The old saying is that you can choose your friends but not your family. And it’s interesting how family ties can feel the strongest when we’re in crisis. It’s true in real life and we certainly see that premise a lot in crime fiction too. There are a lot of crime fiction novels where a parent, cousin, sibling or other family member asks the sleuth for help; in fact, that’s a really common premise for getting the sleuth involved in a case, especially for amateur sleuths. There are many novels too where the sleuth gets involved in a family member’s personal crisis even if that crisis isn’t directly related to the case. Because this is a fairly common plot point, it can be overdone and clichéd. But when it’s done well it can be very effective. It can be realistic, too. After all, it’s fairly natural to reach out to family if one’s in crisis.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Sleeping Murder, newlyweds Gwenda and Giles Reed are looking for a new home. Gwenda finds herself irresistibly drawn to a house in Dilmouth and the couple move in. But soon after they do so, Gwenda starts to have an unsettling sense of déjà vu about the house. She knows things about it that she couldn’t possibly have learned just from purchasing it, and she has frightening visions of a dead woman lying in the hallway of the house. Gwenda is very worried that she’s losing her grip on reality so when she gets a letter from a cousin of Giles inviting her for a visit, she accepts. This cousin turns out to be Raymond West, whom Christie fans will recognise as Jane Marple’s nephew. Gwenda has some reservations about visiting West and his wife Joan, mostly because she doesn’t move in their artistic and literary circles. But she visits them and soon tells Raymond her story. Through him she meets Miss Marple and one night, they all go to a theatre performance where Gwenda has a bizarre and troubling reaction to a scene in the play. Miss Marple hears Gwenda’s story and begins to suspect that there may be something more than hypersensitivity to what Gwenda has experienced in the house. In the end, Miss Marple finds out that there was, indeed, a murder at the Reeds’ home and that Gwenda actually witnessed it. It turns out that some people in Dilmouth have been keeping some ugly truths hidden for a long time.
Family connections are especially important in the Navajo culture and we see this in Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits. In that novel, Navajo Tribal Police officer Jim Chee is on duty one night and in radio connection with his friend and fellow officer Delbert Nez, who is investigating a case of vandalism. Nez is attacked and killed and his car set on fire but Chee can’t get to the scene in time to save his friend. He does however see Ashie Pinto near the scene; Pinto is a local who’s lost himself to alcoholism. When Chee finds Pinto, he notices that Pinto has the murder weapon as well as his ever-present bottle, which would have served well to ignite the car fire. So Chee is convinced Pinto is guilty and Pinto does nothing really to dissuade him. Then, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn gets a visit from Mary Keeyani, a relation of Pinto’s. Keeyani claims that Pinto isn’t guilty and asks for Leaphorn’s help in exonerating him. Leaphorn isn’t happy about it because he believes there’s nothing he can do. But Keeyani and Dr. Louisa Bourbonette, who brought Keeyani to Leaphorn in the first place, convince Leaphorn to ask some questions. He discovers that Chee was the one who arrested Pinto and contacts him. Each in a different way, the two are persuaded to look into the case again and they find that Pinto’s appearance at the murder scene was a cover for something more complicated. One of the interesting things about this novel is that Leaphorn himself is, in a way, connected to Ashie Pinto. At this point in the series Leaphorn is a widower and very much misses his beloved wife Emma. He knows that she was related to Pinto and that’s part of the reason Leaphorn agrees to ask some questions about this case.
In Kerry Greenwood’s Devil’s Food, Melbourne baker Corinna Chapman is unpleasantly surprised one day when she gets a visit from her mother Jacqui, a back-to-nature hippie who calls herself Starshine. Starshine has come because Chapman’s father, who calls himself Sunlight, has disappeared. Chapman and her parents have never been on good terms; in fact, Chapman mentions more than once in this series that she’s very grateful that her grandmother raised her rather than her parents. And from Chapman’s perspective, Sunlight and Starshine have never been accepting of anything about her. From her parents’ perspective Chapman has never made wise decisions and lives a life they see as harmful to the earth. So it’s interesting that Starshine turns to Chapman when she finds herself in crisis. Chapman’s lover, private investigator Daniel Cohen, convinces Chapman that Starshine won’t leave until Chapman agrees to help search for her father so together, Chapman and Cohen begin to look for him.
Roger Smith’s Robert Dell, whom we meet in Dust Devils, has a bad relationship with his father Bobby Goodbread. Goodbread is an aging former pro-apartheid activist who fought against the many social changes brought about by the end of that South African policy. Dell has very much more liberal views. In fact part of the reason for the rift between the two is that Dell’s wife Rosie is non-White. Dell and Goodbread have had almost no contact for years. But then, Dell and his family are ambushed and Rosie and the couple’s two children are killed. Dell is soon arrested for murder and sent to prison with the expectation that he’ll be found guilty. Dell knows he’s being framed, but there seems nothing he can do about it. Goodbread hears about what’s happened and despite the strain between them, he engineers his son’s rescue. Goodbread’s got his own reasons for going after the murderer of Dell’s family and together, father and son leave Cape Town and head for Zululand, the killer’s “home base.” It’s fascinating to see how the family tie between father and son has more power than either one would probably have guessed.
And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Michael “Mickey” Rebus, brother to Rankin’s sleuth Edinburgh Inspector John Rebus. Mickey Rebus is a stage hypnotist and entertainer who has never had a really close relationship with his brother. But in Knots and Crosses, he is able to use his skills to help catch an Edinburgh killer dubbed The Strangler and to solve the mystery of some cryptic notes and clues that his brother John receives. Mickey returns in The Black Book, in which John is involved in two cases. One is “Operation Moneybags,” a sting operation designed to bring down a moneylender associated with local gangster “Big Ger” Cafferty. The other is a mysterious five-year-old fire that took place at the Central Hotel. The “Operation Moneybags” investigation turns up a notebook that has references to this fire so it’s clear, at least to John Rebus, that the two investigations are related. At the beginning of this novel, Mickey Rebus suddenly turns up at his brother’s home after having served some time in prison for drugs dealing. He stays with his brother for a short time during which he gets drawn into the two investigations. It’s hard to say a lot more without giving away spoilers, but suffice it to say that despite the strain between them, the Rebus brothers do end up depending on each other.
Even when family members aren’t the reason a sleuth gets involved in a case, those relationships can still draw the sleuth into what you might call a web. For instance, Camilla Läckberg’s Erica Falck has a sometimes very strained relationship with her younger sister Anna. Anna’s made some extremely unwise choices, especially with regard to her love life and from Erica’s perspective, needs to change her patterns of life. From Anna’s perspective Erica is sometimes meddlesome and likes to order her sister’s life too much. For instance, in The Ice Princess, we learn that Lucas, Anna’s husband and the father of her two children, is an abusive tyrant. Erica tries to convince Anna to leave Lucas and makes it clear how she feels about the man. But it’s not until one particular incident in that novel that Anna actually does anything about it. Anna’s choices in life and her strained relationship with her sister are regular sources of concern to Erica in this series. But the two sisters do depend on each other and when Anna needs a place to stay, she knows Erica won’t turn her away.
Peg Brantley’s Red Tide also depicts strained but vital family relationships. Jamie Taylor is a Colorado bank loan professional and volunteer rescue dog handler. Her sister Jacqueline “Jax” is a medical examiner. Their lives were shattered ten years ago when their mother Star was murdered. Since that time, their father Bryce has nearly disappeared from their lives; he’s been on a mission to find Star’s killer. Jamie and Jax were devastated by their mother’s murder, so they understand why Bryce has left. But that doesn’t mean they don’t resent him for it too. There’s also strain between the sisters because Jax’s husband Phil is a gambler and a philanderer whom Jamie heartily dislikes. Jax wants to keep the marriage together despite knowing that Phil is not faithful and is quite willing to take all of her money to pay for his “entertainment” and his debts. Then, Jamie and her rescue dog Gretchen are called to a remote field where they find several murder victims from ten years earlier. When it turns out that there are also recent murder victims there, the case becomes more complex and it’s clear that someone is still committing murder. Jamie and Jax are drawn into the case and as they get closer to the truth, they find out they need to depend on each other – and on Bryce – a lot more than they’d imagined.
And that’s the thing about family members. We may love them, despise them, delight in them or avoid them. But they are often the people we turn to and who turn to us when there’s a crisis. There are a lot of examples of that phenomenon in crime fiction – many, many more than I have space for in this one post. And when it’s done well, it can add to a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Family Song.