One of the big challenges that young people face is finding their own paths in life, and becoming their own selves, separate from their parents. That sort of individuation is hard enough as it is; it’s even more difficult if those parents are well-known, or even famous. There are all sorts of expectations, and of course, there’s the insecurity about following in well-known footsteps.
It adds up to a lot of pressure, and that can add an interesting layer of tension and conflict to a crime novel. It can also make for a solid plot thread of family dynamic as well as character development. Little wonder that we see this dynamic in the genre.
In Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we are introduced to sixteen-year-old Linda Marshall. She feels the awkwardness that’s common to many teenagers, and it doesn’t help matters that she has a famous stepmother, Arlena Stuart Marshall. Arlena is a well-known and somewhat notorious actress, who’s beautiful, graceful, sophisticated – in short, everything Linda feels she’s lacking. And although she’s not cruel to Linda, Arlena certainly doesn’t pay her much attention or support her in any way. One day, during the Marshalls’ holiday on Leathercombe Bay, Arlena is found strangled on a beach not far from the hotel where the family is staying. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, and he works with the police to find out who the killer is. As he does, it’s interesting to see the role that that family dynamic plays.
In Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent, we are introduced to Rožat ‘Rusty’ Sabich, who in this novel is a prosecuting attorney for fictional Kindle County. He gets drawn into a very difficult case when a colleague, Carolyn Polhemus, is murdered. It’s important that the case be solved as quickly as possible, and ‘by the book,’ especially since the victim is part of the prosecution team. It turns out that Sabich had an affair with Polhemus – a relationship he doesn’t mention at first. When that’s discovered, he’s removed from the case. Then, little pieces of evidence begin to suggest that he himself might be guilty. He’s indicted and soon finds himself on trial. One of the sub-plots in this novel (and, actually in Innocent, too) is the relationship Sabich has with his son, Nat. It’s not as though Nat and his father don’t care about each other. But there’s certainly awkwardness in the relationship. And part of it comes from the fact that Sabich is first a successful attorney, then a successful judge. Nat himself becomes a lawyer and, in Innocent, we see how that plot thread of following in famous footsteps plays out. In that novel, Sabich is once again accused of murder – this time of his wife, Barbara.
One of the plot points in Gail Bowen’s The Endless Knot has to do with the relationships between Canadian celebrities and their children. Investigative journalist Kathryn Morrisey is doing an exposé of these families, and there are plenty of people who are upset about it. In fact, Sam Parker is so infuriated that he shoots (but does not kill) Morrisey. Parker hires Zack Shreve to defend him in court, and that lands Shreve and his partner, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, in the middle of this controversial case. As the story unfolds, we see how having a famous parent has a real impact on some of these young people, whether the relationship is dysfunction or not.
Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) features the de Poitiers family. CC de Poitiers has achieved a great deal of celebrity as a life coach and, if you will, lifestyle guru. Her book Be Calm has created a lot of interest and eager fans. CC’s daughter Crie faces enough challenges, being both brilliant and socially awkward. She’s also not what you’d call beautiful or graceful. So having a mother who’s good-looking and famous is awfully hard for her. Matters are made worse by the fact that CC is selfish, malicious and cruel. She’s very hard on her daughter, taking every opportunity to belittle her. CC makes plenty of other enemies, too. So when she is murdered during a Boxing Day curling match, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team have more than one likely suspect.
And then there’s Shamini Flint’s A Calamitous Chinese Killing. Singapore Police Inspector Singh is called in on a very delicate case. Susan Tan is First Secretary to the Singapore Embassy in Beijing. Recently, her son Justin was murdered, and his body found in one of Beijing’s older, run-down blocks. The official police theory is that this was a robbery gone wrong. But Susan doesn’t believe it, and she wants Singh to look into the matter. Singh travels to Beijing, with the idea being that he’ll review the police report and probably come to the same conclusion. But when he gets there, he begins to believe that Susan Tan was right: this murder was planned. And it turns out there’s more than one suspect, too. For one thing, Justin had a romantic rival. For another, he was involved in research with Professor Luo Gan, who has opposed certain land development plans for Beijing. There are other possibilities as well. As Singh investigates, we see a gradually-developing portrait of a young man who was trying to find his own place, and of the challenges he faced being the son of a well-known diplomat.
And that’s the thing about having a well-known parent. It’s hard to escape the fame (or notoriety) and make one’s own way. And that can create an interesting context for a crime novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Linkin Park’s Numb.