Just because people break off relationships doesn’t mean they automatically stop caring for their exes. Sometime, the breakup is amicable, and the two people remain friends, or they are colleagues who can work together. Sometimes, one of the two wants to rekindle the romance. Other times, it’s just what you might call fond memories.
Whatever is the case, there is often a bond between former lovers. And that’s part of why we see so many crime novels in which an old flame asks the sleuth for help, or in which the sleuth offers help because of that former relationship. That trope can add tension to a story, as well as backstory on a character.
For instance, in Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask, Charles Moray returns to England after a four-year absence. The reason he left was mostly his breakup with his fiancée, Margaret Langton, but Moray’s trying not to let that prevent him from taking up his life again. He returns to his family home, only to find that it’s being used by a criminal gang led by a man called Grey Mask. Moray discovers that they seem to be planning to kidnap an heiress in order to get at her money. Worse, he sees that one of the people mixed up in this plot is his former fiancée. Moray doesn’t know at first whether Margaret is in danger or has willingly become a criminal. Either way, though, he worries for her, and decides to do some sleuthing. A friend gives him the name of Miss Maude Silver, and Moray goes to see her. With her help, and help from his friend, Archie Millar, Moray uncovers the truth about Grey Mask, the gang, and Margaret Langton.
Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael is a monk who lives and works in 12th-Century England. He joined the clergy a bit later in life than a lot of other monks, and so, has a past. And part of that past is a woman named Richildis, whom we meet in Monk’s Hood. In that novel, Brother Cadfael is called to the bedside of Gervase Bonel. That in itself isn’t surprising, as Cadfael is an herbalist. What is shocking is that Bonel has been poisoned by monkshood oil that was taken from Cadfael’s supplies. The first and most likely suspect is Bonel’s stepson (and Richildis’ son), Edwin. But Cadfael isn’t sure he’s guilty. So, in part because he cares about Richildis, Cadfael looks into the matter to find out who really killed the victim.
In Surender Mohan Pathak’s The Colaba Conspiracy, key maker and locksmith Jeet Singh is trying to live a ‘straight and narrow’ life after a career as a lockbreaker and safecracker. Now, he owns a Mumbai kiosk where he’s trying to make an honest, if not lucrative, living. One day, Singh gets the chance to earn a great deal of money by doing another underworld job, but he refuses. He thinks that will be the end of his lawbreaking days, until he gets a visit from a former lover, Sushmita. She is in trouble and needs his help. It seems that her wealthy husband, Pursumal Changulani, was killed in what looked like a carjacking incident that went wrong. But other evidence suggests that this was a professional killing, and there is a suspicion that Sushmita hired the killer. She says that she is innocent and is being targeted by her stepchildren, who claim she was never legally married to their father and is therefore ineligible to inherit. In order to clear her name, and inherit, she’ll need a good lawyer, which she can’t afford. And she won’t have access to any of her husband’s money until the matter is resolved. Singh still has feelings for Sushmita. Besides, if she is innocent, she should be cleared of suspicion. So, he agrees to help. And that’s what pushes him to take on that one last illegal job – and gets him into grave danger.
Martin Edwards’ All the Lonely People features Liverpool solicitor Harry Devlin. He makes his living defending the ‘down and out’ people, so he’s not exactly getting rich. Still, he’s dedicated to doing the best job he can. One day, he gets a surprise visit from his ex-wife. Liz. She tells him that she’s run away from her current lover, Mick Coghlin, because she’s afraid of him. Then, she asks Devlin to let her stay with him for a few days. Devlin is hoping he and Liz can reconcile, so he agrees. Then, two nights later, Liz is murdered, and her body found in an alley. Devlin feels a burden of guilt, because he didn’t take her fears very seriously at first. Besides, he still cares about Liz. So, he decides to find out who murdered her. At first, it seems clear that Coghlin is the killer. But, as Devlin learns more about Liz’ last months and weeks, he also learns that there are other possibilities.
There’s an interesting case of an old flame in Dick Francis’ Whip Hand. Former jockey Sid Halley’s racing career ended when his left hand was permanently injured. Later (see Odds Against for the details) he lost that hand. With his riding days over, Halley’s become a racetrack investigator. In one plot thread of this novel, he is approached by his former father-in-law, Charles Roland. It seems that his daughter (and Halley’s ex-wife), Jenny, has gotten involved with a scam artist who calls himself Nicholas Ashe. His trick is to bilk people out of money using a fake charity, and now he’s used Jenny’s name in the scheme. This means that she’s under investigation for fraud. The only way to clear her name is to find Ashe, and that’s what Roland wants Halley to do. Halley ’s very reluctant at first. The divorce was a bitter one, and neither he nor Jenny want anything to do with each other. But Roland finally persuades Halley to look into the matter.
And that’s the thing about old loves and exes. Even after the relationship is over, there’s still often a bond. So, it’s not surprising that we see this plot point as often as we do in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of an Eric Clapton/Robert Cray song. Happy Birthday, Mr. Clapton!