Today is Valentine’s Day, and many people’s thoughts are on romance. The holiday’s been marketed to make you think of attraction, flowers, candy, jewelry, intimate dinners and further intimacy later. And there’s nothing wrong with those things. Really. They’re great. But if you think about it, they aren’t really the most important stuff of a relationship. The things that make a relationship are sometimes harder to put into words, which is possibly why it’s easier to market relationships in the way Valentine’s Day’s marketed. Just take a look at crime fiction and you’ll see what I mean.
One of those indefinable things about a relationship is mutual respect and support. Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are like that. For instance, in Postern of Fate, the Beresfords have moved to the seaside town of Hollowquay, where they’ve just purchased what they think will be their retirement home. As they’re settling in, Tuppence goes through some books that former owners have left behind and finds one that seems to contain a cryptic message. The message hints that Mary Jordan, a German maid who lived in the area many years earlier, was murdered. Tuppence gets curious about the message and decides to find out more about it. At first, Tommy thinks it’s a little ridiculous and teases his wife about it. But he has enough respect for her to know that she’s neither stupid nor fanciful. So he can’t resist a little looking around of his own. It’s not long before between them, the Beresfords uncover a World War I-era story of espionage that still affects the town. Throughout this novel, it’s clear that the Beresfords take care of each other, especially now that they are no longer young, and respect each other, even though they aren’t blind to each other’s faults. It’s a subtle but very real portrait of a relationship and that makes this couple very appealing.
We also see that kind of relationship in Carolyn Graham’s series featuring DCI Tom Barnaby and his wife Joyce. They’ve been married for a long time and although Barnaby’s been tempted to stray once or twice, he never has. They do get exasperated with each other and neither is perfect. But it’s very clear they have that indefinable but quite real sort of bond that goes much deeper than a good bottle of champagne and a box of candy. My favourite Barnaby moment comes at the end of A Place of Safety. In that novel, Barnaby and Sergeant Gavin Troy investigate the disappearance of Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teenager who’d been staying with the local curate and his wife. One night, she and the curate’s wife have an argument on a local bridge, after which Carlotta appears to fall off the bridge. But her body doesn’t wash up and it’s not clear that she died. That argument is witnessed by Charlie Leathers, himself a person of a rather notorious reputation. When he is found garroted shortly afterwards it’s clear that something more than a runaway teen is going on. One of the sub-plots of this novel is that the Barnabys are getting ready to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. There’s much discussion about it and on the night of the anniversary, they go out to dinner with their daughter Cully and her husband Nicolas. Everyone arrives home and Barnaby, a keen gardener, sees to his delight that his gift is a new lawn mower. Joyce joins him in the yard and soon, they discover that Cully and Nicolas have turned the radio on for them and have opened the kitchen window so they can hear:
“They stood quietly as more and more stars gathered, holding fast against the relentless movement of time that changes all things. And then they began to dance.”
See what I mean?
Another of those indefinable qualities in a relationship (and therefore hard to market well) is the ability to work through the inevitable “bumps in the road.” For instance, in Mark Richard Zubro’s Another Dead Teenager, we meet Chicago police detective Paul Turner. He and fellow officer Buck Fenwick have been assigned to investigate the brutal murders of two student athletes. Both boys were talented, had solid academic reputations and were well-liked. And both are from well-placed influential Chicago families. So there’s a great deal of pressure to make a quick arrest. Then there’s another brutal attack. Now Turner and Fenwick have to contend not just with a killer who seems to be stalking teenagers, but also with the increasing pressure from the police brass and the media to find the killer. In the meantime, Turner and his partner service station owner Ben Vargas have been going through a rough patch. Matters aren’t helped by the fact that this case means that Turner spends even more time than usual at work. And yet, it’s clear that this couple doesn’t plan to let a temporary rough patch break them up. They help each other, they miss each other when they don’t spend time together and at one point, Turner even says that the hardest thing about the case is missing his partner. One of Vargas’ employees gives Turner this insight about mixing police work and relationships:
“‘They’re all tough cases,’ she said. ‘How often do you meet a man who loves you? How often do you find somebody who likes your kids, too?…
All I know is, Ben loves you. The more he doesn’t see you, the more grumpy he gets around here…’”
It’s not a spoiler to say that at the end of the novel, Turner and Vargas patch things up, and it’s largely because each is willing to do the work that that requires. How can you market that? Still, it’s worth a lot in a relationship.
Everyone has personal baggage. Some people have more baggage than others, and part of the stuff of a relationship is how the other person reacts to that baggage, especially if it’s painful. For instance, in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind, we meet Stephanie Anderson, who’s just completing her program in psychiatry in Dunedin. When Anderson was fourteen, her four-year-old sister Gemma was abducted at a school picnic and never returned. Since that time, Anderson’s been shattered, although she has made a life for herself after a fashion. Still, she’s never really opened up about what happened. Then one of her patients tells a story that is eerily similar to Anderson’s own. This patient also tells of a younger sister who disappeared and never returned. Despite herself, Anderson begins to ask questions. She wants resolution. So she uses what she learns from her patient and begins her own search for Gemma’s abductor. Along the way, she meets Dan, a hunting guide with his own baggage. He invites Anderson on a hunting trip and although she has never fired a gun in her life, Anderson agrees to go. The two head off into the bush for a camping and hunting trip. As the trip goes on, they inevitably get to talking about their lives, and one night at the campfire, she mentions her family and then says,
“‘But let’s talk about something else. You don’t want to hear about all this. Change of subject, okay?’
‘I’d like you to tell me.’
She tells him….About Gemma. She hears her voice in the darkness telling her secrets, laying them all out and she doesn’t know why she is doing this but once she starts it seems she is unable to stop herself, to stop this torrent of words.
She’s finished and silent, hears herself begin to weep, feels herself being gathered up into his arms…”
What’s especially effective is that Dan isn’t holding her for the obvious reason (although they do begin an intimate relationship). He’s simply accepting that she has a great deal of pain and he’s trying to share it.
Another part of the stuff of real relationships is the sense of humour, especially over the long term, that keeps them alive. Here, for instance, is perhaps my favourite “couple” scene. This one takes place in Donna Leon’s About Face, in which Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello look into the connections between illegal trucking practices, toxic waste disposal and two murderers. One morning, Brunetti wakes to find that it’s snowed. He opens the window and makes a handprint in the snow because he can’t resist. Then, playfully, he returns to his bed, where his wife Paola Falier is only pretending to be asleep:
“‘If you put that hand anywhere near me, I will divorce you and take the children.’
‘They’re old enough to decide themselves,’ he answered with what he thought was Olympian calm.
‘I cook,’ she said.
‘Indeed,’ he said in acknowledgment of defeat.”
Now, how can you package that? And yet it is the real stuff of a real relationship. And that’s what the TV commercials never really tell you…
Happy Valentine’s Day!
ps Oh, the ‘photo? That’s a ‘photo of my grandparents-in-law. It was taken in Atlantic City in the early 1930’s, when my grandmother-in-law was a bride of not much more than 17. Don’t they look dashing? You can click on the ‘photo to enlarge it if you’d like. They stayed married for many decades. What a great couple! They knew all of this stuff long before I was born…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles’ When I’m 64.