Everyone feels a little awkward at times. That’s especially true for things like first dates, even if you’ve met the other person before. What will you talk about? What if you don’t enjoy the date? What if you don’t make a good impression? What if you do? That awkwardness and tension can really be unpleasant in real life.
It’s different in fiction. There, that sort of tension can add interest to a story. And we’ve all had that feeling, so it’s easy to identify with characters who face it. It’s possible, too, to weave that first-date awkwardness into a crime novel without detracting from a mystery, and making the story too ‘frothy.’
In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), for instance, we are introduced to Jane Grey. She’s a London hairstylist’s assistant who’s just won money in a sweepstakes. She decides to use her winnings for a trip to Le Pinet, as so many of her clients do. One evening at the casino, she happens to meet a young man who uses a bit of sleight-of-hand to be sure she wins at the roulette table. To Jane’s consternation, the same young man happens to be seated across from her on the flight back from Paris to London:
‘He was wearing a rather bright periwinkle-blue pullover. Above the pullover, Jane was determined not to look. If she did, she might catch his eye. And that would never do!’
Both Jane and the young man, whose name turns out to be Norman Gale, feel very awkward about this odd meeting, and both avoid the sort of eye contact that might lead to conversation. Still, they eventually work their way through it. And they soon find themselves mixed up in a case of murder when another passenger, Marie Morisot, is killed shortly before the plane lands.
Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane meet for the first time in, of all places, a prison cell. In Strong Poison, we learn that Vane is on trial for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. She claims to be innocent, but there’s considerable evidence against her, and her prospects don’t look particularly good. Wimsey attends the trial and finds himself smitten with her. In fact, he decides to clear her name so that he can marry her. He gets permission to visit her in her cell, but the visit doesn’t exactly go smoothly. She appreciates his wanting to help, but doesn’t see how he can. And she certainly isn’t smitten the way he is. And, of course, there’s the fact that the two are in a prison cell, which isn’t exactly a relaxing place. Still, Vane consents to have Wimsey look into the case, and gives him some information that he needs. And, in the end, Wimsey and some of his friends find out the truth behind Philip Boyes’ death.
Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath introduces her sleuths, Rina Lazarus and Los Angeles homicide detective Peter Decker. The two meet when Decker and his team investigate a rape in the Orthodox Jewish community of Yeshivat Ohavei Torah. It’s possible that this is the work of a serial rapist dubbed ‘The Foothill Rapist,’ but Decker can’t be sure. A security guard, Florence Marley, is hired to ensure everyone’s safety. Then, she is murdered. Now the case has taken on a new dimension, and Decker and his team have a much more complex problem on their hands. In the meantime, he and Rina Lazarus have found they enjoy each other’s company. However, Lazarus is a devoted Orthodox Jew who cannot be involved with anyone not Jewish. Decker, for his part, has no real religion, and Lazarus makes it clear that, to put it bluntly, he has no chance with her. But they do like each other very much. One day, he persuades her to meet him for lunch in a nearby park. It’s not to be a date; it’s simply so he can update her on the case, since she’s involved. It’s a little awkward, since the Orthodox custom is for women not to be alone with men unless they are marriage partners or family members. It takes time for both to get past the strain and awkwardness, but they do. And they find out the truth behind the tragic events in the community.
When Angela Savage’s Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney first meets Rajiv Patel (in The Half-Child), Patel is helping his uncle run a local bookshop. Keeney is a reader who especially enjoys crime fiction, so she stops into the shop. The two get to talking:
‘That smile again. Jayne looked once more at the letters on his business card. Rajiv Patel was becoming increasingly attractive. She decided to take a chance.
‘Would you like to have coffee with me?’
They looked at each other, both surprised.’
It’s a little awkward for both of them. And it takes time (and some misunderstandings) for them to get to know each other. But that awkwardness adds an interesting layer to the story. And it turns out that Patel is very helpful as Keeney looks into the death of young Australian woman who volunteered at a children’s home before she jumped, or fell, or was pushed, to her death.
And then there’s Geraldine Evans’ Detective Inspector (DI) Joe Rafferty. For much of the series featuring him and his police partner Dafydd Llewellyn, Rafertty is single and wants it that way. If he ever does find a wife, he wants to be the one to decide about it. But that’s not what his mother has in mind. Fans of this series will know that her mission in life is to pair him up with a ‘good Catholic girl.’ And sometimes this makes for some very awkward moments for Rafferty. Still, it makes for an interesting and sometimes fun story arc in the series.
Those first meetings and dates can be very awkward and tense. But they are a part of real life. And they can add to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Styx’s First Time.