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 Edwards’ The 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.