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September 08, 2011

The Family That Preys Together . . .

Margaret Maron

For years, I read voraciously without analyzing what made one book more enjoyable than another.  It finally dawned on me that I cared more about character than plot.  As a kid, I read and loved the Jalna books, which had no murders but lots of eccentric and interesting characters who were born, aged, and died over the span of the series.  

I read the Sayers saga as much for the relationship developing between Harriet and Peter as for the murders they solved together—needlessly complicated murders, be it added.  The Nine Tailors was improbable, but  Have His Carcass was downright silly.  Spoiler: Why concoct an elaborate hoax that requires outdated razors, improbable disguises, horses, etc. etc., not to mention a couple of accomplices to pull it all off? If you’re going to kill someone you’ve never met and have no easily-discovered motive for wishing him harm, why not just catch him alone in a dark alley and bop him over the head so that it’ll look like a simple mugging?  I know, I know:  no complications, no book.  All the same . . .

 In honor of the new school year, there will be a quiz, so sit up straight, sharpen your pencils, and put on your thinking caps.

Question #1:  What’s the silliest plot—and by that I mean unintentionally silliest—you ever came across? (Dead authors preferred.  If you’re going to point a finger at someone living, please don’t use names or book titles, just summarize the plot and tell me what made you wonder how it got published.)

Sharon-gless Speaking of relationships, when it comes to television, no matter how many car chases, serial killers, and exploding cars flash across the screen, I still prefer the interaction of family characters over plot. Two in particular have me hooked at the moment:  Burn Notice and Memphis Beat.  Both have male leads with the usual sidekicks and romantic entanglements, but both also have single moms.  In Burn Notice, tough-as-nails Madeline Westen is played by Sharon Gless, while the more vulnerable Paula Ann Hendricks in Memphis Beat is played by Celia Weston. Both are single moms who try to keep themselves in their sons’ lives.   Images-4

Television is diverting, but I’m a reader first, so here’s Question #2:

Are there any mystery novels out there in which the main protagonist son keeps in close touch with his widowed/divorced mom other than Lord Peter and the dowager duchess?  Or conversely, any series with a daughter and father? 

Images-5Question #3:  While there have been son/father crime novels, where are the daughter/mother ones?  For that matter, other than Nancy Martin’s Blackbird sisters, Lisa Lutz’s Spellman kids, or Charlaine Harris’s Harper Connelly and her stepbrother Tolliver, are there any sibling mysteries you would recommend?

Or hey, how about cousins?



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Hi Margaret,

I'm not surprised to see that your reading interests lean more to character than plot! The people in your books are wonderful and real. They are so different from the usual, and the stories reveal them and their lives in the context of one of my favorite characters, place. In that way they become the plot in that, rather than wondering whodunnit, I am always trying to figure out the people. Who is she? Why did he change? Did he really change? What is she afraid of? They are very engaging characters.

For a brother team how about the HOLMES ON THE RANGE mysteries by Steve Hockensmith with brothers Old Red and Big Red (Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer). I mean, you have to love their names.

Not a novel, but I love the relationships in Castle - especially among Castle, his Mom, and his daughter. Kate Carlisle's Bibliophile mysteries feature great family interactions, even though only Brooklyn solves the mysteries. I need more coffee to think about silliest plot :)

The Jalna novels! I thought I was the only one who remembers those! I too loved them as a kid; it was only when I reread them as a teenager that I realized, "Whoa, there was something really perverse going on here." Those Whiteoaks were like a cross between Faulkner and the Jerry Springer Show, especially in the last couple of books.

As for Question #1, the first writer that comes to mind is Agatha Christie. I was never able to get into her books simply because I thought her plots & characters, while undeniably clever, were just too absurdly improbable.

I went over the list of authors I read (a list of almost 90) and could only find two authors whose families helped them solve crime, not counting Nancy M. Don't know if it's the authors I'm drawn to or to the general lack of mysteries involving siblings.

Donna Andrew's books always feature Meg's family in a big way. Husband, father, mother, long lost grandfather, brother, cousins, and so on, they all have a part to play in solving the murders taking place in Meg's neck of the woods.

Falco, in Lindsay Davis' series set in late 1st century Rome, works with his wife and his wife's brothers consistently throughout the entire series. Falco's own large family always has a part to play, but not so often as his wife's family.

What about the Hardy Boys and the Bobbsey (sp?) twins? They're crime solving siblings.

HI all..silly plots, huh? I'm reading a lot of mysteries these days, and I keep being baffled about the --well, the scope of the reason for the crime.

When there's a HUGE international conspiracy that's the engine for a book set in a small town, for instance--you know?The balance feels off. Or if the reason for a local murder is something that happened WAY off camera, and that nothing in the early book even briefly alludes to--I guess I'm talking about the "what, wait, WHO?" ending.

It proves what a difficult question "motive" is.

Thanks, Reine. Yes, I do love reading (and writing) about big sprawly families.

Kerry, I never got into the Castle series even though friends love it.

I haven't reread the Jalna books, Undine, but I think your reaction as an adult is similar to Katherine Hall Page, who - till you - was about the only other friend who'd even heard of them.

Good suggestions, Peach.

Hank, I'm still puzzling over the last "Inspector Lewis" installment. There was a totally unrelated and certainly unnecessary murder to fill in what must have been perceived as a sag in the action No motive was ever given as to why she was killed. I think a writer is fudging when the motive is on the trivial level of "bad hair day."

Mary Alice Crane & Patricia Anne Hollowell, Southern sisters by Anne George

Among my all time favorites is Anne George's Southern Sisters mystery series.

Well, Nancy Drew and Carson Drew immediately spring to mind for the father/daughter thing . . . and I am completely hooked on BURN NOTICE. In fact, I think it's the season finale tonight -- but it's also Back to School Night, where I'm supposed to meet my twins' 4th grade teachers. What a nightmare! What to do?

By far and away the silliest was "Left Behind". The first of the end times series. I am not the greatest speller or grammarian (as my posts no doubt prove) but I spotted about a dozen typos in chapter one. I have no idea how it ended. By chapter 8 when abortion providers were committing suicide because there were no babies to kill, the book went sailing across the room at the trash can.

My dear wife loves the JD Robb series. I read four in a row. When I reached page 15 in book five, I asked dear wife if X was falsely accused, Y did it for Z reason. I didn't finish that one either.

After the Firm, I didn't really care for John Grisham. I do seem to be in the minority, but then, I don't like Bevis and Butthead either.

I read one Marget Truman novel. The killer made his appearance three pages from the end and killed for a reason totally obvious if you read from that point onward. The first 200 or so pages, no killer, no clues, no motive, neat story that didn't mean anything in the end. That book hit the trash too.

I am faced with a dilemma that ties in to today's discussion. An author friend sent me an ebook of theirs to read and review. It was OK, but had a protagonist that was just to much super hero for me. I am not sure how to right the review. I probably would not buy any more of that series.

Sorry, no names.

Carolyn Hart's Death on Demand series has a mother-son duo. Even though Annie Darling is the main character, her husband Max and her mother-in-law often feature in the action. And her relationship with the MIL is a main source of tension in those books. Max is actually a sort-of detective; Annie is a bookshop owner. And Laurel, the MIL, fancies herself as a detective, as well.

You could also say Stephanie Plum's Grandma Mazur is a sidekick of sorts. Granddaughter/grandmother?

The rest: No idea.

I've been reading Steven James series with FBI profiler Patrick Bower & his step-daughter Tessa- very interesting dynamic between these 2.
As for cousins aren't Deborah & Sigrid cousins?

My favorite father-daughter relationship in mysteries is between Deborah Knott and her dad, Kezzie. You may have heard of them.

Not an answer to any of your specific questions, but. . .I love how much Myron Bolitar (Harlan Coben)loves Mom and Dad. They sometimes give him bits of info that help him solve things, but mostly they just give him love.

Sue Dunlap's "zen" series has a heroine whose cop-brother helps/hinders her.

On tv, my current fav series, "The Good Wife," has a brother-sister relationship.

Hm, cousins. . . There's a series by a Southern writer whose initials are MM who writes about a judge with a passle of cousins, not to mention brothers. I like that series.
As for plots, just try to tell me the plot of THE MALTESE FALCON. Go ahead. I dare you.

Elaine, you make me laugh because I've never figured out the logic of that plot either.

I'd forgotten Sue Dunlap's "zen" series. You're right, Nancy, good tension there.

Liz, they are VERY distant cousins and had never worked together until THREE-DAY TOWN that comes out in November.

Anne George's Southern Sisters. Yes! We still miss her, don't we?

Sister and Mouse - loved that Anne George series.

Here are some siblings from my youth; Bobbsey Twins, Happy Hollisters, Hardy Boys.

There is a series with a single mother and a smartass daughter - perhaps a Mary Daheim? Dammit, now I have to engage my subconscious and you know how the brain hates that - the subconscious has it's own schedule to keep, you know.

I second the Maltese Falcon (or third it or whatever) as stupidest plot. But then again, I stopped reading the Stephanie Plum series - the deus ex machina with the cross-dressing school bus driver was plenty for me.

The best siblings are usually in the the mystery/romance series - Lori Foster, Cherry Adair, Joan Johnston, etc. And if you like fantasy/scifi, you have all kinds of families in the vampire/shapeshifter categories: J.R. Ward, Christine Feehan, Sherrilyn Kenyon, etc.

Kathy, that's kind of hilariously true about the vampire/shapeshifter. Vamps and werewolves are SO not loners, lol.

Mary Daheim's series has COUSINS. I will be back with the mother/daughter one - it's a cozy. I refuse to Google. It's the only thing that separates us from the animals.

Claire Malloy is the character. The brain is an amazing thing.

Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn kept in touch with his mother, Lady Alleyn

Joan Hess is the author. Have to confess - I called my sister - because clients waiting for draft contracts really have no respect for the brain's functions on other important tasks. So I called my sister - see how everything ties together in these blogs?

Rod Pennington has just started a new series, beginning with _Family Reunion_, with mother/daughter/son rejoining father in suspenseful undercover operations . . .

The rather "twee" Crossword Puzzle mysteries feature aunt and niece . . .

Hmm, I know more will come to me . . or to others in our illustrious crew.

A bit of a tangent, but it warms my heart that Blaize Clement's son, John, will be continuing her Catsitter series, which does have brother and brother-in-love helping Dixie when she gets in trouble . . .

Well---my very favorite family mystery is my very own work in progress with three generations of women. The grandmother, a fifth generation Floridian, is determined to bequeath her land grant estate on the Suwannee to her granddaughter. (Her hippie daughter will have nothing of it.) But when the child discovers her grandfather's skeleton, his skull crushed by a railroad spike, in an abandoned limerock pit, murder is added to the legacy and the sheriff suspects the grandmother. The three, grudgingly, cooperate to clear her. Their investigation uncovers a legacy of lies, fratricide and grand theft that forces them to redefine their relationship to the land, each other and the community.
The daughter, by the way, adores Deborah Knott. She envies Deborah's ability to keep her feet firmly planted in North Carolina soil despite political ideas and a passion for justice that would put a less grounded woman at odds with her community. My Lilly is too wracked with pain and anger to relax and enjoy the company of those she loves the way Deborah does.
Thanks, Holly and Janet, for the reference to Southern Sisters. I'm going to look them up right now.

How I could have overlooked Joan Hess's Claire Malloy and pain-in-the-patootie daughter, I don't know. Especially when Caron actually helps with the sleuthing. Deborah's family are more a hindrance to her snooping than a help and, of course, now that she's married to a Sheriff's deputy, he'd rather she not get involved in his cases.

In terms of father/son, there's Henning Mankell's Wallander series. The father doesn't help his son the police detective fight crime, but until the father's death partway through the series, Kurt Wallendar was helping to look after his dad somewhat. And later in the series his daughter Linda becomes a police officer and Wallander's inlaws are the major plot driver of the last book in the series.

Would Donato and Daughter by Sandra Scoppetone/Jack Early qualify?

Joan Hess's Maggody series has all kinds of relational pairings within it.

Thank you for explaining why "Memphis Beat" is so appealing, in spite of its slight plots. The show is really about the love between the characters, isn't it? I don't always remember the plots, but I always remember the characters and their relationships. By the way, there was a discussion on DorothyL about Inspector Lewis. Without any spoilers, the "she" found the body. Apparently, Mystery edits the original show from the British version to fit time frames, and their commercials.

Stephanie Plum book with the fire farter. That one took the cake.

However, one that had me going "you have GOT to be kidding" was "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". Could have knocked me over with less than a feather when I found out it was a true story. The way it was written made it impossible to accept it as even bad fiction.

Donato and Daughter DO qualify, Cathy. Thank you.

Okay, Lil, now I get it. I hadn't realized it was the same girl. Nevertheless, that the killer could have been there on the path at the exact instance she was sneaking in late? Give me a break.

I would count Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody and her son Ramses as a mother/son "sort of" team.

Oh, Margaret, how I WEPT at the end of the last Southern Sisters mystery. By then, we knew Anne George had passed away, and the end of that book was TRAGICALLY upbeat. Oh, dear, I am tearing up just thinking about it.

I am loving JUSTIFIED, which has a tangle of family members--all disreputable--but maybe it's because I feel as if I dated half those men back in high school.

Can I venture to say that in every Deborah book I LONG for Deborah's daddy to show up? For me, he's the icing on the cake in those books, and the suspense of waiting for him to appear to convey his wisdom just kills me.

Siblings or cousins in books: Brat Farrar (still a comfort read for me) and all the Mary Stewart romantic suspense novels.

Please don't shoot me but I am finding "The Girl Who" series a little hard to fathom. The first one was interesting but the second? SPOILER ALERT Walking around with a head wound like that? Really? And all those interconnecting people? Not sure I can even read the third.

Lora, I felt the same way about the first book. Supposedly, they get better and less violent, but I was so traumatized by the first one I have not been able to go on with the trilogy.

I'm nowhere near as widely read in the mystery world as many of my august friends here, but I haven't been able to come up with any additions to the answers given so far.
I tend to put books with silly plots down as soon as I see the silliness emerge . . . so can't report on those. I do love books/stories in which relationship between love interests (Sayers, Rozan, 'Castle') plays out in and around the mystery, and I enjoy books in which family dynamics are part of the picture (Jennifer Crusie's Dempseys!).
Must confess that Deb'rah Knott tops the family-involvement list for me!
"The Girl Who . . ." never gonna be read by me. Dark and darker are not my colors.

Yeah Lora, I didn't even get through the first one of those books. I do like dark books but the characters didn't interest me at all.

Anne George passed away when I was about half-way through her series. I had recently lost my mother suddenly, so my tears were already pretty close to the surface at the time. I was so devastated about losing Anne that I wasn't sure I could bring myself to go on and read those of her books that I had not gotten to. I occasionally re-read her books now but they always leave me in tears because we will never know what happens to those sisters!

As far as cousins are concerned: I'll bet that most of us could get together with cousins and piece together bits of family lore and discover the answers to some family matters that have long puzzled us and our relatives! On my dad's side of the family many of my female cousins and I have recently begun pooling our knowledge of the extended family. We are learning that Truth is indeed stranger than Fiction! It's getting harder for me to say about a novel, particularly a mystery, that "THAT could never happen in real life"! Um, Deb? Look at your family tree!

Rochelle, you're right about Amelia and Ramses, esp. after he grows up, they are equal partners.

Brat Farrar! Yes, Nancy. Although I have to admit I had to think twice about first cousins marrying.

Put me down as another who can't read The Girl books.

A real-life family mystery, Deb? Fascinating. I hope it won't be traumatic to the current generation, though. Weird things that happened 50 years ago get less weird as time passes.


Murder, mayhem, and (probably) Mafia - the story of my paternal ancestors. And those are the LESS bizarre family facts!

How about Joanne Fluke's Hannah, her sister and their mother--a bit disfuctional but funny.

Oh man, I can't believe I hadn't heard that Blaize Clement died. Just like some of you with Ann George (who I didn't discover until she was already gone), reading the next Dixie Hemingway story is going to be sad...

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