Liz here. We love Catriona McPherson here at Mysteristas. No matter what she’s writing – historical, funny contemporary or creepy thriller. She’s one of the nicest people ever. Seriously, I’ve seen her injured, in slings, and boots, and there is never not a smile on her face. And that accent! I can listen to her talk for…hours, literally. So when she asked to visit the blog again, well, it wasn’t a hard decision.
T:The Fun in Dysfuntion
I wasn’t aware of doing it, and I certainly didn’t plan it, but last year, for some reason, I wrote a functional family! I know. The Doyles, in Strangers at the Gate, are a good man and a good woman, happily married, weathering their challenges, supportive parents to a decent, resourceful, empathic child.
Of course there are other people in the book too. There are the Dudgeons. And no matter how low we set the bar, how hard we work at acknowledging human frailty, and how unjudgmental we try to be, the Dudgeons . . . how can I put it? . . . suck.
The contrast between the Doyles and Dudgeons got me thinking about my favourite dysfunctional families in mysteries. There are plenty to choose from. In fact, it’s a bit of a stretch to find a happy family in crime fiction. Or any fiction. I came up with: the Chopras in Vaseem Khan’s Baby Ganesh series – a good man and his good wife and their happy marriage; the eponymous family in Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys – a bit bonkers and annoying but loyal and loving to the core; and the Carters in Angie Thomas’s barnstorming debut The Hate U Give – kind, brave, funny, affectionate people, sticking together come what may.
But I’ve got to admit, if Inspector Chopra didn’t have his awful colleagues, the Lampreys didn’t have their mad aunt, and Starr Carter didn’t go to school with such snotty monsters, the books would be much less compelling. Messed-up folk have always beguiled us: from Medea through the Macbeths, all the way to the Lannisters. Dysfunction rules!
So. Here is my personal top five of dysfunctional families in crime fiction.
5. The Turnmills in The Arrangement by Robyn Harding.
I just read this book last week (preparing to moderate a panel on domestic noir at Bouchercon (I love my “job”)) and it’s a brilliant slow-mo car crash. We can only watch and wince as Gabe, Celeste and Violet Turnmill make an exponentially appalling, but satisfyingly plausible, series of decisions. And they’re not even the screwed-up ones! I don’t suppose anyone reading this is swithering about how good an idea it is for a mum and daughter to stay in the Hamptons full-time while the dad gets himself a pad in Manhattan, but if you are – take a squint at The Arrangement before you go signing any leases, eh?
4. The Symmingtons in The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie.
I only started rolling my eyes about the Turnmills last week; I’ve been hating the Symmingtons for forty years. Mrs S. regrets her first marriage and wishes she could put it behind her now that she’s got a respectable new husband and two perfect little boys. The trouble is, she’s also got Megan, her daughter from husband number one, and – try as you might – young women of twenty don’t disappear in a puff of smoke just because you want them to. The cruelty required to act as if someone in your house doesn’t exist isn’t any less cruel because you do it subtly. And another thing: that second husband might be wealthy and suitable-looking, but Mrs Symmington’s ability to pick a winner has not, in fact, improved. Not at all.
3. The Jacksons in The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood.
But the Symmingtons look like the Ingalls compared with this lot. They are a cold narcissist of a patriarch (if he’d “gone to Mankato” and stayed there it would have been better all round), his feckless first wife, his ineffectual second wife, some avid contenders for the post of third wife, and a troop of kids who are just so much trouble to take care of, don’t you know? The heartless solution dreamed up by this bunch of over-privileged wazzocks will drop your jaw and you’ll keep reading into the night to watch it go wrong for them and see them try to escape their come-uppance. I should say, there are people to love here too, in Marwood’s excellent third novel, but you’ll have to keep reading a bit before you find them.
2. The Hillyards in A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine.
This is the first domestic noir I ever read, back in 1986, and it blew me away. Not just me, either, since it won the Edgar for best novel that year. Vera and Eden, the sisters at the heart of the book, don’t really get how to do family. Vera is obsessed with her sister and neglects her first child. She goes too far the other way with her second child, mistaking devotion for affection. And Eden, once she decides she wants a child, truly believes she can just pick one. They’ve got the self-awareness of a pair of lamps, but when it comes to cunning, they make Lady Macbeth look schlubby. After thirty years of other writers – me included – dredging the depths of human hopelessness, like Baroness Rendell taught us to, this one still shines.
1.The Corleones in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
Come on! Who else could it be? It sometimes seems that the dysfunctional families we love to loathe are stuffed with rotten women and useless men, but Puzo’s masterpiece is an exception. Here there are rotten men – murderous, faithless, blinkered, grasping, selfish, rotten men – and the useless women who pander to them, cover for them, pray for their (alleged) souls, and generally enable them. Actually on reflection the women are pretty rotten too. But the book is anything but. The fact of every character being held in a death-grip by family loyalty makes for a genuinely pulse-pounding psychological thriller; the fact that the raison d’être of the Corleones is so venal, so grubby, so small – makes the whole thing a tragedy. I don’t often cry when I’m reading, but The Godfather gets me every time.
So what do you think of my top five? And what did I miss? I’m getting ready to spend the rest of the day going “d’oh” like the patriarch of the most functional fictional family ever.
Catriona McPherson is the national best-selling and multi-award-winning author of the Dandy Gilver series of preposterous detective stories, set in her native Scotland in the 1930s. She also writes darker contemporary suspense novels, of which Strangers at the Gate is the latest. Also, eight years after immigrating to the US and settling in California, Catriona began the Last Ditch series, written about a completely fictional Scottish woman who moves to a completely fictional west-coast college town.
Catriona is a member of MWA, CWA and SoA, and a proud lifetime member and former national president of Sisters in Crime, committed to advancing equity and inclusion for women, writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers and writers with disability in the mystery community.