By Margaret Lucke
Once upon a time protagonists in mystery novels didn't have family issues. That's because they didn't have families. Take Agatha Christie's detectives: Miss Marple's opportunities to snoop on her neighbors in St. Mary's Mead were never interrupted by the need to keep an eye on her nephews, and Hercule Poirot's little grey cells were untroubled by concerns for an aging mother. Ross Macdonald gave Lew Archer an ex-wife, Sue, but while the world-weary gumshoes thinks about her from time to time, she doesn't show up on the page to provide helpful clues or complain that the alimony check is late.
An exception was Dorothy L. Sayers's sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey. She encumbered him with assorted relatives, some annoying and some endearing, who help or hinder him in varying degrees. She also let him have a love life, alluding to various affairs and romances before he courts and marries Harriet Vane. She also gave Wimsey a marvelous gift in the form of his highly competent valet, Bunter. As a friend of mine frequently points out, we all could use a Bunter of our own to keep our lives running smoothly.
Sayers, who wrote her books in the 1920s and 1930s, may have been ahead of her time. It wasn't until fifty years later that fictional detectives routinely moved past the lone-wolf stereotype to become more fully rounded people with lives that extended beyond the boundaries of the particular mystery they were solving. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was when women began writing mysteries in greater numbers and female protagonists became common. Women tend to be interested in the workings of human relationships beyond the basics of how the good guy figures out who the bad guy is. At least, that's the reputation we have.
The benefit of giving your detective a family is that these extra characters can provide a writer with abundant material to write about. What character wouldn't jump into an investigation if her spouse or her child is suspected of murder? (Whether it would make sense to do that in real life is a different question.) The flip side is that family issues can distract the detective from the task at hand, which in the book is to solve the mystery. After ferrying the kids to swim practice, checking out Grandma's new boyfriend, and dealing with the problems of an unemployed sibling, who has time to unmask a killer?
My solution--though it's something I can see looking back on my books, not a decision I made before writing them--has been to concentrate on one of my protagonist's relationships at a time and let others take a background role.
In my first novel, A Relative Stranger, private investigator Jess Randolph becomes involved in a murder case when the father who walked out on her as a small child turns up as the prime suspect in a young woman's murder. When I began writing the book, my main concern was constructing a good mystery, but as the story progressed I found that what really interested me was the relationship between the daughter and her estranged father: What would be the impact on her life of having this man suddenly reappear? What kind of relationship would they forge?
Claire Scanlan, the protagonist of my most recent book, House of Whispers, is grappling with conflicting emotions--anger and sadness engendered by her divorce and hope sparked by a new romance. Her family consists of her older sister, Cassandra, and the grandmother who raised the two girls, but they're mentioned only in passing. In the forthcoming sequel, House of Desire, the sister takes on a more central role when Claire discovers that Cassandra's husband is having an affair. (Yes, in both books all of these developments happen in the shadow of a murder investigation.)
But the one-family-member-at-a-time approach doesn't work at all for my current work in progress, Hide and Seek, which looks at the impact of a girl's disappearance on the family that lives next door. The relationships are complex, the dynamics keep shifting, and emotions run high. It's an intriguing book to write, but definitely a juggling act.
Maybe for the next one I'll resurrect the lone wolf.
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