son, and, together, their boys have committed a terrible crime. Now, the two couples have to decide what they’re going to do about it. As the novel goes on, we see that, in several ways, the boys have inherited their attitudes and beliefs from their parents. While the parents are unwilling to admit it, there’s a resemblance between them and their sons.
And then there’s Gail Bowen’s sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. She is a (now-retired) academic and political scientist. She is also the mother of an adopted daughter, Taylor. Among other things, Taylor is an extraordinary artist, with rare talent. Interestingly, her biological mother, Sally, also had real artistic talent. The novels in the series don’t all focus on Taylor, Sally, or art. But throughout the series, we see how, even though they spent no real time together during Taylor’s formative years (Sally was killed when Taylor was not much more than a toddler), there are still real resemblances between the two. And sometimes, they’re very clear to Joanne, who was friends with Sally and who has raised Taylor.
There are, of course, plenty of examples of parents and children who are absolutely nothing like one another. But in a lot of cases, there are similarities, whether it’s in attitude, mannerisms, preferences, or something else. So it makes sense that we’d see those similarities in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harry Chapin’s Cat’s in the Cradle.