Monday, June 28, 2010

Especially People Who Care About Strangers*

There’s an argument that being a really successful sleuth means being extremely passionate about solving crimes, helping victims, getting justice, and keeping others safe. In other words, the best sleuths are devoted to their work. This can create lots of problems in the sleuth’s personal life. Besides the long and odd hours, sleuths’ partners have to deal with the fact that good sleuths are dedicated to the job. They miss meals and family events, they sometimes spend more time at work than they do at home, and very often, they don’t want to share what goes on at work with their partners. That can make a sleuth’s partner feel shut out of things. With all of these stresses, it’s little wonder that so many sleuths, both real and in crime fiction, have to deal with damaged or broken relationships. On one hand, one can’t entirely blame the sleuth’s partner; after all, partners want their share of the sleuth’s time and dedication. It’s difficult to feel that one comes second (or third, or fourth…) to a job. On the other hand, it’s that very passion and dedication that solves crimes. It’s oddly ironic that sleuths who care so very much about their work can sometimes seem to care so little about what happens at home. Of course, as crime fiction shows us, it’s not quite so simple as that…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has, you might say, a certain amount of wisdom about this particular question. He deliberately remains a bachelor because he believes that marriage would be too distracting, and he wants to put all of his energy into solving cases. Agatha Christie’s novels don’t, in general, address this issue, either. Two of her most famous sleuths, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, are not married. Her other sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, are married to each other, and both are sleuths. So in a lot of ways, they understand each other.

There are plenty of fictional sleuths, though, whose relationships suffer a great deal because of their devotion to – even obsession with – what they do and who they are as sleuths. One example is Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee. Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. At the beginning of the series, Chee’s girlfriend is Mary Landon, a young white schoolteacher from Wisconsin. She and Chee do love each other, but her goal is for them to leave the Navajo Reservation and move to a city. Chee’s dedicated to his people and to their needs. Besides, he can’t imagine himself as having any kind of identity off the Reservation. In the end, Mary becomes aware of this, too, and it’s an important reason for their break-up. Later, he meets Janet Pete, a half-Navajo attorney who works for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The two begin a relationship, but Janet wants Chee to “move up.” She suggests that he could work for the FBI, or the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or in some other more influential capacity. Chee, though, is dedicated to doing what he does. Like Mary, Janet finds that dedication admirable, but can’t live with it. In the end, it’s a major cause of their break-up. It’s not until Chee meets Bernadette Mañuelito, another Navajo Tribal Police officer, that he finds someone whose dedication matches his own.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s John Rebus. Inspector Rebus is devoted to – some would say obsessed with – his work. It’s partly for that reason that he finds it difficult to maintain a relationship. For example, Rebus has a long-standing relationship with Dr. Patience Aitken; we meet her in several books. But their relationship is hardly stable. She has a very difficult time accepting the fact that Rebus is “married to the job.” In fact, in The Black Book, she throws Rebus out of her home. The two do reconcile briefly, but not permanently. Because of his dedication to his work, Rebus seems unable to form a permanent bond.

Michael Robotham’s psychologist sleuth, Joe O’Loughlin, faces similar challenges in his personal life. He’s been married for over twenty years to Julianne, and he loves her and their children deeply. But at the same time, O’Loughlin is devoted to his job, too, and this creates real problems in their relationship. For example, in Shatter, O’Loughlin is called to the scene to try to talk a woman, Christine Wheeler, out of committing suicide by jumping off a bridge. He doesn’t succeed, and a few days later, Wheeler’s daughter, Darcy Wheeler, comes to O’Loughlin, sure that her mother did not willingly kill herself. O’Loughlin’s not sure a person could be persuaded to commit suicide, but he agrees to look into the case. So he asks his old friend, Detective Vincent Ruiz, to help him investigate. His decision draws O’Loughlin into the terrifying world of a killer who’s highly skilled at manipulating others, and soon, another murder occurs. Now, Ruiz and O’Loughlin try desperately to find the killer before there’s another death. Throughout this novel, we see how distraught Julainne becomes at the risks to her family’s safety, and we also see the growing distance between her and her husband. While O’Loughlin still very much loves his wife and certainly his children, we also see how torn a dedicated sleuth can be about where loyalties should lie.

In Shona MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows, Alexander Seaton is a university teacher in Aberdeen who think his future is settled. He’s got a respectable teaching position, and he’s fallen in love with Sarah Forbes, a servant in the home of his friend, William Cargill. In fact, he’s planning to ask her to marry him. Seaton’s life changes when he gets a visit from his cousin, Sean O’Neill FitzGarrett. FitzGarrett tells Seaton that he’s come to take Seaton to Ireland to help lift a curse that’s been laid on the family by a poet. At first, Seaton has no interest in getting involved with relations he’s never met, and certainly not for something as superstitious as a curse. But then, FitzGarrett gives examples of parts of the curse that have already come true, including an attempt on his own life. Now, Seaton believes that someone quite real is targeting the family. So without letting Sarah (or anyone else, for that matter) know, he agrees to go to Ireland, packs his things and leaves. Seaton is soon drawn into a deadly game of politics, family pride and religious intolerance.

In Terry Odell’s short story Coping Mechanisms, we meet newlyweds Sarah and Randy. Randy’s a police officer for the town of Pine Hills, and Sarah thinks she knows what she’s getting into when she becomes a cop’s wife. Then, Randy is called to a particularly traumatic case involving a missing eight-year-old girl. Sarah knows the case is especially difficult for her new husband. At the same time, though, she doesn’t want to lose him, and she sees how he’s withdrawing as he and his partner work to solve the case. This story is a particularly interesting portrait of the strains on a sleuth’s life, since it’s told from the point of view of the sleuth’s wife.

Henning Mankell’s sleuth, Kurt Wallander, has also, you could say, put his work ahead of personal relationships. He was married, but his wife, Mona, left him, and although he loves his daughter, Linda, he doesn’t exactly have a warm and stable relationship with her.

There are, of course, lots of fictional sleuths who are able to maintain their passion for their work as well as stable relationships. Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti, Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe and Ruth Rendell’s Reg Wexford come to mind. But there are a great number of sleuths for whom their work takes precedence. Does that make them cruel? Well, not necessarily. In a way, you could say they need that dedication and passion for their work to solve cases. It can make life at home difficult, though, and one can understand why a partner might have a hard time living with a sleuth.

What’s your view? What do you think of sleuths who seem to ignore life at home (or at least downplay it) in favor of their cases? Is that a reasonable thing for them to do?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James Rado's Easy to be Hard (made popular by Three Dog Night, but originally from the musical Hair).

On Another Note....

My sincere thanks to Kathleen at From Cop to Mom and the Words in Between for awarding Confessions of a Mystery Novelist this terrific Versatile Blogger Award. I'm quite honored : ). Kathleen is a prize-winning short story writer (she writes terrific flash fiction, too) and is working on a true crime book. Her blog is a rich source of information about true crime and police work; with 21 years of experience on the Suffolk County Police force, Kathleen knows what she's talking about. I'm proud to call her a friend, and proud of this award. Thanks, Kathleen!

The award rules ask me to tell you folks seven things about myself. If you're kind enough to read Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, you probably know more than you'd ever want to about me. So this will suffice: I was once pulled aside and stopped by a security police officer - right in front of several of my students! OK, let me explain... It was at a Billy Joel Question/Answer session at the school where I was teaching. When he left the stage, I followed, without thinking. Now c'mon - can you blame me? ; )

I've also been asked to pass this on to fifteen other bloggers. The problem with that is that all of my blogger friends are versatile. I can't pick just fifteen. So if you wish, please take the award and display it proudly. Tell 'em Margot gave it to you! : ).

Folks, please do visit Kathleen's blog; you're in for a great experience.


  1. I love reading Caroline Graham's novels and her sleuth Barnaby, he has such a relationship with his wife and daughter although in many circumstances, they take a back seat to his work.

    In my novels, my detective is married but his wife had a car accident which further causes problems at home. He has to deal with the stress of that situation and his work.

    In another one of mysteries, my detective only became one because he couldn't get a job as a history professor so he really doesn't even like his job. His wife, a very supportive wife in my opinion, wants a baby and they're struggling with that also.

    Oh, I love adding relationships in mysteries.


  2. Clarissa - I like Caroline Graham an awful lot, too! Her Tom Barnaby has such an interesting and loving relationship with his wife and daughter, and what I like about is that they're not perfect. None of them is, and that makes them all the more real.

    I love it that you integrate relationships into your mysteries, and you've got likable characters. I do the same thing, actually, My sleuth's married, and I like that side of his life. I think it can add a lot to a character, and certainly a layer of real interest to a story, if the sleuth has a home life, even if it does get complicated.

  3. So few detectives seem to have good marriages--or even good relationships with their kids. I think the writers need them to be able to neglect their families so they can solve crimes. Or maybe this is a reflection of the reality of police work.

  4. Very interesting topic! I guess one of the reasons that the sleuths often have complicated personal lives is that many of them are intended to last for many books even if their mysteries aren't. To keep the reader interested the sleuth needs to be a fascinating character. Why this should have to mean "issues with family", though, I don't know.

    Another example of a sleuth that fits your description is Harry Hole (who has a very funny name in English, now that I think of it) of Jo Nesbø's books. He is pretty messed up (but the audience seems to love him - I almost never have a day at work without selling at least one of Nesbø's books, and it's been more than six months since his last release here).

  5. Patti - I've often wondered that, too - whether writers need sleuths to be able to neglect their families. My sleuth isn't like that, but he's a former cop; he's not a cop now. So that makes a big difference. I don't know whether it's like that in real life for police, but I know it has to be very hard to be with a cop.

    Cruella - You ask an interesting question. I don't know, either, why "interesting" often means "personal/home life problems" in crime fiction. But I think you're right that if authors want their characters to be durable over a series, those characters need be multilayered. They need to have fully-developed personalities.

    And thanks for mentioning Harry Hole. He's a great character and I'm one of those readers who truly likes him. He has a very difficult time maintaining a personal relationship, and he's a great example of the kind of sleuth I was thinking of. He's obsessed with his work, and he's got other issues, too, but his obsession is part of what makes him a great detective.

  6. Congratulations on the award Margot. It is well deserved as your blog offer such a vast array of information. Enjoyed the post. I think the author who portrays the sleuth and his family as a close knit unit hasn't interacted with real policemen and their families (are at least the very dedicated ones). From the people I know in law enforcement, there has to be a lot of understanding on the spouse's part to cope with the job and what it does to their partner.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Why, thank you! You're very kind. It's my understanding, too, that real people in law enforcement have very different lives from what's portrayed in some crime fiction. It's hard to be a law enforcement officer and it does take a very special kind of partner to be with an officer. It can happen; I know some people in law enforcement who are successfully married. But it's not easy.

  8. How do you know so much and parse it down to such readable articles? I really am constantly amazed by your posts.

    My MC is single...but he may not remain that way throughout the series. His problem? Well, it's evident in my post today, but I'll say here that it's emotional and he is really unable to have a relationship right now.

    And thanks for the introduction to Shana McClean. Her book sounds really interesting. I assume it's historical fiction/mystery?


  9. It's difficult for anyone to successfully balance a career and a relationship; even more so if the career is especially time-consuming. It comes down to priorities and everyone's priorities are different. Society dictates that family is supposed to come first, but the reality is it sometimes doesn't. If the job demands long hours, long times away from home, then yes, any relationship is going to suffer. It's just the way it is. However, if the person has an incredibly understanding spouse then the road is a tad smoother. But no one wants to know they're always going to come in second.

  10. Michele - You're so kind - thank you : ). And thanks for mentioning your MC. Folks, Michele's got an interesting protagonist, and she's written a compelling post about him today. Do check it out.

    And yes, Shona MacLean's Alexander Seaton stories are, indeed, historical fiction. They take place in 17th Century Scotland. I've thoroughly enjoyed both of the novels in that series so far, and I can recommend them. Shona, if you're reading this, I look forward to the next : ).

    Elspth - You've put your finger on an essential, ongoing issue: what are our priorities? It really does come down to what we value. As I read your post, I was thinking of The West Wing, the American series about the President and his staff, and a terrific exchange between Leo McGarry (the President's Chief of Staff) and his wife. In that exchange, his wife asks him if his job is more important than his marriage. He says that for those few years, while he's working in the White House, yes, the job is more important. It's a taut, well-written exchange. You're right that for those people - people devoted to their jobs like that - the job is more important. I would think a spouse of someone like that would have to be a very self-assured, independent person to be in a relationship with someone who's dedicated like that.