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.