Sunday, August 8, 2010

If Loving You is Wrong, I Don't Want to be Right*

What draws people into relationships? Sometimes, it’s the genetic “luck of the draw;” for instance, we have connections with our relations whether or not there’s any other bond that holds us together. Sometimes, our relationships are based on physical attraction; we can all think of relationships we’ve had or known about that have that kind of basis. Other relationships are based on common interests or on a common context (e.g. work colleagues). And then there are, of course, our friendships; we engage in them because we’ve got things in common and enjoy each other’s company. What happens, though, when relationships are dysfunctional? What keeps people in really dysfunctional relationships? There isn’t just one answer to this question, since there are many “pulls” that keep people together. I’m no psychologist, but it seems that one thing that holds people in dysfunctional relationships is that there is something that each person gets from that relationship. We may think, “Why on earth is ______ still friends with/involved with _________?” and may even urge someone to get out of a relationship. But the truth is, that’s unlikely unless that person no longer sees the benefits as outweighing the drawbacks.

It’s really interesting to look at the number of dysfunctional relationships that there are in crime fiction. It makes sense, though; dysfunction often leads to resentment and tension, both of which can add to the suspense in a novel. Sometimes, true dysfunction even leads to murder, so the fit between dysfunctional relationships and crime fiction is a good one.

There’s real dysfunction in some of Agatha Christie’s novels. For instance, in Appointment With Death, we meet the American Boynton family. Mrs. Boynton, the matriarch, is a mentally sadistic tyrant who holds sway over her step-children Lenox, Raymond and Carol and her daughter Ginevra. When the family travels through the Middle East, both Raymond and Carol meet Sarah King, a newly-licensed doctor. Raymond’s attracted to her right away, and Carol would like to be her friend. Neither of them, though, will consider pursuing any kind of relationship with Sarah because their mother would never allow it. In fact, one night, Carol has a very enlightening conversation with Sarah in which Sarah asks her why she and Raymond don’t simply strike out on their own, since they are of age. Carol simply can’t imagine doing so, and we can clearly see the dysfunctional pull of her step-mother. One day, while the group is on a visit to the city of Petra, Mrs. Boynton suddenly dies of what looks at first to be heart trouble. Colonel Carbury, who’s investigating the death, isn’t completely satisfied, though, and asks Hercule Poirot, who’s traveling in the area, to look into the case. Poirot agrees and soon finds a number of people who had a motive to kill Mrs. Boynton. In this novel, we’re tempted to ask ourselves the same question Sarah asks: Why don’t these people simply leave and start their own lives!? The reasons they don’t add interesting psychological suspense to the story.

The same is true of Christie’s Sad Cypress, which is the story of Elinor Carlisle. Elinor is deeply, passionately in love with her cousin-by-marriage Roderick “Roddy” Welman. Roddy is very fond of Elinor, too, but we can see that she cares for him much more than he does for her. When their mutual Aunt Laura Welman has a stroke, Roddy and Elinor visit the family home. While they’re there, Roddy meets Mary Gerrard, the lodgekeeper’s daughter. They knew each other as children but Roddy hadn’t seen Mary for years. When he sees her again, he becomes hopelessly infatuated with her. When he confesses his feelings to Elinor, one part of her is aware that her relationship with Roddy isn’t healthy. The other is jealous, possessive, and blindly attracted to Roddy. This conflict adds to the suspense of the story, and it provides Elinor with a strong motive for murder when Mary dies one day of poison. In fact, Elinor is charged with Mary’s murder. The family doctor, Peter Lord, wants Elinor acquitted, as he’s fallen in love with her. So he asks Poirot to investigate the case and clear Elinor’s name. The dysfunctional relationships among Elinor, Roddy and Mary provide a fascinating backdrop to this story as Poirot examines their histories and those of the other characters and finds out who killed Mary Gerrrard and why.

In Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of Yvonne Harrison, a nurse whose sexual obsessions are an important factor in this story. Morse first meets Yvonne when he’s hospitalized for treatment of his diabetes. When her nude, handcuffed body is found in her bed, the police don’t at first get enough evidence to pursue an investigation. Two years later, anonymous tips point to Harry Repp, who’s just been released from prison after serving time for burglary charges. Superintendent Strange wants Morse and Lewis to look into the case, but Morse is, oddly enough, not disposed to investigate. Lewis does most of the work in this case, at least at first, and as he does so, we begin to see the dysfunctional relationship between Yvonne Harrison and her husband, Frank. Neither has been faithful, and yet they remain in a very strange relationship with each other. That relationship, and the couple’s relationships with their children, are a very important part of this story and add a fascinating level of interest. As we find out more and more about the family, it’s easy to ask, “Why did this family even stay together at all?” In the end, Lewis and Morse sort through Yvonne Harrison’s many relationships, and find out who killed her and why.

All sorts of dysfunctional relationships are explored in M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies and Liquor. In that novel, Agatha Raisin is persuaded to join her ex-husband, James Lacey, on a holiday at Snoth-on-Sea, a resort he knew well as a child. When they arrive, they’re more than disappointed to find that the resort has gone steadily downhill and is a shabby, dilapidated shadow of its former self. Agatha wants to leave immediately, but James persuades her to stay until they can make other arrangements. That night, the two of them meet Geraldine Jankers, who’s honeymooning at the same hotel with her husband Fred. With Geraldine is her son, Wayne, and his wife Chelsea, as well as her friend, Cyril Hammond and his wife, Dawn. Agatha and Geraldine get into an argument at dinner and soon, James and some of the other members of the family get involved, too. Later that night, Geraldine Jankers is found strangled on the beach – with Agatha’s scarf. At first, Agatha is suspected of the crime, but she’s soon able to prove she’s not guilty. Then, she decides to investigate the murder. As she and her team-mates from her detective agency look into Geraldine Jankers’ life, they find a network of dysfunctional relationships. First, Geraldine herself has a history of making very poor matrimonial choices. And then there’s the relationship between Cyril Hammond and his wife, Dawn. It turns out that Cyril is abusive. At one point in the novel, Dawn leaves him, but then, she returns. Finally, there’s the relationship between Agatha Raisin and her ex-husband. Agatha knows full well that the relationship is not a healthy one and that she’s better off without him. At the same time, she finds herself unable to completely break away.

There are also several dysfunctional relationships at the center of Martin EdwardsThe Serpent Pool. In that novel, DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the six-year-old case of the drowning death of Bethany Friend. Scarlett thinks this death may be related to two deaths that her friend Fren Larter and Fern’s team are investigating, so the two work together to sort out what happened. As they investigate the deaths with help from Oxford historian Daniel Kind, they unravel all sorts of complex dysfunctional relationships. For instance, Kind’s sister Louise is involved in a dysfunctional relationship with successful attorney Stuart Wagg, one of the victims whose murder is under investigation. And then there’s the strange relationship between another victim, book collector George Saffell, and his wife, Wanda, who’s made a habit of sexual exploration. There’s also Bethany herself. The more that Scarlett and Larter find out about Bethany’s past, the more they see that she, too, was involved in some really dysfunctional relationships. In the end, the three murders turn out to be linked, and you could say that a very dysfunctional relationship is behind them.

No relationship is really perfect, but some of them seem to be downright unhealthy. We may wonder why anyone stays in such a relationship, but people do – for all kinds of reasons. Because people do stay, we can sometimes identify with fictional characters who do. Those sorts of relationships can also add an interesting layer of suspense to a crime fiction novel, even as we wonder at the relationship. Of course, there’s always a danger that the characters won’t be believable; after all, we don’t want to think of anyone remaining in an unhealthy situation. But when they’re well-done, such stories can be intriguing. Which novels have you enjoyed that explore this theme?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from (If Loving You is Wrong) I Don’t Want to be Right, co-written by Homer Banks, Carl Hampton and Raymond Jackson.


  1. Well, Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Sorry has a protagonist (Stella Hardesty) who hung around with her abusive husband for a long time, but finally took him out with wrench. I thought that was very intriguing, especially since Stella's new calling as a vigilante focuses on setting other females free of their abusive relationships by getting the guy's attention and scaring him straight. She carries the theme forward in her new release, A Bad Day for Pretty. Good novels!


  2. Patricia - Thanks! Your comments always teach or remind me about lots of good authors. And your examples are certainly relevant. Stella's a very interesting example of a protagonist who's been caught in one of those dysfunctional relationships. Really fine illustration!

  3. I decided to make my characters a couple years younger than originally planned just to show at an age they are still making stupid mistakes that cause conflcit withing the group. They then need to overcome these obstacles if they are tomove forward. The "growing up" curve escalates quickly as their lives depend upon trusting and forgiving one another. In a believeable manner, of course.

    Stephen Tremp

  4. Stephen - That sounds interesting! You raise an interesting question, too: Are we less likely to get caught in dysfunction as we get older? Hmmm.... You've given me lots of food for thought, for which thank you : ).

    And your plot sounds interesting - people who need to depend on people with whom they've been in conflict. That could really be engaging...

  5. Ok, this is the third blog in five minutes to mention Martin Edwards! How weird is that?

    But, to respond correctly, the obvious argument is that dysfunction appears in books because it appears so often in life. We ARE writing what we want readers to connect with, after all.

    How do you keep all these plots and characters in your head? Do you have a crazy Excel spreadsheet somewhere with every Christie cross-referenced with every mystery published since? You should back that thing up. Definitely worth some gold on the Internet. :P



  6. Michele - Wow! I guess that must be a message from the universe for you to read Martin Edwards' work if you haven't. I'm a big fan of his Lake District series; it's absolutely terrific.

    You're right; dysfunction is a big part of human life. It happens for a lot of reasons and in a lot of ways. So yes, if we want readers to feel a connection with characters, some dysfunction makes sense. Sometimes a lot of dysfunction, as long as it's credible. That really is a strong argument.

    And no, I don't have an Excel spreadsheet, but that's a good idea. Maybe I'll set one up, sell it on the Internet and live the plush, decadent life to which I would like to become accustomed ; ).

  7. Margot your last comment just reminds me that I have Martin Edwards' The Coffin Trail in my TBR pile and I have move it forward right to the top.

  8. Jose Ignacio - I'm so glad you were planning to read that one; it's quite good, I think, and the characters are quite well-drawn. It's an engaging mystery in a beautiful setting, I think, and I hope you will enjoy it.

  9. I think Christie wrote about these dysfunctional relationships so well! I think they mirror life all too frequently! The only problem is making sure the reader doesn't get too frustrated with the characters for sticking around.

  10. Elizabeth - I agree completely! It is important that the characters be written well, so the reader understands why the characters stay in a dysfunctional relationship. Otherwise, the reader does get upset with the character and loses interest. Doing that is not nearly as easy as it seems, but it is important. And yes, Christie really did that well.

  11. When I read your post it reminded me of Caroline Grahams Killing at Badger Drift where all the murders took place because of a incestuous relationship. It was such a horrendous relationship trying to be covered up with murder.


  12. Clarissa - Thanks for that reminder of The Killings at Badger's Drift. You're absolutely right that a seriously dysfunctional relationship is behind those murders. It's precisely the kind of thing I was thinking about, so I'm glad you brought that up.

  13. It's an interesting question, isn't it? I think in the days when Agatha Christie was writing, certainly in England, it was not at all the done thing to get divorced. It was considered quite shocking and one would have been dropped from the social circle of respectability (especially if you were the woman). Also, attitudes to sex were much more prudish and there is lots of scope there for murder and crime novels concerning partners who stay together long after their sell-by (cell-by?) date.

    These days, it is odd that the ties that bind still seem to exist so strongly in some crime-fiction partnerships. But I do wonder, though, whether nowadays plots tend to focus more often on wrongs done by parents or other adults to children, and the solution to the mystery is involved with uncovering that old history. It's subjective, but I have the impression that in Agatha Christie's time many plots would not have featured the kind of child abuse that is so popular these days as crime motivation.

  14. Maxine - Thanks for your perspective. I agree completely that divorce was pretty much not an option when Christie was writing; certainly it wasn't when she began writing. In fact, it was rather shocking when Dorothy Sayers created Harriet Vane, a woman who'd had a lover and (gasp!) never married him. There may have seemed no option at the time but murder.

    It's very interesting that you mention child abuse. I think you're right that it's a very much more common theme now than it was. Without half trying, I'll bet you could come up with a dozen novels where the killer was abused, or child abuse somehow figures into the plot of the novel. I can only think of two or three Agatha Christies where there's been that kind of abuse, and even then, the characters are no longer young and the abuse is not described in the kind of horrific detail it is now. Really interesting perspective! Thank you : ).

  15. In the novel I am trying to find a publisher for, it's a mother who nearly destroys her daughter's life. The abuse is not physical but it is certainly psychological.

  16. Patti - Now that sounds intriguing. When that kind of novel is done well (as I'm sure you've done it), it can have edge-of-your-seat kind of tension and suspense. I want to read it!