Do you remember your first love? Those first crushes and young love affairs can certainly be heartbreaking, and they don’t always have the comfort and stability that a more mature love affair does. But there’s something about them all the same. There’s an old saying that “in a corner of one’s heart, one is always thirteen,” and I can see that there’s some sense in that. Young love is exciting, romantic, and vulnerable at the same time. Perhaps that’s why it can make for such an interesting thread through crime fiction.
For example, young love motivates the investigation in Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). Carla Lemarchant and John Rattery have fallen in love and become engaged. But Carla has one concern about their upcoming marriage. Sixteen years earlier, her father, famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned. His wife Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted and there was strong evidence against her. But Carla is convinced that her mother was innocent, and she doesn’t want the shadow of that long-ago murder to get in the way of the couple’s happiness. So she asks Hercule Poirot to re-open the case and investigate it. He agrees and interviews the five people who were “on the scene” on the day of the murder. He also asks each for a written account of what happened on that day and on the days leading up to it. Poirot uses what he learns from those interviews and accounts to piece together what really happened and in the end, he finds out who killed Caroline Crale and why.
In John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook, the first of his Dr. Gideon Fell novels, we meet American Tad Rampole, who’s doing some travelling after finishing his university studies. Rampole’s been advised by his university mentor to meet Fell and to his delight, Fell is only too happy to make his guest welcome. On the way to meet Fell, Rample also meets Dorothy Starberth and the two are immediately attracted. As it happens, the Starberth family lives not far from Fell’s home and when they meet, Fell has an interesting story to tell about the Starberths. Beginning with Anthony Starberth, two generations of Starberths were governors at nearby Chatterham Prison until it was closed and allowed to fall to ruins. In fact there’s still a ritual within the family that connects it with the prison. Each Starberth heir has to spend the night of his twenty-fifth birthday in the old Governor’s Room at the prison. As proof of his visit, he has to open the safe in the room and follow the instructions he finds there. There are stories that the Starberth family is cursed because several of the heirs have died unexpectedly and mysteriously. Now it’s the turn of the latest Starberth heir, Dorothy’s brother Martin. On the night of Martin Starberth’s visit to the Governor’s Room, Rampole, who’s by now in love with Dorothy, keeps vigil along with Fell and the local doctor. The next morning though, Martin is found dead, apparently from a fall over the balcony of the Governor’s Room. No-one was seen entering or leaving the prison that night, so it’s hard to see how anyone could have committed the murder. But it’s soon clear that this wasn’t an accident. Rampole knows that he and Dorothy Starberth won’t really be able to pursue their relationship until the matter is solved, so he works with Fell to find out who killed Martin Starberth and why.
Ross Macdonald’s The Far Side of the Dollar introduces us to seventeen-year-old Tom Hillman. The son of wealthy Ralph and Elaine Hillman, Tom’s had some discipline and other issues, so he’s been sent to Laguna Perdida, a special school for troubled young people. One day Tom Hillman goes missing from the school and its school principal Dr. Sponti hires Lew Archer to find the boy. Archer is still at the school when Ralph Hillman bursts into the school saying that his son has been kidnapped and he’s gotten a ransom note. Archer returns to the Hillman home and begins to work on the case. What he soon discovers is that this is not just a case of a wealthy boy who was kidnapped for money. Then, one of the people Tom was with is murdered. Then there’s another death. Now Archer has two cases of murder to investigate as well as a disappearance. Throughout this case Archer develops a rapport with Tom Hillman’s girlfriend Stella Carlson. Stella and her family live near the Hillman home and Archer suspects from the beginning that she may have valuable insights into the case and it turns out that he’s right. The two young people had planned a future together and she knows Tom Hillman perhaps as well as anyone does. In fact Stella Carlson provides Archer with very helpful information and turns out to be quite an ally.
In Elizabeth George’s Missing Joseph, Deborah and Simon St. James take a holiday in the village of Winslough. They’ve planned the trip because its vicar Robin Sage made a deep impression on Deborah during a chance encounter at a museum. By the time they get to the village though, it’s too late. Sage has died of accidental poisoning by water hemlock. It isn’t long before Simon begins to suspect that Sage’s death was deliberate so he asks his friend Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley to investigate. Lynley agrees and begins to look into the lives of the people of Winslough and their relationships with the vicar to see who would have wanted to kill him. One of those people is local herbalist and single mother Juliet Spence, who’s had several concerns of her own. Her thirteen-year-old daughter Maggie is determined to find her father although Juliet has always discouraged this idea. As if that weren’t enough, Maggie has fallen in love with seventeen-year-old Nick Ware. Juliet doesn’t want Maggie seeing Nick but neither teenager wants to end the relationship. And as it turns out, Maggie Spence is crucial to the investigation of what happened to Robin Sage. And no, she didn’t kill him – no spoilers here. ;-) And Maggie and Nick’s relationship is woven throughout the novel.
James W. Fuerst tells the story of another young romance in Huge. That’s the story of twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls. Huge has had several problems in school, mostly getting along with others. He’s brilliant but he has difficulty controlling his anger and he doesn’t have very good social skills. The one thing Huge has always wanted is to be a detective like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the retirement home where she lives. Huge takes the case and gets started asking questions. Along with his investigation, Huge is also preoccupied with his classmate Staci Sanders, whom he’s always found attractive but worshipped from afar. Huge gets a chance to talk to Staci when he meets her by chance at a party he crashes one evening. After that they begin to talk and become friends. As the novel evolves, so does their friendship and Huge finds out quite a bit about himself from Staci. It’s a very appealing thread that runs through this story.
In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, Inspector Konrad Sejer learns of the romance between fifteen-year-old Annie Holland and eighteen-year-old Halvor Muntz. Sejer is called to the village of Granittveien when Annie’s body is found by a local tarn. Sejer and his partner Jacob Skarre begin to ask questions about Annie’s relationships with her friends and family members and of course Halvor’s name comes up quickly. Sejer doesn’t want to think Halvor is guilty because it’s soon clear that Halvor was in love with Annie. The two had broken up and reunited a few times, but Halvor claims that he’s always loved her. Halvor’s life hasn’t been a very happy one and even now, he’s had to grow up too fast. He has a full-time job and is taking care of his ailing grandmother. Annie was a very special part of Halvor’s life so when she’s killed, he decides to find out what happened to her. In his own way, he starts to investigate too and finds out a crucial piece of information that helps lead Sejer and Skarre to the killer.
Young romances are a special part of most of our lives, and when they’re woven deftly into a crime novel, they can add a special poignancy to the story. Or maybe it’s just that they remind us of our own first romances…
ps. The handsome couple in the ‘photo are my daughter and her fiancé at their high school prom. A very special romance, if you ask me…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice?