Friday, October 29, 2010

My Mistake Was to Love You*

Most of us have had the experience of falling in love with someone who turned out to be all wrong for us. Whether it was a rush of attraction, a long-term relationship or something in between, it seems to be part of the human experience to feel very much drawn to the wrong kind of person. Because that kind of attraction is so real-life, it's little wonder we also see plenty of it in crime fiction. And being drawn towards someone who's all wrong can also make a character interesting and add to the suspense of a novel. Readers know that disaster's going to strike one way or another, and they keep turning pages to find out what's going to happen. Of course, this sort of plot point has its risks; for instance, it's easy for a plot like this to become cliché. But when it's done well, this sort of story can add real drama to a novel.

There's a very interesting twist on this theme in Arthur Conan Doyle's
A Scandal in Bohemia. Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from a most auspicious person - Wilhelm Gottsreich Sigismond von Ormstein, the King of Bohemia. The king is worried because he's about to marry a wealthy Scandinavian princess, but his future with her would be in jeopardy if anyone discovered his previous relationship with opera singer Irene Adler. Unfortunately for the king, Irene Adler has a photograph of the two of them that she's threatening to make public, so the king hires Holmes to get the photograph. Holmes agrees and he and Watson get to work on the case. They track the 'photo down, but Irene Adler is too clever for them. She escapes, taking the fatal 'photo with her, and leaving another in its place, along with a letter. It seems the king was no better a choice for her than she was for him, and she's found someone else. She agrees not to make the 'photo public, so long as the king does nothing to make that necessary. It's a very neat move that Holmes can't help but admire.

In Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun, we meet Captain Kenneth Marshall. He takes his wife, the beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart, and his daughter Linda on a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. It's soon clear that the Marshall family is not a close, loving unit. Linda dislikes her stepmother, and the Marshall marriage isn't an overly happy one. We see that almost immediately when Arlena begins to spend quite a lot of time with Patrick Redfern, another hotel guest. Before long, it's common knowledge that they're having an affair. Then one day, Arlena Marshall is found strangled on a cove not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot, who's staying at the same hotel, was quite possibly the last person to see Arlena alive, so he gets involved in the investigation almost from the beginning of it. What he and the police find is a portrait of marriages and relationships that were all wrong, and that backdrop adds tension and a layer of interest to the plot.

There's a similar sub-plot in Christie's Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Poirot is flying from Paris to London one afternoon. Towards the end of the flight, one of his fellow passengers dies of what seems at first to be heart failure. Soon enough, though, it's established that poison was involved. The dead passenger is Madame Giselle, a well-known French moneylender whose form of security is people's private secrets. Her clients repay her to prevent her revealing what she knows. One of those clients (and also a passenger on the fateful flight) is Cicely Horbury, a former actress who's now married to Stephen Lord Horbury. For both Horburys, the marriage has been a disaster. Although Cicely's happy with the money and position that came with the marriage, she's bored with country life and has little in common with her husband. For Stephen, Cicely isn't even really attractive anymore, although he was once madly infatuated. He finds her tiresome and querulous, and has very little to talk about with her. The drama between these two characters plays out as an interesting sub-plot to the larger murder mystery plot, and it's tied in with that major plot when Cicely becomes a suspect in Madame Giselle's murder.

In Dorothy Sayers'
Strong Poison, Harriet Vane finds out almost too late the consequences of falling in love with the wrong person. She'd been involved with Philip Boyes, who persuaded her to live with him without getting married. When she found out that Philip would have been willing to marry her and was just (so she saw it) testing her, Harriet became insulted and infuriated. She and Philip quarreled, and she broke off their relationship. Shortly after their stormy breakup, Philip Boyes died of arsenic poisoning and now, Harriet Vane's on trial for his murder. Their quarrel is one point of evidence against her; so is the fact that she had arsenic in her possession. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends the trial, doesn't think Harriet's guilty and resolves to clear her name. He gets his chance when the jury can't agree on a verdict and Harriet Vane is granted a new trial. Lord Peter and several friends put the pieces of the puzzle together and are able to find out who really killed Philip Boyes and why. What's interesting about this novel is that Harriet's awareness that she made a mistake in her choice of men affects her through several subsequent novels, and it's not until Gaudy Night that she finally lets her guard down enough to agree to marry Lord Peter, who's loved her all along.

There's an eerie example of falling in love with the wrong person in Ruth Rendell's
The Bridesmaid. Philip Wardman is a meticulous and fastidious interior designer with a horror of any kind of violence. When he attends his sister Fee's wedding, he meets Santa Pelham, one of Fee's bridesmaids. Against his better judgement, Philip is immediately enthralled and begins a relationship with her. All's well until Santa tells him that they must prove their love for each other by each of them committing a murder. Philip is horrified by what she says, but he's too much in love to protest. So he makes up a story and pretends he's committed a murder. Santa tells him her own murder story and Philip believes she's made her story up, too. Too late, Philip realises that instead of finding a loving partner, he's been drawn tightly into a web of mental illness and psychological manipulation.

What's really interesting in crime fiction is how often sleuths themselves have fallen in love with the wrong person. For example, Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. He's also a proud member of the Navajo Nation. He observes traditional Navajo ways and, at the beginning of the series, he's even studying to be a yata'ali, or healer. Unfortunately for Chee, he falls in love with Mary Landon, a white schoolteacher who works on the Reservation. At first all's well. Then, it becomes all too clear that Mary's dream is for Chee to leave his home and join her in the white world. Their relationship, and their growing awareness that they're wrong for each other, forms an interesting story-across-stories for a few of the novels that feature Chee.

M.C. Beaton's Agatha Raisin has also had the bad fortune of falling in love with the wrong person. She was married to James Lacey - until he abruptly left her to join a monastery. Her process of trying to deal with their on-again/off-again relationship is an ongoing story throughout several of the novels that feature her. As the series goes on, it's interesting to see how on the one hand, Agatha's quite aware that James was wrong for her. More than once she determines to let the past be the past and move on. At the same time, she finds it hard to keep her resolution. Her reaction to James Lacey endears Agatha to some readers, who can identify with what they see as her very real-life quandary. Other readers feel that makes her a weaker character.

And then there's Alexander McCall Smith's Precious Ramotswe. Despite her father's warning, Precious fell in love with and married jazz musician Note Makoti. It turned out to be a very wrong choice for her, as Makoti was unfaithful and abusive. With great difficulty, Mma. Ramotswe realised that she'd fallen in love with the wrong person, and got out of the relationship. Her decision turned out to be a boon to Botswana's citizens, as she's turned her energy into becoming an excellent private detective.

Many of us know what it feels like to fall in love with the wrong person; it's quite a human thing to do. So we can identify with characters who make that mistake in crime fiction. On the other hand, without the right touch, such a plot or sub-plot can turn maudlin and clichéd. What's your view? Have you enjoyed novels that feature this plot point? Which ones?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones' My Mistake.


  1. Margot-I could get maudlin about this plot device.
    I did enjoy The Arsenic Labyrinth by Martin Edwards, and the developing relationship between Hannah Scarlett and Daniel Kind. Those will they won't they teasing relationships are good to keep a series interesting, and readers coming back for more.
    Interestingly in the last Swedish book I read, Between Summer's Longing.... the few female characters make appalling choices, and unfortunately this happens in real life as well. ;o)

  2. Norman - Oh, yes, The Arsenic Labyrinth is a good example of the kind of thing I mean, so thanks for bringing it up. And I know exactly what you mean about Hannah and Daniel (Ahem, Martin!!!!! ;-0). So long as the will they/won't they isn't cloying, it can, indeed, work quite well.

    Thanks for mentioning Between Summer's Longing and Winter's End, too. I admit, I haven't decided if I'm going to read that one, but folks, please read Norman's excellent review of the novel. It's true, too, that in real life, people often do make terrible choices, for all the wrong reasons....

  3. The Bridesmaid is indeed one creepy book. Rendell uses the theme of wrong love choices in a number of her books. The Water's Lovely is a more recent example.

  4. I immediately thought of Margaret Coel's Wind River Reservation mysteries where the ongoing sexual tension between the female Arapahoe lawyer Vicky Holden and her friend, Father John O'Malley, makes for a very intriguing sub-plot.

  5. John - You're absolutely right; Rendell does use that theme of making the wrong choice in love in several of her books. Thanks for pointing that out :-).

  6. Patricia - Oh, thanks for that reminder! You are absolutely right that their relationship is interesting on a lot of levels, not the least of which is those characters' strong feelings for each other, despite the fact that both "know better."

  7. The only example I can think of right now is one that didn't work at all for me. In Karin Slaughter's Grant County series there is a policewoman called Lena who gets in then out then back into an abusive relationship with a particularly abhorrent white supremacist (as if there are any non-abhorrent ones). Persoanlly I thought the whole plot line made Lena's character unbelievable as both a woman and a police officer. I've stopped reading the series so I don't know how (or if) this is resolved but it went to far for me.

  8. Bernadette - I've read a bit of Karin Slaughter, but not that series. I can certainly see, though, how that could be completely off-putting. It's just not credible that someone who's both a police officer and a woman would want to be in that kind of relationship. I know such things can happen; very little that humans could do is utterly impossible. Still, I think that would stretch my limits, too.

  9. Wasn't there a Sherlock Holmes short, where the step father woos the girl who is going to inherit the money, so he can ensure the money stays with him. Or is my memory playing tricks on me.

    This is a fascinating post, and I find ti endearing that detectives who are normally so smart are so gullible when it comes to love.

  10. Rayna - Your memory is not only not playing tricks on you, it's quite keen, I think. Are you thinking of A Case of Identity? That's the story where Miss Mary Sutherland visits Holmes because her fiance seems to have disappeared. Only as we find out, it's both simpler and more complicated than that and yes, it has all to do with the fact that her stepfather Mr. Windibank wants to ensure that Miss Sutherland does not marry.

    I agree with you, too; it is interesting (and sometimes quite appealing) when sleuths are brilliant at detection, but not at all so when it comes to choosing a partner.

  11. Thanks for the info about different endings in "witness for the prosecution" by Agatha Cristie.I read both the short story and the play. The changes she made while converting the story into a play and the possible reasons for those changes can be a good topic for discussion.

    In WFTP (the play) "love goes bad" for at least three of the central characters.

  12. Amey - You're quite right; those differences really are food for thought, aren't they? And yes, in the play, love certainly goes wrong, so to speak, for those character. Perhaps I'll do a post on that play and short story at some point; both are interesting and well-written, in my opinion.

  13. Oh, THE BRIDESMAID was fantastic. And once you veer into mainstream fiction, there are even more examples of this.
    In a KISS BEFORE DYING (Ira Levin), well, I don't want to spoil so leave it at-this happens more than once.

  14. Patti - Oh you're so right! A Kiss Before Dying absolutely deals with this theme. I'm so glad you mentioned that one. Of course, I happen to like Ira Levin, so I'm biased. But still, I'd say that one's a terrific read.

  15. The Bridesmaid is such a wonderful story, but it is also so scary that I have only read it once. Rendell has made the characters a bit too real for me :D

  16. I'm listening to Safe Haven and the lead female character is married to an abusive man she has run away from and as the story continues we learn that her husband is a detective. To mean this makes for one of those you hate/like characters. You hate the characters because he is abusive to his wife. But if you only see him as a detective, he like him because he does his job so well.

    Thoughts in Progress

  17. Dorte - Oh, you're right. It's shuderingly real, isn't it? That is, indeed, what makes it all the more eerie....

    Mason - Oh, Safe Haven sounds like exactly the kind of thing I mean. On one hand, of course, the guy's a detective and we want to like him for that. But if he's abusive to his wive, it's hard not to believe she made a big mistake in loving him. Thanks for your contribution.

  18. Case of Identity it was. My memory for names is appalling.
    Speaking of sleuths and the women they fall for, I love the women both Holmes and Poirot fell in love with- Irene Adler and Vera Rosakoff.

  19. Rayna - Oh, I'm glad you remembered; that is a good story! :-). And I agree; both Irene Adler and Vera Rosakoff are fascinating women, and it's easy to see how those great sleuths find themselves attracted. In a way, it's a good thing, too, that nothing ever really comes of that attraction. I just somehow can't see either man married...nor either woman, for the matter of that.

  20. One of the reasons I love Edward Martin's books is because of the hopeful love interests between the two main characters but at first they have to go though the wrong people. As of the last book, they haven't got together (although something special did happen) but I'm hopeful.


  21. Clarissa - I'm waiting to see what happens with Daniel and Hannah, too! I like that Martin Edwards is developing those characters through the series, so that we can see how they are gradually drawn to each other. We'll see what happens in this next instalment...