Longing For Shelter From All That We See*

As I’ve often mentioned on this blog, being a sleuth is really difficult. Apart from the obvious physical and mental toll the job takes, there’s the added fact that most people don’t have a really clear idea of what the work is like. Among the few people who really do “get it” – at a deep level – are other cops and law enforcement professionals. So it’s no surprise that a lot of “office romances” spring up. For one thing, investigating cases usually involves an awful lot of time, so people working on them spend quite a lot of time together. And then there’s the adrenaline “rush” that comes during an intense investigation; that, too, adds to the mix. Add in the empathy factor and you’ve got a very ripe atmosphere for romance. A quick look at crime fiction shows what I mean.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a hard-working member of the Navajo Nation and the Navajo Tribal Police. In the course of the novels that feature him, Chee has three serious relationships. The first two are not with fellow cops. But in The Wailing Wind, Chee meets rookie Tribal Police Officer Bernadette Manuelito. In that novel, she finds a dead man in a truck in the desert. At first, she thinks the man was drunk and the death accidental. But the case proves to be murder. Unfortunately, by then, Manuelito has compromised the crime scene and gets into trouble for it. Sergeant Jim Chee suspects there’s something particularly strange about this murder and he and “The Legendary Lieutenant” Joe Leaphorn begin to look for answers. For Chee, the motivation is that he doesn’t want the FBI taking over his case and he likes Manuelito (and he respects her, too). For Leaphorn, the case reminds him of another, unsolved case from two years earlier. As the case gets more dangerous and the hours longer, Chee and Manuelito spend more time together and find they’re mutually attracted. To add to this, Manuelito is in many ways a traditional Navajo; she and Chee share a strong bond in that way. In the end (and after a few novels), we see a happy ending for Chee and Manuelito. One of the things that’s most appealing about this “office romance” is that it develops very believably and naturally. It doesn’t feel contrived at all.

Peter Robinson’s Alan Banks finds himself swept up in an “office romance,” too.  In In a Dry Season, the once-buried Yorkshire village of Hobb’s End has become uncovered due to a drought. A young boy exploring the ruins discovers that a skeleton’s been buried, too. Banks and his team begin the work of finding out who the woman was and how and why she died. One of his team members is DS Annie Cabot. Cabot’s far from perfect, but she’s a hard-working and skilled cop, and Banks finds her attractive, too. To add to that, Banks and his wife Sandra have separated, and he’s still dealing with the fact that she was unfaithful to him. So it seems only natural that Banks and Cabot would be drawn to each other and they are. They begin a relationship that certainly has its ups and downs, but shows clearly how “office romances” can start when the ingredients are there. Again, this relationship makes sense and adds to the story because it falls out naturally from the plot. It’s not contrived just to add “spice” to the series.

The romance between Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson and her boss Måns Wenngren is also natural.  When we first meet them in Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar), Martinsson is a tax attorney working in Stockholm. She and Wenngren have an icily polite relationship; Wenngren thinks that Martinsson is cold and distant, and Martinsson is smarting because of Wenngren’s management style as well as what she sees as Wenngren’s lack of respect for her. Martinsson returns to her hometown of Kiruna to help a former friend who’s been charged with murder. In the course of that case, Martinsson herself gets into a very traumatic situation from which she’s just beginning to recover when the events of the next novel The Blood Spilt take place. Throughout that novel and The Black Path, Wenngren and Martinsson get to know each other better even though they don’t spend a lot of time together at first. The more they learn about each other, the more they respect and come to love each other. What’s appealing about this relationship is that it takes a very natural course. It develops over time (three novels) and we can really imagine people like Martinsson and Wenngren pursuing a relationship in the way they do.

And then there’s the relationship between P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson and Darren Carter. Anderson is an F.B.I. profiler whom we meet in Body Count. She and her team are on the trail of a vicious killer nicknamed “The D.C. Slasher.” That trail leads to Tucson, Arizona, where it seems the killer has struck before. In the course of working that part of the investigation, Sophie meets Carter, with Arizona Homicide. The two begin a friendship as they work this case; later it blossoms into more. Again, this is a realistic relationship. Anderson and Carter don’t magically fall in love and get whisked away, as the legend goes. They have their awkward moments and difficulties, one of which is that it’s often a long-distance romance. But that’s what makes this relationship work in terms of character development; it’s authentic.

The relationship between Deborah Crombie’s Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid is authentic, too. When we first meet them in A Share in Death, they work together as colleagues. Over time they come to like and trust each other and they build a life together. But there’s nothing contrived or “magical” about this couple. The stress of their jobs takes it toll, and they each have personal issues to deal with as well. That’s part of why this “office romance” works in this series. It’s natural and believable, and it develops between two people who are human.

It’s just as interesting to see how incipient “office romances” don’t happen as it is to see how they do happen. Plenty of people notice those with whom they work, but don’t pursue a relationship. Sometimes it’s because they’re committed to other people. Sometimes it’s because they realise the pitfalls of an “office romance.” That sub-plot can be add an interesting layer to a story as well. For instance, Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett is the leader of the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review team. Her second-in-command in the first few novels of Edwards’ Lake District series is Nick Lowther. Scarlett and Lowther work well together and there are hints – just hints – that under other circumstances they might become more than friends and colleagues. But the novels wouldn’t be as effective as they are if this couple did explore a relationship. In this case, the faint hints are far more effective and add some depth to both characters.

The same is true of Carolyn Graham’s Tom Barnaby. Barnaby is happily married to his wife Joyce – has been for a number of years. But in A Ghost in the Machine, Barnaby acknowledges the risks of police work when it comes to “office romances.” He’s noticing that Sergeant Gavin Troy and WPC Abby Rose Carter are mildly flirting. Here’s his reaction:


“The physical and emotional closeness police work often entailed made such situations especially hazardous. Barnaby himself had never been unfaithful, although there had been one or two very close calls. The second so close it had led to a request for a transfer.”


This is just my opinion, so feel free to differ with me if you do, but the series is stronger because Barnaby admits to not being immune, as it were, but doesn’t completely slip.

“Office romances” can fall out very naturally in a plot. When they do, that thread can add some character depth, especially if it’s done over time. When it’s contrived, though, or not done subtly, an “office romance” can spell disaster for a novel or series. What’s your view on this? Do you think authors ought to steer clear of this plot point? Or do you think it makes sense as a plot point?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Seger’s We’ve Got Tonight.


Filed under Åsa Larsson, Caroline Graham, Deborah Crombie, Martin Edwards, P.D. Martin, Peter Robinson, Tony Broadbent

28 responses to “Longing For Shelter From All That We See*

  1. “Office romances” now I know why you Americans refer to dental surgeries as offices.
    Incidentally Colm McEvoy in Rob Kitchin’s second book The White Gallows seemed on the edge of an office romance, and I am waiting to see what happens in his next book.
    I think office romances are so common [especially in the police force] it would be unusual if an author did not include a few in a series. ;-)

    • Norman – LOL! Yes, a “surgery romance” just doesn’t have quite the – er – appeal that the term “office romance” does, does it? ;-). And thanks for mentioning Rob Kitchin’s Colm McEvoy series. I’m eager to see what happens in the next novel, too. You’re right, too, I think, about “office (or “surgery” ;-) ) romances. They do happen frequently, so weaving them into a series makes sense.

  2. I agree with Norman, where else do you get to meet people these days if not at work? Especially as most fictional detectives are workaholics and never go home :-)

    • Sarah – A well-taken point! So many fictional sleuths are workaholics that it’s not easy to imagine them meeting people in many other places. There are parties and pubs and so on, but for developing the kind of friendship that leads further, you need more regular contact. For a workaholic, the only place to do that is… at work.

  3. I love office romances in mysteries (as long as the romantic ones aren’t already married to someone else). I like it even better if there’s a subtle attraction and nothing happens right away. :)

    • Pat – I know exactly what you mean. The subtle attraction that slowly turns to friendship and then more is rich. I think it’s more realistic, too and less contrived than the instant love affair is.

  4. kathy d.

    What’s the definition of an “office romance”? What about someone on the job who meets a potential partner while working? I think of the team in Michael Connelly’s book, the journalist and the FBI profiler who have an on-again, off-again personal relationship.
    This doesn’t bother me. People meet at work or while doing their jobs out in the field or in bowling alleys and grocery stores. C’est la vie! Wherever humans can meet, romance will occur, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not working out — but then there’s a story line there either way.
    What I find intriguing in real life is two attorneys who are in a relationship, perhaps married where they each represent different sides in legal proceedings. How they maneuver this is interesting.
    It’s a bit of a theme in Connelly’s Mickey Halley series where he’s a defense attorney and his ex-spouse is a prosecutor. They join up on one case, they slightly collaborate on another. Their relationship goes up and down. He’s joining her side more and more.

    • Kathy – Good question about what “counts” as an “office romance.” There are, as you point out, plenty of examples – and Connelly’s work really shows them – of people whose jobs put them in contact even if they are not at the same office. That’s how Harry Bosch and Eleanor Wish meet. It’s how Jack McEvoy and Rachel Walling meet, too. And so on….
      You also make an interesting point about lawyers who take different sides of a case. Both in real life and in crime fiction, that’s interesting isn’t it? I wonder what it would be like to square off against one’s spouse/partner as opposing counsel in court….

  5. I agree with the subtle growth to a relationship. But I’ve also been turned off by office romances in stories, mainly suspense if it’s a series. For some reason it takes away from the MC for me. I like the personal life and work life to be separate. Now I don’t mind them crossing (sexual tension) but I don’t know if I’d go further and grow a romantic relationship. Then it could just be my gear is stuck in “suspense” mode and I need a good dose of WD-40. LOL!

    • D.L. – I know what you mean about an “office romance” taking away from the suspense. Once the couple is together, it’s harder to maintain that edge. So yes, an author who writes an “office romance” has to be skilled at creating other kinds of tension. On the other hand, the “will they or won’t they tension” can be overdone, too…

  6. I like the idea of office romances in fiction. Frankly, I don’t think they take the suspense out of a novel or movie. The subtle romantic chemistry between Perry Mason and Della Street takes nothing away from the gripping courtroom dramas that follow. Ditto for Richard Castle and Detective Beckett except you wish the director would bring them together once and for all so we could get on with the series. But then the will they-won’t they question, I suspect, is what keeps the viewers glued rather than the actual solving of the case.

    What about the “office romance” between Remington Steele and Laura Holt? That was fun! A critic, Jaime Weinman, is quoted on the internet as saying, “Remington Steele is a great hybrid of detective story and romance because it treats romance as similar to detective work: it’s about finding out what the other person is hiding.” Interesting!

    On the other hand, I can’t picture Hercule Poirot investigating a case and courting a woman at the same time; though, knowing him as we do, he would make an ideal romantic partner and husband, wouldn’t he? Précisément!

    • Prashant – You’ve given some very interesting examples of “office romances” that add something to a series. And Jaime Weinman has an interesting point about the similarities between romance and detective. I hadn’t thought about it that way before, but it does make sense. You’ve got a well-taken point about the chemistry between Perry Mason and Della Street, too. As you say, that doesn’t really detract from what goes on in the courtroom. It’s done in a low-key way that doesn’t seem contrived.

      And about Poirot? You’re quite right of course that he doesn’t get involved in an “office romance.” But there was the Countess Vera Rosokoff…. ;-)

  7. Yes, Countess Vera Rosokoff from Russia or thereabouts… I knew he had to have someone, somewhere!

    • Prashant – It is interesting that Christie’s generally rather reticent about Poirot’s personal life, but yes, in this case he lets his guard down. It’s not what you would call an “official” relationship, but it’s clear there is a spark there.

  8. I’m with you on Barnaby – C. Graham makes him human. In the hands of a skilled writer, office romances can add depth however, in the less skilled, it’s a painful experience to read.

    • H.L. – Well-put! If an “office romance” isn’t written well (i.e. subtly and naturally), it turns out “clunky” and painful. It also takes away from the mystery at hand.

  9. Margot: In Craig Johnson’s series Sheriff Walt Longmire has developed a relationship with the much younger deputy Victoria Morelli. One of the potential aspects of “office relationships” is the plausible possibility for such age different relationships.

    kathy d.’s reference to opposing lawyers coming together happened in Solomon v. Lord by Paul Levine where the opposing lawyers, who also have opposing personalties, are attracted.

    • Bill – First, thanks for the reminder of Johnson’s fine Walt Longmire series. That’s the beauty of people being kind enough to comment on my blog; there’s only so much one person can remember. You’ve raised an interesting point, too about the age-difference issue in relationships. It’s certainly a lot more plausible to have age differences in relationships if the people involved are co-workers.
      Also, thanks for the reference to Solomon v. Lord. I’ve had that on my TBR list since I read your excellent review of it. Time to hunt that one up and read it.

  10. When the ‘office romance’ is done so that it’s not the main focus of the story, I think it adds a bit of intrigue to it. I especially like the example of Perry Mason and Della Street. There was just enough chemistry there to make you want to see more but never overpowered the story. The examples you gave are all great.

    Thoughts in Progress
    Freelance Editing By Mason

    • Mason – Thank you :-). And you put that quite well about Perry Mason and Della Street. They have enough chemistry to be intriguing and keep readers wondering, but not so much that it gets obvious. As you say, that touch of “office romance” can add a little intrigue if it’s not the main theme of the story.

  11. kathy d.

    Perry Mason and Della Street! Of course! Had not thought of them, but in my memory, they were the first legal office covert relationship I had seen, or maybe the first on TV. They were quite smitten with each other, and as I recall, he treated her with respect.
    And then the on-again, off-again relationship between Mickey Haller and Maggie “McFierce” MacPherson is interesting; it’s one thing when they’re on opposing sides and another when they work together as in The Reversal. And she helps him out with a clue in The Lincoln Lawyer.
    I thought of this lawyer-conflict when I learned that a distant relative of mine, a young lawyer, married another lawyer. They’re on potentially opposing sides, and won’t be able to discuss certain cases with each other.
    That sounded like a legal thriller potential to me.
    Interesting about Poirot. I thought maybe he was gay, or maybe he just didn’t want to be encumbered by personal obligation to anyone.

    • Kathy – Right you are about the way Mason treated Street. Considering that the first Perry Mason novel was written in the early 1930′s, and the Raymond Burr show aired between 1957 and 1966, that respect is even more noteworthy. They were smitten with each other but it was done subtly enough that it didn’t seem out of place. And thanks for mentioning Haller and “MacFierce” (I like that!). That dynamic is interesting, isn’t it? It’s also interesting about the two lawyers in your family. I wonder what will happen if they’re ever on opposing sides. That can’t be easy and yes, lots of mystery-novel potential there!
      About Poirot…. He’s mentioned and hinted a few times that Countess Vera Rossakoff is his ideal of a woman; I suppose no other woman has measured up…

  12. kathy d.

    Good to know about Poirot. However, “an ideal” woman doesn’t mean that he has a relationship with her. It means he puts her on a pedestal, but often when that happens there isn’t anything more than that. Nothing as messy as a personal relationship happens, and if the person is idealized that means that a real relationship is too much and would sully the fantasy.
    But I don’t know about Poirot.

    • Kathy – Interesting point! I’m not sure what Poirot’s thinking is about that, either. Christie’s quite reticent about his personal life. Of course, that leaves the field wide open for speculation :-).

  13. kathy d.

    Now that would make a good short story — Poirot’s personal life. People could write a variety of possibilities on that.

  14. For the most part, I prefer my partnerships in crime fiction to be platonic, and the reason for that is twofold: I don’t read mysteries for sexual tension (it’s ten a penny anyway), and it is possible to write a partnership between members of the opposite sex and have the relationship be every bit as meaningful. I make an exception for Crombie. Deborah Crombie does a brilliant job with Kincaid and Jones because every step in their relationship is so true to life. If it weren’t for that verisimilitude, I wouldn’t care for it at all.

    • Cathy – I know exactly what you mean. Many books have already dealt with sexual tension. It certainly exists in real life, but it’s been done. There really are ways, too, to weave a platonic relationship into series, too. You’re quite right that it doesn’t always have to be a romance. I agree with you, too, that Crombie’s depiction of James and Kincaid’s relationship is realistic, thoughtful and therefore, very well-done. It’s not easy to get that right, but she does.

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