Category Archives: Peg Brantley

It’s The Colorado Rocky Mountain High*

DenverIt’s called the Mile High City, among other things, because of its location above sea level. It’s full of history, beautiful scenery, sport and some excellent food and locally brewed beer. Oh, and there are great people too. Yes, I’m talking about Denver. Originally, Denver was a mining town during the Pike’s Peak gold rush of the mid-1850s (hence the name of Denver’s basketball team, the Nuggets). But it’s much more than that. Colorado is also the home of several Native American Nations, including the Arapaho and the Ute. And there’s a heavy influence from the state’s ranching history too. All of this makes Denver a really interesting Western US city located in one of the country’s most breathtaking places, the US Rocky Mountains.

Denver can also be dangerous. What? You don’t believe me? Well it is. It’s the setting for some fine crime fiction. I only have space for a few examples here, but they ought to serve to give you a sense of what I mean.

Michael Connelly’s The Poet features reporter Jack McEvoy of the Rocky Mountain News. As a crime reporter, he’s seen his share of death in all of its ugly forms. But then he learns that his twin brother Sean, a cop with the Denver Police Department, has committed suicide. McEvoy didn’t even know his brother was that fragile mentally, but it’s not so surprising considering the last case Sean was working on before his death: the very brutal murder of university student Theresa Lofton. The case generated a lot of publicity and has been very difficult for all of the police involved, especially since they haven’t been able to solve it. But there are little clues, including a message that Sean left behind, that suggest his death was not suicide. So his brother looks into the case more deeply and finds that a dangerous killer has been at work.

Stephen White’s psychological thriller series ‘stars’ Dr. Alan Gregory. Gregory is a clinical psychologist based in Boulder, Colorado, which is about 30 miles/48 km from Denver. His partner, later his wife, is Deputy District Attorney Lauren Crowder. The twenty-book series is mostly based in the Denver/Boulder area, but occasionally Gregory travels in the course of his work. Many of the plots have to do with Gregory’s clients, although some are related to his wife’s work. Some are also connected with his past. For instance, Manner of Death begins with the death of a former colleague Arnie Dresser. When Gregory is asked to help find out whether Dresser was murdered, he discovers that someone seems to be targeting the group of people who were in his own psychiatry preparation program. Now he’ll have to work with another former colleague Dr. Sawyer Sackett to find out who the killer is.

C.J. Box is perhaps best known for his Joe Pickett series, which takes place in Wyoming. But his standalone Three Weeks to Say Goodbye is set in Denver. Jack McGuane and his wife Melissa are the loving parents of beautiful baby Angelina. Everything changes though when it comes out that Angelina’s biological father Garrett Moreland never relinquished his parental rights. Now he wants to exercise them. As you can imagine, the McGuanes refuse to give up their daughter. When Garrett’s powerful father Judge John Moreland hears of this, he and Garrett visit the McGuanes to try to persuade them, and then bribe them, to change their minds. They refuse again and Moreland strikes back. He issues a court order directing them to surrender Angelina to the court within twenty-one days. Now the McGuanes have a terrible choice. They decide to do whatever it takes to keep their daughter. And as the story goes on, we see what a terrible price ‘whatever it takes’ exacts.

Peg Brantley’s Red Tide is the story of Jamie Taylor, a Colorado bank loan professional who also volunteers as a rescue dog trainer. When a convicted killer tells the FBI where he buried his victims, Taylor and her dogs are sent to the scene to try to find the bodies. They’re successful, but they also make another eerie discovery: there are bodies there that this killer could not have buried. Now Taylor gets involved in the search for the person who used the same remote field as a burial ground. As an interesting note, the climactic scenes in this case take place near Denver’s Mile High Stadium during a US football game featuring the Denver Broncos.

Colorado is also the home of a very active and creative crime fiction community including Patricia Stoltey and Beth Groundwater, among many others. I encourage you to check out Patricia Stoltey’s terrific blog for all the latest in Colorado authors’ news (Psst….her novel Dead Wrong will be coming out soon!!). You can also visit the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers website and catch up on Colorado fiction.

So, in case you didn’t already know this, you can see that Denver may be gorgeous, but you may just want to look out….just to be sure…

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Denver’s Rocky Mountain High.


Filed under Beth Groundwater, C.J. Box, Michael Connelly, Patricia Stoltey, Peg Brantley, Stephen White

Babe, You Know You’re Growing Up So Fast*

Adult SiblingsAn interesting comment exchange with Tracy at Bitter Tea and Mystery has got me thinking about some of the really interesting relationships we have: those with our adult siblings. Oh, not following Tracy’s blog yet? Please check it out. You won’t regret it; it’s a fine source of thoughtful crime fiction reviews among other things. Go ‘head; see for yourself.

Siblings know us in ways very few other people do. They may have different personalities, different outlooks and so on but they share common experiences. In fact, our relationships with our siblings are very often the longest-term relationships we have. And what’s really interesting (and this is what Tracy mentioned that got me to thinking) is what happens when siblings grow up. Adult siblings’ relationships are deeply affected by childhood experiences; if you have siblings you know what I mean. It can take a real effort of will to see one another with adult eyes, so to speak. Siblings’ relationships can be very complicated too. Some people are close to their adult siblings; others avoid them. But siblings are part of the human experience and they’re a rich source of plot points and characters when it comes to crime fiction. In fact, there are so many good examples that this one post won’t even come close to touching on all of them. But here are just a few to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we meet Charles and Theresa Arundell. Neither of them is particularly good at managing money and both of them are fond of having it. So when their wealthy Aunt Emily dies, they’re desperate for their shares of her fortune. But Emily Arundell has left all of her money to her companion Wilhelmina ‘Minnie’ Lawson. Before she died, Miss Arundell wrote to Hercule Poirot asking his help in a delicate matter which she never specified. By the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing to investigate though, Miss Arundell has already been dead for two months. That doesn’t stop Poirot; he discovers that Miss Arundell didn’t die naturally as had been assumed. Charles and Theresa Arundell are among the most likely suspects and as Poirot interviews them, we see how these siblings support each other while at the same time being quite aware of each other’s weaknesses.  

There’s an interesting look at adult sibling relationships in Dorothy Sayers’ Clouds of Witness. Lord Peter Wimsey’s sister Mary is engaged to be married to Denis Cathcart. When he is murdered, Wimsey’s older brother Gerald, Duke of Denver, is charged with the crime. Wimsey investigates, partly because he is interested in criminal investigation but mostly because his brother is in trouble. He discovers that more than one person had a motive to kill the duke. In the course of this novel Mary meets Wimsey’s friend Inspector Charles Parker and the two develop a relationship. And in Strong Poison we learn that they plan to marry. It’s interesting to see how Mary Wimsey’s brothers react to this relationship. On the one hand they’re as protective of her as though they were all still children. On the other, Peter Wimsey knows that Mary is now an adult who will make her own choices in life. It’s an interesting thread that runs through those novels.

There’s a really interesting look at how complex sibling relationships can be in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. Brothers Mason and Gates Hunt are the sons of an abusive alcoholic and that affects them deeply. Gates, the older son, tries to protect his younger brother as best he can. Mason feels strongly the debt he owes to his brother and that has a very important role to play in what follows later. Gates has quite a lot of athletic ability but he squanders all of the opportunities that brings him and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare money and on money he gets from his mother Sadie Grace. Mason on the other hand takes advantage of every opportunity he gets. He gets a scholarship to law school and ends up becoming an attorney. Then one night Gates and Mason are coming home from a night out when they encounter Wayne Thompson, who is Gates’ romantic rival. An argument they had earlier flares up again and before anyone really knows what’s happened Gates has shot Thompson. Mason feels the burden of debt to his brother so he helps Gates cover up the crime. Life goes on for the brothers and the crime is never officially solved. Mason Hunt becomes a prosecutor for the Commonwealth of Virginia while his brother turns to drug dealing. Then Gates is arrested for and convicted of cocaine trafficking. He begs his brother to help him get out of prison but this time Mason refuses. Then Gates threatens that if Mason doesn’t help him, he’ll claim that Mason shot Wayne Thompson. When Mason calls his bluff Gates does as he’s threatened. Now Mason is indicted for murder and he’ll have to figure out how to clear his name.

And then there’s Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon, a National Park Service Ranger. She’s been assigned to several different areas of the country, and she’s seen all sorts of both beauty and horror. But always in her life is her sister Molly. Molly is a New York City-based psychotherapist who tries her best to be there for her sister. Anna treasures their relationship but that doesn’t mean either is blind to the other’s faults. Anna for instance doesn’t like the fact that Molly is a smoker. Molly gets infuriated because she feels Anna puts herself in far too much danger. Underneath their differences though the two really do love and depend on each other.

One of the things that can add to already-complex sibling relationships is the resentment adult siblings can feel about long-ago incidents. You could call it a form of sibling rivalry. There are a lot of novels where one sibling seems to ‘have it all’ and the other feels left behind and that resentment has consequences. Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood explores that theme on several levels. In that novel, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team look into the twenty-year-old disappearance of Callum Payne when his sister Orla apparently commits suicide. She’d begged Scarlett to look into the case, but Scarlett didn’t do much about it at first as Orla Payne was drunk and incoherent when she first made the request. It’s partly Scarlett’s feelings of guilt and partly her professional sense of responsibility that lead Scarlett to pursue both the disappearance and the circumstances of Orla Payne’s death. It turns out that much of what happens in this novel is tied in with the complex relationships between siblings, and the way that can lead to resentment.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch and his half-brother Mickey Haller have a very interesting relationship. For several reasons they didn’t really know each other for much of their lives. Now that they’ve established contact and a relationship, they work together on cases in several novels. And that makes sense as Bosch is a cop and Haller is an attorney. They didn’t grow up together though, so one thing that’s interesting in the novels featuring them is that although they’re biologically brothers, they’ve had to establish a relationship beginning in adulthood. It casts quite a different light on the sibling dynamic and it adds a solid thread to the series.

In Peg Brantley’s Red Tide we meet Jamie Taylor, a bank loan officer and volunteer rescue dog handler. She gets involved in a case of multiple murders when her dog Gretchen discovers a series of recently-buried bodies in a remote field near Aspen Falls, Colorado. Jamie’s sister Jacqueline ‘Jax’ is a local medical examiner who’s called in when the bodies are discovered. As the two interact we learn about their past. Their mother Star was murdered ten years earlier and their father Bryce has basically disappeared from their lives as he’s tried to search for the truth about his wife’s death. One the one hand, the two sisters work closely together as they unravel the mystery of how the victims in the field died and who killed them. When they discover the truth they find themselves in grave danger and have to work even more closely together to face that danger and bring the killer to justice. On the other hand, this doesn’t mean the sisters have no issues between them. Jamie is unhappy with the way her sister has managed her personal life; Jax is married to an abusive philanderer and so far, hasn’t left him. Jax doesn’t like the idea of her sister ‘managing her life.’ It’s an engaging portrait of an adult sibling relationship.

And there are many others, too (I know, I know, fans of Camilla Läckberg’s Ericka Falck and her sister Anna). Space doesn’t permit me to mention them all. But if you have a sibling I probably don’t have to anyway. You already know about life with adult siblings.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Night Ranger’s Sister Christian. Why’d I choose this one? It was written for and about drummer Kelly Keagy’s younger sister Christy.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Dorothy Sayers, Martin Clark, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly, Nevada Barr, Peg Brantley

Lean on Me When You’re Not Strong*

Millions of people volunteer their time and energy to help those in need. And the best kinds of volunteers are the ones who don’t make a big fuss about it. They see a need and without judging or asking anything in return, they try to meet that need. I won’t go on and on about the different causes for which they work. There is far too long a list of urgent needs out there for me to do that. Suffice it to say though that volunteers have a huge impact. Certainly they do in real life; I’ll bet you volunteer yourself and if you do, you know what a difference the work you do makes. That’s why you do it. There are many, many volunteer and volunteer groups in crime fiction too.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles for example, Captain Hastings is recovering from a wartime injury. He accepts an invitation to visit an old friend John Cavendish while he heals up, and is looking forward to a pleasant stay. Instead, Hastings is drawn into a case of murder when Cavendish’s stepmother Emily Inglethorp is poisoned. By chance Hastings discovers that another old friend Hercule Poirot is staying in the nearby village and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees, not least because Emily Inglethorp was his benefactor.  As the novel goes along we learn that several members of the family do their share of volunteering, mostly in aid of the war effort. Cavendish, for instance drills with the local volunteer militia. His wife Mary volunteers as what would later be known as a Land Girl. And Emily Inglethorp plays quite a key role in all sorts of local charity groups. Although this fact of their lives isn’t the motive for the murder, it’s an interesting perspective on their lives.

Deborah Crombie’s In a Dark House introduces us to Helping Hands, a group dedicated to helping abused women and their children find safe places to go and make plans for their lives once they get there. One night, a warehouse fire in Southwark is reported by a resident at Helping Hands, and Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and his lover DI Gemma James go to the shelter to interview the person who called in the fire.  There they meet Kath Warren, the director. What makes this fire of special interest is that the body of an unidentified woman was found in the remains. It seems that the shelter may be more than casually related when it turns out that Laura Novak, a member of its board of directors, has disappeared and could be the fire victim. There are three other equally strong possibilities though and Kincaid and James investigate all of them as they work to figure out who set the fire and who the dead woman is. I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that the Helping Hands group didn’t engineer the fire or Novak’s disappearance. But we do get some interesting insight into the workings of a volunteer group, its leadership and the way such groups are viewed.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman volunteers with the Melbourne Soup Run, a mobile soup kitchen that serves Melbourne’s street people. She’s a baker so she provides bread; she also takes her turn going on the run with other volunteers who travel from one part of the city to another. At each stop the Soup Run gives out coffee and tea, food, some medicines and other supplies like blankets and clothes. Chapman is quite matter-of-fact about her volunteer work. She doesn’t talk much about it; she just rolls up her sleeves as the saying goes and does what needs to be done. The Soup Run is overseen by the indefatigable Sister Mary, one of Melbourne’s strongest advocates for those in need. Sister Mary has a remarkable skill at getting people to part with their time, their money, their donations, their official permission, whatever is necessary to get the job done. And she’s one of the few people Chapman co-operates with nearly automatically. The Soup Run proves useful to Chapman too, in a few mysteries. For instance, in Devil’s Food, Chapman’s father seems to have disappeared. Through the Soup Run she makes contact with other Melbourne volunteer groups and services and is able to find out what happened to him. The Soup Run is also a source of clues in Earthy Delights, in which she helps to solve the mystery of a series of junkie overdose deaths.

In Peg Brantley’s Red Tide we meet volunteer guide dog handler Jamie Taylor. By day she’s a Colorado bank loan professional. She also trains and handles Gretchen, Socrates ‘Socks’ and McKenzie, who are search-and-rescue dogs. When the need arises Taylor and her dogs go on search and rescue missions. That’s how they get involved in an eerie discovery. Convicted serial killer Leopold Bonzer has told the FBI where he buried his victims and Taylor and her dogs are sent to that remote field. They find the bodies but they also find bodies that Bonzer could not have buried there. Now it looks as though a ‘copycat killer’ is using the same field. Each in a different way, Taylor, her sister Jacqueline ‘Jax’ and FBI Agent Nick Grant investigate to find out who this new killer is and how that relates to a tragedy in Taylor’s own past. Among other things, this is an interesting look at the way search-and-rescue operations are carried out and how dogs are used in the process.

And then there’s Nina Borg, whom we first meet in Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis’ The Boy in the Suitcase. Nina is a nurse at Ellen’s Place, a shelter and service provider for refugees. She’s also volunteered in several different world ‘danger zones’ and takes her work in service to others very seriously. But one day she gets a very unusual case. Her friend Karin asks her to go to the Copenhagen train station and pick up a suitcase. She does so only to discover that it contains a little boy. He’s dazed and drugged, but he is alive. So she tries as best she can to find out who he is. Her first call is to Karin, but Karen seems to have disappeared. Now Nina has to find out for herself who the boy is and get him to safety. In doing so she finds herself up against some ruthless people who want that child. Meanwhile, we meet Sigita Ramoskiene, the Lithuanian mother of three-year-old Mikas, who has been abducted. As she frantically searches for her son, we learn that he is the child Nina found. Each in her own way the two women work to find out why Mikas was abducted and return him safely.

Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer features Catherine Monsigny, who’s recently become an attorney. She has a full-time job at the law office of Maître Renaud, but she also volunteers her time to an association that works with undocumented immigrants who get into legal trouble. Her purpose in doing the volunteer work is mostly to get experience. That’s how she learns of the case of Myriam Villetreix, originally from Gabon, who’s been arrested and charged with the murder of her wealthy husband Gaston. The case has been getting a lot of media attention and if Catherine gets her boss’ permission to defend Myriam, it could launch her career. She gets that permission and begins to look into the case only to find that it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface. There is evidence against her client and there is motive. What’s more, this trial takes place not far from where Catherine’s mother was murdered when she was a tiny child. No-one was ever arrested for the crime and the memory of that day has haunted her since then. Being in the area spurs Catherine to try to find out who killed her mother while she is also searching for the truth about the murder of Gaston Villetreix.

There are of course many other crime fiction novels that feature volunteers, and quite frankly, I’m glad they get ‘air time.’ It’s easy enough to click a link and donate money. It’s not so easy to give up your time and your mental and physical energy. But volunteers do it all the time in a million different ways, and without going on about it. They deserve our respect and gratitude. Mostly, they deserve to have us join their company.




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bill Withers’ Lean on Me.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Agnete Friis, Deborah Crombie, Kerry Greenwood, Lene Kaaberbøl, Peg Brantley, Sylvie Granotier

Armed With the Faith and the Will That Even the Darkest Ages Couldn’t Kill*

In yesterday’s post I mentioned just a few of the technological and other developments we owe to careful scientific research. Without rigourous and painstaking research we wouldn’t have even basics such as electric lights, let alone anything as complex as digital imaging and the geodosic dome. Who are the people who conduct this research? Quite often one doesn’t learn their names unless they win a Nobel prize (and sometimes, let’s face it, not even then). But even those who are more or less anonymous have been the driving force behind many of the things we take for granted. Whether they work in laboratories or in the field, scientists inform our knowledge. That’s one reason it’s refreshing to see them portrayed sympathetically in crime fiction. Oh, and you’ll notice in this post that I am not going to mention the many medical doctors, forensic specialists or computer scientists who play roles in the genre. That’d be too easy. 😉

Two scientists prove to be very important to making a case in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel Elinor Carlisle is charged with the poisoning death of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at the family home of Hunterbury. There’s plenty of evidence against Elinor too and she had at least two motives. For one thing there’s a question of inheritance. Elinor stands to inherit a great deal of money when her wealthy Aunt Laura dies, but Aunt Laura became quite fond of Mary and it was likely she’d leave a considerable amount of money to her instead of to Elinor. There’s also the fact that Elinor’s intended Roderick “Roddy” Welman has become infatuated with Mary. In fact, he and Elinor break up their engagement over the matter. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord is convinced that Elinor is innocent. And even if she’s guilty he wants her name cleared. So he appeals to Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the matter closely. He finds out who really killed Mary Gerrard and why but of course it requires more than just Poirot’s say-so to win a court case. In the end, testimony from a botanist and a chemist provide the evidence that solves the mystery.

Isaac Asimov’s stories frequently feature scientists as protagonists and/or major characters. I’ll just give one example. In his short story The Dying Night, three scientists Edward Talliaferro, Stanley Kaunas and Battersley Ryger meet at an astronomy conference after not having seen each other for some years. All of them carry a burden because they’ve been far more successful than the fourth member of their group of friends Romero Villers. Villiers’ health made it impossible for him to leave Earth as the other scientists did and build a reputation as a leading astronomer as his friends did. What makes matters even more awkward is that Villiers claims to have made a breakthrough discovery, and plans to present his findings at this conference. His former friends aren’t convinced he’s made the breakthrough he claims to have made and there’s bitterness on both sides. On the night before his scheduled presentation Villiers is killed and critical files relating to his research and discovery have disappeared. Rather than call in the police it’s decided to consult Dr. Wendell Urth, a noted expert on conditions on other planets. He’s also got an unofficial relationship with the police and has been of assistance to them before. He agrees to listen to each scientist’s account of the night of the murder, and from that information he’s able to deduce who the murderer is. And what’s fascinating about this story is that Urth solves the case through his knowledge of the atmosphere and other information about other planets.

Sarah Andrews, herself a geologist, has created a series that features forensic geologist Em Hansen. Hansen is originally from Wyoming and in Tensleep, the first in this series, she’s landed a job as a mudlogger for an oil company. Her job is to collect and analyze mud samples but her work’s complicated by the fact that a lot of her male colleagues don’t think that an oil drilling outfit is the right place for a woman. Then her mentor Bill Kretzmer is killed in what looks at first like a car accident. Everyone thinks Kretzmer’s death is accidental but then another co-worker Willie Sewell is killed, apparently crushed by horses. Hansen doesn’t believe the theory of accident and begins to investigate. As the series moves on, Hansen slowly moves up the ladder, so to speak, even taking a position with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

In Marilyn Victor’s and Michael Allan Mallory’s Killer Instinct, we meet Lavender “Snake” Jones, zookeeper and documentary host. Jones decides to feature the Minnesota Wolf Institute (MWI) for her show Zoofari. Her friend Gina Brown, a wolf biologist with the MWI, is eager both to spend time with Jones and to have her beloved wolves featured on Zoofari; she’s hoping that a better understanding of wolves will mean fewer people hunting them and needlessly fearing them. Then Brown gets into a conflict with anti-wolf leader Ivar Bjorkland. When Bjorkland is murdered, Brown is suspected of killing him. Even Jones wonders whether her friend might be guilty. But then there are other murders. Jones discovers who’s responsible but she’ll have to stop the killer if she’s to stay alive herself.

There’s also an interesting example of scientists being critical to solving murders in Peg Brantley’s Red Tide. In that novel, banker and rescue dog handler Jamie Taylor is called to a remote field near Aspen Falls, Colorado. There Taylor and her dog along with police authorities discover a set of long-buried remains that are the work of a killer who’s died recently. But when recent remains are also found, it’s clear that another killer is using the same area. The police can’t really make headway on the case because Jamie’s sister ME Jacqueline “Jax” Taylor can’t establish clearly what the cause of death is. That’s when veterinarian Scott Ortiz comes in handy. He’s noticed some unexplained deaths among local horses and does special experiments to find out what the cause of death is. His studies reveal the cause of death among the horses and gives Jax Taylor valuable information in her own search for answers.

And of course no post on scientists in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Theodore Horstmann, the botany expert who works with Nero Wolfe to raise and tend Wolfe’s beloved orchids.

See what I mean? Scientists are valuable folks. Despite the stereotypes you might have heard about “mad scientists” or cold and unfeeling “eggheads,” scientists are interesting and generally very good people. They’re also extremely informative and useful when it comes to crime-solving. Want some more ideas? Check out this post on science in crime fiction from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, an excellent blog you should be following if you’re not already. Seriously.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Two Thousand Years.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Marilyn Victor, Michael Allan Mallory, Peg Brantley, Rex Stout

There’s Such a Distance Between You and Your Family*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Camilla Läckberg, Ian Rankin, Kerry Greenwood, Peg Brantley, Roger Smith, Tony Hillerman