Family Affair*

One of the more popular tropes in crime fiction is the dysfunctional family. It’s easy to see why, too, since that sort of context allows for many possibilities for plot points, story arcs, and so on. But not all families, whether in real life or crime fiction, are dysfunctional. Of course, most family members have their idiosyncrasies, arguments, and sometimes real misunderstandings. But that doesn’t mean they’re dysfunctional. And sometimes, especially in series, readers like the idea of families that actually have solid relationships.

For example, fans of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford know that they have a long, enduring marriage, and three children (later, grandchildren, too). Throughout the novels that feature them, the Beresfords stay together, raise their children, and so on. Just because they get involved in international intrigue, espionage, and more, doesn’t mean that they don’t have a family life. They do have their differences and misunderstandings, but they are devoted to each other and to their family. It’s an interesting aspect of the Beresfords’ characters, and it’s arguably a bit of a departure for Christie, who often included dysfunctional families in her stories.

Geraldine Evans’ Joe Rafferty has a large Irish Catholic family, and we get to see how they interact throughout the series. Sometimes Rafferty has his fill of his family; after all, his mother is always trying to match him up with a ‘proper’ Irish Catholic girl. And his other relatives wonder why, if he has to be a copper, he can’t at least be a bent copper. His various family members sometimes need his help to get them out of trouble, too. Still, it’s clear that there’s a bond in that family, and that the family members stick together and care for each other.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe owns and runs Botswana’s only female private detective agency. She and her assistant, Grace Makutsi, solve all sorts of different cases, and they develop a reputation for integrity and for success. Mma Ramotswe is also the wife of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who is regarded as the best mechanic in Botswana. He owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, which also has a very good reputation. The two of them have had a few misunderstandings, and it took some ups and downs for their marriage to come together. But they love each other, and they’ve stayed in a functional, stable partnership. In fact, they have two adopted children, Motholeli and Puso. This family has had some difficult moments and had to cope with sadness. But they are loyal to each other, and they have a strong family bond.

The same could be said of Nelson Brunanski’s John ‘Bart’ Bartowski. He and his wife, Rosie, live in Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan, and own a fishing lodge further north in the province. They have two children, Annie and Stu, and a solid bond. Here’s what Bart says about Rosie in Crooked Lake:

‘Rosie bent over to slide a baking dish out of the oven and I couldn’t help but marvel at how even after twenty-two years and two children, the sight caused a stir in me.’

It’s clear that Rosie loves her husband, too. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the family doesn’t have its differences, arguments, and so on. It does. And the Bartowskis face some difficult, even painful times. But they love each other and care for each other. And that’s the most important thing.

There’s also Lisa Scottoline’s Mary DiNunzio. She’s a Philadelphia attorney who works for Rosato & Associates. She likes her job, she’s good at it, and she’s developed as a lawyer over the years. She also has a loving, close-knit Italian-American family. As the series goes on, we learn about the various family members, and sometimes, family issues come up as sub-plots. Mary cares deeply for her family, and often gets help from them and her circle of friends when she’s working a case. This series depicts life in a Philadelphia Italian-American clan. The family members do argue at times, they get annoyed with each other, and so on. But there’s a real sense that, as the saying goes, family comes first. And when it comes down to it, the family members are there for each other.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a Saskatchewan former academic and political scientist. As the series begins, she’s a widow (her husband was killed while stopping to help a pair of stranded motorists) with three children, Mieka, Peter, and Angus. The four of them have a strong bond, even when they disagree, and even when trouble strikes. As the series goes on, Joanne meets and later marries attorney Zack Shreve. The family dynamics also change when Joanne and Zack formally adopt a daughter, Taylor. Despite the changes, though, there’s a strong bond among the family members. They argue, have misunderstandings, are sometimes at cross purposes, and more. But they love each other, and this bond provides a stable place, if I can put it that way, for the family members.

And that’s the thing about functional families. They aren’t perfect; there’s arguing, there are misunderstandings and sometimes real sadness. But the family sticks together, looks out for each other, and loves each other. That bond can add a real balance to a crime novel or series. It can also be an effective tool for character development. And it doesn’t have to make for a boring story!


*NOTE:   The title of this post is the title of a song by Sly and the Family Stone.

8 thoughts on “Family Affair*

  1. Very interesting, Margot. You’re right – crime novels so often feature dysfunctional families, which is maybe part of the appeal. Tommy and Tuppence, who I think I’ve said before are huge favourites of mine, certainly buck the trend but their stories are no less wonderful because of it. In fact, it’s often because they’re so nice and ordinary that the perils they get into are even more threatening!


    1. Thanks, KBR. You know, I hadn’t thought about it, but you have a well-taken point about the way dysfunctional families can add to the appeal of a crime novel. They certainly can add drama, plot points, and so on. You’re right, too, I think, about Tommy and Tuppence. Their very ordinariness and basic niceness make one care about them all the more, and in a different way. So, when something bad does happen, that adds even more to the tension!

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  2. Thanks for the positive family examples in crime fiction. In Vol. 3 of a Literary History of Saskatchewan I contributed a chapter on Saskatchewan crime fiction. One of my observations was that Saskatchewan crime fiction writers have families in their crime fiction and families who do well. I specifically recited the the Saskatchewan “B’s” – Brunanski, Bowen and Bidulka. In Anthony Bidulka’s series featuring Russell Quant there is a great relationship between Russell and his mother.


    1. You’re right, Bill. Russell does have a great relationship with his mother, and he did, I’d guess, with his uncle, too. And of course, Gail Bowen and Nelson Brunanski also depict solid family dynamics. What I like, too, is that ‘solid,’ and ‘doing well’ doesn’t mean there are never arguments, sadness, and other issues. I think I would find those characters much less appealing if they were perfect. Folks, this is the book to which Bill is referring. It sounds fascinating!

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  3. I do like functional families in fiction since it seems in reality that far more families manage to be functional than dysfunctional, though most families have their moments! I’ll add Donis Casey’s books to the list – her protagonist, Alafair Tucker, is the mother of a large family in rural Oklahoma in the early 1900s. The first book, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, sees Alafair get involved when the boy one of her daughters is in love with is suspected of murdering his father. I haven’t read the rest of the series yet, but I get the impression most of the books take a similar line, that Alafair gets involved to protect one of her large brood of children. They seem to have a habit of getting into trouble but the family bond is strong and they all support each other.

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    1. I think you’ve put your finger on something essential, FictionFan. In a functional family, there’s a family bond and mutual support. Yes, the members may have quirks, probably have faults, and so on. And they have their arguments (and their need to get out of trouble!). But underneath is the family commitment. That connection is, to me, a really important part of what makes for a functional family, and I like it when I see it in fiction. As you say, It happens quite a lot in real life. Thanks for mentioning the Casey series; I’ll admit I’m not familiar with it, but I do know about it, and have been meaning to try it. I appreciate the nudge!

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