Breakups between people who’ve loved each other are always sad, even when both of the people involved agree that it’s for the best. But they are an integral part of life too; just about everyone has been through a breakup at some point or another. So it makes sense that breakups find their way into crime fiction. As with anything woven into a crime novel, there’s a risk when one includes a breakup. If it takes over the plot or makes a character seem too self-pitying it can pull the reader out of the story. But when they’re done well breakups can add some depth to characters and a sense of authenticity to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) for instance, Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell invite a group of guests, mostly their relations, for a week-end. One of the guests is Lucy Angkatell’s cousin Midge Hardcastle. Another is Edward Angkatell whom Midge has always loved. They and the other house guests get caught up in murder when fellow guest and Harley Street specialist John Christow is shot on the Sunday afternoon. Hercule Poirot has taken a cottage nearby for week-end visits and he comes upon the murder scene when he is invited for lunch that day. In the course of the investigation Edward Angkatell realises for the first time that Midge, whom he’s known all of their lives, has become an interesting adult, and he proposes to her. She agrees delightedly and the two prepare to marry. But when Midge sees that Edward has never forgotten his first love Henrietta Savernake, she decides there is no choice but to end her relationship with Edward. Their romance isn’t the main theme of the novel but it forms a sub-plot that’s woven through the story.
In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad police detective Kurt Wallander is reeling from the fact that his wife Mona has left him just a few months ago. He’s miserable, he can’t eat properly or sleep well and he doesn’t take care of himself. Although Mona explains that their breakup is not really his fault Wallander certainly feels a deep sense of loss. The main plot of the novel is the investigation into the murders of Johannes Lövgren and his wife Maria and Wallander devotes most of his time to finding out the truth about those killings. In fact although Mankell doesn’t discuss it a lot, the investigation provides Wallander something to fill a little of the space caused by the breakup. But Mona is never very far from his mind and at one point he meets her for dinner and tells her how much he misses her. Very gradually as the series goes on he gets used to living without her and goes on with his life. But he is quite broken up by the end of their relationship.
Besides being an academic and involved in politics, Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is also a loving mother. So in The Endless Knot she is distressed when she realises that her daughter Mieka is having trouble with her husband Greg. At first Kilbourn hopes that it’s just temporary discontentment and she tries to get Mieka to focus on all of the good in her life. In the meantime Kilbourn is occupied with the main focus of this novel, the trial of Sam Parker for shooting and wounding journalist Kathryn Morrissey. Parker was incensed because of Morrissey’s controversial tell-all book on Canadian celebrities and their treatment of their children. Kilbourn’s lover Zack Shreve defends Parker and Kilbourn covers the trial for Nation TV so the two of them are very much involved in the case. They’re even more so when Morrissey is later murdered. But that doesn’t mean that Kilbourn stops being concerned about Mieka. She tries to be there for her daughter but of course the decisions in the relationship are not Kilbourn’s to make. So she has to deal with her sense of helplessness and loss when Mieka and Greg’s marriage ends.
When we first meet Martin Edwards’ sleuth DCI Hannah Scarlett, she is involved with book dealer Marc Amos and for a time the two are more or less happy as a couple despite some things they go through together. In fact, just before The Serpent Pool, they buy a house and begin to make permanent plans. In that novel Scarlett and her team investigate the six-year-old drowning death of Bethany Friend. As that investigation goes on it becomes clear that this death is related to two more recent deaths so Scarlett works with her friend DCI Fran Larter and Larter’s team to find out who’s responsible for the killings. In the meantime Scarlett’s relationship with Amos is slowly unravelling for a few reasons. By the beginning of The Hanging Tree Scarlett and Amos have broken off their relationship. But as we learn in The Hanging Tree, Amos wants to get back together. He admits to his role in their breakup and asks Scarlett to give him another chance. It’s interesting in this series to see how even though both people in a relationship are unhappy there’s something that still can tie them together.
In Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery, Intendant Münster and his team investigate the stabbing murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. Not long before his murder Leverkuhn and some of his friends had gone in together on a lottery ticket. So Leverkuhn’s friends are among the likely suspects. The team doesn’t overlook Leverkuhn’s neighbours and family members either. After all, most murders are committed by someone the victim knows. But nothing concrete turns up at first. Then one of the other lottery winners disappears and attention returns to that group of suspects. As though unravelling this mystery weren’t enough, one of Münster’s team-mates Ewa Moreno is having personal problems. She has broken up with her boyfriend of five years Claus; however, Claus is not so ready to end the relationship and makes Moreno’s life miserable. He turns up at all hours, begs and pleads for her to take him back and makes it hard for her to do her job. It’s interesting too in this novel that Münster finds himself attracted to Moreno. But fear not; I don’t think it’s spoiling this novel to say that Nesser doesn’t fall into the trap of having these two colleagues jump into a relationship just because Moreno is unhappy and vulnerable and Münster finds her attractive.
And then there’s Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood, which is the story of the investigation into the murder of Hobart police sergeant John White. White is killed one day when he and Constable Lucy Howard go to the scene of a break-in/burglary. The story of the events leading up to White’s death, the killing itself and the investigation are told from the viewpoint of several people in White’s life including his ex-lover Jo, a former police officer now living in London. Through Jo’s eyes we learn how the two met when she was a rookie, how White took an interest in her professionally, and then how their affair began. We also learn how much she hoped the two would be able to “go public” when White’s wife Charlotte kicked him out of their home. Jo was devastated though when White agreed to move back in with his wife, mostly for the sake of their children. That’s when Jo left her life in Hobart behind and moved to London. Jo’s relationship with John White is not the reason White is murdered but it makes for an interesting sub-plot and adds a layer to his character.
No matter who initiates breakups or how mutual the decision to break up is, they are difficult. Even when they’re easy, they’re rough. But they are a reality of life for most people so of course we see plenty of them in crime fiction too. Pass the ice cream! No – wait – the beer. No…oh, whatever! Pass both!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Neil Sedaka song. Factoid that you probably aren’t interested in but that I’m going to tell you anyway: Sedaka recorded this song twice. Once was in 1962; that’s the version that you’ll often hear on the “Oldies” (Hmph!) radio stations. He recorded the other version in 1975, and it’s quite different really. Listen if you get the chance and see which one you like better.