Today’s technology has meant that it’s possible to communicate with nearly anyone, nearly anywhere. But it wasn’t so long ago that families could be very insular, having little contact with anyone who wasn’t a member of the family. Even with modern communication, there are still some families that keep to themselves.
Everyone needs a different amount of social contact, but most experts agree that it’s important for mental health to have some outside contact. Families that are too turned in on themselves can become dysfunctional. And that can have all sorts of consequences. Certainly, it can in crime fiction.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, is tyrannical and malicious. In fact, she has her family so much under her thumb that no-one dares to refuse her even the slightest request. Her three stepchildren, Lennox, Carol, and Raymond, and her daughter, Ginevra ‘Jinny,’ have very little experience outside the family property, and don’t interact comfortably with others. So, when the family takes a sightseeing trip to the Middle East, they’re not sure exactly how to behave. The family decides to include a visit to Petra in their itinerary; while they’re there, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. On the surface, it looks as though her death was natural. She wasn’t in good health, the trip was physically taxing, and the climate is very warm. But Colonel Carbury isn’t satisfied. So, he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot soon learns that a number of people had very good reasons to want Mrs. Boynton dead. As he interviews the various family members, we see how being a part of a secluded, insular family has impacted each of them.
As Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell tells the story of the Cosway family in The Minotaur. This family keeps very private and insular, and matriarch Mrs. Cosway would like to keep it that way. But her son, 39-year-old John Cosway, has been diagnosed with schizophrenia. So, the family hires a full-time nurse, Kerstin Kvist, to care for him. She is happy to take the position, as it will allow her to be closer to her lover. At first, things seem to go well enough, although Kvist finds the family to be a little strange. But she soon learns that her patient is kept heavily medicated at his mother’s request. In Kvist’s professional opinion, he doesn’t need that medication. So, without telling anyone, she withholds the drugs he’s been taking. Her decision turns out to have tragic consequences for more than one character. Throughout the novel, we see how insular this family is, and how that’s affected the members.
The Blackwood family, whom we meet in Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is also extremely insular. Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood lives with her older sister, Constance, and their Uncle Julian on a Vermont estate. It’s soon clear that they are not welcome in the nearby village, and gradually, we learn why. Six years earlier, three other members of the family were poisoned, and everyone is convinced that one of the Blackwoods is a murderer. Still, although they’re isolated, the Blackwoods have made a sort of life for themselves. Then, the outside world intrudes. A family cousin, Charles Blackwell, comes for a visit. That event touches off a series of other events that end in real tragedy.
Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is, in part, the story of the wealthy and very insular Vanger family. Almost forty years ago, Harriet Vanger went missing, and was presumed dead. But for the past few years, her great-uncle, Henrik Vanger, has been receiving gifts of dried flowers, just as she used to send him for his birthday. He wants to know the truth about what happened to her, so he hires journalist Mikael Blomqvist to find out. Blomqvist is highly motivated to agree to investigate, because his magazine, Millennium, is in serious financial trouble. Together with his research assistant, Lisbeth Salander, Blomqvist looks into the Vanger family’s past. And he finds out the truth about Harriet Vanger.
And then there’s Peter Robinson’s A Strange Affair. In one plot thread of this novel, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Alan Banks gets a telephone message from his younger brother, Roy, who lives in London. The message says that Roy needs his brother’s help, and that it may be a matter of life and death. Banks is going through his own problems, but he musters up the energy to go to London. When he gets there, he finds that Roy is missing. Eventually, he discovers that this case has a link to a case that Inspector Annie Cabott, his teammate and former lover, is investigating. As the novel goes on, we see that the Banks family is, in its own way, quite insular. And the family history has played its role in the relationship between the Banks brothers.
Some families are like that. The members turn inward rather than outward, and keep to themselves. Sometimes, that’s not necessarily a problem. But sometimes, especially in crime fiction, it can spell disaster.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Inverso.