Better Friends Than Lovers*

FriendsOne of the more common undercurrents/subplots in crime fiction happens when the sleuth and another character find themselves in a situation where they could be attracted to each other. A lot of times that possible attraction ends up as a romance or at least a story arc that could lead to a romance. In fact, that’s such a common occurrence that it can be really interesting when it doesn’t happen. It takes a deft hand to create two characters who could easily end up together…but don’t, especially when they are both good people who like each other. But it is realistic. People don’t end up in romantic relationships with every potential partner they meet. And we wouldn’t think much of characters who did, I’d guess.

We see this kind of relationship between Hercule Poirot and the Countess Vera Rossakoff. She is a very skilled jewel thief whom we see in the short stories The Capture of Cerberus  and The Double Clue and the novel The Big Four. She’s on ‘the wrong side of the law’ and doesn’t pretend very hard to be otherwise. And of course, Poirot’s made a career of catching criminals. But the two develop a liking and even respect for each other. You could even argue that Poiot has a sort of ‘crush’ on the countess, and she thinks well of him too. In fact she even helps him in her way to bring down an international criminal conspiracy in The Big Four. But they never fall in love or pursue a relationship although logically they could certainly move in the same circles. Speaking only for myself I’m rather glad that Christie never had them fall in love. The Poirot stories would most emphatically not have been improved, I don’t think, if the two had a romance.

Margaret Coel’s Wind River series features Arapaho attorney Vicky Holden and Father John O’Malley, a Jesuit priest who works at St. Francis Mission near the Wind River Reservation. In their first outing The Eagle Catcher, O’Malley is supposed to meet Arapaho tribal chair Harvey Castle at a gathering. Instead, he finds Castle has been murdered. The police soon begin to suspect that Castle’s nephew Anthony is guilty. And Anthony doesn’t help his case by running off when the police go to his home. He’s soon found and arrested, but claims that he’s innocent. O’Malley calls Holden and asks her to help clear the young man’s name and she agrees. Throughout this series, Holden and O’Malley work together and become friends. Each admits an attraction for the other, too. But they don’t develop a romantic relationship. And that restraint on Coel’s part actually makes the series stronger and more realistic.

Julia Spencer-Fleming shows a similar restraint in her series featuring Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and Miller’s Kill, NY, Police Chief Russ Van Alstyne. Beginning with In the Bleak Midwinter, when Fergusson begins her life in Miller’s Kill, she and Van Alstyne work together on a series of murder investigations. In A Fountain Filled With Blood, for instance, two gay men are attacked during a gay-bashing spree. Then, as if that weren’t enough, property developer Bill Ingraham, who’s also gay, is murdered. So Fergusson and Van Alstyne are facing both a wave of hate crime and the investigation of a murder that may or may not be related to the other attacks. In the course of the series, Fergusson and Van Alstyne become friends and they both admit they are attracted to each other. But they don’t develop a romance. Van Alstyne is married and has no reason to want to divorce his wife. And even though Fergusson is not barred by her faith from marrying, she has her public image as a member of the clergy to consider. Spencer-Fleming balances carefully the natural attraction these two people feel for each other and the realities that keep them from becoming a couple.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant has several good friends who get drawn into his cases and are often very helpful. One of them is former supermodel Jared Lowe. Quant and Lowe have a strong friendship and in the beginning of the series Quant even admits he’s had a secret crush on Lowe. But neither really pursues the relationship and in this series, that makes sense. For one thing, Lowe’s partner is Quant’s good friend and mentor Anthony Gatt. And although that relationship has its stresses and rough times, Lowe loves his partner. And Quant is very fond of Gatt too, and respects him. Not to mention that as a result of what happens in Stain of the Berry, Lowe has other issues to deal with besides any attraction he might feel towards Quant. So although the two have more than one opportunity to be together, a romance never develops between them. And that restraint makes the series that much more believable and the characters more likeable.

In Steve Robinson’s In the Blood, we are introduced to Washington, DC genealogist Jefferson Tayte. Successful entrepreneur Walter Sloane hires Tayte to chart his wife’s family history, and Tayte accepts the commission. His search reveals that one of those ancestors James Fairborne returned to England with his family in 1783. But oddly enough, no-one in that family appears on any record after that time. In fact, records show that Fairborne married again less than two years after his return to England. Sloane commissions Tayte to follow up on that part of the family story and Tayte travels to England. There he meets Amy Fallon, who lost her husband Gabriel two years earlier in a storm-related boating tragedy. Fallon has recently found a very old writing box that is closely related to the mystery Tayte is investigating. So together, the two of them look into what really happened to the Fairborne family and how that history is related to two modern-day deaths that occur. They find out the truth about the Fairbornes, but although they become friends in the process, they don’t fall in love. In this case, it’s not that either is attached (although Fallon still grieves for her husband). Rather, they simply aren’t right for each other. They have very different lives, so it wouldn’t be realistic anyway for them to suddenly fall in love; the story is more credible as it is than it would be if they started a romance.

There are also of course many examples of police detectives who work together but don’t fall in love. I’m thinking for instance of Katherine Howell’s Ella Marconi and Dennis Orchard, and of Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti and Claudia Griffoni. Those series work better because the detectives don’t have romantic relationships. This is just my opinion, so do feel free to differ with me if you do, but I find it refreshing when two fictional characters can work together and even be good friends without necessarily starting an affair. What do you think?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Michael Lovesmith, made popular by Aretha Franklin.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Donna Leon, Julia Spencer-Fleming, Katherine Howell, Margaret Coel, Steve Robinson

33 responses to “Better Friends Than Lovers*

  1. Lots of books I need to read here. I didn’t realize Poirot was ever interested in any woman. I look forward to reading those stories. I have only read book one of the Julia Spencer-Fleming series. I had wondered where that attraction would go. I need to read Steve Robinson’s book and get back to the Anthony Bidulka series.

    My original thought when I read this post was that I am usually irritated when romance is brought into a book. It really has to be well done to work. But I have run into romances recently in a couple of series. In Jill McGown’s books, Judy Hill and Chief Inspector Lloyd have had attraction for many years and it develops over the series. Their backward and forward movement in the relationship is realistic and not annoying, like a lot of long term romances. In Green-Eyed Lady by Chuck Greaves, lawyer Jack MacTaggart is attracted to a young policewoman he is working with, but she doesn’t seem to notice. In neither case are these intrusive or detrimental to enjoying the mystery.

    • Tracy – Oh, trust me, there are so many books I’ve not yet read and feel that I should *deep sigh.* And thanks for those examples of novels where a developing romance doesn’t turn out to be just plain annoying. It does as you say have to be done really well to be effective. And actually I think so does the case where people may have an attraction to each other but don’t do the whole romance thing. Those kinds of sparks, whether the characters do anything about it or not, are hard to write and hard to make credible.

  2. I have just read David Mark’s Dark Winter (long after everyone else!) and in a forthcoming blog entry I comment that it’s nice that for once the detective has a happy home life and a loving marriage. But it seems there’s a little spark between Aector and his boss Trish Pharoah. I’m interested to see how that will develop in future books (I know there’s one out I haven’t read yet) – an intriguing setup.

    • Moira – Oh, I am looking forward to your discussion of Dark Winter. I agree with you that it’s so nice that Aector has a good home life. His life’s not perfect, but I do like it that he’s not one of those stereotypical ‘loner cops.’ I’ll be really interested in what you say about that novel.

  3. There’s an undercurrent of attraction between Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire and his outspoken and gritty deputy Vic. But both have way too much baggage from the past to get swept into a real romance, I think, at least for now.

    • Pat – I think so, too. And thanks for mentioning them. They’re both really interesting people I think, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Johnson handles their relationship as time goes on.

  4. I’m glad too that Christie didn’t take the Poirot romance forward. It was nice to see him as human, but his character would have had to change too much if he got involved with someone. I also always enjoy his friendship with Ariadne Oliver.

    • FictionFan – I agree with you about Poirot. He’s better off as a bachelor I think. And thanks for mentioning his friendship with Ariadne Oliver She’s a really interesting person just as it is, and the two of them have a great friendship that’s all the better for not having blossomed into romance.

  5. gutenbergsson

    I also love stories of doomed love. My last two crime reads both ended with doomed love affairs. In Ben H. Winter’s “The Last Policeman”, detective Henry Palace falls for one of the principle suspects even while he investigates her involvement in a murder, and of course, there’s Walter Mosley’s “Devil in a Blue Dress”, where Easy Rollins falls for the unattainable Daphne Monet. There’s only one thing better than a romance in a mystery novel…and that’s a doomed romance.

    • Neal – You have a point; doomed romances add a level of sadness and wistfulness to a novel don’t they? And both of your examples are excellent cases of that. Theere’s something about that unattainable goal isn’t there?

  6. Margot: In terms of team police work Kurt Wallander in Henning Mankell’s series and Irene Huss in Helene Tursten’s series work with members of the opposite sex without jumping into bed. My sampling of the Huss series is limited to the opening book but I consider both series very credible and professional.

    • Bill – It is a very well-written series and credible too. And part of what makes it that way is that Huss does work with male colleagues without sleeping with them. And yes, Wallander works with femaile colleagues, members of the press and so on without sleeping with all of them. I like both characters the better for that.

  7. I do get a bit impatient with the “will they, won’t they” approach that seems to be necessary for any long series (specially on TV I suppose) but there’s nothing more refreshing that a plausible romance you can believe in. Having said that, I was always a bit sorry when Jesse Stone’s ex-wife returned to the books and preferred when she was kept off-screen in the excellent TV movies with Tom Selleck. Thanks for all these great examples Margot as it’s a side of crime fiction that I know I am often very guilty of ignoring (well, they feature less often in the Golden Age books I have been privileging of late).

    • Sergio – I agree with you that the ‘will they/won’t they’ question in a story arc can go too far and last too long. As you say, there is definitely something terrific about a plausible romance, and I think they can add much to a story. But I’m really not much for the ‘back and forth’ that goes on for too long. And I was never really happy about Jenn being back in Jesse Stone’s life either. And let’s face it; we can only read so many books and after all, GA fiction is certainly worth one’s focus…

  8. You hit the nail on the head, Margot! In some crime series the ‘will they won’t they’ can be done in a fun, entertaining manner (Dorothy Sayers), but in most cases it can become irksome. For instance, I like Sophie Hannah’s psychologically tense novels but could care less about whether her two main dysfunctional detectives – Simon Waterhouse and Charlie Zailer – get together and have a happy married life or not. Harsh, but true! I much prefer Vic Warshawski’s more realistic attitude of love ‘em and move on.

    • Marina Sofia – Thank you. You know, there really is a difference between the ongoing relationship between Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane on the one hand, and that whole ‘will they/won’t they’ theme that gets annoying. Little wonder it doesn’t matter to you whether Waterhouse and Zailer get together. And it’s interesting you mention Warshawski, too. She certainly has a very pragmatic attitude towards her relationships. She works with men with whom she doesn’t end up in bed, and I like that about her. But if she is in a relationship, when it’s over, it’s over.

  9. It almost seems as if readers really want to match people up in books. I’ve been hearing about getting Miles and Myrtle together…and I don’t think I’ve ever given a hint that there was anything going on between them. Plus, there’s a 20 year age difference! I wonder if the readers sometimes influence developing relationship between characters.

    • Elizabeth – Oh, that’s such an interesting question whether readers influence what happens to the characters, even subtly. I’ll have to think about that one. I can understand completely what your readers mean about matching up Miles and Myrtle. They do go together, but honestly, I like it that their friendship is just that. I really do. There’s a kind of wit in everyone trying to move in on Miles with casseroles and so on, and Myrtle is too much her own person – I really think so – to want to go down the romance road, at least for now. Yes, definitely they’re good as friends, not as more. But that’s just me…

  10. Col

    I enjoy Crais’ s Elvis Cole character where he jokingly seems to hit on every female who enters his office – tongue in cheek most of the time. I’ll be interested to see if he finds a lasting relationship as the series develops. He came close last time around.
    No friction or tension caused by a crossing of an unstated boundary in the workplace, though he does consider professional ethics most of the time. His fling was with a client’s attorney rather than the client herself.

    • Col – I kind of like Cole’s way of semi-flirting, too. But I like it just as much that when it gets down to it, he generally does keep his relationships professional. I think I’d like him less if he didn’t. And the reality of maintaining a relationship with a PI who travels a lot and so on would be a challenge. So Crais would have to work hard to convince me of a woman who’d be happy that way.

  11. As a romance reader, I find the romance to be a bonus when we get one but I think I prefer the detectives to have a platonic relationship. I recently had an issue with Karin Slaughter’s latest book, UNSEEN, where GBI agent Will Trent is working undercover but all he could think about is his relationship with a civilian. I thought that was inappropriate but what do I know? Not saying it doesn’t happen but come on. The divorce rate among police officers is said to be quite high because there is so much demand of their time and energy to focus on a case rather than having dinner with a spouse/girlfriend. I am a fan of the A&E series, The First 48 hours and I remember on one episode, the lead detective was having issues with this girlfriend and he would call her when he had a chance but in the end she left him. I felt bad for him and it didn’t help that his colleagues teased him about it as well. So, in the end I guess, don’t write a romance unless it’s really necessary?? As long as it’s credible, I’m okay with it.

    • Keishon – You’ve outlined so very well the challenges of creating a believable romance for a police detective especially. On the one hand, I agree that romance can add something to a story or series. It can. And it is believable that a cop would have feelings for someone. But the realities are not easy so I’d guess that most cops have to struggle with that. And most cops know where the line is between romances that are appropriate and those that aren’t. So I’d have to be convinced that a fictional cop would cross that line easily. And I think you’re quite right about detectives who work together. In general I like it better when their relationship is platonic too. As you say, not saying that romance can’t happen because of course it can. And there are authors (I’m thinking for instance of Peter Robinson) who can create a really effective fictional love affair. But it’s not easy.

      • I meant to say as well that I enjoyed the JSF series with the “will they won’t they” tension between Clare and Russ. Once that tension was resolved, though I kind of lost interest. *g* That happens sometimes so be careful authors adding in a romance that is more interesting than your mysteries. I still have One Was A Solider still to read and am not looking forward to it. Not interested in the “afterwards” part.

  12. Hi Margot – a terrific post on one of the most enduring of themes in the mystery literature. Like some of the other commentators, I’m not especially fond of romantic subplots in mysteries. In any case I’m so glad you mentioned the Countess Vera Rossakoff, such a great character and one of the few matches for Poirot in acumen and intellect. Also his friendliness with her gives him a human touch that we don’t always see in the Poirot novels.
    I like the comments on the ‘will they won’t they’ trope. One of my favorites along these lines, alas not based on a novel, was the TV series Moonlighting. I thought it was effective because the mutual attraction added an extra level of edginess to the characters’ already tense relationship.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you mentioned Moonlighting. It was a quirky, interesting and innovative (at the time) show. And I know exactly what you mean about the effectiveness of the David/Maddie relationship. The attraction and tension worked well but I’m afraid it stopped working for me at one point which I don’t want to spoil for anyone who might like to watch the DVDs. Still, overall, it did add to the story. And yes, Vera Rossakoff is a terrific character. As you say, a match for Poirot and at heart a good person (i.e. not cold or hard-hearted). And I always liked her independent way of living and looking at life. Quite ahead of the times I think.

  13. kathy d.

    Not to mention the interest Guido Brunetti has shown throughout the series in Elettra Zorzi. Although not a detective, she is an invaluable member of the questura team and provides enormous help to Brunetti’s investigations. He always notices her beautiful clothing and other things about her appearance. Luckily, he is happily married and Elettra seems to have her life organized well for herself. So, nothing ensues.
    Irene Huss does have excellent working relationships but no romances. One can see not only in the books by in the TV episodes, which one can see at MHZ Networks website that Irene is happily married, too and has a good family life — although there are difficult bumps with her teenage daughters. (Go to MHZ Networks, check schedule; movies are on at 9 and midnight usually and there’s a good assortment. Go to top of screen and click “Watch live” for programs you want to see.)

    • Thanks, Kathy, for the mention of both the MHZ TV episodes and for both Irene Huss and Guido Brunetti. As you say, each has had the opportunity to strike up a romance, but neither has. Part of it is as you say that both are happily married, and I like it better that way to be honest. Another is that (at least in Eletttra Zorzi’s case) she doesn’t seem interested in making a conquest of Brunetti. It’s not that she doesn’t realise that he’s a good person and a good cop, but she doesn’t think about him ‘that way.’

    • I just added MHZ to my Roku player: thanks for the recommendation!

  14. I completely agree with you. I prefer it when 2 people who are attracted to each other don’t have a relationship. Series often aren’t the same once they do. Interesting what Moira said about the David Mark series. If there’s a married couple there, I think there does need to be a spark of something.

    • Sarah – You put that very well. Series do change their tenor once a couple becomes, well, a couple. I think both you and Moira have a point about Aector and his situation. When there is a marriage, it can add something if there’s a spark with another person. But if it’s a happy marriage, I need to be convinced before that spark goes anywhere if that makes sense.

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