One of the most powerful forces in human nature is the need to love and be loved. Another very powerful force is the physical and chemical attraction between people that leads them to pair up. The combination of those forces is an especially strong motivator. We can argue that those forces are the reasons that people fall in love, marry, and have families. They’re also arguably one reason that people have affairs and sometimes get involved in what’s called love triangles. These triangles certainly happen often enough in real life, and they’re common in crime fiction, too. Love affairs are, in fact, a very strong motive for murder.
There are classic examples of this scenario in several of Agatha Christie’s works. For example, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot investigates the strangling murder of beautiful and notorious Arlena Stuart Marshall. Arlena is taking a holiday near Leathercombe Bay, off the Devon Coast. With her are her husband, Kenneth, and her stepdaughter, Linda. Also staying at the same hotel are Patrick and Christine Redfern, a recently-married young couple. It’s soon obvious to everyone that Patrick and Arlena are having an affair, and all of the other guests are waiting for the inevitable sparks to fly. Just before lunch one day, Arlena is found strangled, and the police begin to investigate. Poirot gets involved, too, since he’s staying at the same resort. It turns out that Arlena’s murder is more complicated than just jealousy over a love triangle. However, that triangle plays an important role in the story and the murder, and it adds suspense to the novel.
The same is true of Triangle at Rhodes, a Christie short story that, in some ways, is quite similar to Evil Under the Sun. In that story, Poirot is taking a holiday in Rhodes. Staying at the same resort are the famous (and notorious) actress Valentine Chantry and her husband, Captain Tony Chantry. Among the other guests are young and handsome Douglas Gold and his wife, Marjorie. Soon after everyone’s arrival at the resort, it’s clear that Valentine Chantry and Douglas Gold are attracted to each other, and before long, they’re carrying on a not-too-well-hidden affair. As everyone expects, their affair causes tempers to flare. Late one afternoon, Valentine Chantry is poisoned, and Poirot investigates her death. Poirot discovers that Valentine Chantry’s death has everything to do with a love triangle, but, in classic Christie fashion, there’s an unexpected twist to the story.
There are very interesting love triangles in several Ellery Queen novels, too; I’ll just mention two of them. In The Last Woman in His Life, Queen accepts an invitation to stay at the guesthouse of wealth jet-setter John Levering Benedict III. Staying at the main house over the same week are Benedict’s three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary. One night, Queen receives a frantic call from Benedict, saying that he’s been murdered. Queen rushes over to the house, but he’s too late. By the time he gets there, Benedict’s dead – killed by a blow to the head. The only clues are a glittering gown, a wig and a pair of evening gloves. Each belongs to a different ex-wife, and all of the women had a motive to murder Benedict, especially considering his relationships with his ex-wives. In the end, Queen finds that Benedict’s death was the direct result of his love life.
In The Fourth Side of the Triangle, we meet Sheila Grey, a successful dress designer. While she’s professional and discreet, Sheila is also somewhat notorious. As the novel begins, she’s having an affair with wealthy businessman Ashton McKell. Soon afterwards, she meets and later begins an affair with McKell’s son, Dane. One night, Sheila is shot, and Inspector Richard Queen is called in to investigate. At first, the evidence points to Ashton McKell, and he’s arrested for the crime. Before long, though, the Queens realize that he’s innocent, and suspicion falls on his wife, Letitia, who was more aware than anyone thought about her husband’s conduct. Later, Dane, too, is suspected. It’s not until the very end of the novel that Queen is able to figure out who is really guilty of Shela Grey’s murder. When he does, we realize that her death followed almost naturally from her love life.
There’s also a love triangle, so to speak, in Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead. In that novel, Nigel Bathgate and his cousin, Charles Rankin, are among the houseguests at a party given by Sir Hubert Handesley. The main event at this party is to be a Murder Hunt, in which one guest will be tagged to be “the murderer.” The “murderer” then chooses a “victim.” The rest of the house party is tasked with finding out who the “murderer” is. The game goes horribly wrong when Charles Rankin is found stabbed to death. Inspector Roderick Alleyn is called in to investigate the murder. He finds that there are plenty of suspects, too. Charles Rankin was a philanderer who flirted quite openly with one of the guests, Marjorie Wilde, despite the presence of her husband, Arthur Wilde. Rankin was also involved with another guest, Rosamund Grant. There’s also the fact that Rankin was stabbed with a Russian-made dagger, and that shortly after the murder, the Russian butler, Vassily Vassilyevitch, disappears. It turns out, too, that Vassilyevitch and another guest, Doctor Tokareff, have a connection to a Russian secret society, and that Rankin might also have a connection to that same society. In the end, it turns out that the love triangle plays a role in Rankin’s murder, and it also adds a very important level of tautness and suspense to the plot.
An interesting love triangle also plays an important role in Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest. That’s the story of a large Irish Catholic family, and the effect on the family when one of the members, Bridie, returns to the family home after living in a convent for ten years. At the same time, Bridie’s sister, DeeDee, returns to the family home as well. With her is her new fiancé, James. Matters are complicated, though, because DeeDee’s ex-husband, Terence, is still very much a member of the family, and is convinced that DeeDee will “come to her senses” and come back to him. In fact, he sees them as still married. What makes matters even more complex is that at one time, Bride and Terence also dated. These complicated relationships play an important role in the novel, and Bridie, Terence and James come in for their share of suspicion when DeeDee dies after a fatal fall down a flight of stairs. DeeDee’s murder shows very clearly that a love triangle doesn’t have to really exist in order for it to have tragic consequences. So long as it exists in at least one person’s mind, a love triangle can be deadly.
Complicated love relationships are at the heart of Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, too. When landscaper Warren Howe is murdered with his own scythe, his wife, Tina, is the prime suspect, as Howe’s been abusive and repeatedly unfaithful. The only problem is that Tina has an alibi for the murder, so the police can’t pursue a conviction. Ten years later, the case is re-opened, and DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team begin to unearth the secrets surrounding Howe’s death. The term “love triangle” doesn’t do justice to the network of love affairs and other relationships that end up playing important roles in Howe’s murder and three other deaths that occur in the novel. In the end, we really see how powerful the need to be loved can be, and how powerful attraction can be.
Love triangles can even involve sleuths. For instance, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley’s friend, Simon St. James, is married to Lynley’s former lover, Deborah. All of them are aware of this past relationship and in A Great Deliverance we see both St. James and Deborah coming to terms with their pasts. Admittedly, this particular love affair doesn’t end up in murder. However, it’s a clear example of the powerful forces that love and attraction can be.
Love triangles occur in many other well-written crime novels, also – too many others for me to mention here. Perhaps that’s because love and attraction so often can over-ride good judgment and end tragically. Which are your favorite “love triangle” novels?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the first line of the J. Geils Band's Love Stinks.