The politics, history and healing power of a family has always intrigued me.
When I was working on my first Inspector Starrett mystery, The Dust of Death, I realised pretty soon that the ideas I had for Starrett's personal story were too much to put in one book. Quite simply, there would not have been enough time left to deal with the crime element of the tale. I started to feel comfortable with the approach of writing it as part one of a trilogy, with The Dust of Death (2007), Family Life, just published (Sept 2009) and Hello Darkness My Old Friend, which is still to be written.
In fact the minute I completed work on The Dust of Death, I immediately started to write Family Life, going from the last sentence of The Dust of Death straight to "Hey Ma, where's Joe?"- the first sentence of Family Life. No breaks for newspapers; DVDs; checking the snail-mail or the email; checking on the television or radio for the news; going for a dander; enjoying a pit-stop for a cup of coffee, or even, my favourite tipple, a cup of tea. No Sir. I didn't even pause for one of Bakersville's magic Bakewell Buns. By the time I'd completed the first 20 or so pages, you know where the Sweeney family, siblings, partners, wives and children gather together in their ones and twos to celebrate the birthday of the patriarch of the family, Mr Liam Sweeney, I realised I needed to stop and spend some time getting to know the family properly before I could write more about them. Pretty much as you do when you're getting to know any real family. And, as is the case with any real family, it's not something you can do overnight. You have to take your time and let the getting to know happen organically, naturally, if you will. In writing the book I had to take time to allow the family members to have their own voices so the mystery could evolve.
I've always thought it incredible how the family unit will act as the basic support system for its members. I remember watching a very realistic bio-movie of The Moors murderers. My jaw was literally on the ground in disbelief as I viewed a family confrontation where Myra Hindley's sister laid it out, in very graphic detail, for her mother exactly what Myra and Brady had been up to. This was all the more shocking as it transpires little did the sister know. The mother, without batting an eyelid, chastised Myra's sister, saying essentially that anyone who went against Myra was no daughter of hers. The discussion took place across the dinner table - the focal point of most family debates. The impact of that scene is still vividly burnt in my mind and I play it over and over again. I keep trying to figure out how a mother could knowingly protect a monster; even if the monster in question was her own daughter.
Maybe therein lies the secret. Myra was a member of her family and as such the mother was helpless to do anything other than continue to protect her. Yes, maybe she did weigh it up and figured that what she, the mother, was doing was dealing in acceptable loses in that she was happy to lose contact with one daughter (Myra's sister) so that the other daughter (Myra) would not lose her liberty. But I kept thinking it was most likely her mind fast forwarding through this process. The decision making process most likely, as far as the mother was concerned, had nothing whatsoever to do with right and wrong. I felt it was as basic as: "You're either for our family or you're against us."
But what then of the families, whose lives had been destroyed, obliterated even, when their babies didn't come home? Did Myra Hindley's mother not stop and consider them in her thought process?
There's one scene in Family Life where Inspector Starrett is outside the Sweeney farmhouse and he's kicking his heels until he can go back in and start to interview the various members of the household again. He goes for a wee dander, never straying too far from the house. Starrett acts as our camera in this scene as he enjoys the splendours of the rich Donegal countryside. Suddenly he hears the plaintive cries of a runt from a litter of cats as the mother, apparently cruelly, leaves the weak and deformed runt, essentially meaning that in the countryside, it will die, or be killed. Either way the runt's end will most probably come pretty quickly. Starrett wonders how the mother of the runt can ignore the heart-wrenching wail and leave one of her own behind. Then he realises that if the mother doesn't make this sacrifice she is risking the remainder of the litter. Maybe Myra's mother should have taken an excruciating painful lesson and treated Myra as a runt. Cruel? Perhaps, but then don't you see, by not allowing Myra's sister's sense to prevail, at least one other innocent life was lost, on top of which, her own family was ultimately destroyed as well.
Still, at the heart and soul of every great family you will invariably find a compassionate, strong, yet gentle mother who will be called on to make such decisions. This magical, generous, considerate, compassionate, taken-for-granted woman, will put her children's and husband's lives before her own on a daily basis. She will have the patience of a saint, the wisdom of King Solomon and will try to mend, heal and fix every single thing you can think of, including, sometimes even a broken heart.
Starrett's mother is the 7th daughter of a 7th daughter. That's just the way it turned out. In my getting to know the Starrett family it became clear that Starrett had benefited in his life from that extra something, maybe even something bordering on the supernatural. For a time I even considered he might be the seventh son of a seventh son, but then I felt that having him the son of the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter would make him a gentler person and a person who perhaps wouldn't be quite so preoccupied with this special gift. To me, this, all of this, how people are related to each other; how they relate to each other; the composite of the family members; the personalities of our relatives; how we fit into the family hierarchy, all have a major impact on our personality and on our lives. Each family will be composed of: the passengers; the motivators; the observers; the wreckers; the builders; those preoccupied with grudges and by long running feuds, you know who did what to whom and when; and those whose only ambition is for the family to be looking to, and surviving, the future.
It would be my opinion that running a successful family is pretty much a full time occupation and as organisations some exist so successfully that governments would do well to take a well-worn leaf from their book.
In Family Life, Starrett is faced, as I was when I completed the first twenty pages, with discovering the workings and the secrets of the Sweeney Family, a proud family who have farmed the land just outside Ramelton in Donegal since 1875. At the same time he's also discovering how he fits in with his own family and during the course of the book he realises that the family unit does not just consist of parents and children. Loudon Wainwright III put it in perspective perfectly with his fine lyric on the song Dump The Dog (Fame and Wealth CD):
I'm a son and I'm a father
I am just a middle man.
Our family members are the ones we want to share our proudest moments with and, because they're our family, we somehow feel that the vanity is no longer a sin. Our families are the ones we expect most from. We also live with the burden that we know they are the ones on this earth who expect most from us. Equally, deep down, we know they will still accept us for all our flaws and faults. Unless of course we're a runt and then they'll most certainly be taxed with wildly mixed emotions about us. Who'd be a mother, eh?
And now the bit before I go:
This time I’ve been reading and enjoying:
Snowball by Alice Schroeder
The Gates by John Connolly
In a way both these books are connected in that Snowball is so big you’ll not be able to close the door of your room while you’re reading it and on The Gates you’ll not want to close the door to your room while you’re reading it for fear of what might be on the other side. The Gates is excellent, a brilliant display of story-telling. I haven’t read a book in ages that I so much wanted to read again and, as soon as possible
Also I listened to (and watched) The Johnny Cash American TV series featuring: JC, Dylan, Derek and The Dominios, Louis Armstrong, The Everly Bros. Incredible footage, beautiful performances, just totally amazing!