20 February 2017

Romancing the Crime

by Steve Liskow

Happy belated Valentine's Day to everyone. In keeping with the spirit, let's talk about love.


When I started writing mysteries, I read several other writers who eventually wrote themselves into a problem. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that it was a problem until I made the same mistake, and now I'm finally working my way out of it.

Robert Parker, Michael Connelly, Tess Gerritsen, Linda Barnes and Robert Crais all had their protagonists pursue relationships with lovers they met during various novels, and those couplings eventually caused the same problem: how do you give a lover who no longer influence the plot something worthwhile to do in your story?

Parker had Spenser meet Susan Silverman when she was involved in an early case, and their romance waxed and waned through the rest of the series. Susan left for training on the West Coast at one point and needed Spenser and Hawk to get her out of a jam in the following book, but for several books, her only link to the story is her psychiatric training that allowed her to help Spenser with varying degrees of success. If it weren't for the expert consulting angle, she could have disappeared.

Michael Connelly commented on his website that he doesn't plan very far ahead and that he wishes he had thought more carefully about some character choices. I suspect that Eleanor Wish heads his list of do-overs. She and Harry Bosch met in Connelly's first book and reunited several novels later. But after they married, she became less and less important except as the distaff side of a failing marriage. Now she's out of the picture and Harry is raising a teen-aged daughter alone.

Tess Gerritsen straddles that same line. Jane Rizzoli married Gabriel Dean, an FBI agent she met on a case, and now we see him for about five paragraphs per book, less than the average baby-daddy. At least he shares child-raising chores with Jane, but I wonder how long that will last. And Maura Isles, Jane's co-protagonist medical examiner, finally ended her own rocky romance.

I don't remember if Linda Barnes showed PI Carlotta Carlyle meeting Sam Gianelli, the son of a Mafia family, in an early book or whether they were already a couple when the series started. Either way, Sam has gained age and influence with his peer group and Carlotta, an ex-cop, is too much of an entangling alliance. The star-crossed lovers have gone their separate ways and Carlotta is looking more favorably on Mooney, the cop she's known from the very beginning.

Robert Crais introduced Lucy Chenier in the fifth Elvis Cole novel. Again, Lucy the lawyer was crucial for that story. Crais solved part of his problem by have Lucy, a divorcee with a young son, live in New Orleans while Cole worked in LA, so they talked on the phone but had little personal contact for the following books.

Then Lucy decided to move to LA, partly for a job, but mostly to be with Elvis. Unfortuantely, she could only give him so much legal advice without possible conflict of interest, and Crais finally ended their relationship in one of his best books, The Last Detective, where' Lucy's son is kidnapped while Elvis is taking care of him. There's lots of painful emotional fallout, and Lucy pulls the plug. She still gets cameo roles in later books, but Crais figured out that a romance doesn't fly unless both characters are on the plane.

I've learned that the hard way, too. Beth Shepard, AKA "Taliesyn Holroyd," was a client in Who Wrote the Book of Death? and she and Zach Barnes became lovers before that book ended.
I planned the book as a stand-alone, but reviewers and readers visited my website to ask when Zach and Beth were coming back. Oops. It's hard when the lover is a reporter, cop, or lawyer, but Beth is half of a pseudonymous romance writing team. Her expertise doesn't include chasing bad guys.

So far, that intended one-off has grown to five books, but Beth has increasingly little to do. She does provide a major clue in my WIP when a character is reading a book she's written under her own name, but she never shows up in person in that story. I'm considering having her do research that leads to a crime and plot in a future book, but I don't know the topic...yet.

Dennis Lehane seems to be the only one who did it right, and I'm not sure he knew that at the time. Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro were working together as private investigators in Lehane's first book, and they already had a history, even though Patrick was divorced from Angie's sister and Angie's own marriage was beginning to trail smoke. Angie divorced in the second book and her relationship with Patrick has had more ups and downs than the Dow Jones average. The fourth and fifth books (my favorites) were especially painful. In Moonlight Mile, written over a decade later, Lehane gives the married couple closure.

Unless both halves of the team are actively involved in a case, there's a good chance the outsider is going to become excess baggage.

My "Woody" Guthrie books have learned from Zach and Beth. Megan Traine, Chris/Woody's girlfriend, is a computer wonk for the Detroit PD. She can contribute to the story and still bat her baby browns at the good guy.

How about you? Is a series romance turning into a serious problem?

6 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Sometimes I think the romance slows the plot down, especially when it's not directly related to the plot, not that I haven't done it myself. So I think you make some good points about how to do it right and not let become something extraneous.

janice law said...

An interesting problem. I wrote 9 Anna Peters mysteries, for most of them she was involved with Harry, the man she ultimately married. I never felt he was a problem because I never really involved him in the plots. He was , dare I say, an unconventional source of stability for a fictional detective, which I rather liked and their ongoing relationship avoided romantic relationships that might slow down the action of the novel.

Leigh Lundin said...

Some random thoughts:

BK Stevens takes a couple of different approaches in the limited stories I’ve read of hers. One series features a family man as quiet background. He and the children provide an anchor during the research and investigations of his wife, the main character.

More complex is a tough PI who’s controlled by her mother, a woman we’d love to smack. Our PI is emotionally attached to a cop in what may be an unconsummated relationship. You want to tell them to hell with the old lady, bang the headboards (or each other) as much as you like. Still, it keeps the tension.

Melodie Campbell’s Goddaughter has hooked a hunk she keeps on a line. (I see women taking notes.)

If I remember right, Jan Grape put a character’s husband into a coma. (I see more women taking notes.)

In the early years of The Saint, Leslie Charteris had a long-term girlfriend and fellow adventurer, Patricia. The Saint and the series changed during and after WW-II. After the Saint wars with the Nazis, Patricia turns down marriage and from there on out he remained footloose and fancy-free.

In the early television series, Rocky King, Detective, his wife is heard but not seen. Despite her invisibility, she exerted quite an influence over the show.

Then there’s Columbo, with a wife felt but neither seen nor heard. How many times have we witnessed Columbo perching fingertips on his wrinkles brow and saying, “My wife says…”

Eve Fisher said...

I'd say probably the best romantic addition to mysteries are those where the spouse is just the spouse (like Madame Maigret) OR those where both are into sleuthing up to their necks. I like Lord Peter and Harriet together. I also liked Tommy & Tuppence Beresford. I think the key to all of this - and this may be a complete no-no in today's world - is that the couple is HAPPY together. Miserable / tortured couples (to me) make miserable, tortured reading, because I always want to smack one or the other up the side of the head and tell them to get with it. Give me a happy, content couple - especially if they're witty to boot (think Nick and Nora Charles - who should have had more novels).

Jan Grape said...

Yes, my Austin Policewoman character, Zoe Barrow has a SWAT team officer husband who was shot in the head and is neither dead or really alive. He's in an inbetween state and in a nursing home. I more orless paid homage to Jerry Healy. His PI character John Francis Cuddy has a dead wife and he goes out to cemetary sometimes and talks to her. She talks back in his head. He uses this as a sounding board and it sometimes helps him solve the case. I think in later books Cuddy falls in love and the spirit of the wife tells him it's past time for him to move on.
With Zoe Barrow, she goes to nursing home and talks to Byron, her husband but, he doesn't talk back in her head. By telling him, she does see things more clearly.
I think a spouse or significent other makes them a more rounded character. The partner doesn't have to continue helping solve the mystery but you can add to the plot in the way Bill Pronzini brings in Nameless' wife with family or medical problems. I see nothing wrong with a love interest but sex scenes can slow down a mystery plot. Maybe just turn off the bedroom light with a hint of they don't go right to sleep but you know what happened.

Jan Grape said...

My homage to Jerry was a few years before he passed away and I did get to tell him what I had done with Zoe Barrow and why. He was pleased and I'm so glad I did get the chance to tell him.