When people think about murder victims (whether they’re real or fictional) they often think about the person/people who’ve been killed. But murder doesn’t just impact the victim. It impacts the victim’s family and friends, often for years afterwards. And it can impact the lives of the accused’s family members, too. Acknowledging that impact can add real sadness to a crime novel. But it is realistic, and that impact can also add character depth and plot layers to a story.
Agatha Christie explored that impact in several of her stories. For example, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Carla Lemarchant hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife, Caroline, was assumed to be guilty, and there was plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she was arrested, tried, and convicted in connection with the crime. She died in prison a year later. Carla, however, has always believed her mother was innocent, and she wants Poirot to find out the truth. He agrees, and then interviews the five people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from all of those witnesses. From that information, Poirot is able to find out who killed Crale and why. What’s interesting is that the murder affected all of them, and still does have an impact, even sixteen years later.
In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, we are introduced to successful businessman Ashton McKell, his wife, Lutetia, and his son, Dane. They have a quiet, and highly respectable, family life until Dane begins to suspect that his father is having an affair. One day, he decides to test his theory, and he follows father to find out where he goes. To his shock, Dane discovers that his father is visiting Sheila Grey, a well-known fashion designer who lives in the same luxury apartment building as the McKell family. Dane determines to meet this woman; but, when he does, the unexpected happens. He finds himself drawn to her, and the feeling seems to be mutual. Before long, they’ve begun a relationship. One night, Sheila is shot. Inspector Richard Queen heads the investigation, and of course, his son Ellery joins in. As the Queens look into the case, they find evidence against all three McKells, and each one becomes a suspect. Even though none of the McKells has been killed, the murder still casts a pall over the family, and it’s not spoiling the story to say they’re not going to be the same.
Sue Younger’s Days Are Like Grass features pediatric surgeon Claire Bowerman. As the novel begins, she and her partner, Yossi Shalev, travel from London, where she’s been working, to her home in Auckland. When them is Claire’s fifteen-year-old daughter Roimata ‘Roi.’ It’s not a joyful homecoming for Claire, but the family settles in and she takes up her work at an Auckland hospital. All goes well enough until one of her patients needs surgery that his parents will not allow on religious grounds. This sets up a conflict between the parents and the hospital, in the form of Claire, and it makes the news headlines. That’s exactly what Claire hadn’t wanted. Once her name is made public, it doesn’t take long before the media dredges up an older case in which her family was involved. In 1970, seventeen-year-old Kathryn Phillips disappeared. Her body was never found, but Claire’s father, Patrick, was arrested and tried for her murder. He was convicted, but there wasn’t enough evidence to keep him in prison. Still, many people believe that he was guilty. Now, Claire has to deal with the media exposure, find out the truth about the Phillips case, and work through the conflict with her patient’s parents. Throughout the novel, it’s clear that being involved in a murder case has profoundly affected both Claire and her father.
Martin Edwards’ Lake District mysteries feature Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Hannah Scarlett, who heads the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. When she and her team re-open a case, they also often open old wounds, as the saying goes. And we see how the people most directly involved in the case have coped (or not). Just as one example, in The Hanging Wood, we are introduced to Orla Payne. Twenty years before the incidents in the novel, her brother Callum went missing. His body was never found, but it was assumed he’d been killed. At the time, everyone thought his uncle, Philip Hinds, was responsible. That belief was bolstered when Hinds committed suicide. But Orla has never believed her uncle was guilty, and she wants very much to know what happened to her brother. So, she contacts Scarlett. Unfortunately, she’s drunk at the time she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t pay a lot of attention to what she says. But then, a shocking event makes Scarlett sit up and take notice. She and her team look into the case, and they find that there’s a lot of truth to the saying that ‘old sins cast long shadows.’ As the novel goes on, we see how the tragedies in this family have impacted everyone, even twenty years later.
And then there’s Donna Morrissey’s The Fortunate Brother, which features Sylvanus Now, his wife Addie, and their children, Kyle and Sylvie, who live in The Beaches, Newfoundland. As the novel begins, the Nows are still coping with the loss of Sylvanus and Addie’s oldest son, Chris, who died three years earlier in a tragic oil rig accident. They haven’t begun to heal yet, really, and are mostly just getting by. Then, a local man, Clar Gillard, is murdered. On the one hand, he was a domestic abuser as well as a malicious bully, so no-one will miss him. On the other hand, it was a murder, and the police have to investigate. As they piece together Clar’s last days and weeks, some evidence comes up which suggests that the Nows (or at least, one of them) might have been involved in the murder. This adds to the burden that the family is already carrying. As the novel goes on, we learn that more than one person in town had very good reasons for wanting Gillard dead. And we also see how the Now family deals with their grief about Chris and with the tension of being suspected of murder. The novel is, among other things, a look at how families are impacted when there’s been a death, and when they’re mixed up in a murder.
Murder is a horrible thing, and to be involved in a murder case takes a real toll on people. So it makes sense that a crime novel would acknowledge that. And it can be done in a way that adds depth to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Roxette.