Thursday, September 1, 2011

Relationships in mystery series: perennial suspense or happily ever after?

Elizabeth Zelvin

Do you believe in “happily ever after”? If you read romance novels, you insist on it. While the classic fairy tales of Andersen and Grimm were often depressing and, well, grim, 20th-century American culture offered its children only tales that turned out well. In literary fiction too, the happy ending has been with us since Jane Austen. Many readers seek the satisfaction of conflict resolved in the personal lives of the characters they read about. Others protest that in reality, that moment of resolution is just the beginning of relationships that are true to life.

Mystery series offer writers, and thus readers, the opportunity to explore the arc of characters and their relationships over what in a prolonged series may amount to thousands of pages. The series format allows writers to give us a variety of relationship scenarios.

Some popular series authors suspend indefinitely their character’s choice of a permanent mate. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum forever hesitates between the reliable if somewhat high-handed Moretti and the mysterious, intensely sexy Ranger. Charlaine Harris has taken Sookie Stackhouse to what at first looked like true love with vampire Bill to a complicated series of relationships with vampire Eric and at least a couple of attractive shapeshifters.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone is perennially single with only a few ventures into romance. Marcia Muller’s Sharon McCone had a series of failed relationships, none as important as her friendships with both men and women, before she found her soulmate in the unfortunately named Hy Ripinsky. Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski gets periodically involved with a man, but it’s certainly not the focus of her life and sometimes proves a pesky complication.

At least two bestselling authors, Elizabeth George and Dana Stabenow, have taken the radical step of killing off the soulmate: Thomas Lynley’s wife Helen and Kate Shugak’s true love Jack Morgan respectively, to the indignation of many readers. Going by past performance, I think George is going to torture Lynley before she lets him find love again. I found the mating dance between Stabenow’s Kate and her new partner Jim Chopin annoying—with Jim portrayed over the course of several books as a womanizer suddenly struck faithful by the sturdy, practical Kate’s irresistible sexual allure, and both concealing that they have any feelings whatever except for lust—until the most recent book, when they seem finally to be settling down to what I would call a relationship.

Even when authors let their character find a perfect partner, they may choose to postpone the happily ever after indefinitely by throwing one curve ball after another into the couple’s lives. Julia Spencer-Fleming’s ratcheting up of tension and heartache over the series has been masterful as Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and Chief of Police Russ Van Alstyne struggle with their feelings for each other. Readers may grind their teeth when Russ’s wife dies, and Clare, instead of falling into his arms, re-ups in the Army to go fly a helicopter in Iraq—but they couldn’t wait for the next book, when Clare came home. (If you haven’t read it, I won’t tell you what cliffhanger that one ends with.) Cynthia Harrod-Eagles put Inspector Bill Slider and the love of his life, Joanna—not to mention the reader—through agonies of frustration involving his awful marriage, her career as a violinist, his procrastination and guilt feelings, and of course the demands of The Job, ending each book with a whammy of a cliffhanger that had this reader groaning—and yes, eager for the next book.

And then there are the couples who, having achieved happily ever after, continue to evolve, whether dealing with further crises in the life cycle (pregnancy and child rearing; parents’ aging, illness, and death; the conflicting demands of career), not unlike what happens in real life. They may also continue to solve mysteries as partners. Deborah Crombie’s British detectives, Lloyd (first name nobody’s business) and Gemma James are doing a good job, as are Margaret Maron’s Judge Deborah Knott and Deputy Sheriff Dwight Bryant. So are Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Jill Paton Walsh’s recent additions to Dorothy L. Sayers’s classic series. The latest one is a dilly, posing the couple a challenge you don’t often see in mysteries. On the other hand, something similar just happened to another of my favorite couples (not straight mystery, but a cross-genre series with plenty of mystery plotting), Lois McMaster Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan and his wife Ekaterin. My prediction is that Walsh will let us see Peter and Harriet coping with their new condition, but the Vorkosigans, alas, may live happily ever after.


Sheila Connolly said...

It is a problem with series books--and how many cliffhangers can there be in any relationship? At some point it becomes contrived.

For some illogical reason my mind strayed to the old series Bonanza, where Pa and each of the sons was shot or otherwise injured several times over the series' run--it's a wonder they could still walk, but I assume it drummed up tension for viewers. And don't even think about soap operas, where the main characters get married seventeen times, have six legitimate children by different people, and contract fatal diseases that keep them in a coma for several weeks. It's all in the name of creating conflict.

Happily ever after seems to be working well for Katherine Hall Page--isn't she approaching book 20?

Sandra Parshall said...

There's a real danger in letting characters become boring if their relationship is a happy, committed one. Bringing a baby into the picture is another kind of danger. How many readers want to see a pregnant woman, a nursing mother, or a mom with a totally dependent toddler putting herself in harm's way repeatedly? How many husbands would want their wives doing that? It's not an easy path for a writer to walk.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, one of the best treatments of that I've seen is in Nevada Barr's Borderline, in which Anna Pigeon inadvertently gets saddled with a baby to take care of and discovers that being an infant's caregiver and protector is utterly incompatible with the self-reliance and physical powers that she's used to relying on when danger strikes. What her husband thinks of it is a side issue, as Anna and her sheriff/minister husband are one of the odder couples in mystery fiction.

Anonymous said...

I don't normally like to see the protagonist's spouse die but I was sick of the way Helen was gradually starting to be portrayed in the t.v. version of Inspector Lynley. I recall originally liking the character but after they made her a pain in the neck I was actually happy to see her go except then the whining/sorrow seemed perpetual & got on my nerves. Since I haven't read the books yet the change of Helen's character into a negative one before she was murdered may not be the same & I may have a totally different reaction.

I guess I am usually awfully fond of happily ever after or distant relationships so one doesn't get tired of them. I loved John D. MacDonald's ways of doing things. I am not sure of any generalizations, but have been mulling this over lately. I enjoyed the post and the comments!