Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Tangled Up In Clue

One of the things that makes the best fictional sleuths compelling is that they are real, authentic humans, like the rest of us. That means that they don’t work and live in a vacuum. They interact with other characters and they develop feelings about those characters, just as in real life, we all interact with others and develop relationships with those people. It can add a compelling level of interest (and by the way, an interesting sub-plot) when we learn about the sleuth’s personal involvements and entanglements with the other characters, including the suspects, and when we can see how that affects his or her investigation.

Sometimes, the sleuth’s involvement with suspects doesn’t lead directly to a relationship, but we still see how that involvement and those feelings affect the sleuth. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, never marry, nor do they develop close friendships (other than with their biographers, of course). However, they are both deeply affected by their feelings for some of the suspects they encounter. For example, in Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, Holmes is engaged to find a damaging photograph of the King of Bohemia with a former lover, Irene Adler. The king broke off his relationship with Adler because she wasn’t his social equal and now, he’s afraid that his marriage to his fiancĂ©e, Clotilde Lothman von Saxe-Meningen, will be compromised if that photograph is made public. Holmes tracks the photograph down, only to find that Adler, who has the picture, has outwitted him and escaped. She leaves Holmes a note, promising not to publicize the photograph provided that the King of Bohemia leaves her in peace. Holmes has so much respect for her wits, her beauty and her ethical decision not to compromise the king that her refers to her always very respectfully as, “the woman.” In fact, when Holmes reports to the king that the matter is settled and there will be no publicity, the king offers to pay Holmes whatever he asks. The only request Holmes makes is to keep the photograph.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot is similarly affected by the Countess Vera Rossakoff. In fact, she’s been called Poirot’s “Irene Adler.” A flamboyant, elegant and very accomplished jewel thief, we meet her in two short stories, The Double Clue and The Capture of Cerberus and the novel The Big Four. She’s said to be a Russian countess, but there is no real proof of her origins, and in fact, she’s a rather mysterious character. She’s an accomplished liar with what seems to be a “heart of gold” and Poirot is smitten with her. In fact, he’s so taken with her that, in The Double Clue, he allows her to get away with theft. In that story, Marcus Hardman, a wealthy collecter, hires Poirot to find out who’s stolen a fortune in jewels from his safe during a tea party at which Rossakoff is a guest. When Poirot finds out that she’s responsible for the thefts, she doesn’t deny it. He’s so smitten, though, that he lets her escape after she returns the jewels to him.

While neither Holmes nor Poirot are “officially” romantically linked, some fictional sleuths are romantically entangled with suspects. This makes it both difficult and intriguing as the sleuth uncovers the murderer. For example, in Laurien Berenson’s A Pedigree to Die For, Melanie Travis, Berenson’s amateur sleuth, investigates the murder of her uncle Max Turnbull and the disappearance of one of his and his wife’s prize Standard Poodles. One of the major suspects in the case is Sam Driver, an extremely attractive software designer who’s a fellow Standard Poodle breeder. The conflict that Melanie feels as she begins to date Sam, while at the same time suspecting he might be the murderer, adds interest to this story, and lays the groundwork for the rest of the Melanie Travis series.

We see the same conflict in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, where Inspector Morse and Detective Sergeant Lewis are investigating the murders of a retired Oxford don and his former scout. One of the chief suspects in that case is Ellie Smith, a prostitute who’s been involved with the Oxford don and is related to his former scout. Morse is attracted to Ellie, who’s just as taken with him. At the same time as they thoroughly enjoy each other’s company, we also see the conflict they both have between their interest in each other and their realization that he’s investigating a case in which she is a major suspect. As the novel ends, Ellie disappears after living Morse a touching note. Morse resolves to find her again; in fact, here’s the last sentence of the novel:

And above all else in Morse’s life there remains the searching out of Ellie Smith since as a police officer that is his professional duty and, as a man, his necessary purpose.

We also see this conflict in Susan B. Kelly’s Hope Against Hope, the first in her Nick Trevellyan series. In that novel, Inspector Nick Trevellyan meets successful businesswoman Alison Hope, a newcomer to the small town of Little Hopford. He’s immediately prejudiced against her, but at the same time, he’s also attracted to her. When her cousin, Aidan Hope, is murdered after her housewarming party, Nick suspects that Alison may be guilty of the crime. Again, that conflict between professional duty and personal feelings adds richness to this story.

A sleuth’s personal involvements with suspects don’t, of course, always have to be romantic. For instance, in Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Scone Cold Dead, Scottish dancer Liss Maccrimmon arranges for her former Scottish dancing troupe to visit her adopted town of Moosetookalook, Maine. One night, Liss throws a Scottish feast for her former fellow dancers and the roundly-despised company manager, Victor Owens, dies shortly afterwards. His death is ruled a murder when it’s determined that he ate a scone with mushrooms, to which he was violently allergic. As Liss realizes that someone in the company must have murdered Victor, she’s conflicted by the loyalty she still feels to many of the company members. At the same, time, though, she’s under suspicion of murder herself, so she feels compelled to find out who really killed Owens.

Sometimes, the sleuth isn’t personally involved with suspects in a mystery, but with other characters that figure in the story. That’s the case with Inspector Wexford in Ruth Rendell’s Road Rage. In that story, Chief Inspector Wexford and his team are on the trail of some radical environmentalist protesters who have determined to stop the development of a roadway through the woods around Kingsmarkham. What starts out as a peaceful protest turns ugly when several townspeople are kidnapped, including Wexford’s own wife Dora, who's on a town committee that's working to stop the roadway construction. Although he’s personally involved, Wexford is put on the case and works with his team to free the hostages. Wexford’s feelings for Dora add a real level of suspense and tautness to this story.

Of course, with every advantage, there’s also a disadvantage. The sleuth’s personal entanglements can be distracting and sometimes, contrived. However, when they’re done well, such relationships can also add depth and suspense, as well as character development to a good mystery.

Do you agree? Do you enjoy mysteries that personally involve the sleuth with the other characters? Or do you prefer the sleuth to stay neutral?


  1. I do like the sleuth to be involved in some way...whether they're attracted to a suspect, know a suspect, befriend a suspect. It makes the sleuth have a little more at stake.

    Conversely, it's also interesting if a sleuth really *dislikes* a suspect or 'has it in' for one. They can get tunnel vision, which can be a nice touch.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - You've got an interesting point. There is more at stake if the sleuth is involved in some way with at least one of the people in the case. You're also right that it adds an interesting touch if the sleuth *doesn't* like the suspect. It makes for an added layer of suspense. That happens in Agatha Christie's Mrs. McGinty's Dead. In that story, a man's already been convicted of murder and Poirot is asked to investigate the case when the arresting officer begins to think the man wasn't guilty. Poirot takes a dislike to the man who's been convicted, and it's really interesting to see how he deals with that as he finds out the truth.

  3. It can certainly be exaggerated, but Road Rage is a novel I like particularly because Reg Wexford shows his strong feelings for Dora more openly!

    What I don´t like is when the detective is too strongly mixed up it the criminal plot all the time (read: the Scarpette trend where the whole world is after the blameless heroine). Once or twice in a long series is credible, but I like this sheen of probability in a crime series.

  4. Dorte - I had to laugh out loud when I read your comment about the Scarpetta novels! You're exactly right that that kind of approach stretches the limits of credibility very much too far. It's interesting, also, that you mention the way that Road Rage shows the "husband" side of Wexford; I agree that that's one of the novel's appeals. It really makes Wexford a human with whom we can identify.

  5. I always got worried when Morse liked someone because I knew something bad was going to happen to them. A skillful writer can add new dimensions to their sleuth when he/she has strong feelings for one of the suspects. In "Payment in Blood" Inspector Lynley is constantly battling his feelings of jealousy for Lady Helen's beau, which leads him down roads which Havers disagrees with. In the hands of a less skilled writer, however, romantic entanglements can become silly and pointless. If it adds to the portraits of the characters, then fine. If it's simply a side-plot that goes nowhere then I'd prefer it wasn't there.


  6. Elspeth - How funny that you'd mention that about Morse! When I read your comment, I thought of The Dead of Jericho, where he falls for Anne Scott, only to end up investigating her death.... And of course, I'm always glad when you bring up Elizabeth George: her Lynley is such a great character, isn't he? What a fine blend of depth with the focus on the plot that we mystery lovers want.

  7. I feel the same way Dorte does about the Scarpetta novels!

    One of my favourite mystery authors is Deborah Crombie. The relationship between Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James is credible, and it's part of the appeal of the series to me.

  8. Belle - You put that so well! In order for a sleuth's relationship with other characters, whether or not it's a suspect or someone else, it's got to be credible. You're right that that credibility adds to the appeal the Kincaid/Jones series. To be honest, I think that Crombie does that a little better than Susan Kelly does with her Nick Trevellyan/Alison Hope series. I really like the Kelly series, but I just think that relationship could be a bit more "naturally" done.