Monday, March 12, 2007

Crime families

Not to get too sociological or anything, but I noticed a couple of years ago that some of my favorite crime writers had as significant sub-themes in their books their protagonists' efforts to build alternative families. Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander, for instance, struggles to bring up his daughter, Linda. (He must have done something right, because she went on to become a police officer and a colleague of her father's.)

That great social comedian Bill James takes the theme several steps further, weaving families throughout his Harpur & Iles series. He explores the idea in particular detail starting with the tenth novel, Roses, Roses, built around the murder of Detective Chief Inspector Colin Harpur's wife. Even when spouses don't die, marriage, betrayal thereof and substitutes therefor are constants in almost all the books. Harpur becomes a loving, earnest single father to his wise, impudent and hilarious adolescent daughters -- and they love having Harpur's university-student girlfriend around, especially at breakfast time.

Several of the series' principal criminals have family issues of their own, and Harpur's occasionally insane superior, ACC Desmond Iles, is regularly reduced to frothing rage when remembering his own wife's affair with Harpur. Even the maniac Iles, uncertain as he may be about the paternity of his own daughter (Sarah Iles has had an affair with another officer in addition to Harpur), develops a fierce and protective tenderness toward the child.

Over in the Netherlands, Janwillem van de Wetering carefully delineated three distinct family situations for his three protagonists: Sgt. Rinus de Gier, Adjutant Henk Grijpsta, and their wise old superior, the unnamed commissaris. In France, there are Benjamin Malaussène and his incredible multinational, multigenerational Belleville crew in Daniel Pennac's novels.

OK, I'll stop here. This is crime fiction, after all, and not social science. I'll throw the question in your laps, readers. What interesting families and alternative families can you think of in crime fiction? And why are they interesting?

P.S. Maxine at the Petrona blog picks up this question and puts a slightly different spin on it. Post your comments in both places, and we can turn this into a world-spanning mega-discussion.

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Anonymous Maxine said...

Ruth Rendell's books have been great in this regard over many (20+) years-- Inspector Wexford has two daughters, now adult, and Insp. Burden's first wife dies in an early book and there is quite a bit about his second wife and, if memory serves, how the first wife's children adapt, etc.

Rendell uses these various family issues as plot devices in many of the books, but they work well as character studies also.

I'll probably think of others, but am being called away.

March 12, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Andrea Camilleri in the Salvo Montalbano novels creates an interesting alternative family. It is that little bit different as it would be with Montalbano.
Salvo and Livia, the long distance lovers, intend to get married and adopt Francois the "Snack Thief". Of course with Salvo nothing is straight forward and Francois is entrusted to the care of the sister of his second- in-command Domenico "Mimi" Augello. Here he becomes attached to the family, and wants to stay. Salvo and Livia are broken hearted, and as yet have not married.
Then we have the unbelievable, but interesting, relationship of Guido and Paola. The Brunettis have an almost perfect life in Venice, with their incredibly well behaved teenagers. They are a lesson to everyone, in fiction you can have it all. If only real life was like the Brunettis.

March 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks, Maxine. Rendell used a family issue in the one novel of hers that I've read, the excellent The Veiled One (though, as you know, I have another Rendell novel on my to-read list). But the issue there is a family gone wrong -- a family that has already fallen apart rather than one being assembled from disparate parts. The situation with Inspector Burden sounds as if it might be more along the lines of what I had in mind when I posted my comment.

There's probably a case for fitting Fabio Montale, protagonist of Jean-Claude Izzo's Marseilles trilogy, into this discussion somewhere. He is single and without children, and occasionally regrets never having become a father. He also tends to find himself in the company of disparate groups of women of children who have come to him for help, some of them because of deadly troubles in their own families.

You were being called away? By a family issue, perhaps?

March 12, 2007  
Anonymous KarenC said...

Arnaldur Indridason does great families - probably some people would call them dysfunctional, but it's a portrayal of a type of family that's pretty common these days.

Also Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan has a typical "family" these days - son living in another state altogether, prickly relationship with his ex-wife etc. Same with Garry Disher's Hal Challis who in the latest book, Chain of Evidence, is actually spending time with his own, dying father, and his sister. There's some interesting discussion in there about both siblings relationships with their demanding father.

These examples of families interest me greatly - probably because dysfunctional families are much more the norm in my own peer group and therefore significantly more interesting / identifiable :)

March 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah: I'd forgotten about Montalbano, Livia and Francois. That's a perfect example of the sort of "alternative" family I had in mind. Thanks.

I haven't read Donna Leon, but I know that you and others have commented on the unearthly perfection of the Brunettis' marriage. Perhaps they and their children constitute another sort of "alternative": perfection as an alternative to reality. I think you once posted that your wife can cook fish as well as Signora Brunetti. If you are prepared to put that proposition to the test, I will be in England in May. I will be happy to bring a crisp white wine that Montalbano would be proud of.

With respect to fiction and reality, the novelist Daniel Pennac, whom I mentioned in my comment, also wrote a wonderful book of essays called Comme un roman, which means "like a novel." Among the titles under which it has been published in English translation is Better Than Life.

Karen: I thought about Maloney's Murray Whelan, son and ex-wife. I didn't mention them for two reasons. One is that, as you say, such a situation is all too typical these days. Another is that Whelan+son+ex are not a family so much as they are two families: Whelan+son and ex+son. I've flipped through the opening pages of Kittyhawk Down and Silence of the Grave, both of which are among the books piling up in my to-read list. That excellent opening scene in Arnaldur's book, at a child's birthday party, makes it easy to believe he'll do wonderful things with families.

March 12, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

"I think you once posted that your wife can cook fish as well as Signora Brunetti."
Peter, it can be arranged, and we are even having a new range cooker installed in our tiny townhouse in April!
I will be in contact later , but today we are being controlled by an organisation too deadly for even a Montalbano, or a Marlowe to deal with. South West Water are interrupt our supply for the day to improve the mains.
That should mean our water is the colour of Scotch or Bourbon for the next few weeks!

March 13, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Water ... hmm, have you seen Chinatown?

I misread your comment at first. Perhaps I've read too many stories about hard-drinking detectives, but at first glance I thought you'd written that because of repairs to your water mains, you'd have to make do by drinking scotch and bourbon for the next few weeks.

March 13, 2007  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Yes, was for sure some family matter that called me away -- annoying when you have to do things like eat, wash up, do the ironing, get ready for school in the morning, whatever.

Another good family thriller/crime is my adored Liza Marklund, whose journalist detective is always having to juggle childcare etc - the strain on her and her partner of all this juggling is dead accurate. OK, off to do some domestic task now!

March 14, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Liza Marklund might be interesting because of her profession. It's not so much that I hate journalism as that ... well, maybe I do bear my self-preening profession and the liars who run it with a certain jadedness. Journalists are morally superior to the people they cover, by and large, but their bosses, deserve a skewering.

March 14, 2007  
Anonymous May said...

Hello Peter!

I have to admit that I haven't had the time recently to check your website what with midterms and projects due. But I am finally getting around to to translating a section of Aux Bonheur des Ogres, and will definately be checking your blog for inspiration.

Im a newbie when it comes to crime fiction, but I thought I would offer my two cents since you mentioned Pennac.

I think a lot of the charm of Pennac's quintet comes from the relationships between Ben and his numerous siblings (including the epileptic dog). I especially found his somewhat incestuous adoration for his sister Clara intriguing. Unfortunately, I think it works to the overall series' disadvantage. Pennac's series seems more to be regular novel that happens to have a murder in it.

What ends up happening is the murder plot gets in the way of the interesting things going on on the relationship level and the murder plot itself ends up kind of slap dash. I can only imagine that die- hard crime fiction fans just get frustrated, and other readers just get confused.

March 30, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Welcome back. I feared that the onset of spring might have thrown you into an academic panic about work left undone over the winter.

I suspect that you’re right about Pennac and his relationship to traditional crime fiction. I’ve read bits and pieces from a couple of the Malaussene novels, including some scenes of delicious comic charm and ingenuity that have nothing much do with crime. In one of the books, in fact, the charm did not mix well with a rather shocking murder once Pennac did get around to criminal matters.

But the charm is so irresistible that I know I will go back to the books. It would be interesting to read Pennac’s thoughts on the series and its relationship to more conventional crime fiction.

March 30, 2007  

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