Treated Her Like She’s One of Our Own*

There’s a long history of families opening their homes to a young person. Sometimes it’s through an official foster care program. Other times it’s much more informal. Either way, when it works well, taking a child in can provide a safe, caring home that a child might not otherwise have. And it can be very fulfilling for the family. But that doesn’t mean it comes without challenges. In crime fiction, that setup can make for some interesting dynamics, to say nothing of the way it can be used to build tension.

One of the important characters in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House is Esther Summerson, an orphan who was raised by an unpleasant woman she refers to as her godmother. Wealthy philanthropist John Jarndyce takes an interest in her well-being, decides to take her in. The idea is that she will serve as companion to his ward Ada Clare. Esther and Ada get along well, and things begin to take a turn for the better in Esther’s life. The Jarndyce family, though, has been embroiled for years in a dispute over a will, and that dispute casts a shadow over Jarndyce and his household. Then, there’s an unexpected death which may be a murder. Then there’s a clear case of murder. It all has an impact on Esther, Ada, and Ada’s fiancé (later husband).

In Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we are introduced to Cynthia Murdoch. She lives at Styles Court with well-to-do Emily Inglethorp and her husband, Alfred. Mrs. Inglethorp is involved in several charitable causes, so it’s not surprising that she would give Cynthia a home. On the one hand, Cynthia is treated well – virtually like a family member.  Certainly she’s not thought of as a servant. On the other hand, Mrs. Inglethorp makes it clear that she expects Cynthia’s ongoing gratitude and deference. There’s a bit of tension as Cynthia doesn’t believe that the family members like her very much. Then, Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned. Captain Hastings, who’s been staying at Styles Court, enlists his friend, Hercule Poirot, to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He’s especially motivated because Mrs. Inglethorp was his benefactor. As Poirot looks into the matter, he finds that more than one member of the household, including Cynthia, might have had a motive for murder.

C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden. He is also a loving husband and father who knows how important family is. In Open Season, he investigates when the body of a local poacher, Ote Keeley, turns up on Pickett’s property. In the course of the novel, he meets Ote’s widow and children, including Ote’s daughter April. The Keeley family is dysfunctional, and April is suffering because of that; her father’s murder hasn’t helped matters. So, when Ote’s widow leaves with her baby, Pickett decides to take in April. She ends up becoming an integral part of the Pickett family. She has her own issues, but she is very much a sister to the Pickett children, Sheridan and Lucy. As the series goes on, April has her own story arc that feeds into some important plot threads in later novels.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief, we are introduced to eight-year-old François, who lives with his mother, Karima. The novel’s main focus is a pair of murders (one on a boat, and one in the elevator of an apartment building). Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his team investigate, and find that the two murders are related, although it doesn’t seem so at first. Karima is connected to both killings (no, she’s not the murderer), and when she disappears, François is left without an adult to look after him. Later, Karima is found murdered, so there’s a real question of what will happen to the boy. Montalbano and his lover, Livia Burlando, want to be sure François has a real home with caring people. They can’t really take him in themselves, so Montalbano comes up with another solution – one that provides François with the home he needs.

Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is a fictional account of the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, one of the last people in Iceland to be executed for a crime. In 1830, she and two other people were put to death for the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. This novel explores the murder and its aftermath, with a focus on the time between Agnes’ conviction and the actual execution.  During those months, she is sent to live with District Officer Jón Jónsson, his wife, Margrét, and their two daughters, Steina and Lauga. This arrangement, it’s believed, will save the government a lot of money; the family will be compensated, but the state won’t have to feed and house Agnes. It will also benefit Agnes, who will have the chance to live with an ‘upstanding Christian family’ while she awaits her fate. The family will benefit financially, and from the work of an extra pair of hands. It’s a very awkward situation, though. After all, Agnes is a convicted murderer. But the family takes her in, provides her with food and a bed, and so on. As time goes by, she and the family gradually learn more about each other. And it becomes clear that Agnes and the murder for which she was convicted are much more complex than it seems on the surface.

Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road is, in part, the story of seventeen-year-old Meja, who’s recently moved with her mother to the small Swedish town of Glimmersträsk. They’ve relocated so that Meja’s mother Silje can live with her lover. It’s not a functional or particularly happy home, so Meja drifts. Then, she meets Carl-Johan Brandt, who lives with his parents and two brothers. It seems to be a close-knit family, and Meja is soon drawn to them. She and Carl-Johan are in love, and before long, she is invited to live with the family. When the Brandts first take her in, Meja thinks it’s the perfect solution to her problems. But it’s not long before she begins to be aware that there are some dark truths hidden under the surface.

There are a lot of other examples of young people who are taken into other people’s homes. It often works out well for all concerned (right, fans of Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve?). But it takes work, and sometimes, things don’t go as planned…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Thernadier Waltz.