Estrangement in families can happen for any number of reasons, really. Sometimes they happen for specific reasons, and sometimes it’s more a matter of drifting apart. Sometimes, the people involved simply go on to live very separate lives, with no real rancor.
But when circumstances bring together estranged family members, all of the emotion can also come up to the surface. And that can add tension to a reunion. It can add quite a bit of tension to a crime novel, too. And it raises the question: is blood thicker, as the saying goes? Can people who’ve been estranged work together? It makes for an interesting and sometimes suspenseful sub-plot or thread through a story.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday For Murder) bring together the various members of the Lee family. Patriarch Simeon Lee has always been both malicious and tyrannical, but he is also very wealthy. And, when he decides to gather his family at the family home for Christmas, no-one dares refuse the invitation. So, his sons, David and George, together with their wives, Hilda and Magdalene, make the trip. Another son, Alfred, already lives at the family home with his wife, Lydia. And Lee’s son Harry, who’s been estranged from the family for years, is also invited. There’ve been several estrangements in the family, actually. For one, David has always blamed his father for his mother’s poor health and eventual death. For another, Alfred sees Harry as a selfish cadger who’s never taken his share of responsibility for the family business. Harry sees Alfred as a ‘stick in the mud’ who’s far too quick to toady to their father. All of this bad feeling comes to the fore when the various family members get together. And, when Simeon Lee is murdered on Christmas Eve, matters get even worse. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he works to find out who killed the victim. As he gets to know the various family members, we see how this estrangement plays its role in the way the different family members interact.
John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler introduces readers to Classics professor Arnold Wechsler, who works at a small Massachusetts school, Hewes College. The novel was published in 1971, a time of great change and, sometimes, student unrest, at many US colleges and universities. Hewes College is no different in that respect. Wechsler is aware of what’s going on, but he tries his best to stay out of it all, and simply do the best he can. That all changes when he is summoned to a meeting with Winthrop Dohrn, the college’s president. Dohrn is concerned because of Wechsler’s younger brother, David. It seems that David was a Hewes student until he dropped out of sight after joining a radical movement. Now he’s returned to campus, and Dohrn wants to know whether David is or will be involved in subversive activities. Wechsler is loath to spy on his brother. For one thing, they’re quite different, and they’ve been estranged for some time. They really don’t have much to say to each other. For another thing, Weschler really does want to stay out of politics. But he can’t really refuse the college president. So, reluctantly, he contacts his brother. The two are very awkward with each other, and that estrangement makes for quite a lot of tension. It’s ramped up when there’s a bombing, a kidnapping, and a theft. Is David involved? If he’s not, can his brother trust him to help find out who is?
Lawrence Block’s The Sins of the Father is the first novel to feature his PI sleuth, Matthew Scudder. At this point, Scudder isn’t a formally licensed PI. Rather, he informally looks into things when friends and acquaintances need his help. One day, he gets a visit from successful executive Cale Hanniford, who has an unusual sort of request. Hanniford’s twenty-four-year-old daughter, Wendy, has recently been murdered. The police have arrested her twenty-one-year-old roommate, Richard Vanderpoel, for the crime, and there’s plenty of evidence against him. What’s interesting is that Hanniford doesn’t want Scudder to solve the murder. He believes that Vanderpoel is the killer. Rather, he wants Scudder to find out what sort of person Wendy had become, and what led to her death. It turns out that he’d been estranged from his daughter for years. It’s too late now for a reconcilement, but he’s hoping to at least learn more about her. Scudder’s not sure how much help he can be, but he agrees to at least ask some questions. He arranges to interview Vanderpoel in prison, but the young man is too dazed, or drugged, to be very informative. Then, not long afterwards, Vanderpoel commits suicide. Now it’s clear that this case is more complicated than Scudder thought, and he’s no longer sure the police got their man in the first place.
Former journalist Robert Dell, whom we meet in Roger Smith’s Dust Devils, has a wife and two children whom he loves, and a life that seems to be going well. It all changes one terrible day when he and his family are taking a drive just outside of Cape Town. His car is ambushed and goes over an embankment, and Dell is the only survivor. As if that’s not devastating enough, the police soon accuse him of engineering the accident, and he’s thrown into prison for murder. In fact, it’s very likely he’ll be executed after a ‘kangaroo court’ hearing. It’s clear that he’s being framed, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. Unbeknownst to Dell, his father, Bobby Goodbread, has found out what’s going on. He and his son have been estranged for a long time, mostly because of their diametrically opposed viewpoints on apartheid. It hasn’t helped matters that Dell married a woman who wasn’t white, and that Goodbread has been linked with several reactionary pro-apartheid groups. Nonetheless, Goodbread engineers his son’s escape from prison, and the two go into hiding. For different reasons, they’re each going after the man who killed Dell’s family. The rift between them makes for a lot of tension and awkwardness, but they manage to work together as they head towards the village where the killer lives.
And then there’s Dorothy Fowler’s What Remains Behind. In that novel, archaeologist Chloe Davis, her business partner, Bill, and some of their archaeology students travel to Kaipara Harbour, on New Zealand’s North Island. They’ve been contracted to excavate the remains of religious community that was burned down in the mid-1880s. The excavation is required before the land can be sold for development, so there’s a lot of pressure for the team to do their work quickly. For Davis, there’s a great deal of other pressure, too. For one thing, her cousin Shane is a member of the development consortium, and wants to move as quickly as possible to get the new construction done. For another, her sister Phaedra, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, has title to a house and piece of land that’s critical to the consortium’s plan. And she’s not willing to move. So, as the dig team is uncovering the truth about the religious group, Davis is also having to deal with the tense and difficult reunion with her sister and cousin, as well as with the rift between the branches of her family. And it turns out that what happened to the religious community has repercussions even now.
Estrangements can happen in just about any family. They aren’t always violent, but they’re often very difficult. And they can add a great deal of suspense, to say nothing of character development, to a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eastmountainsouth’s Father.