As I’ve mentioned in other posts, it’s not easy to be an investigator of crime, especially if one’s a professional (e.g. a police officer or private detective). The hours are long and irregular and the work is dirty, troubling and sometimes dangerous. It’s just as hard (some would say harder) to be in a relationship with a sleuth. As if the hours and the nature of the work weren’t stressful enough, many sleuths are deeply involved in their jobs. These sleuths may be motivated by a passion for the truth, a sense of justice or something else, but they are, so the saying goes, “married to the job.” There’s also real potential danger to being a sleuth’s romantic partner. All of this means that the sleuth’s personal life can be complicated, to say the least. It takes a special person to be a sleuth’s “better half.”
For some sleuths, the question of a personal life is moot because they remain single. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot are bachelors. They certainly don’t object to marriage in the abstract, but they’re so caught up in what they do that for them, relationships are not a priority. In fact, Poirot’s attitude is neatly captured in Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), in which Poirot finds the killer of a young woman who lives in a student hostel. As he’s investigating the death, he gets to know the other residents of the hostel, several of whom are attracted to other residents. Of this, he thinks
“Admittedly, there must be love, young people must meet and pair off, but he, Poirot, was mercifully past all that.”
“Hardboiled” detectives such as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer also avoid long-term romantic entanglements. Hammer, for instance, has affairs with many different women, but remains single.
We can also see in Mike Hammer another way in which sleuths face the challenge of having a personal life: some sleuths choose a fellow-sleuth. Hammer, for instance, has many, many affairs, but the truth is that he’s deeply attached to his secretary, Velda. Velda, for her part, is just as attached to her boss, and shares his interest in his cases. That’s part of what makes them compatible.
The same is true of Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their partnership begins when, young, poor and adventurous, they join forces as adventurer/sleuths. Their relationship endures in part because they’re both curious and they share a passion for solving mysteries. Moreover, they complement each other, so that each comes to depend on the other.
Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane also work well together as a sleuthing team, and this helps to cement their relationship. Harriet’s not a professional sleuth, but as a mystery novelist, she’s got a keen interest in crimes ard mysteries, and she’s bright and resourceful. In novels such as Gaudy Night, Have His Carcase and Busman’s Honeymoon, we see the way in which their shared interest in sleuthing is part of the reason that Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane form a lasting couple.
We also see an interesting romantic relationship between sleuth partners in Robin Cook’s Jack Stapleon and Laurie Montgomery. Both are medical examiners. They sometimes work different shifts, but they share a unique understanding of each other’s job. They also share an intense curiosity about unexplained phenomena. While their personal relationship is sometimes rocky, they have not just a professional bond, but a personal one as well.
One of the most interesting romance/sleuthing partnerships is that of bounty hunter Stephanie Plum and police officer Joseph Morelli, Janet Evanovich’s creations. They have a very tempestuous relationship that’s held together mostly by their attraction for each other – and their interest in solving crimes. At first, they neither like nor really trust one another, although that doesn’t stop them from being involved. As time goes on, they develop more respect for one another and their partnership becomes (at least a little) more stable.
What happens, though, when the sleuth doesn’t choose a fellow-sleuth? Some fictional sleuths seem able to maintain strong relationships even when they’re not with fellow investigators. For example, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti has been married for over twenty years to his wife, Paola, a very strong character in her own right. She’s a liberal-minded professor who’s passionate about her own egalitarian tendencies despite her wealthy, aristocratic background. She doesn’t officially assist Brunetti in his cases, but she often serves as his conscience. In fact, in Fatal Remedies, she calls his attention to the crime of sex trafficking in Venice in a dramatic way. One night, she throws rocks through the window of a travel agency because of its involvement in arranging sex tours of Thailand. She also gives him important insights that help him solve cases.
The same is true of Rita Mae Brown’s Pharamond “Fair” Haristeen. He’s a well-known and much sought-after equine veterinarian who’s also the ex-husband (and later, husband) of Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth. Fair sometimes worries about Harry’s sleuthing, because her curiosity frequently gets her into trouble. Still, he’s supportive of her and often gives her very valuable information. He’s a relatively strong character in his own right, and his somewhat “longheaded” approach to thinking about cases is a helpful complement to Harry’s own occasional tendency to act before she thinks.
In this, Fair is similar to Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and husband of Precious Ramotswe, Alexander McCall Smith’s sleuth. Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is low-key, cautious and thoughtful, and for this, Mma. Ramotswe admires him. He’s also supportive of her detective work, although he sometimes has doubts about it. Mma. Ramotswe depends very much on her quiet, hard-working husband for help and insights. Although he doesn’t officially join her on her cases, he gives her valuable ideas and assistance.
Also a low-key, but very supportive partner is Caroline Graham’s Joyce Barnaby, who’s married to DCI Tom Barnaby. She’s by no means a “doormat,” but she realizes how important Barnaby’s career is to him. She’s got her own interests (e.g. community activities), and tries to keep the Barnaby home stress-free – not an easy task, what with Barnaby’s career and their headstrong daughter, Cully’s, assertive personality. In return, Barnaby is deeply devoted to his wife.
The same might be said of Inspector Reg Wexford, Ruth Rendell’s sleuth. Like Barnaby, Wexford’ been married for a long time. His wife, Dora, has come to accept her husband’s strange hours and dedication to his cases. Like Joyce Barnaby, Dora’s no weakling; she has her own pursuits and interests. In fact, her interest in fighting land developers ends up getting her kidnapped by eco-terrorists in Road Rage. It’s in that novel, too, that we see Wexford’s commitment to and love for his wife as he tries desperately to find Dora and the other hostages and free them before they’re killed.
My own Joel Williams also has a supportive and helpful partner – his wife, Laura. Laura Williams is an Assistant District Attorney; her background as a prosecutor gives her husband a very useful point of view. Her perspective on the cases that Williams investigates helps him to sift through the clues and make sense of them.
So, in the end, what does it take to be the partner of a sleuth? It seems to take patience, respect for the sleuth, and an understanding of the kinds of stressors that affect the sleuth. It also seems to work best if the sleuth’s partner is “in the business,” too, or at least understands what drives the sleuth. Finally, it seems to take a person with a steady, strong personality, even if that personality is low-key. Such a partner isn’t easy to find. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why sleuths such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse stay single.
What’s your view? Which are your favorite “better halves?”