Saturday, January 16, 2010

"Better Halves..."

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?”


  1. My favourite 'better half' is that superb cook the academic Paola Brunetti, wife of Guido in Donna Leon's books. She has a social conscience and despite coming from an aristocratic family has her feet firmly on the ground. I also like the fact that her father has a sense of humour and a good political brain, when he refers to Sicily, Calabria and Naples as the 'occupied territories'.

  2. I think that being a successful "other half" to a sleuth is probably the same as any successful pairing - so long as each person in the partnership has a fulfilling career/life activity, then the partnership works. In fiction (books and on screen) partnerships with sleuths (as everyone else?) often break down when children come along, and the sleuth is always out sleuthing just when the nappies need changing, etc. ;-)

    I like the partnership of Irene Huss and her chef husband - he is very supportive and works the night or day shift to dovetail with her own shift work. He also cooks the family meals ;-), and is very fond of Irene.

    Harry Bosch (Connelly) and Elvis Cole (Crais) are examples of sleuths who like certain women and even have relationships now and again, but as they are "married to the job" these don't work out.

    I have just read Siren of the Waters which is in part the story of a failed marriage/partnership. Partly it is because the sleuth half is so successful that the non-sleuth half is jealous, but in this case, state politics plays an evil hand in terms of the sleuth's postings and the career of the non-sleuth (this part of the novel is set in Communist-regime Solvakia).

    One stable sleuth/non-sleuth relationship that I don't think works well is Alex and Robin in the Jonathan Kellerman books. The relationship started out with some tension in it regarding Alex's time committment, but in later books, the couple each "do their own thing" in a rather mechanical way and don't seem to really engage in each other. Sad.

  3. Norman - I like Paola Brunetti, too! Not only is she brilliant and, as you say, a great cook : ), but she's got such an effective blend of practicality and idealism. You're right, too, that although she comes from money and position, that doesn't stop her from being aware of what's really going on in Venice. I think that may be why she has such respect for what Guido is trying to accomplish. And I agree - her father is a terrific character : ).

    Maxine - You're right; there probably isn't much difference btween a successful relationship with a sleuth and a successful relationship with anyone else when it comes to basics. It's funny, as I read that part of your post, I was thinking of Laurien Berenson's Melanie Travis and Liza Marklund's Annika Bengtzon. Both are in stable relationships, but the stress of trying to juggle work/sleuthing and home life can cause tenstion.

    You make a good point, too, about both Elvis Cole and Harry Bosch. Both are basically good guys who would probably be caring partners. But the "siren song" of the job is just too strong for them. So even when they do get involved, you're pretty sure it won't be permanent.

    I'm glad you mentioned Siren of the Waters. I haven't read that one yet, but from your excellent review of it, it seems that it deals with another challenge that sleuth relationships can face - jealousy. Of course, folks, there's much more to the book than that. You can read Maxine's terrific review of Siren of the Waters here. Norman's very fine review of the book is here.

    I hadn't thought about Robin and Alex's relationship as "mechanical," but you've got a very well-taken point about it. As someone who's been married a long time, I've learned that there's a natural rising and falling of tension in a marriage. If that's missing, even in a stable marriage, it does seem mechanical.

  4. I'll have to admit I'd never given the "other half" much thought until now. But I can see where the partner can be used in so many different ways in a mystery. I've tried to remember if there's a book (which I'm sure there's probably many) where the partner turns out to be the killer?

    As always your post are most enlightening and does make one stop and ponder things for awhile. Thanks.

  5. I like Dora Wexford and Joyce Barnaby. I reviewed a Norwegian novel yesterday (not translated) which is a bit unusual because the protagonist leaves his wife, has a child with a much younger woman (no, that is not unusual), but he thinks better of it and returns to his sensible, equable and fairly supportive ´old´ wife.

    And re Victorian protagonists, they would almost have to be unmarried. The bachelor gentleman was a major theme in literature: whatever you wanted from a woman you could pay for - and keep your house free of chattering women in the evening. So why marry, unless you needed a legitimate heir? And as we know, there is no real hurry for men.

  6. Who couldn't love J.L.B. Matekoni? I love these calm, kind men... Although I do have to look up his name every time. Can't wait to read your book, Publish or Perish, so that I can learn all about Joel and Laura Williams!

  7. Mason - Thank you : ). That's very kind of you. You raise an interesting question, too, about whether or not a spouse might end up being the murderer. What an intriguing plot. There have been books where the spouse is suspected of a crime, or actually does commit a lesser crime (one example is Donna Leon's Fatal Remedies. That twist does certainly add a fascinating layer to the story.

    Dorte - Oh, I like Dora and Joyce. They're supportive and loving, but by no means weak mealy-mouths. I realloy hope that novel you reviewed gets translated to English at some point; just from your few words about it here, it sounds fascinating!!

    You also make such a well-taken point about the Victorian culture. With that in mind, it's so interesting to watch what happens to Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson when he gets married. He does get involved in Holmes' cases, but we know nothing of his home life (except that he is married). His wife just isn't much of a factor. Thanks for making me think of this.

    Bobbi - Oh, I agree! I really like Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He has a rare combination of quiet strength and support as well as talent (he's a top-notch mechanic) and a certain self-confidence. Precious chose well (the second time around) : ). And thanks for your interest in Publish or Perish. I hope you'll like Laura. I really like her character, although she's not the primary factor in the book. She's an interesting, smart person, I think...

  8. Margot - ha ha, love your comment about being married for a long time, etc! Prof P and I have also been partners for more years than many have been born - though I do sometimes wonder if I am married to biophysics ;-) ;-)

    Mason - that question is a very difficult one to answer in the way you have asked it, without giving away a spolier. I can think of at least two examples, one by Scott Turow and one by Paul Johnson. I'm not going to give the titles, though. Not sure how to say more without giving too much away ;-) I can think of another one also, about a romantic interest, but as the author has only written two books I think it would be saying too much to say who. (Swedish, though.)

  9. Maxine - LOL! I know what you mean. I sometimes think that I am "married" to language and writing...

    Thanks, by the way, for your comments to Mason. As you say, difficult to answer without giving away spoilers. I'd forgotten about that Turrow, so thanks for that : ).

  10. You've picked some good examples. I like the Brunettis' relationship a lot - Fatal Remedies is a very good book - and also the Wexfords'.

  11. Martin - Thanks ; ). I like the Brunettis, too. Such a, well, human relationship. Same with the Wexfords. I think that makes the characters that much more appealing and accessible.

  12. An interesting point about Dr. Watson - I've heard it theorized he was actually married twice, based on vague clues in the stories. (More likely discrepancies, given that Doyle seemed to have some difficulty keeping the little details straight from story to story - as great as they were.)

    In Donald Bain's all-new series of Jessica Fletcher "Murder She Wrote" mysteries, he has introduced the recurring character of Scotland Yard Inspector George Sutherland ... and over the years, he and Jessica have clearly grown fond of each other. Of course, given that Bain is writing characters he does not own, there's a limit to how far he can take the relationship.

    I don't know about the original novels, but in the few episodes I have seen on DVD of the '50s television series "Mr. and Mrs North," Jerry is a reluctant detective but it's wife Pam who usually drags him into the problem and he has to resolve it. When my wife and I have watched it, the setup drives her crazy -- but apparently it worked for Jerry.

  13. Chris - You're right about Doyle and those little details. Agatha Christie's work also has some of those inconsistencies. I've always been happy to forgive both, especially since I'm in no position to be sanctimonious about my own memory ; ).

    I haven't read the Murder, She Wrote books, although I did watch the series when it was on many years ago. As you say, those aren't Bain's characters, so it would be interesting to see whether he can get away with developing a relationship for Jessica. He may well be able to; as I recall, she was semi-involved a few times in the series.

    It's ineresting you bring up the Norths. At the time of that series, it wasn't usual for the woman to take the lead in investigation; society just wasn't ready for that. I think it's interesting that the series allowed for that chauvanism, while at the same time making it clear that Pam is no typical "little woman."