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