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.