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:
- It’s somewhat at odds with the idea of concealing the murderer
- 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.