Most of us, I’d guess, have some relationships that we maintain out of duty, rather than out of a deep attachment to a person. We may visit relatives we aren’t really connected to, but know we should visit. Or, we send Christmas cards and presents to cousins or other family members we don’t even really know. It doesn’t mean we dislike those people; it’s just that the bond we have is more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.
There are plenty of those relationships in real life, and they’re there in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, they provide solid contexts or plot points. They can also provide character development, minor characters, and even suspects in whodunits.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence asks Hercule Poirot’s help in solving the murder of a charwoman. All of the evidence points to her lodger, James Bentley. In fact, he’s been convicted, and is due to be executed. But Spence has come to believe that he may be innocent. Poirot agrees to look into the matter, and travels to the village of Broadhinny to investigate. One of the people he meets is Mrs. McGinty’s niece, Bessie Burch, who lives with her husband, Joe, in a nearby village. On the one hand, the Burches do inherit a little money by the terms of the victim’s will. So, one could consider them suspects. On the other hand,
‘It had been a family tie, honoured as such, but without intimacy.’
And neither Bessie nor Joe is so desperate for money as to be willing to kill for it. Bessie and her husband remain ‘people of interest,’ but their relationship with Bessie’s aunt was much more because of ‘family duty,’ than anything else.
In one plot thread of Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn gets a visit from a woman named Mary Keeyani. He doesn’t know her, but she is a member of the same Navajo Nation clan as his now-deceased wife, Emma was. That alone makes her a relative. So, Leaphorn feels an obligation to listen to what she has to say. A similar sense of duty has motivated the visit for Mary. One of her kinsmen, Ashie Pinto, has been arrested for murdering Delbert Nez, a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. She claims that Pinto isn’t guilty, that he wouldn’t do such a thing. Leaphorn understands all too well that she might be saying that out of a sense of obligation. But his own sense of duty drives him to agree to look into the matter. It turns out that Pinto has been framed for murder, and Leaphorn works with Sergeant Jim Chee to find out who really killed Nez.
Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice introduces Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. In this novel, he’s recently moved back to the small, far-north town of Chukchi, where he was born (he grew up in Anchorage). He is Inupiaq, but was raised in a white adoptive home, so he’s not tightly connected to his people’s culture. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t respect it. In one plot thread, he meets Clara Stone, who is a relative of Active’s biological mother; she is therefore, related to him. She tells Active that her husband, Aaron, went on a hunting trip and hasn’t returned. She’s convinced that something has happened to him, and wants Active to search for him. Active is reluctant, but she is a relative, and even though he doesn’t know her, he feels a sense of duty. So, he gets a bush pilot to take him out to where Aaron Stone would likely be camped. There, they find Stone’s body. It looks at first as though he’s committed suicide, but soon enough, it’s identified as a case of murder. And it turns out that this murder is related to another that Active is investigating.
Much of the action in Steph Avery’s Our Trespasses takes place in 1966 South East London. Teenage sisters Madeline ‘Midge’ and Bridget ‘Bridie’ Dolan want very much to be a part of the music and fashion scene of the times. So, they beg their mother to let them go dancing at the Palais Royale. Finally, after some persuasion, she agrees. Her only condition is that their cousin Jimmy take them to the dance and bring them back later. Midge and Bridie don’t mind, as they consider Jimmy to be ‘cool.’ Jimmy’s got, as the saying goes, other fish to fry. But he does feel a sense of obligation to his aunt and cousins. And, even though he doesn’t really have a close bond with Midge and Bridie, he agrees to take them and make sure they get home safely. What happens at the Palais Royale that night changes everything, and has repercussions that last for the rest of the girls’ lives. It’s even related to a murder that happens decades later…
Of course, a ‘duty relationship’ doesn’t have to be familial. For instance, in Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty at Australia’s University of Drummond are scheduled to play host to a very distinguished guest. Oxford Professor Belville-Smith is doing a lecture tour of Australia, and will be visiting Drummond to do a series of lectures. Belleville-Smith is insufferable, condescending, and, quite frankly, a boring lecturer. But out of a sense of duty, everyone starts out by trying to make him welcome. Things fall apart, though, and it’s soon clear that this visit is a disaster. Then, on the morning after a ‘greet the guest’ party, Bellville-Smith is found murdered in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before. But he’s going to have to look into this one. And it turns out that this murder has to do with something from the past.
I’d guess we all have those ‘duty’ relationships. They have their benefits and drawbacks, but they’re woven into our lives whether we like them or not. And they’re woven into crime fiction, too.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Great Suburban Showdown.