The Ties that Bind: Ten of the Best Family Mystery Novels
The first and most vital relationships we have are with our families. Our roles within our home life shape who we become as an adult, and it’s no secret that “sister,” “mother,” “wife,” or “daughter” carry certain expectations of behavior. Sacrifice. Nurture. Don’t ruffle feathers. Well, what happens when expectations go out the window? This list is some of my favorite mysteries that deal with families, and the women in them, and what can happen when those families start to misbehave.
The Old Battle Ax, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding
I first encountered Elizabeth Sanxay Holding in the fabulous anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives edited by Sarah Weinman. Holding penned her stories of crime, suspense, and out-of-the-ordinary female protagonists from the 1930s into the 1950s. The Old Battle Ax of the title is an aging woman who is overlooked and taken for granted by her family. That family thinks they’re manipulating her into helping cover up a murder, and claim an inheritance. Boy, are they wrong.
Girl with a Secret, Charlotte Armstrong
Charlotte Armstrong was ahead of her time with this title! She wrote from the 1930s through the 1970s. A gentle and emotionally satisfying piece of suspense, Girl With a Secret is a gothic featuring a big, isolated house filled with sinister relatives. A young wife whose husband is literally on a secret mission is sent to live with them, supposedly to keep her safe and hidden. This is another story where the bad guys make all kinds of assumptions about the protagonist, and most of them are dead wrong.
Bunny Lake Is Missing, Evelyn Piper
This one is the nightmare. A young mother goes to day care to pick up her child, and the child is not there. No one at the school has heard of the girl. No one the neighborhood has ever seen the mother with her daughter. Instead of helping look for the child, people are starting to think there never was any child. Unusually, I like the Otto Preminger movie slightly better than I like the book, but both are really well done. So well done that I had a really, really hard time making it through them, even though my son is well past his day care years.
The Woman He Loved Before, Dorothy Koonson
This is a story of new starts threatened by old secrets and hidden relationships. In it, a woman becomes obsessed with her husband’s first wife, and with the possibility he might have killed her. But she is carrying plenty of her own secrets that might just be coloring her interpretation of events. Those secrets involve the man she thought she loved, you know, before.
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
This is a pure gothic. We’ve got an old woman with a story to tell, an old ruined house full of secrets, and a writer with a deeply unusual family relationship that continues to haunt her. The suspense is wrapped around the secrets of multiple families, but it is all emotionally gripping. Perfect for fans of Downton Abbey, it’s a book that can be devoured in one long sitting.
Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
There are so many reasons to love this book. The characters are richly drawn. The writing is filled with crisp detail and lures your emotions in slowly before it grabs them by the throat. The setup is both complex and clear. And the families…those are a mess that extend well beyond the husband and wife who are dancing at its center. It’s the story of a woman who disappeared. That’s all I can tell you without spoiling things. Seriously. Everything else you need to read for yourself.
Dolores Claibourne, Stephen King
There are very few things left to stay about Stephen King. He is one of the most popular American novelists of all time. He is also genuinely one of our best storytellers. Few authors can create a character as fully, or build such a sharply honed sense of place and suspense, no matter how fantastic the situation. You believe what King’s characters tell you, even when you know maybe you shouldn’t. Dolores Claibourne is a tale of murder, suspicion, and assumptions. It’s also about how much can be forgiven—and how much can’t. Dolores is a woman in a bad marriage who has finally been driven too far. And she’s not the only one.
The Cherokee Rose, Tiya Miles
Family doesn’t have to be just immediate relatives. Family is clan, tribe, ancestry and the hopes, contradictions and beliefs that come with them. It can also be people we choose to bring into our lives. The Cherokee Rose takes on all of these. It finds its inspiration, and its storyline, in the under-examined and interwoven histories between African Americans and Native Americans. Cherokee Rose is the name of an old plantation at the center of these intersecting communities, and intersecting mysteries. Professor Miles is a MacArthur “genius grant” winner, and her book is filled to the gills with fascinating history. The mysteries and crimes the story is concerned with are mostly from the past, but this is definitely one of those books where you can say the past isn’t dead, or even past.
Thursday Night Widows, Claudia Pineiro and Miranda France
Families do not exist in isolation. They are shaped, sheltered, protected and sometimes betrayed by their communities. It’s community that is central to the lives, and much of the atmosphere, in Claudia Pineiro and Miranda France’s crime novel, Thursday Night Widows. At first glance, it might seem reminiscent of Desperate Housewives, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, it’s a book about wealthy families living in a gated community, but these families are Argentinians caught up in the turbulence of that country’s political and economic tumult in the early 1990s. These wives and mothers and their families navigate a world of stark contradiction, pervasive corruption, carefully hidden desperation, and, oh, yes, a cluster of dead husbands found at the bottom of a swimming pool.
Rebecca, Daphane DuMaurier
Of all the stories about family inheritance, Rebecca is my absolute favorite. It also revolves around one of the most famous houses in literary history. It’s a short book, and yet it still manages to be a layered, complicated, story about class, desire, greed, self-deception, sex, arrogance, and, of course, murder. Resist the temptation to watch the video adaptations. Most of them change the ending, and by doing that they rip the guts out of the story. And not one of them does real justice to the character relationships, especially not the multi-faceted, subtly drawn, entirely nameless protagonist.
Sarah Zettel is an award-winning author. She has written eighteen novels and multiple short stories over the past seventeen years in addition to practicing tai chi, learning to fiddle, marrying a rocket scientist and raising a rapidly growing son. The Other Sister is her newest novel.