Saturday, December 5, 2009


Chemistry between people, or attraction, is a natural part of being human. We find ourselves attracted to others, sometimes in spite of our better judgment. The question isn’t really whether we find others attractive; it’s what we do about it. That chemistry between people is an integral part of real life; it’s also an interesting part of some very well-written crime fiction. What happens, for instance, when one’s attracted to someone who could very well be a murderer? Or when one’s committed a murder, but finds oneself attracted to the sleuth? That tension can add to a solid murder mystery plot.

Being involved in a murder investigation naturally throws people together, so it’s not surprising that those involved might be attracted to each other. The trouble is, though, that one of the suspects in a murder investigation is probably the killer. That’s the dilemma that Katherine Grey faces in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. In that story, Hercule Poirot investigates the murder of Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, a wealthy heiress who’s murdered while on her way from London to Nice. Ruth’s father, Rufus Van Aldin, hires Poirot to find Ruth’s killer. Katherine Grey is a fellow passenger on the train, and she’s drawn into the investigation when it’s found out that she was possibly the last person to speak to the dead woman. Among the suspects in the case is Derek Kettering, Ruth’s husband. He’s got a strong motive, too; he’s in desperate financial trouble and stands to inherit a fortune from his wife. Derek and Katherine find themselves drawn to each other, despite the fact that he’s accused of his wife’s murder.

A similar thing happens in Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), which Poirot investigates the murder of Madame Giselle, a well-known moneylender, while she’s on her way from Paris to London. The only suspects in the case are the other passengers in the cabin. Among those passengers is Jane Grey, a London hairdresser’s assistant. In the course of the investigation, Jane strikes up a friendship with Norman Gale, a dentist, and Jean Dupont, an archeologist, who were on the same flight. As Poirot looks into the case, he gets more and more concerned for Jane, since he hasn’t eliminated anyone as a suspect, including the young men she’s seeing. This attraction adds an interesting level of tension to the story. In the end, Poirot himself takes a hand in ensuring that Jane’s relationships don’t put her in danger.

In Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth, we see another example of potentially dangerous chemistry. Queen and his new partner, Beau Rummell, have opened a detective agency and are hired by wealthy and very eccentric Cadmus Cole. Cole won’t give them any details of the case, but both partners agree that they need Cole’s generous retainer. Before he can tell the detectives what he wants them to do, Cole dies at sea. So Queen and Rummell begin to look for the heirs to Cole’s considerable fortune. Queen’s sidelined with a case of appendicitis, so he sends Rummell to Los Angeles to find out of the heirs, Kerrie Shawn. It’s not long before Beau and Kerrie fall in love. Meanwhile, the other heir, Margo Cole, has also been located. She and Kerrie move into Cole’s mansion and are soon vying for his fortune. When Margo is shot, Kerrie becomes the prime suspect in her murder. Rummell is determined to have a future with Kerrie, despite the fact that she could be a murderer, and their attraction to each other adds an interesting layer of tension to the story.

It can add even more interest and tension to a story if the sleuth is attracted to one of the suspects. The sleuth’s judgment can be affected, and even it it’s not, it can put the sleuth in a very vulnerable position. For example, in Warren Adler’s Senator Love, Fiona FitzGerald, a Washington, D.C. homicide detective, investigates two deaths. One’s the wife of an Austrian diplomat. The other is the body of a young girl who went missing ten years earlier. Both are connected to Senator Sam Langford, a Florida senator whose many affairs have so far not kept him from gaining national attention. One of Langford’s employees asks Fiona to investigate the deaths quietly, so as not to attract media attention, and Fiona agrees. As she looks into the connection between these murders and “Senator Love,” as she calls him, Fiona finds herself increasingly drawn to the senator, even though he’s a major suspect in the deaths.

A similar thing happens in Susan B. Kelly’s Hope Against Hope, the first of her Nick Trevellyan series. Trevellyan isn’t impressed when successful businesswoman Alison Hope leaves London and sets up her software business in Little Hopford, He thinks of her as a London snob; she certainly doesn’t seem to be “one of us.” One night, Alison hosts a housewarming party to which her cousin Aidan, who’s turned up after a long absence, has been invited. Later that night, Aidan is bludgeoned to death at the bed and breakfast where he’s staying. Trevallyan is put on the case, and immediately, he suspects Alison. There’s good reason, too; with Aidan’s death, Alison inherits sole ownership of the family’s software company. It also turns out that Aidan’s been trying to extort money from his cousin. Against his better judgment, though, Trevallyan finds himself more and more attracted to Alison. Besides, there are other suspects in Aidan’s murder; he has an unsavory past, and more than one person was interested in settling a score with him. As Trevallyan works to uncover the truth about the murder, Alison begins to do her own investigating to clear her name. The chemistry between the two makes for an interesting level of suspense as the story unfolds.

Colin Dexter does a very effective job of integrating chemistry into the plots of his Inspector Morse/Sergeant Lewis series. Morse is a bachelor and quick to notice an attractive woman. When that woman seems to be mixed up in a murder he’s investigating, this adds interest and tension to the story. For example, in The Daughters of Cain, Morse investigates the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure and later, that of his former scout, Ted Brooks. One person who seems to be connected to both cases is Ellie Smith, a prostitute who counted McClure among her clients. She’s got another kind of connection to Brooks, so Morse believes that she’s mixed up in both murders. Despite the fact that she’s a suspect, Morse is powerfully attracted to Ellie, and the feeling is mutual. He doesn’t let that fact get in the way of his investigation – at least, not too much – but it’s clear that there is strong chemistry between the two. In fact, towards the end of the novel, Ellie disappears, and Morse makes it his mission to find her again.

The same kind of chemistry is clear in Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, in which Morse and Sergeant Lewis find the connections between a missing artifact, an American tourist’s sudden death and the murder of the lecturer attached to that tour. Laura and Ed Stratton are among an American touring group of several couples who are visiting historic English cities. The tour’s stop in Oxford is supposed to include Laura’s much-hyped donation of the Wolvercote Tongue – a famous jewel – to the Ashmolean Museum. On the day of the tour’s arrival at Oxford’s Randolph Hotel, Laura suddenly dies and her handbag, in which she’s put the jewel, is stolen. As Morse and Lewis begin to investigate what happened to Laura and what happened to the jewel, matters are complicated by the murder of Dr. Theo Kemp, the philandering lecturer attached to the tour. Morse’s personal life is also complicated by Sheila Williams, another lecturer on the tour. Sheila is one of Kemp’s former mistresses, so she becomes an important suspect in his murder. That fact doesn’t prevent Morse from becoming attracted to her, and Sheila is only too susceptible to Morse. The chemistry between them doesn’t stop Morse from investigating Sheila, and the reader can feel the tension as Morse is suspicious of her at the same time as he’s jealous when he finds her flirting with another man.

I’ve only mentioned a few novels where this natural human chemistry plays a role in the plot; there are many others. Do you think that chemistry adds to a murder mystery? Do you find it too distracting or unrealistic?


  1. Chemistry definitely adds to a murder mystery. It can cause the victim to be so preoccupied with feelings for the other that they don't realize what the killer is about to do. It adds another layer to the plot.

  2. I agree with you that Dexter does the chemistry thing quite well with Morse. I think Chemistry can be off putting at times. I've read a couple of Lisa Gardiner books where the male law enforcement person falls for the most unsuitable woman who appears to be a victim but turns out to be involved in the murder in some way - both of the ones I am thinking of have zero credibility to them - i think it has to be the kind of thing that most people can imagine themselves doing (even in a weak moment) otherwise it just screams 'unnecessary plot twist'.

  3. Mason - That's definitely what can make chemistry a really interesting layer to a plot. It can make the victim even mure vulnerable, and it can explain how the victim didn't see that the killer was going to strike. It can also engage the reader, who wants to tell the victim to watch out.

    Bernadette - You put your finger on a really important factor when it comes to chemistry - credibility. If the attraction between the sleuth and the suspect, or between the suspect and the victim isn't believable, then it seems just contrived. Not only does that take away from the plot itself, but it also makes the characters less likable and authentic. One of the first questions to ask about any plot element, and that includes chemistry, is, "Can I really see that happening? Would I do that?"

  4. I usually like chemistry to be kept as a subplot, unless it's part of the case itself as a motive. But I can get distracted if it's between two police officers, unless it adds conflict to the story.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  5. I'm with Elizabeth in that the chemistry needs to be the subplot (unless you are writing a romance). That said, the characters have to interact in believable ways and chemistry is definitely something that has to be taken into account.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Elizabeth - You have a solid point. There's definitely a case for bringing up chemistry when it's an important part of a plot. After all, as you mention, sometimes that chemmistry is a motive for murder. But like you, I get distracted when chemistry is unrealistic or it's so much a focus that it takes away from the real plot.

    Cassandra - You're absolutely right! Chemistry that isn't believable just takes away from the interest in a crime novel. If it's not authentic, then it turns out forced. That definitely takes away from a novel.

  7. I really like chemistry in a novel. I agree with Bernadette, though, it has to be done well and to be believable. I have read some pretty good examples, but of course, it would be a spoiler to give some of them away! I suppose the classic one is Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane: I believe they met when she was suspected of murder or have I got the order of the books wrong?

    I think the "chemistry between protag and person who turns out to be baddie" is quite useful to some series authors, particularly those "male wish-fulfilment" ones eg James Bond, where the main character has to have a different girlfriend in each novel - so she often turns out to be the baddie or to get killed (or both ;-) ).

  8. Maxine - I had to laugh when I read what you said about the James Bond-type stories. Very funny, but it does highlight the point I make (for which, thank you!) about how chemistry can add an interesting layer to a novel.

    You're right, by the way, about the Lord Peter Wimsey novel - it's called Strong Poison. In that novel, Wimsey falls in love with Harriet, even though she could very well be a murderess. That's an interesting example, and I almost included it. I'm glad you brought it up.