Dysfunctional Families in Murder Mysteries

I was recently watching the Murder, She Wrote episode It’s a Dog’s Life with my eldest son and it occurred to just how much dysfunctional wealthy families are a staple of murder mysteries.

It’s not the wealthy part that’s at all surprising—it’s well known that the two most common motives for murder in detective fiction are sex and money—but the dysfunctional part. Or at least that they’re obviously dysfunctional.

This is probably more a staple of modern detective fiction like Murder, She Wrote than it is of golden age detective fiction, I should add, though one can certainly find it in golden age detective fiction too.

The reason I find it a little surprising is, roughly, two-fold:

  1. It’s somewhat at odds with the idea of concealing the murderer
  2. It makes the victim less sympathetic

Curiously, that last part is papered over quite frequently—almost as if the authors don’t notice it. But it’s simply not avoidable. One child turning out badly could be attributable to free will but a parent who badly spoiled all his children is, simply, a bad parent.

You can see this same problem in The Big Sleep. The old man who hires Philip Marlowe was—according to the story, and if I recall correctly, according to the old man himself—a radically selfish man who didn’t actually raise his own children. Granted, in that story the wayward child didn’t kill its father, but still, it made the old man very unsympathetic. It also made Marlowe’s loyalty to him incomprehensible. Why be loyal to a man who’s only reaping the results of his own bad behavior?

The other problem with with this approach is that—however suited it is for coming up with a convincing murder—it makes for unpleasant detection. If everyone is distasteful, the story of finding out which of them committed the crime will be distasteful, too. The solution to this is frequently to have a lone sympathetic character in the story, but this also raises problems.

The first and most obvious is what on earth the sympathetic person is doing in the company of the others. Decent people rarely associate with awful people for the pragmatic reason that awful people try to drag everyone else down with them. There’s also the somewhat more subtle psychological fact that awful people rarely like decent people. And if they’re thrown together by being in the same family, this then requires an explanation of why on earth one turned out differently than the rest. (I think that having different mothers or different fathers is a semi-common solution to this problem, but it introduces real issues of judgment. There’s no judgment call more important than picking a good parent for your children.)

Getting back to the first point, there’s also the issue of creating overly obvious suspects. The wife and child of a rich man are the obvious suspects in a murder mystery under any conditions—the eternal question is cui bono? (Who benefits?) So in a sense making the family dysfunctional is shifting the question from “could it be them” to “is this a head-fake or a double-head-fake?” Which is a legitimate sort of mystery, but it is a bit limiting because it means the story almost certainly will focus on opportunity and alibis. I will grant, however, that it can be a good way of distracting from other people with motives—inheritors are not always the only people who benefit from a rich man’s death.

None of the above is meant to say that this situation cannot be made to work, only that it’s got some inherent difficulties that are often overlooked.

4 thoughts on “Dysfunctional Families in Murder Mysteries

  1. Phil Garber

    “this then requires an explanation of why on earth one turned out differently than the rest.”
    In Midsomer Murders, the only good member of the family is the one who comes from the wrong side of the blanket.


  2. Mary

    Very old problem

    “I would therefore lay down this canon first of all: that the people in a really gory murder mystery should be good people. Even the man who is really gory should be good, or should have a convincing appearance of being good. Now, many of the very best of the modern writers in this style have partly failed through neglecting this maxim. They start out with another maxim, which is also in itself a perfectly sound maxim. They start out with the very reasonable idea of giving the reader a wide choice of suspects, that the imagination may hover long over them all before it swoops (if it ever does swoop) upon the really guilty person. Unfortunately, it is exactly here that the laxity of modern manners, not to say morals, actually comes in to spoil the effect. The writer begins with somebody doing what (I believe) is known as throwing a party; as a preliminary to the more private act of throwing another party, in the sense of another person, out of a window or down a well. The whole business begins in a rather heated atmosphere of cocktails, with occasional whiffs of cocaine. And the charming freedom and variety of such a social set, in these days, enables the author to crowd the room with all sorts of people who, in the older story, could only have escaped from Dartmoor or returned by ticket-of-leave from Botany Bay. The chief ornaments of these aristocratic salons are conspicuous, not merely by being cads, but by having every appearance of being criminals. In short, the suspects are so very suspect that we might safely call them guilty; not necessarily of the crime under discussion, but only of about half a hundred others.

    “But there is an obvious snag in this convenient way of spreading suspicion over a number of characters. It can be put in a word: such cases may cause suspicion, but they cannot cause surprise. It is the business of a shocker to produce a shock.”


    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Reposted: Dysfunctional Families in Murder Mysteries | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

  4. carlos10101

    Alyosha is the good brother, the sympathetic character in The Bothers Karamozovs, which is basically a murder mystery with a dysfunctional family at its heart. It is Alyosha’s deep Christian faith which makes him stick around, gently trying to coax the many scoundrels around him (in and out of his family) to see the errors of their unbridled passions and egocentric conceits.

    A slow burner of a great read!


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