Over at the FB’s Golden Age Detection discussion group, my friend Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp fame made what I think to be an important point that deserves to be shared with this blog’s (comparatively) wider audience. As he praised Agatha Christie’s underrated yet excellent Ordeal by Innocence, Curtis deplored that she ultimately chose to give the rather dark book a completely out of place in matrimonium ending. This was a regular feature of Christie’s writing, so that Curtis adds:
Agatha had trouble letting go of the idea that mysteries end in lovers meeting. But she no doubt knew her audience!
Christie of course was not the only contemporary crime writer to add a little romance to her plots – nearly all of her colleagues did so in one way or another. What’s interesting is that for all the changes it has experienced over the last century the genre is still committed to the idea that matching couples is a key feature of a good mystery – even the edgier crime fiction routinely involves a love story or at least a hookup. To the Big Question « Can Men and Women be just friends? » the genre answers with a loud « NO! ».
The obligatory, almost contractual, love story is of course a defining feature of popular fiction but it plays a different role in mysteries. As the genre transitioned from the short story to the novel in the early twentieth century, writers soon realized that a puzzle alone couldn’t maintain the reader’s interest on a longer narrative; a subplot was needed to add impetus and make the thing more palatable. The love story had all the requirements needed; it also helped lighting up stories that might easily have become grim or unpleasant – we’re talking after all about (fictional) murder. A companionship was born that survives to this day.
The problem with this is that nine times out of ten the love story contributes nothing to the book – it just feels like, as I said above, a contractual requirement and a disturbing reminder that yes, you’re reading commercial fiction. Also, there are other ways to « spice up » a story or give it more depth than just having boy and girl (or boy and boy, or girl and girl – let’s not be prejudiced) jumping into the next bed. Finally, a lot of those romances devolve into antediluvian Hollywood clichés: I’ve lost the count of the love/hate relationships I’ve encountered in the genre and it becomes tiresome on the long run.
Is this to say that the mystery genre should close its doors and its heart to love? Not at all. Van Dine as often went from a correct diagnosis to a wrong cure. It would be fine however if it ceased to be a fixture to become a feature – something that is a part of the genre, but not an indispensable one, and is used when and only when integral to the writer’s purpose. In literature as everywhere else, scarcity adds value.