Many families have what you might call a family culture. Members are a part of that culture, and live by its values. Sometimes, though, a family member decides not to be a part of the family culture – to be a nonconformist. That can be difficult, since that can cause a rift in a family. But it can add richness to a group, too.
That plot point – the family ‘oddball,’ if you will – can add to a story, as well. There are all sorts of possibilities there for conflict, for a ‘whodunit’ plot, and so on. And there are plenty of examples in crime fiction. Here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder) we are introduced to the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee is both malicious and tyrannical, so no-one in the family enjoys his company. Still, he is also very wealthy, and has a strong personality. So, when he invites his children and their spouses to spend Christmas at the family home, Gorston Hall, no-one refuses the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is in the area, spending the holiday with a friend, so he works with Superintendent Sugden to find out who the killer is. As he does, he gets to know the various members of the Lee family. One of them is David Lee, who’s an artist. In many ways, he’s a family nonconformist. He’s not in the family business, like his brother Alfred; and he’s not in a ‘respectable’ line of work, like his brother George, who’s an MP. He doesn’t even physically resemble his siblings, really. And his father makes it clear that he has little but contempt for David. All of this definitely makes David a ‘person of interest’ in the novel.
Leonardo Padura’s Havana Red features Havana police detective Mario Conde. It takes place in 1989, during the full heat of a Caribbean summer. Conde’s been in ‘exile’ in the police bureaucracy; but his boss, Major Antonio Rangel, gives him a reprieve when a delicate murder case comes up. The body of a young man dressed in a woman’s red dress has been discovered in Havana Park. The victim is soon identified as Alexis Arayán, son of powerful and well-connected diplomat Faustino Arayán. Because of Arayán’s position, this case will have to be handled very quietly and carefully. One possibility is that the victim committed suicide, and that’s not out of the question. At that time, and in that place, to be a homosexual (or even perceived as one) brings with it all sorts of awful social consequences. That’s especially true in a family like this one. There’s also the possibility that this was a murder – the hate crime that it seems on the surface. There are other leads, too. In the end, we learn who killed Alexis Arayán. As we do, we also learn about his life, and about what it’s like to be a nonconformist, especially in a high-profile family.
Larry Watson’s Montana 1948 is the story of the Hayden family. The Hayden name is very respected in Mercer County, Montana, and family patriarch Julian Hayden is proud of that. One of his sons, Frank, is a decorated World War II veteran, and the highly-esteemed local doctor. The other son, Wesley, is the local sheriff – also respected. With him live his wife, Gail, and his son, David. Everything changes for the Haydens during one terrible summer. Wesley’s housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, falls ill with pneumonia. She refuses to have Frank called in, and at first, won’t explain why. Then, she finally admits the reason. For years, Frank has been raping his female patients at the Fort Warren (Sioux) Reservation. No-one ever spoke out because the family is too powerful. Besides, who would believe the story? Then, Marie suddenly dies. At first, it looks like a sudden relapse, although she had been doing better. But there are also hints that it might have been murder. And Frank was seen near the house on the day of Marie’s death. Now, Wesley’s faced with a terrible set of choices. If Marie’s allegations are true, then his brother is a serial rapist. He may be a murderer, too. At the same time, this is Wesley’s brother, and a well-respected doctor. What’s more, Julian Hayden strongly supports Frank. Wesley has to decide whether to conform to the family culture, or arrest his brother. It’s an awful dilemma, and it changes the family permanently.
There are also plenty of fictional sleuths who don’t conform to their family’s culture, and that can present real challenges for them. For instance, there’s Geraldine Evans’ Detective Inspector (DI) Joe Rafferty of the Elmhurst CID in Essex. He’s from a large, working-class Irish family, most of whom have no use for the police. Several, in fact, are involved in somewhat dubious ‘enterprises’ that wouldn’t stand up under scrutiny. Rafferty knows quite well that he’s a nonconformist, and that does make life difficult for him at times:
‘His family was the limit, especially as some of them were of the opinion that if they must have a copper in the family, he might at least have the decency to be a bent one.’
Unfortunately for his family, he’s not ‘bent.’
Sulari Gentill’s Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair is a member of a very wealthy, ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family. At the time the novels take place (the 1930s), the worldwide Great Depression is in full force, and millions of people are out of work or worse. Families like the Sinclairs, though, are more or less insulated from much of the financial upheaval. They’re aware of what’s going on, and they’re certainly not unaffected. But they are in a good position, and families like that want to keep it that way. Rowly’s brother, Wilfred, has that attitude, and tends to be conservative in his thinking. He’s also conscious of the family’s name and reputation. But Rowly doesn’t conform to that view. He’s got friends in all social categories, and with all sorts of political leanings. It sometimes makes for conflict between the brothers. But it also makes for an interesting dynamic.
There’s also S.J Rozan’s Chin Ling Wan-ju, who usually goes by the name Lydia Chin. She’s an American-born Chinese PI, who lives and works in New York’s Chinatown. Her mother and siblings live more or less traditional Chinese lives, and their family culture reflects those values. So, as you can imagine, Chin’s mother would like her to find a Chinese husband, marry, and settle down, like a ‘proper’ daughter does. On the one hand, Chin does love and respect her mother, and she appreciates her Chinese culture. She shares some of the beliefs, too. But she is a nonconformist. She is in no rush to find a husband, and she really likes the PI work she does. It all makes for some tense moments, but that nonconformity also adds both to Chin’s character and to the layers of plot.
Characters who don’t conform to the family culture can bring all sorts of trouble on themselves. But they can also be really interesting. And that sort of dynamic can add much to a story or series.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matthew Wilder and David Zippel’s Reflection.