Hold My Hand, Don’t Be Afraid*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Dorothy L. Sayers, Faye Kellerman, Geraldine Evans

18 responses to “Hold My Hand, Don’t Be Afraid*

  1. I hate reading a mystery in which a romance subplot or romantic element detracts and takes away from the actual mystery itself. A lot of modern cozy mysteries have a lot of “froth” and it’s light and sweet but all it does is leave the main feast– the crime — on the backburner. We can be concerned with both the subplot between two people who have feelings for one another or are slowly leading into a romantic interest and who killed Roger Ackroyd. But the mystery should always be at the forefront. In S.S. Van Dine’s “20 Rules For Writing Detective Stories”, he says for one of them, “There must be no love interest. The business in hand is to bring a criminal to the bar of justice, not to bring a lovelorn couple to the hymeneal altar.” Maybe he was afraid that the mystery would be left out in the cold and not revolve around the point of the story: using our brains to play an intellectual game. But romantic love subplots like the ones you expressed Margot in the mysteries in your blog post, leave a splash of color and insert human interest instead of a cold, formal exercise of logic. If it wasn’t for romantic elements in this genre, we wouldn’t have the latter half of the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. There would be no Harriet Vane. Agatha Christie’s mysteries would be merely puzzles and leave us loving any of her characters. We wouldn’t have the Tommy & Tuppence mysteries. Or in Death On The Clouds, there would be nothing between Jane Grey and Norman Gale. There needs to be a balance and these days the balance is off-kilter in the stories that I’m coming across. A lot of these thrillers are so dark in tone and I don’t mind this (because I love such moods like this) but when it becomes close to excess, it gets old pretty fast. There needs to be more variety. Agatha Christie’s thrillers were fun. I know times have changed but it would be nice to have some fun and play in thrillers again.

    • I know what you mean, Brian, about having fun in thrillers. I certainly agree that it’s possible to do that without taking away from the urgency of the thriller. I’m glad, too, that you mentioned Van Dine. You’re quite right that his rule was, ‘no romance.’ But it is possible to have a romantic relationship woven into a crime novel. The key, as you point out so clearly, is that it can’t overtake the main plot – the mystery or crime plot. If it does, then the mystery runs the risk of becoming ‘less.’ Your examples show, though, that it’s possible to have a bit of ‘first date awkwardness’ without ruining a crime plot.

  2. That little bit of tension does add realism to the story. That tension would be there in real life so if writers don’t include it, the story lacks a bit of depth. Interesting post as always, Margot. 🙂

    • Thank you, Mason – I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right: that sort of tension really does exist in real life. So i makes sense that it would add realism to a story, too. And that might draw readers in.

  3. Mary Kubica is very good at these books. Books where one character has thud life altered by randomly running into another and then entering their life. Don’t you Cry was a good one as was the one before it, Pretty Baby. I’m now looking forward to her next offering to see what she comes up with.

    • Thanks for the mention of Mary Kubica, Rebecca. That plot point – where people randomly meet and then are woven into each other’s lives – can add a lot to a crime novel. When it’s done well, it can be a really effective source of tension, too.

  4. I enjoy romantic elements in sub-plots, the more awkward the better. It gives a nice respite from the darkness of the overall novel. Perfect examples as always, Margot.

    • Thanks, Sue. And I think you’re right about the awkward-first-date sort of sub-plot. It’s never fun to feel that way, but we can look back on THOSE MOMENTS and smile. And that can add, as you say, a welcome bit of warmth when a story is dark.

  5. One of these days I must read a Faye Kellerman. I have read a couple of her husband Jonathan Kellerman’s novels in his Alex Delaware series, and liked both.

  6. Col

    Not familiar with any of your examples, but I can identify with the post. I’m a bit awkward meeting new people for the first time. My inner shyness comes to the fore!

  7. Such an interesting post, Margot! 🙂 It really is awkward to meet new people when you’re nervous and want to strike a good chord with them… #IntrovertProblems😂
    I also thought of Rhoda Dawes feeling nervous and finding it awkward to disturb Mrs Oliver when she called on her in Cards On The Table.

    • Oh, yes, Regulus98 – that’s a terrific example of an awkward meeting! Thanks for the reminder of it. And, yes, those first meetings can be difficult and sometimes quite awkward, especially for introverts… 😉

      Thanks for the kind words!

  8. John Dickson Carr liked to make his romantic leads ‘meet cute’. In He Wouldn’t Kill Patience the two were competing magicians, members of feuding illusionist families: plenty of fun to be had from that.

  9. I love mysteries which have a romantic element to them. Thanks for these wonderful suggestions, Margot! 🙂

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s