The need to connect with others seems to be an important part of human nature. We seem to need to form and maintain relationships that go beyond the ones we have with family members. Friendships are often part of the core of our lives. It’s those friendships that can sustain us during difficult times and make the good times in our lives that much more enjoyable. Since friendships are woven into the fabric of our lives, it’s no surprise that they also play a crucial role in crime fiction. After all, as I’ve often said, well-written crime fiction is a reflection of human life. Friendships can add a layer of interest, and even solid sub-plots to a well-written mystery novel.
A friendship is at the core of Agatha Christie’s short story, Murder in the Mews, which appears in the collection bearing the same title. Barbara Allen, a young widow, has taken a mews home with her friend, Jane Plenderleith. One weekend, Jane goes to visit other friends in the country, and when she returns, she finds Barbara shot in an apparent suicide. Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp is called to the scene. With him is Hercule Poirot. When they arrive on the scene, they find that all of the evidence seems at first to indicate suicide. Barbara’s body has been found in her locked bed/sitting room, the gun bearing only her fingerprints. There’s no evidence that anyone else has been there, and she wasn’t known to have any enemies. Soon enough, though, Poirot begins to suspect that some of the evidence has been manufactured. As he looks deeper into the case, Poirot finds that the friendship between Barbara Allen and Jane Plenderleith has played an important role in the case, and it’s not until he understands that that he’s able to find out what really happened to Barbara Allen.
There’s also an important friendship in Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, which takes place at the exclusive girls’ school, Meadowbank. It’s the beginning of the summer term, and Julia Upjohn and Jennifer Sutcliffe, both new that term, naturally drift towards each other. They’re soon friends, and although they’re quite different, their friendship develops. Late one night, Grace Springer, the games mistress, is shot in the school’s brand-new Sports Pavilion. At first, the police suspect that it might have been “personal” murder, since Miss Springer was much-disliked. Soon, though, it’s clear that something larger is going on at Meadowbank, and really, Grace Springer was “caught in the crossfire.” Each in their own way, Jennifer and Julia puzzle over what’s happened. After another death, Julia begins to put some of the pieces of the puzzle together, and it’s directly because of her friendship with Jennifer that she stumbles on one of the most important clues in the case. That’s when she goes to visit Hercule Poirot, and asks him to get involved.
There’s a friendship at the core of Robin Cook’s Shock. Harvard graduate students Deborah Cochrane and Johanna Meissner are friends and room-mates. Their plan is to take a house in Venice together so they can write their theses, then return to Boston and buy an apartment. They’re able to reach their goal when they answer an advertisement that offers forty-five thousand dollars to women who are willing to donate unfertilized eggs to the Wingate Clinic, so that women who are infertile can have children. The procedure accomplished, Deborah and Johanna head off to Venice. When they return, the two friends are curious about what happened to their eggs, but the staff at the clinic is unwilling to answer their questions. Johanna is determined to find out as much as she can and, mostly because of their friendship, Deborah agrees to help her. The two women assume new identities and get jobs at the clinic. Soon, they find out that the clinic’s staff is hiding some very unethical practices. When the clinic’s directors find out what Deborah and Johanna are doing, the two women become targets. Now they have to depend on each other, and on Johanna’s former fiancé, to stay alive.
Sometimes, friendships can have tragic consequences, too. That’s what happens in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. Dr. Everett Seeley’s lost his medical license because of his cocaine habit, and takes a job in Mexico. He doesn’t think his young wife, Marion, is strong enough to come with him, so he arranges for her to live in an apartment in Phoenix. He also arranges for her to work at the private Werden Clinic as a file clerk and stenographer. Marion soon strikes up a friendship with an extroverted nurse who works there, Louise Mercer, and her room-mate, Ginny Hoyt, and Louise soon takes Marion under her wing. Before long, Marion begins to be caught up in Louise and Ginny’s decadent lifestyle, which includes wild parties, drugs and men. This dangerous friendship ends in tragedy and murder and in the end, the fateful decision to be drawn into her friends’ lives changes Marion – and her husband – forever.
Even when friendships are not at the core of a novel, they can still play important roles in the story. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner (AKA Lord Edgware Dies), Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of the 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the prime suspect at first, because she’s been wanting to free herself from that marriage so that she can marry again. She also had been heard saying she’d have to “go round and bump him off myself” if she couldn’t get rid of him any other way. Finally, someone looking exactly like her and giving her name was admitted to the house just before Edgware died. However, Jane Wilkinson has an alibi: she was seen at a dinner party on the night of the murder. This alibi gets complicated when it’s found out that an American actress, Carlotta Adams, might have impersonated Jane Wilkinson. As Poirot finds out about Carlotta Adams’ life, and the reasons she might have for killing Edgware, he makes the acquaintance of her friend, Jenny Driver, who owns a millinery shop. Jenny doesn’t play a major role in the novel, although she appears frequently. However, she does provide Poirot with important insights into Carlotta’s character.
It’s also interesting to look at some of the important friendships that sleuths develop and maintain. Friends of sleuths can provide helpful specialized knowledge, important clues, and, perhaps most importantly, insights into the sleuth as a human being. For instance, Elizabeth George’s sleuth, Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley’s friend, Simon St. James, is a forensic scientist. He’s often helpful in sifting through clues, and he gives Lynley a valuable perspective. He also serves as a personal “sounding board” for Lynley.
Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey has several helpful friends, too. For instance, his friend Miss Amanda Climpson is able to find out a great deal of valuable gossip and other information that Wimsey would find it hard to get otherwise. Then there’s Wimsey’s friend, Inspector Parker. Parker and Wimsey often exchange notes on cases, and help each other solve cases that look unrelated, but have a common thread.
My own Joel Williams has a similar friendship with his former boss, Captain Bert Schneider of the Tilton, Pennsylvania police. The two have remained friends, although Williams has left the police force, and they often meet for dinner or a beer. They, too, exchange notes, and are often able to give each other very useful information.
Sometimes, sleuths’ friends provide as much personal support as anything else. That’s true of Rita Mae Brown’s sleuth, Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen’s best friend, Susan Tucker. Harry and Susan have been friends since they were children. They went to high school together and still are close friends. Harry depends on Susan for moral support, good sense and sometimes, creative ideas. She also depends on Susan’s husband, Ned, who’s an attorney, when she needs specialized answers. Joan Smith’s Loretta Lawson is a visiting professor at Oxford, whose best friend is Oxford don Bridget Bennett. The two help each other professionally and Bridget also serves as a personal “sounding board” for Loretta. Bridget also draws Loretta into some of her cases. Laurien Berenson’s sleuth, Melanie Travis, also has a best friend, Alice Brickman, who lives nearby. She and Alice swap child care responsibilities and car pool responsibilities, commiserate about balancing a career and home life, and help each other in other ways, too. Alice is always willing to provide a sympathetic ear, a lift in a car, and a safe place for Melanie’s son, Davey, to go after school if it’s needed.
Friendship is such an integral part of life for most of us that we often don’t think about how important it is. That may be why it’s woven into so much crime fiction. Who are your favorite fictional friends?
Here's to all of you who are my friends, whether or not we've actually met yet : )