The tag ‘psychological thriller’ is loosely attached to so many crime novels these days, but Elle Marr is an American author who really does delve deeply into the psychology of her characters and how it affects their behaviour. This could be one of the reasons her books have become Amazon bestsellers. In March 2023, her fourth novel, The Family Bones, was published and in it she makes the innovative move of introducing not just one psychopath, but a whole family of them.
Taking place in Oregon, the state Elle now calls home, the story’s main character, Olivia Eriksen, has been studying psychology, trying to understand what’s behind the murderous streak that runs in her family. Now, Olivia has agreed to return for a family reunion. Meanwhile, true crime podcaster Birdie Tan is following up a new lead she has on the Eriksens and their deeds.
We asked Elle to join us here on Crime Fiction Lover to tell us more about Olivia, Birdie and the whole matter of psychopathy.
What will crime fiction lovers love about The Family Bones?
The variety of storytelling devices. I chiefly focus on two narratives, but there are also journal entries written by an anonymous scribbler, and newspaper articles which detail the crimes committed by certain members of the Eriksen clan.
Who is Olivia, what makes her tick and what inspired your main character?
Olivia is the latest generation of the Eriksen family, a group of related individuals who sometimes present with psychopathy, sociopathy and any number of neurodivergent mental health conditions relating to Anti-Social Personality Disorder. As a psychology graduate student, she’s the perfect person to explore the consequences of her family’s ASPD because she can examine her relatives from an academic perspective – from an emotional distance. I was inspired to write Olivia for a number of reasons, but especially because I often wonder about the people who comprise a criminal’s inner circle – those friends and family who did not choose to commit a crime, and yet feel the consequences of that act in ripple effects.
You’ve created a dual storyline – can you tell us briefly about the two perspectives readers will discover?
Olivia’s storyline focuses on mental health and explores the spectrum of Anti-Social Personality Disorder from her psychology graduate student’s perspective, while the other, Birdie’s, is rooted in true crime podcasting and her own brand of armchair detective work.
Tell us about your main theme of nature versus nurture – Olivia studies it and did you study it too? What are your thoughts?
I did significant research on the debate over nature versus nurture for my last novel, Strangers We Know. Applying that knowledge to The Family Bones felt effortless as a result, like I’ve been preparing to write this story for years now. To me, nature seems like the clear domineering force that wins the argument – except for when nurture becomes violent or otherwise unhealthy; then nurture is the clear choice in the debate.
The title really catches the idea of skeletons in the cupboard. How do family, dark secrets and the past affecting the present play out in this novel? What interests you about these themes?
These themes are the bread and butter of most of my books; clearly, I am a fan of the idea that we can’t run from our mistakes, and that the sins of the father effect (at least) the next generation. Maya Angelou said that “people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Sometimes this idea reverberates louder and longer in the situations I concoct for my books. The Family Bones explores how previous generations’ actions continue to be felt, years down the line.
Where did the idea for a family of psychopaths come from? Does it run in the blood, do you think?
While doing a deep dive on psychopathy, I learned just how little we know about the condition. There are no genetic markers for it, but if it’s caught early enough, there is treatment available that can be effective depending on the individual. Otherwise, studies have observed that when someone is diagnosed with psychopathy, the condition can show up again in that same family. This tidbit got me thinking: what if psychopathy did show up among a set of relatives, multiple times, across generations? I took it one step further in The Family Bones, exploring what might happen when said family ended up together for a reunion at a secluded mountain resort.
The true-crime podcaster is becoming a fixture in crime novels and TV shows these days. What makes Birdie Tan interesting?
Her tenacity. Her love for her family and her personal stake in highlighting crimes against minority victims that are dismissed too quickly by the mainstream media. Birdie is not simply a true crime podcaster, but a stay-at-home-mom who researches crimes only once her five-year-old daughter has fallen asleep down the hall.
You’ve chosen a classic mystery setup that isolates the family with the killer, or killers. Tell us more about your setting and how it adds to the tension?
When I set out to write this story, I knew I wanted it set in the Pacific Northwest, preferably in an isolated mountain resort. While I didn’t find a real-life resort to base my fictitious version on, I did zoom in using Google Maps and discovered the Malheur Forest in eastern Oregon. As a francophone, I knew that malheur means misfortune or bad luck in French. From that point on, as I imagined my family reunion of psychopaths, I had my setting.
What are you reading right now and what other crime authors have influenced you and your style?
Currently, I’m reading Five Survive by Holly Jackson. It’s a young adult thriller, whose characters make fascinating choices. Stephen King and Gillian Flynn are each large influences on my writing, as well as Cara Black and You-Jeong Jeong.
You’ve already got two more books on the launchpad – The Alone Time and Your Dark Secrets. What can you tell us about them?
Thanks for asking. The Alone Time is my plane crash psychological thriller that explores what happens 25 years after a plane crash takes the lives of two parents but leaves their young children alone to survive the wild. Your Dark Secrets follows a cutthroat publicist in Los Angeles who discovers one of her famous clients murdered. These books publish in 2024 and I’m hoping readers love them both.
Is there anything you want to add?
My hope is that readers come away from The Family Bones feeling that mental health discussions are not so taboo after all. And, at the least, I hope readers have a greater appreciation for their own families, after spending time with the questionable morals and ethics of the Eriksens.
The Family Bones is out now. Grab a copy using the links below. Click here to visit Elle Marr’s website.