Here’s to My Bride-to-Be*

An interesting book review from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking of what a lot of people call ‘May/December’ marriages. It may not be as popular now in Western cultures. But it used to be quite normal for an older man to marry a much-younger woman. And it wasn’t seen (as it often is now) as ‘gold-digging’ on the part of the woman. Sometimes, such marriages have been seen as useful alliances. Other times, they’ve been seen as effective ways for a girl without much money or ‘prospects’ to be taken care of by someone with some wealth. There are other reasons, too, for which such marriages have been made, and still are.

There are plenty of ‘May/December’ unions in crime fiction, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, they weren’t, as I say, uncommon in the past. For another, they can make for interesting character development. And that’s to say nothing of the possibilities for suspense and plot points.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Retired Coulourman, Josiah Amberley hires Sherlock Holmes to find his much-younger wife, who’s gone missing. Amberley suspects that she’s run off with his friend and frequent chess opponent, Dr. Ray Ernest. Also missing is a great deal of money in cash and securities, so Amberley’s first thought is that his wife and Ernest were lovers who’d run off with the money. Holmes agrees to look into the matter, but he’s busy with another case. So, it’s really Dr. Watson who does most of the ‘legwork’ in the matter. And he finds that this isn’t at all as simple as two people who fell in love and went away together.

Agatha Christie’s Crooked House is the story of the Leonides family. Wealthy patriarch Aristide Leonides lives with his much-younger wife, Brenda, at Three Gables, the family home. With them live several members of their extended family. When World War II ends, Leonides’ granddaughter, Sophie, returns to Three Gables, only to find that her grandfather has been poisoned with his own eyedrops. Sophie’s fiancé, Charles Hayward, knows that she will not marry him until the mystery of who killed Leonides and why is solved. So, Hayward is highly motivated to find out the truth. And he soon learns that there are several possible suspects in this case. Was Brenda a ‘gold-digger,’ out to get her husband’s fortune? What about the other members of the family? They all had reasons for wanting the victim dead.

Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder features the Van Horn family. Howard Van Horn has been having troubling blackouts, which are worrisome enough. Then, one day, he wakes from one of them to find that he has blood on him, and it’s not his own. Terrified that he did something horrible, Van Horn visits his old college friend, Ellery Queen. He tells Queen of his concerns, and Queen agrees to help him get to the truth. The trail leads to Van Horn’s home town of Wrightsville, so Queen and Van Horn go there. There, they stay with Van Horn’s wealthy father, Dietrich, and Dietrich’s much-younger wife, Sally. During their visit, Sally is strangled. It looks very much as if Van Horn murdered his stepmother during one of his blackouts, but there isn’t definitive proof. And Queen doesn’t think his friend is guilty. As he works towards a solution to the mystery, we get to know a bit about Dietrich and Sally Van Horn. She grew up on the proverbial ‘wrong side of town,’ and doesn’t have the background or education that her husband does. But she is beautiful, and glad to have someone with money to take care of her. It’s an interesting dynamic that plays its part in the novel.

In Sylvie Granotier’s The Paris Lawyer, we are introduced to fledgling attorney Catherine Monsigny. In one plot thread of this novel, she gets her chance to make her mark as a lawyer when Myriam Villetreix is arrested for poisoning her wealthy husband, Gaston. Myriam is much younger than her husband; and on the surface, she seems to be a very likely suspect. She, however, claims that she is innocent, and is being framed by Gaston’s cousins, who dislike her because she is foreign – originally from Gabon – and never wanted her to marry Gaston in the first place. What’s more, they want whatever they can get of his fortune, and they don’t want to share it with her. Catherine agrees to defend Myriam, and she gets to know a little more about her and about Gaston. As she does, it’s interesting to see how very different the marriage seems, depending on who’s describing it (Myriam or Gaston’s cousins).

And then there’s Ilsa Evans’ Nefarious Doings. In that novel, we meet news columnist Nell Forrest, who lives in the small town of Majic, Victoria (she herself makes fun of the town’s name). One day, she learns that there’s been a fire at the home of her mother, Lillian ‘Yen.’ Yen is safe, but the garage has been damaged. As if that’s not enough, a man’s body has been found in the ruins. He is Dustin Craig, who lived next door to Yen, and with whom she’d had a loud argument on the evening of his death. And, his body was found on her property. So, she’s certainly ‘of interest’ to the police. Nell doesn’t believe her mother is a murderer, though, so she starts to ask questions. And she soon learns that more than one person could have had a motive. For instance, there’s the victim’s much-younger wife, Beth, whom he’d abused. There are other local people, too, with whom Craig had had disagreements. And, in the end, that network of relationships turns out to have a lot to do with the murder.

‘May/December’ marriages do still happen, even if they’re less common in the West than they were. And they certainly play a role in crime novels. These are just a few examples. Your turn.

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration. Now, please treat yourself and go visit FictionFan’s great blog. Fine reviews, wit, and a porpentine await you…


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s To Life.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Ilsa Evans, Sylvie Granotier

15 responses to “Here’s to My Bride-to-Be*

  1. How lovely to have a mention of Sylvie Granotier’s Paris Lawyer! Was quite fond of that book when I read it (and then met Sylvie in Lyon, she was very impressive). The example that instantly came to my mind was The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins where poor Laura is married off to a baronet she does not care about (I think he was considerably older than her, if I remember rightly, although perhaps not quite ancient).

    • I can see why you enjoyed that novel, Marina Sofia. And lucky you to have met Sylvie in person! She’s certainly a talented writer in diverse areas. Thanks also for mentioning The Woman in White. And you’re right about it, too, so far as I recall. Perhaps Sir Percival isn’t exactly ancient, but it’s not a love match…

  2. ‘May/December’ marriages or even just relationships can lead to some intriguing events both in books and real life. Great post, Margot.

  3. I enjoyed FictionFan’s post too although I didn’t take such a generous view of May to December marriages as you have Margot.
    That said I’m very interested in The Paris Lawyer, I will be looking out for that one.

    • The ‘May/December’ marriage certainly has a lot of risks associated with it, Cleo. And it’s often ended up trapping young women. So I do see your point. As to The Paris Lawyer, I hope you’ll enjoy that one when you get the chance to read it.

  4. Col

    You learn something new every day – never heard the phrase before in my life!

  5. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist Blog on the topic of May/December marriages in crime fiction.

  6. The porpentine and I thank you for the kind mention! I can’t add any examples off the top of my head, though I feel I should be able to think of loads, especially from older crime fiction. As you say, it’s not so common these days, but doesn’t seem to have been at all unusual in the past. It’s intriguing how hard it is not to judge based on today’s norms rather than the time of writing…

    • It’s always a pleasure to mention you and the porpy, FictionFan. And your feline rulers 😉 You make such a well-taken point about the way we interpret what we read. We do tend to use today’s sensibilities and norms as we read, even if they are quite different to the norms of the author or era of the book. It’s really hard to suspend judgement in those cases, isn’t it?

  7. Margot, like Col, I hadn’t heard of the term or the phrase either, and I certainly didn’t know there could be so many instances of May/December marriages in crime fiction. These unions are still known to happen in traditional and conservative Indian society, though not so much as before.

  8. Kathy D.

    Well, those relationships/marriages do still happen with a shocking difference in age in some countries. And it’s awful when children are married off to older men, often to pay of family obligations/debts.
    But it is still legal in some U.S. states for young women to be married off.
    There are still celebrities and rich folks with older men and younger women as partners. A favorite author is married to an older man in a very egalitarian relationship.
    Jerry Hall, former spouse of Mick Jagger, recently married quite elderly, Rupert Murdoch. She is not young, but is much younger than he is.
    I always wish for equal rights for the women, no matter the age differences, and certainly, no child brides or mistreatment involved. That’s the worst.
    I always liked the fact that Joan Collins is married to a younger man.

    • There are still plenty of cases of older people marrying quite younger one, Kathy. You’re quite right about that. And you’ve given some interesting cases where it works quite well. Other times, of course, it’s a case of forced, or at least coerced, marriage, and that’s a starkly different story.

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