Sunday, July 18, 2010

You Think You're Going to Break Up, Then She Says She Wants to Make Up*

For many people, the road to love is not a straight and easy one. Whenever two people are involved in an interaction, there can be misunderstandings, miscommunication and sometimes, arguments. That’s certainly true in real life, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t also be true in crime fiction. And it often is. That’s why, especially with crime fiction sleuths (although certainly not only sleuths), there are so many on-again/off-again relationships. On one hand, if we want sleuths to be authentic, especially over the length of a series, one way to do that is to include an up-and-down relationship for the sleuth. Not only is it realistic, but it’s also a way to engage readers, who want to know what happens next. On the other hand, a sleuth’s personal melodrama can take away from the central core of a crime novel – the investigation at hand. So there’s a very real risk that an on-again/off-again relationship will distract readers, and that can be annoying. Like much else in crime fiction, this requires a balance.

Interestingly, two of Agatha Christie’s most famous sleuths, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, remain unmarried, and don’t really engage in romance. Her other famous sleuths, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, marry one another, so although they sometimes disagree, theirs is not an on-again/off-again relationship. Still, Christie does deal with this issue a bit. In The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), for instance, Poirot investigates the shooting death of Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. The murder takes place while Christow and his wife, Gerda, are spending the week-end at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Also staying at the house are Lucy’s cousin, Edward Angkatell, and another relation, Midge Hardcastle. In the course of the novel, we learn that Midge has always loved Edward Angkatell. He, on the other hand, has always loved Henrietta Savernake. When Henrietta rejects Edward’s marriage proposal, he asks Midge to marry him. At first, she’s thrilled and accepts his proposal immediately. Then, misunderstandings and doubts arise and the engagement is broken off. It’s not until some rather dramatic events occur that Midge and Edward resolve their misunderstandings and prepare for their future.

Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane has a rather up-and-down relationship with Lord Peter Wimsey. When she first meets him, in Strong Poison, she’s in the dock accused of murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes. Wimsey is smitten with Harriet right away and resolves to clear her name. When the jury hearing her case cannot agree on a verdict, Harriet is granted a new trial and Wimsey gets the time he needs to investigate the poisoning. He finds Boyes’ killer and determines to marry Harriet, but she’s not nearly ready for a new relationship. Through the course of the novels, Wimsey proposes to Harriet several times. But first, she doesn’t think her gratitude to him for clearing her name is a good basis to start a married life. Second, the two of them are very different people and sometimes don’t see eye to eye at all. Yet, they come to appreciate each other and of course, Wimsey doesn’t stop loving Harriet. Finally, at the end of Gaudy Night (where Wimsey helps Harriet figure out who’s responsible for vandalism and other frightening events at her alma mater), Harriet accepts Wimsey’s proposal and the two marry. In fact, in Busman’s Honeymoon, their honeymoon is interrupted by the murder of William Noakes, the former owner of the Herfordshire home that Wimsey’s purchased for the couple.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Bernadette Manuelito also have their “on-and-off” times. When they first meet, Manuelito is a Navajo Tribal Police officer who comes under Chee’s jurisdiction. He’s attracted to her, but has to deal with some complicated issues. For one thing, she’s under his command. For another, he’s just had a break-up with another girlfriend. And he’s not sure whether she’s interested in him. Then, Manuelito leaves the Navajo Tribal Police and gets a position with U.S. Customs. Now, things are even more complicated as Chee realizes that he can’t protect Manuelito and that her job puts her in danger. When Manuelito returns to the Reservation on a leave from her job with U.S. Customs, she has to convince Chee that she’s a capable officer in her own right, and that she’s no longer a rookie officer under his supervision. Despite these “bumps in the road,” Chee and Manuelito share a similar world view and a dedication to the Navajo way. They’re eventually able to work out their differences, and marry at the end of Skeleton Man.

And then there’s the relationship between Andrea Camilleri’s sleuth, Commissario Salvo Montalbano and his lover, Livia Burlando. Throughout the novels, it’s clear that they love each other, but they often have different priorities. Livia respects her lover’s devotion to his job, but she sometimes gets fed up with him. Montalbano loves Livia, too, but sometimes feels tied down, especially when he’s in the middle of a case. They’ve got other differences, too, and since neither of them is weak-willed, they sometimes get into serious arguments. Despite these real differences, though, they do turn to each other, and underneath their bickering, there’s a lot of respect and affection. It’s a fascinating relationship, and it will be very interesting to see what happens next with this couple.

Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth is former investigative reporter Jim Qwilleran. He lives in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, “400 miles north of nowhere.” Not long after he moves to Pickax, Qwilleran meets Polly Duncan, the head librarian at the local library. The two have in common a love of books and reading, and an interest in classical music. They develop a romantic relationship, but for several reasons, it never ends in marriage. For one thing, Polly’s not interested in stirring up local gossip about her and Qwilleran, of which there would be plenty. For another, both Polly and Qwilleran are set in their ways, and each acknowledges that it would be very hard to adjust their lifestyles to accommodate someone else. They are devoted to each other, though, and in various novels, each feels jealousy when it seems that the other might be interested in someone else. Their relationship does go through rocky times as well as good times, and seems to end when Polly Duncan takes a three-year position in Paris.

Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum has what you might call a tempestuous relationship with Officer Joe Morelli. The two are strongly attracted to each other, and they do have an underlying kind of respect for each other. But at the same time, Morelli doesn’t like Plum’s job and isn’t crazy about the way she puts herself in danger. It doesn’t help matters that she has a habit of not listening to him if it’s not expedient. Plum doesn’t like what she sees as Morelli’s attempts to control her. Besides, he’s got a way of getting on her nerves as no-one else can. The two of them also have the habit of competing against each other when they’re working on cases. And yet, they depend on each other, work together to solve cases, and neither can really resist the other. They haven’t settled down permanently, but it would be hard to imagine them not having any interaction with each other.

Melanie Travis is Laurien Berenson’s sleuth. When the series begins, she’s a newly-single mother whose aunt breeds prize-winning Standard Poodles. When her uncle suddenly dies, and one of the dogs goes missing, one of the suspects is Sam Driver, a fellow Standard Poodle breeder. Once it turns out that Sam isn’t the murderer, he and Melanie begin a very up-and-down relationship. Each of them has issues to work out with an ex-spouse, and each of them has different sorts of trust issues. It doesn’t help matters that Sam doesn’t like the fact that Melanie gets herself mixed up in sometimes very dangerous situations. As the series goes on, their relationship continues to develop, even though at one point, they break up completely. In the end, they do marry and continue to iron out their differences.

There are lots of other on-again/off-again relationships in crime fiction that I haven’t had space to mention. Those relationships can add much to a series, especially in terms of developing the characters. On the other hand, they can become melodramatic and can easily degenerate into a “soap opera.” Which on-again/off-again relationships are your favorites?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from 10CC's The Things We Do For Love.


  1. Deborah Crombie's cops, Duncan Kinkaid and Gemma James were on again and off again for a while and it was always interesting to see how their relationship affected their work.

  2. Elizabeth - Yes, of course! Duncan and Gemma are a terrific example of this sort of on-again/off-again relationship. You're right, too, that work can be affected by whether a couple is "on" or "off" at the moment, and Crombie shows that.

  3. I love these on-again off-again sagas (usually spanning several novels in a series). One wonders what would have happened, if anything, to Lisbeth and Mickael in Stieg Larsson's books, had they continued their natural way - those characters are certainly on-again off-again. Harry Bosch is also fairly on-again off-again in his love life, as was Rebus (remember that GP who appeared in some of his earlier books, with a name like Prudence or Priscilla, and I think there were other early girlfriends who came and went in the earlier days). Then there are Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind in Martin Edwards's books, but that is more "will they ever get around to it" I suppose. I found Deborah Crombie's set up more interesting in the first few books than I do now. Livia and Salvo, now, talk about semi-detached!

  4. Maxine - Oh, I wonder, too, what would have happened with Lisbeth and Mikael if the Millenium series had continued. It would have been interesting to see what sorts of issues they'd faced if they'd "gone permanent," so to speak.

    I almost mentioned Rebus and Patience Aitken, actually. I only didn't because of space, so thank you for filling up that "hole." It certainly is a terrific example of an on-again/off-again relationship. So is Harry Bosch's love life.

    It's funny about Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. I think you've nailed it precisely in saying it's more of a "Will they ever get on with it?" than on-again/off-again. Still, that one's a terrific example of a relationship that isn't an easy, straight path.

    And semi-detached is a perfect way to describe Livia and Salvo!

  5. In Mari Jungstedt's Anders Knutas series crime reporter Johan Berg has an on off relationship with Emma who was married with two children when he met her in the first book. I think Emma by book four is realising that Johan is a little immature, like most of us men. A bit late in the day as she is divorced and has a child with him.
    I think these on off semi detached relationships are probably more common in crime fiction than the rock solid relationships such as Paola and Guido Brunetti, and Reg and Dora Wexford. Unfortunately this applies in real life as well.

  6. Norman - Thanks for bringing up the Jungstedt series. I confess I'm not as up on that series as you are, but it's a terrific example. You make an interesting point, too, about Emma's awareness of the kind of person Johan is. Interesting how that awareness can take some time to develop...

    I believe you're quite right, too, that those on-again/off-again relationships are more common than solid ones like the Wexfords, the Brunettis or the Barnabys. I wonder if that's a social phenomenon or if it has to do with the kind of person who becomes a sleuth. As you say, it certainly happens often enough in real life...

  7. I always thought the first Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn novels by Charlotte MacLeod were the best because the romance was blooming, but then it got boring after they married.

    At the same time I love the stable relationships of characters like Mr. and Mrs. North, or Nick and Nora Charles. I try to go for that model in my Mick and Casey stories - although they're young and there's always going to be a little up and down.

  8. Daring Novelist - Oh, thank you for bringing up Sarah Kelling and Max Bittersohn : ). They are a great couple, and I agree that in novels like The Withdrawing Room, and those other early novels, we get to see them developing as a couple. After they married, yes, things might have gotten a bit dull, but I can't deny I find them appealing. And the North and Charles couples? Yes, I like them, too!

    It's interesting that you've chosen a young couple for your stories; that gives you lots of latitude, actually, as you develop them.

  9. I desperately wanted Morse to find someone; he always struck me as such a lonely man. On the other hand, he would have been rather difficult to live with and a Morse with a happy love life would have changed the character. But still....

  10. Elspeth - Oh, I know what you mean. In some ways, Morse is quite lonely, although he does have short-term relationships. On the other hand, I wonder, too, whether his character would different (and somehow, less appealing) if he had a permanent relationship. He'd certainly be less, well, Morse. Still, as you say...

  11. Crime fiction novelists' use of love-interests varies greatly, as one would expect, but I find that it plays an important part in a character's development. I love the way M.C. Beaton uses these relationships with both Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. To a somewhat lesser degree, Michael Connelly does the same with Mickey Haller and Harry Bosch.

    I think that Kathy Reichs, in her books, does a good job of holding my interest with Temperance Brennan's on-again-off-again relationship with her ex-husband Pete and her love interest Andrew Ryan; not so much with her slowly-evolving relationship with Bones and Booth in her TV show.

    I particularly liked the way Robert B. Parker varied the relationships of two of his protagonists. Jesse Stone's relationship with his ex-wife Jennifer borders on pathological, while Parker's other sleuth, Spenser, has a nearly idyllic relationship with Susan Silverman.

  12. Bob - I'm so glad you brought up M.C. Beaton's protagonists. They're both good examples of on-again/off-again relationships, especially Agatha Raisin's relationship with her ex, James Lacey. And yes, Connelly also handles that issue.

    I have to admit, I much prefer the Temperance Brennan books to the television show, so I agree with you that Brennan's relationships with Pete and Andrew are much more interesting.

    I'm also glad you brought up Spenser and Stone. I'll be honest, until I posted this, I hadn't thought of those sleuths, but you make a good point in contrasting them. Thank you : ). You've added richly to today's post : ).