Almost all relationships are founded on certain assumptions. When those assumptions change, or when something else fundamental changes, the relationship changes, too. Sometimes those changes are what a lot of people think of as positive (a new baby, a major promotion, for instance). Other changes are traumatic (a major injury, say, or the death of a loved one). When those things happen, the old rules don’t apply any more, and a new understanding has to develop. Sometimes it works well; sometimes it doesn’t. Either way, that re-writing of the rules can make for a lot of awkwardness and strain.
And that’s part of what makes it a solid and useful plot thread for a crime novel. Major changes in relationships can add character development, too. And they’re realistic, so they can add authenticity to a book.
For example, one of the major characters in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…) is Lynn Marchmont. She’s recently returned from service in WWII to her home village of Warmsley Vale, and for the moment, is living with her mother, Adela. Lynn’s been away for a few years, and experienced a number of things. While she’s still her mother’s daughter, she’s a full-fledged adult with a very different perspective to the one she had. And that makes for some awkwardness between them. It’s clear that they love each other, but their relationship has gotten somewhat strained. That’s especially true with regard to their financial situation. In one major plot thread, we learn that Adela’s brother, Gordon Cloade, was a very wealthy man who’d always promised that his siblings and their families wouldn’t have to worry about money. But he married without changing his will to protect the rest of his family. Shortly after his marriage, Cloade was killed in a bomb blast. Now, his widow, Rosaleen, is set to inherit his considerable fortune, leaving the rest of the Cloades in need of money. Lynn and her mother don’t agree on how to cope with this, and it makes for some friction between them. And that adds to the tension in the story.
Wartime experience also changes the relationship between former Glasgow copper Douglas Brodie and his good friend, Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan, whom we meet in Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed. As the novel begins, WWII has just ended. Brodie has returned to the UK after his service, and is trying to make a life for himself in London. Then, he gets a call from Donovan. It seems that Donovan’s been arrested and imprisoned for the abduction and murder of a boy named Rory Hutchinson, and he’s soon to be executed. Brodie isn’t sure what, if anything, he can do to help. And in any case, he’s not even sure that his friend is innocent, as there’s solid evidence against him. The relationship was a bit strained anyway, since Donovan had been involved with Brodie’s one-time love interest. Still, Brodie agrees to at least ask a few questions. So, he travels to Glasgow and begins to look into the matter. And soon, he and Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell, find that this case is much more complicated than they thought. As it turns out, there are several people who might have wanted to frame Donovan for this murder. Both Brodie and Donovan have had terrible wartime experiences, and deal with what we now would call PTSD. This doesn’t incapacitate Brodie, but it does impact the friendship between the two men.
Fans of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series will know Clara and Peter Morrow. They are both artists who live in the small Québec town of Three Pines. The main sleuth in this series is Gamache, but as the series goes on, we get to know the Morrows, along with several other Three Pines residents. At the beginning of the series, Peter Morrow is acknowledged as the Morrow with the real talent. Clara accepts this, and those are the rules by which they live. Gradually, Clara finds her own self as an artist, and over time, her skill begins to eclipse that of her husband. That change causes real upheaval in their marriage. The rules the Morrows have always accepted have to be re-written, and this leads to an important story arc.
There are several important changes in the relationship between Håkan Östlundh’s Gotland police detective Fredrik Broman and his wife, Ninni. For one thing, the rules they’ve always lived by change as a result of an affair that Borman has. In fact, Ninni asks him to leave. Now, the couple have to re-write their ‘rules of engagement,’ since they have two children. They’re working that out when he is seriously injured in the line of duty. Now, the couple re-writes their relationship again, since Borman is in real need of regular care as he recuperates. In that sense, as devastating as his injuries are, it enables the couple to work together, so that they can, well, be a couple again.
That story arc is a just a little reminiscent of what happens to DI Hazel Micallef, whom we first meet in Inger Ash Wolfe/Michael Redhill’s The Calling. She’s been divorced from her ex-husband, Andrew, for some time, and he is now remarried. She’s not overly vengeful about it, but at the same time, she has no great desire to patch things up, or even to be friends with Andrew. They’re civil enough when they need to communicate, and that’s as far as Hazel is interested in going. Then, in one story arc in this series, Hazel finds herself in need of emergency back surgery. This surgery entails a long recuperation, during which Hazel won’t be able to care for herself. And her mother, Emily, is too old and frail to take over. So, for practical purposes, the only choice she has is to move in with Andrew and his second wife. That change causes a real re-writing of the rules they’ve lived by, and makes for an interesting plot thread.
And then there’s Dunedin Detective Senior Sergeant Leo Judd and his wife, Kate, whom we meet in Jane Woodham’s Twister. Nine years before the events in the novel, their daughter, Beth, went missing, and was never found. This in itself changed their relationship dramatically, and they’re still dealing with that. Then, the body of Tracey Wenlock is discovered after a twister and a lot of rain pass through Dunedin. She was reported missing two weeks earlier, and now that her body has been find, the missing person case becomes a murder case. The police department has been hit by a ‘flu epidemic, and Judd’s the only one available to lead the investigation, so he starts the process. The case forces both Judds to look again at their marriage and Beth’s disappearance, and the process is painful for them. And it leads to another re-working of their personal rules.
And that’s what often happens when a major event happens within a relationship. The people involved change, so the relationship changes. Even when that change is for the better, it’s still stressful.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s You Must Love Me.