Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Here's to Friendship...

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 fiancĂ©, 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 : )


  1. Cat Among Pigeons is one my favorite Agatha Christie's.

  2. Patti - Isn't it a great story? I've always liked it very, very much. I like the "school" atmosphere, and the plot is deliciously unpredictable.

  3. I love the friends who go out investigating with the sleuth, be it trolling for information (perhaps with the pair in disguise) or simply acting as a lookout.

    And here's to you, Margot, for being a good friend in so many ways: a sounding board, a good idea generator, and someone who find the same things funny. And above all, for being a friend who unselfishly provides us with such great reading about the mysteries we love!

  4. Bobbi - Awww....thanks *deep blush* That's very kind of you. I learn at least as much from you as anyone ever does from me....

    When I read the first part of your comment, I was thinking about mystery series that I read when I was a child (Nancy Drew, Donna Parker - Yes, I'm old ; ) ). In those stories, the sleuths did have friends who shared the investigation, even though they weren't what one would call "partners."

    I was also thinking about another friend of Rita Mae Brown's "Harry" Haristeen. Her name's Miranda Hogendobber, and she's terrific! She's an older neighbor of "Harry's," a widow who's got a lot of energy and what one might call spunk. She's gotten involved in several cases, and while she doesn't go in disguise, she does often get help get clues and actually has served as a lookout, too. She's a good friend.

  5. I definitely like to count you among my cyber friends Margot - given that discussing books is something I do with my best real-world friends I always feel like my book blogging friends are just as important.

    You raise a good point about friends in books. I have read books where the absence of friendships has made the story seem unbelievable to me - one was a 'cosy' that featured a cleaner in England and she didn't have a single friend which I thought was highly unrealistic but also something that made the plot more difficult to naturally progress. Everyone needs a few good mates, even in fiction. One of the things I really enjoy about Linda Fairstein's series is the friendship between Alex (the New York DA) and the two detectives she works with most often - even if they are not working the same case they have dinner together and have friendly bets on Jeopardy - just like real people :)

  6. Great post! I have such good pals that I'm always trying to see if they get it right in books. I think I really like the friends in Elizabeth George's books - they are like real friends - struggling with complexity, loyal, heart-broken etc... I also like the friends in Colin Cotterill's 'Dr. Siri' books. The friendships get put to the test in Anarchy and Old Dogs and I think for a young writer Cotterill is very adroit at persuading me these are real people.

  7. Bernadette - Thank you : ) That's truly an honor for me, and the feeling is definitely mutual :).

    I agree with you that it just doesn't seem natural when characters in books don't have friends. Your comment made me think of M.C. Beaton's Death of a Maid, in which an overly-inquisitive maid ends up getting killed. As you say, she's got no friends, and that is a little unrealistic. In fact, as I think of it, it's very often someone's lack of friends that lets you know right away that there's something wrong with that character. And I think you're right; Linda Fairstein does do a good job of portraying Alex's ongoing friendships, so I'm glad you mentioned her work.

    Jan - Thank you :). Elizabeth George's characters really are well-drawn, aren't they? And that includes their relationships with each other. You really see them deal with life as the series goes on. Colin Cotterill does that well, too. It is, indeed, very interesting that he creates those friendships, tests them, and, in my opinion, makes them deeper as the series goes on. It's really a positive aspect (among many others) of his writing.

  8. Great post. Always find such interesting facts about stories that I wouldn't find anywhere else. Friendship is a strong bond and I enjoy reading about it in various types of books. Friendship in mysteries can lead to unusual circumstances for all parties involved.

    Thanks for your friendship. I have learned much from it and treasure it.

  9. Mason - Thank you : ). I feel exactly the same way about my friendship with you.

    You've got a well-taken point, too, that friendship can lead a story in all sorts of directions. There are mysteries, for instance, where friendship gets a character into all kinds of trouble, and there are mysteries where a friendship is at the core of how a mystery is solved. Even when it's not at the center of a mystery, a friendship can be woven through a story and add a layer of authenticity and interest to a novel.

  10. What a great post – and an awesome reminder about friendships. They are so important, and I've found so many wonderful people through blogging; it's kind of funny that you can develop such good relationships with people you haven't actually met!

    I get right into the books I read (and edit) – they all become friends. That's one of the things about really good books. You hate to come to the end because it's like leaving the friends you've made …

  11. Cat among Pigeons is also one of my favourite Poirot stories. I like his young sidekick so much!

    I am sure you will be pleased to hear that I am teaching Agatha Christie right now. We are reading "Philomel Cottage" in a class (the first four pages today, and some students had read ahead because it was so exciting).

  12. Crystal - Thank you : ). Isn't modern technology wonderful? You really can develop friendships with people from all over the world, whom you've never met in person and may never meet in person. I've found that part of "the online life" to be very fulfilling.

    It's interesting you would mention how one can bond with with a wonderful book. It's true, too. There are several books I've not wanted to finish for just that reason. In my opinion, that's why well-drawn characters and solid plotting are so important. They draw a reader in and make a reader feel part of the story.

    Dorte - Oooh, Philomel Cottage! That is a good story. I'm not surprised your students are so drawn to it. I wish I could hear your group's discussion of it.

    I really like the character of Julia Upjohn in Cat Among the Pigeons, too. She has a wonderful personality, and the right amount of intelligence, maturity and so on for a fifteen-year-old. She's really quite believable.

  13. I appreciate your recognition of the importance of friendship in character development and insight. The quintessential friendship in all detective fiction--maybe all fiction period--is that of Holmes and Watson. Where would the reader be without Watson's insights into Holmes' mind and behavior? There could be no Sherlock Holmes without him!

    I would like to see Sue Grafton dwell more on the by-play of Kinsey Milhone and her friends Henry and Rosie. I think it would add a lot more depth and color to the Alphabet Series.
    Lawrence Block's Burglar Series is enhanced immensely by the friendship of Bernie and Carolyn and their absolutely delightful interplay. I'm also intrigued by James Lee Burke's twist on friendship. Dave Robicheaux's friend Clete Purcel is a parasite, pure and simple. Their friendship, however, is absolutely essential to the quality of Mr. Burke's novels.

    This is my first post, so be kind (please!). I'm so glad I found your blog site and I can't tell you how enjoyable it is for me. Thanx!

  14. Bob - Thanks for your comment, and welcome to Confessions of a Mystery Novelist. I am so glad you find it enjoyable. And please, don't worry about the quality of your post; I learn from everyone's comments, and I appreciate each one.

    You're right about the friendship between Holmes and Watson. It is absolutely crucial to an understanding of Holmes and to the development of those plots. Most people think of Watson as Holmes' sidekick, and in many ways, he is. But he is also a friend. So is Agatha Christie's Hastings to Hercule Poirot.

    It's funny you would mention Sue Grafton's Henry and Rosie. They are well-drawn characters, and it would be nice to more of that friendship. I'm less familiar with the Burglar series, but I, too, have enjoyed Bernie and Carolyn. And Clete Purcel just shows that there are all kinds of friendships that are entered into for all kinds of reasons. Those friendships might not be the kind of mutual, healthy friendships we think of as "normal," but they do, as you say, add much to the character of a series.

  15. Very good points about friendship, Margot. At the risk of being unoriginal, my favourite fictional friends are Holmes and Watson.

  16. Martin - Glad you enjoyed : ). I agree that Holmes and Watson are the quintessential friends. Each recognizes the other's strengths, and each contributes to the cases they solve.