The Friendship is Toxic*

Toxic FriendshipsAn interesting post from Cleo at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about what you could almost call an alternate take on the domestic psychological thriller. Instead of the main characters being partners or family members, this sort of novel looks at friendships.

For most of us, friends are the sort of glue that holds life together and makes it better. But some friendships, even if they start out well, can turn quite toxic. And those toxic relationships can make for a compelling context for a thriller. There are several of them out there; I know you’ll think of more than I could.

As L.R. Wright’s The Suspect begins, eighty-year-old George Wilcox has just murdered eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. Not very long afterwards, he reports the crime, saying that he stopped in and found Burke dead; RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg investigates. Word of the murder gets around the small town of Sechelt, British Columbia, very quickly, and there’s soon lots of speculation. But Alberg doesn’t have any real leads, as there doesn’t seem to be a motive. Burke hadn’t made any obvious enemies, and didn’t have a large fortune or valuable possessions that would have been worth stealing. As the novel goes on, we learn more about the background between Wilcox and Burke. And we learn what happened in the past that led to the murder.

Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep introduces readers to Marion Seeley. Her husband, Everett, has lost his medical license due to drug use, so he decides to go to Mexico to start over. While he’s getting settled, he arranges for Marion to live in a Phoenix apartment, and take a clerical job at the exclusive Werden Clinic. In the course of her job, Marion meets Louise Mercer and her roommate, Ginny Hoyt. Their lifestyle involves plenty of parties, drugs and men. Slowly, Marion becomes friends with Louise and Ginny, and drawn into their lives. And that friendship plays a major role in the tragedy that’s at the core of this novel.

Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle also explores what you might call a toxic friendship. Andreas Winther’s best (really, only) friend is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe. They do everything together, and depend on each other. Then, one day, Andreas goes missing. His mother, Runi, gets concerned, and goes to the police. But there are plenty of reasons why a young man might take off for a few days without telling his mother where he is. So at first, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer isn’t overly concerned. But when time goes by and Andreas doesn’t return, he starts to investigate. Sejer is sure that Zipp can give him useful information, but Zipp refuses to be helpful. Still, Sejer persists. Little by little, we learn what happened on the day Andreas disappeared, and we learn how the friendship between the two young men played a role.

In Tana French’s The Likeness, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox has recently been transferred from the homicide investigation team to the domestic violence investigation team, as a way to help her recover from the impact of an earlier case. Then one day, the body of a young woman is discovered. What’s especially eerie about this murder is that the victim looks exactly like Cassie. What’s more, her identification indicates that her name is Alexandra Madison, the same alias that Cassie used in her last assignment. As a part of the investigation, the police try to trace the young woman’s last days. They find that she lived in a house called Whitethorn House, outside of Dublin. So Cassie goes undercover there as Lexie Madison. She gets to know the other people who lived at the house, and she learns the real truth about their relationships, and about the young woman who was killed. She discovers that there was plenty of toxicity there, and that what happened in the house certainly played a role in the murder.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s Last Rituals introduces Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. One day, she gets a strange call from Amelia Guntlieb, who lives in Germany. It seems that her son, Harald, was a student at the university in Reykjavík when he was murdered and his body mutilated. The police think that his friend, Hugi Thórisson, is guilty. In fact, he’s already been arrested. But Amelia doesn’t think he’s responsible. She wants Thóra to clear Hugi’s name, and find out the truth about Harald’s death. And she’s sending the family banker, Matthew Reich, to work with Thóra. At first, Thóra’s not sure why Amelia chose her, but when Amelia explains that it’s because Thóra speaks fluent German, the matter begins to make more sense. Thóra and Matthew begin to ask some questions, and they soon discover that Hugi was by no means the only one who might have had a motive for murder. Harald had a very close-knit and almost secretive group of friends. And when Thóra meets them and tries to talk to them, she finds that they’re not at all forthcoming about their friendship with Harald. As the novel goes on, we learn the secrets they’re hiding, and we see how this friendship impacted everyone.

And that’s the thing about friendships. The best ones, of course, are nourishing and enriching, and we benefit immensely from them. But there are others that can be very toxic indeed. Which novels featuring this plot point have stayed with you?

Thanks very much, Cleo, for the inspiration. Now, may I suggest that your next blog stop be Cleo’s fantastic blog. Fine reviews and updates await you!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kate Miller-Heidke’s I Like You Better When You’re Not Around.


Filed under Karin Fossum, L.R. Wright, Megan Abbott, Tana French, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

20 responses to “The Friendship is Toxic*

  1. Aw thank you for your kind words Margot and I’m glad I provided some inspiration for this post. I remember well that Tana French book and coincidentally have just been remembering Gillian White’s excellent novel Copycat which preceded the current trend of writing about toxic friendships.

    • Oh, it’s my pleasure to mention you and your excellent blog, Cleo. Thanks, too, for suggestion Copycat. It really is a solid look at toxic friendships; and, as you say, was one of the earlier novels dealing with that topic. White is certainly both talented and innovative.

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  3. I’ve read a few books on toxic friendships this year (Animals by Emma Jane Unsworth, and Strictly Between Us by Jane Fallon) but those are not crime books – but those above sound like a great reading list! I am taking notes…

  4. A.M. Pietroschek

    Reblogged this on Bum's Landing Memorial – Andrè Michael Pietroschek at and commented:
    I daresay ‘toxic friendships’ are tragic goodbyes we didn’t dare or manage to say in good time!

  5. A.M. Pietroschek

    Convenience would make a fine demon, if one has that fondness for occult themes. How many wrong decisions just because it was uncomfortable to do the right thing…

    You bring up a good topic with pretty versatile examples. And luckily crime fiction allows us to do what we harshly can prosper with in real life: Pretending a toxic friendship would be worthy, hoping for the best instead of ensuring it becomes reality, or tolerating effects which we cannot be immune to.

    It is easy, when it is a false friend or subtle antagonist being toxic (Fond of stalking now, Thomas K.?), but it is much more mutually-hurtful and strenuous, when both want it to work out well and struggle hard aka invest much energy into efforts to make it be so… (Valerie remembered).

    In crime fiction some very thrilling vengeance and betrayal stems from friendships going awry – though while reading I was so reminded of Angel Heart, Harold Angel aka Johnny Favorite literally sacrificing ALL his former friends to save his… Soul. And murdering them with his own hands, including a daughter he got laid with.

    I re-blogged. Have a nice evening, Margot.

  6. kathyd

    I hadn’t thought about this as a topic, but I read The Suspect. And it’s true that underneath the “friendship,” lies a very toxic situation, and the reader can sympathize with George Wilcox.
    And in The Likeness, the “friendships” are not what they appear to be on the surface; a lot more is going on than what meets the eye. A complicated, but good book.
    There are so many issues: for instance, a friendship can turn into a situation where one person learns of a crime committed by the friend, and then blackmails him/her. Then murder ensues. I’m thinking of a Donna Leon book, don’t want to give a spoiler though.
    Also, a friend can become jealous of another’s relationships, and danger develops.
    Hercule Poirot sometimes deals with friends with deep-seated secrets, and one kills the other. Nero Wolfe does, too.

    • You know, you’re right, Kathy. There are all sorts of directions in which that sort of story can go, aren’t there? And you’re right about both The Suspect and The Likeness. The thing about friendships is that they can take many forms, and anything can happen. And that’s what makes them so perfect for a crime-fictional context.

  7. Col

    And again a couple more authors and books I need to get to… L.R. Wright and Megan Abbott!

    Do you have other existences in parallel universes, where one version of you reads, another blogs, another writes, and another lives a life like the rest of us?

  8. Keishon

    I really need to read The Likeness by French. It’s the last book of hers I have left. I remember Maxine disliked it and that’s what kept me from reading it for several years. I guess you really have to believe that two people can be identical and if the author pulled it off then great. I’ll see what I think. Great post Margot. I can’t keep up with you 😉 so I have to do all these readings on my days off.

    • I remember that Maxine disliked it, too, Keishon. So did other people I trust. But at the same time, several loved it. I suppose it’s one of those books that one either really enjoys or really doesn’t. I’ll be interested in what you think of it if you do read it. Thanks for the kind words.

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  10. The only book here I have read is The Suspect, and I really enjoyed that one. All the rest are books I want to read, and most are on my TBR shelves. The Likeness has been there a long time… I will have to get to that one soon.

    • I know exactly what you mean about books lingering on shelves for too long, Tracy! I always end up waiting longer than I want to read some of the books I have. There’s just never enough time, is there? I am glad you enjoyed The Suspect; I agree it’s a fine book.

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