I’m Sure I Heard His Echo in My Baby’s Newborn Tears*

People who don’t live in extended family units might not think about it very much, but each generation of a family impacts the others. Each generation sees things a little differently, but the generations are linked in important ways. It’s interesting to see how those links are explored in crime fiction, and it makes sense that they would be. There are all sorts of possibilities for plots and character development, as well as motives for crime. And stories that link the generations can be interesting psychologically, too.

Agatha Christie wrote more than one story that explored generations and their links. One of them is Crooked House, which features the Leonides family. Patriarch Aristide Leonides lives with two other generations of his family in a house called Three Gables. Charles Hayward gets involved with the family when he falls in love with Leonides’ granddaughter Sophia. Then, Aristide Leonides suddenly dies of poison. Sophia doesn’t feel comfortable getting married before her grandfather’s murder is solved, so Charles is motivated to find out the truth about it. As he gets to know the various members of the family, we see how the generations are linked, as well as how they differ. It’s an interesting, if not flattering, portrayal of a family.

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police (now, the Navajo Nation Police) gets a new case. Sixteen-year-old Margaret Billy Sosi has gone missing from the residential school she attends. Chee is also investigating the murder of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who recently moved to the Big Reservation. As it turns out, Gorman’s body was discovered on the property of Margaret’s grandfather, Ashie Begay, who is missing. The trail for all of this leads to Los Angeles, where Chee finds Margaret – until she disappears again. As he searches for her (and for the truth about Albert Gorman), Chee encounters an old woman, Bentwoman, and her daughter, Bentwoman’s Daughter, who are kin to both Begay and Gorman. It’s a complicated network of generational links, and Chee finds that he needs to untangle that network if he’s to find Margaret and solve the murder.

Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands introduces twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives with his younger brother, Davey, his mother, Lettie, and his grandmother, Gloria in a small house in the Exmoor town of Shipcott. It’s a working-class family that, on the surface, looks a lot like other working-class families. But it’s not. Years ago, Steven’s Uncle Billy (Gloria’s son and Lettie’s brother) went missing and never returned. Not even a body was discovered. The incident has haunted all three generations of this family in different ways. Steven knows the whole thing has cast a dark shadow over his family, and he wants to lay the ghosts to rest. It’s always been believed that Billy was abducted and killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’s currently in prison for another child murder. Steven believes that if he can get Avery to tell him where Billy is (or at least, where he is buried), he can help heal his family. So, he writes to Avery. Avery responds, and the two are soon engaged in a dangerous game of ‘cat and mouse.’ Among other things, this novel shows how things from one generation can be reflected in (or reflections of) another.

We also see that in Cathy Ace’s The Wrong Boy. That’s the story of three generations of the Jones family, owners of the Dragon’s Head pub in the Welsh town of Rhosddraig. There’s Nan, her daughter Helen (who now does most of the work at the pub) and Helen’s teenage daughter Sadie, who helps out in the pub. The lives of these women are upended when a set of human remains is discovered under a pile of rocks. Detective Inspector (DI) Evan Glover is about to retire, but he’s curious about the discovery, and stays on to investigate. He finds that this is one of those towns with a long history and a long memory. And the story of the Jones family is woven into the town’s history. Interestingly, Ace tells this story through alternating viewpoints, so that we get to see Sadie’s, Helen’s, and Nan’s perspectives.

There are also different generational perspectives shared in Doug Johnstone’s A Dark Matter. The Skelf family has owned a funeral home for years. With the owner, Jim Skelf, recently dead, his widow, Dorothy, takes over owning the business. Working with her is her recently-divorced daughter, Jenny, and Jenny’s daughter, Hannah. The Skelfs also own a private investigation business. The funeral business and the investigation business soon prove to be challenging when Dorothy discovers mysterious monthly payments that Jim made for years. At the same time, Jenny is hired to find evidence that her client’s husband was unfaithful, and Hannah is distressed because her friend Mel has gone missing. All three generations of Skelfs put their skills to work as they try to solve these cases at the same time as they’re trying to keep their lives (and the funeral business) going. In some ways, they’re three very different women, and they have different ways of going about their lives. But in other ways, they have much in common. Among other things, the book discuses the links among generations.

Those links impact each generation differently, but they’re there. They can make for really interesting character studies as well as solid plot lines, when they’re done well. Which generational stories have stayed with you?

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from B.A. Robertson and Mike Rutherford’s The Living Years.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

10 thoughts on “I’m Sure I Heard His Echo in My Baby’s Newborn Tears*

  1. I’m ashamed to admit how long Blacklands has been lingering unread on my TBR! Crooked House, though, is one I’ve read multiple times – the young girl in it is such a fascinating character, and I agree, it’s an excellent picture of a multi-generation household run by an overbearing patriarch. Sometimes some people just deserve to be murdered… 😉

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    1. Ha! Leonides certainly isn’t a caring, loving kind of a guy, is he, FictionFan? And I agree with you that Christie included some interesting characters in Crooked House. It is a really strong portrait of a multi-generational family, I think. As to Blacklands, I hope you’ll get to it at some point. It’s not an easy novel to read, but I think it’s very well-done, and paints a solid portrait of life on the moors. I’ll be keen to know what you think of it when/if you get to it.

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  2. Hello, Margot! With the exception of Christie, I have not read any of the other authors. As for “generational stories,” I read Colleen McCullough’s THE THORN BIRDS many, many years ago, as also some of Howard Fast’s Lavette Family Series, particularly the first three, THE IMMIGRANTS, SECOND GENERATION and THE ESTABLISHMENT. Fast was a terrific storyteller.

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    1. Hello, Prashant! It’s great to see you here! And thanks for mentioning The Thorn Birds. I loved that book as a young girl. And I haven’t thought of Howard Fast in a very long time – I ought to pick up some of his work again. I’m glad of the reminder.

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  3. Just finished Gail Bowen’s latest book. Joanne Shreeve (Kilbourn). Her family, who are all characters in the book have extended to a husband, 4 children, 3 spouses or partners of children and 4 grandchildren. I think it might be confusing if you picked up the series at this point rather than starting earlier and watching the family grow.

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    1. Oh, I just saw your review of The Unlocking Season up on your blog, Bill! I couldn’t agree more that this is the sort of series that’s best followed sequentially. I like the way Bowen has developed Joanne’s character throughout the series, and that includes how her family has grown, and her roles in it.

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  4. I love a multi-generational family saga book, though more inclined to find them in other genres than crime. It think there are often two generations in crime books – three is less common, I think because authors don’t want children on the scene!

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    1. Maybe that’s it, Moira. I hadn’t thought about that, but it is always risky to include children in a crime story. That said, though, multigenerational families can be very effective in stories, I think. It’s a way to explore relationships, stir up conflict, and lots of other things as well. And it’s an interesting facet of a novel in its own right.

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