In Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot travels to Nasse House, in Nassecomb, to help his friend, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver. She’s at Nasse House on commission from its owner Sir George Stubbs; her task is to create a Murder Hunt as a part of the festivities for an upcoming fête. But Mrs. Oliver suspects that there’s more going on at Nasse House than preparations for the event. Poirot has agreed to look into the matter with her. On the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, actually is killed. Poirot and Inspector Bland investigate to find out who was responsible. As a part of that investigation, Poirot wants to get to know the members of the household as well as possible. So he has a conversation with Amy Folliat, whose family used to own Nasse House, and who’s lived in the area all her life. In fact, Sir George married her ward Harriet ‘Hattie’. Here’s what she and Poirot have to say about that marriage:
‘‘…I admit that I deliberately influenced her to accept him. If it had turned out badly –’ her voice faltered a little, ‘– it would have been my fault for urging her to marry a man so many years older than herself.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Poirot approvingly, ‘that you made there a most prudent arrangement for her… To arrange a good marriage, one must take more than romance into consideration.’’
Many modern people, especially members of Western cultures, might bristle at the idea of arranged marriages. But marriage arrangements are still common in many parts of the world. In those cultures, there’s logic to that. It’s believed that parents have their children’s best interests in mind, and are more mature. Who better to guide the choice of marriage partner?
Of course, not all parents do have their children’s best interests at heart, and they aren’t always mature. Still, as Poirot points out, there’s more to a good marriage than just emotions and romance (not, of course, that they don’t matter). So even in cultures where marriages aren’t formally arranged by the families, parents often weigh in on their children’s choices of partner. Caring parents want their children to make wise choices.
Arranged marriages have been a part of many societies for a long time, too, and certainly a part of crime fiction. For example, Robert van Gulik’s sleuth is Dee Jen-djieh, usually known as Judge Dee, who serves as Magistrate for the district of Lan-Fang, in the northwest of China. Judge Dee has three wives, a not-uncommon practice during the Tang Dynasty in which he lives. His marriage to his first (senior) wife was arranged by their families. He’s chosen his other two wives. And the custom of families arranging marriages is woven throughout the Judge Dee stories. It’s sometimes a very elaborate process, with ritual visits and gifts and planning.
In one plot thread of Ruth Rendell’s The Monster in the Box, Inspector Hannah Goldsmith is faced with a difficult case. She’s been assigned to find out the truth about sixteen-year-old Tamima Rahman, whose parents are recent émigrés from Pakistan. It’s suspected that Tamima was coerced into a marriage against her will – a marriage arranged by her family. On the one hand, Goldsmith is not alone in her belief that sixteen-year-olds are too young to marry, whether or not it’s their choice. On the other hand, as the Rahman family reminds her, every culture is different, and it’s risky to make judgements about other belief systems. As Goldsmith works to find Tamima and sort out the truth about this marriage, she also has to confront her own assumptions.
That’s also the case in Rhys Bowen’s Evanly Bodies. In one plot thread, Constable Evan Evans has to deal with greatly increased tensions in the town of Llanfair. The Khan family moved there not long ago and no-one is really comfortable about it. The Khans are Pakistani, and the locals are not accustomed to their traditions. For their part, the Khans have been treated with enough bigotry that they don’t trust anyone. One day though, sixteen-year-old Jamila Khan helps Evans’ wife Bronwen with groceries, and the two strike up a friendship. So when Jamila disappears, Bronwen is especially worried, and urges her husband to look into the matter. It’s believed that the girl went into hiding to avoid being sent back to Pakistan for an arranged wedding. At first, the Khan family blames Bronwen for interfering and accuses her of shielding Jamila. And even after it becomes clear that Bronwen had nothing to do with the girl’s disappearance, the Khans still believe that their customs and traditions are being disregarded. To them, there’s nothing wrong with ensuring that Jamila will have a solid marriage to someone of their own culture. There’s of course more to this mystery than that question, but it forms an interesting thread throughout the novel.
Arranged marriages are also a part of modern life in India. A former colleague told me that, in her experience, it’s not that today’s young people have absolutely no say in their partners. But parents often do guide their choices. For example, parents may consult astrologists to find out the best sort of match for their child. They also put out personal advertisements in papers, and participate in ‘vetting’ marriage candidates. They get involved in other ways too. Once the spouse-to-be is chosen, both families make arrangements for the wedding. We see this process in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, which introduces Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri. His ‘bread and butter’ is background checks on future spouses. Families pay his agency to find out everything possible about a likely marriage candidate before the final wedding agreement is made. In this novel, Puri’s involved in a few such background checks, and they lead to some interesting findings.
Arranged marriages may seem coercive or worse. Certainly people from Western backgrounds, who likely chose their own partners, may see the custom as wrong. Speaking strictly for my family, I’m quite sure my daughter wouldn’t have gone along with an arranged marriage; nor would I. But not everyone sees it that way, and the tradition has a long history in society – and in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by The Proclaimers.