Return of the Prodigal in Crime Fiction

It is easy to understand why the story of the prodigal’s return has inspired succeeding generations of mystery writers. The arrival of a stranger in a small community often brings out into the open deep rooted tensions. If that stranger happens to be a son or daughter who has come back to the heart of a family following a lengthy estrangement, old grudges are apt to be rekindled and long concealed truths about ancient misdeeds may finally be brought to light. A prodigal is apt to disturb the comfortable certainties of those who stayed at home, particularly if he or she now lays unexpected and unwelcome claim to a handsome inheritance.

Elements of the Biblical tale appear in the work of many mystery writers, but few have made such effective use of it as Agatha Christie. Harry Lee, the returning black sheep in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938), makes repeated references to the parable. On first arriving at the family home for Christmas, he points out that in the original story, “the good brother” resented the prodigal’s return and draws a direct analogy with the hostility of his own brother, Alfred. Later, explaining why he has come back after an absence of twenty years, he claims that he too had tired of the “husks that the swine do eat or don’t eat, I forget which.” It is not until the end of the book, however, that the subtlety of Christie’s use of the old story becomes apparent: more than one “prodigal”, it emerges, has travelled back to Gorston Hall. In A Pocket Full of Rye (1953), Inspector Neele is quick to characterise Lance Fortescue as the prodigal son and Lance readily accepts that description after returning home from Paris following the death of his tycoon father. Again, the stay at home elder brother Percival is dismayed by Lance’s plan to rejoin the family business and another murder occurs. Christie’s use of the parable here is as explicit and as ingenious as in the earlier novel. Contrastingly, in Dead Man’s Folly (1956), her plot hinges upon the scheme of a returning prodigal, yet that is not apparent until the final stages of the book.

Josephine Tey’s celebrated novel of impersonation Brat Farrar (1949) draws in a different way upon the Biblical precedent. The eponymous Brat is persuaded to masquerade as Patrick Ashby, a presumed suicide who had disappeared eight years earlier and who would now have been about to come into his inheritance. When the family solicitor first meets Brat, he talks about the fatted calf whilst making it clear that this is more than just a simple matter of a prodigal’s homecoming, since the ultimate destination of a fortune is at stake. The plot described in Brat Farrar is discussed and emulated by the conspirators in Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree (1961), a novel of romantic suspense, while Martha Grimes’ The Old Fox Deceiv’d (1982) also has echoes of Tey’s book, although the atmosphere is macabre and the mystery more elaborately contrived. Grimes’ prodigal is a woman called Gemma Temple who claims to be Dillys March, the long lost ward of Colonel Titus Crael.

The prodigal theme is found often in the books of more recent writers working within the tradition of the classic whodunit, such as Unruly Son (1978) by Robert Barnard), Death Of A God (1987) by S. T. Haymon, Peter Robinson’s The Hanging Valley (1989) and most notably Ruth Rendell’s Put On By Cunning (1981), which concerns a female prodigal whose claim to an inheritance raises questions about her true identity. Yet books with a harder edge may also derive some elements from the old story, Blue City (1947) by Kenneth Millar (who became better known as Ross Macdonald) is an example in which an angry young man returns to his home town and becomes involved in an attempt not only to solve the mystery of his father’s murder but also to understand how his father contributed to the town’s ethos of corruption. For any writer fascinated, like Millar, by complex family relationships, the tale of the returning prodigal provides countless thought provoking plot possibilities.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in The Oxford Companion to Crime and Mystery Writing)