Agatha Christie's Dysfunctional Families (and mine)

Thumbnail Kingfisher Hill PB Spring
The dysfunctional Devonport family are at the heart of Sophie's latest Poirot novel

Written by Sophie Hannah, author of the Poirot continuation novels

Agatha Christie and I have something in common - and I’m not only talking about Hercule Poirot! Long before I began to write my Poirot continuation series, I had a strong interest in dysfunctional families, and in using fiction to explore their dynamics. The protagonist of my first crime novel, Little Face, is a new mother, Alice, who is convinced that her husband has swapped their new baby for a different baby. She is completely unable to trust her nearest and dearest, who, the evidence suggests, might not have her best interests at heart...

Agatha Christie’s fascination with similarly warped familial dynamics is evident in many of her novels: After the Funeral, Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, Crooked House and The Hollow, to name a few. The vivid and sophisticated explorations of the various relationships in these books, combined with Christie's plotting genius, make for a wonderfully rich reading experience. Christie understood that a family - with all its in-laws, step-relatives and sub-branches - is a fascinating and ever-evolving organism (she’s particularly brilliant on how these complex dynamics play out when it comes to make will-making!). A family, like any other living thing, can contain the odd sub-optimal cell that, if left unchecked, runs the risk of contaminating the whole (and by contaminate, I mean murder!).

One of the best examples of a dysfunctional family in Agatha Christie's work is in Appointment with Death in which the murder victim, Mrs Boynton, terrorises her younger relatives (who are also her carers) using nothing more than the threat of her disapproval. Christie conveys this sort of psychological brainwashing in an expert way, long before psycho-emotional abuse was as well understood or as common a subject of fiction as it is today. Characters in the novel keep asking members of the Boynton family, ‘Why are you so scared of her? What are you afraid she might do?’ They simply don’t understand that the fears of the Boynton family members have nothing to do with what actions Mrs Boynton might take if they disobey her; she has been psychologically manipulating them since birth to believe that if they displease her, something terrible will happen. Children subjected to psychologically abusive parents often grow up believing this. They fear existential annihilation if they displease the abusive parent, and no physical violence needs to be involved at all. This sort of terror is very hard to grasp for anyone who has not experienced it. Christie’s portrayal of the Boynton family shows that she understood this phenomenon in a deep and compassionate way.

The Devonport family is the highly dysfunctional centre of the mystery in my 2020 Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill. The novel begins with Poirot and his sidekick, Inspector Edward Catchpool, travelling to the Kingfisher Hill Estate at the request of Richard Devonport, to investigate the murder of his brother, Frank. Before they arrive at the Devonport country pile, Poirot explains to Catchpool that the family never speaks of the recent murder. Instead, they all behave as if Frank had never existed at all. Although travelling at Richard’s invitation in order to ensure that the mystery of Frank's murder is solved, Poirot has been told most firmly by Richard that the reason for his and Catchpool's visit must remain a secret from the rest of the family. Poirot tells Catchpool:

‘Above all, Richard Devonport impressed upon me that no one must ever know that I was summoned by him. He believes that he would be disowned if that fact were to come to light.’

Catchpool is understandably perturbed by the information about the Devonports’ odd behaviour. He says,

‘Poirot, this is irregular in the extreme.’
‘Non, non, Catchpool. You make the customary error.’
‘What error?’
‘Your belief that the ways and the habits, the anxieties and the neuroses of this family are so extraordinary. I would expect to find something similarly incomprehensible in most families. Think of the impositions of your own mother, Catchpool. The vacances a mer that neither one of you enjoys — is that not both a senseless tradition and one that cannot be broken?’

I wanted to show, with this short passage, that we all tend to notice and point to particular habits of other families that we find deeply weird, but at the same time we are often blind to the strangeness of our own. When we take an objective look at our family customs and unspoken rules, we can always find oddities there that we only see as normal because we've been practising them for years without thinking about how dysfunctional they might look to outsiders. For example, in my family of origin, an unspoken rule was that no one was ever allowed to stay up later than my dad. When my dad went to bed, everyone else had to go to their bedrooms too if they weren't already in there. I only realised this was a rule, and how impossible it was to break, when my boyfriend came to stay one Christmas. My dad had just announced that he was off to bed, and my boyfriend said, 'I'm going to stay up for a bit. Vertigo's on TV soon - I think I'll watch it.' The whole family froze in horror. We all knew that it was unthinkable for any of us to remain in the living room watching TV after my dad went upstairs, but how could I explain this to a new boyfriend?

As a regular visitor to an earlier boyfriend's home, I used to think it was crazy that they absolutely would not tolerate the idea of me either eating a meal with them or seeing them eat. When I was at their house and it was time for them to have a meal, I was told that I had to wait in the lounge with the door closed. I was not allowed to leave that room. Only once they'd finished eating did the door open again. As I say, I thought it was bizarre... but is it really any more bizarre than having to drag a guest to the utility room, close the door and whisper to him, with your heart pounding in fear, that he simply cannot watch Vertigo downstairs because your father wants to go to sleep?

As for me, I'm just as weird as everyone else. I can be very tidiness-obsessed (a bit like Poirot!) A guest in my house once took a sip from his mug of coffee, then winced. 'What's wrong?' I asked him. 'There's a big piece of fluff in my drink,' he said. 'Oh. Erm...I think I actually put that in there,' I admitted. My friend was understandably baffled as to why I would drop a large chunk of fluff into his coffee. I explained: when I see fluff or anything like that on the floor - anything that shouldn't be there - my first instinct is to pick it up and put it somewhere so that I can take it to the bin later. Often, if there's a half-drunk drink, I throw the fluff in there because - and I'm going to italicise this to highlight my own madness - at my most tidiness-obsessed, I would rather give up on the undrunk part of the drink than have both an out-of-place mug and a piece of fluff in the same room for a moment longer. Weird, right? (Listen: when I write about very strange people, I know whereof I speak. I am whereof I speak).

In The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, the precise nature of the Devonport family’s dysfunctionality is actually a clue as to the identity and motives of the murderer. If you can work out what sort of effect this particular family dynamic would have upon its members, you might just get one step closer to solving a fictional murder or two! There's a challenge for you! And now I must go and do today's next unapproved carpet fluff patrol...


Sophie Hannah is an internationally bestselling crime fiction writer whose books have sold millions of copies worldwide. Her crime novels have been translated into 49 languages and published in 51 countries. Her psychological thriller The Carrier won the Crime Thriller of the Year Award at the 2013 UK National Book Awards. In 2014 and 2016, Sophie published The Monogram Murders and Closed Casket, the first new Hercule Poirot mysteries since Agatha Christie's death, both of which were national and international bestsellers. She went on to publish a third, The Mystery of Three Quarters in 2018 which was an instant bestseller, and her fourth Poirot novel, The Killings at Kingfisher Hill is out now. Sophie helped to create a Master’s Degree in Crime and Thriller Writing at the University of Cambridge, for which she is the Course Director. She is also the founder and Director of the Dream Author Coaching Programme for writers, author of the self-help book How To Hold a Grudge: From Resentment to Contentment - The Power of Grudges to Transform Your Life, and the creator and presenter of the How To Hold a Grudge podcast. Sophie lives with her husband, children and dog in Cambridge, where she is an Honorary Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College.

Sign up to the newsletter to receive The World of Agatha Christie: 1920s magazine