The instinct to protect oneself is a very strong one, so most people have at least some sense of self-preservation. Why is it, then, that some people stay in (or keep returning to) toxic relationships? Even the most intelligent, seemingly sensible, people get caught in such webs. The reasons for that vary, just as the people involved do. In real life, returning over and over again to a toxic relationship can be heartbreaking, even disastrous. But in crime fiction, that plot point can add suspense and even a context for a story.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we are introduced to the Boynton family. They are taking a tour of the Middle East, and part of that journey involves a trip to the ancient city of Petra. On the second day of the trip, Mrs. Boynton, the family matriarch, suddenly dies of what looks at first like heart failure. Colonel Carbury, though, isn’t satisfied with that explanation, and he asks Hercule Poirot, who’s also in the area, to investigate. Poirot soon finds that the Boynton family is dysfunctional. Mrs. Boynton was what Poirot describes as ‘a mental sadist’ who kept her family completely cowed. More than once during the novel, the question is raised as to why her family members remain at the family home, since all but one of them is an adult. Why do they remain in that toxic situation? The reason has to do with the psychology of domination. For most of the family, there really is no option but to stay. Now, Poirot has to determine whether one of the family members would resort to murder to break free.
Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal concerns Horace Croyden. He’s a very respectable banker who prides himself on avoiding scandal of any kind. He prefers a very tidy home, a quiet life, and his beloved ciphers, which he solves as a hobby. Things change, though, when he meets his boss’ cousin, Althea. She’s attractive, vivacious, and lively. They begin to date, and eventually, become engaged. Soon after the marriage, Horace knows he’s made a mistake. Althea’s lifestyle is nothing like his, and she begins to change his life in ways he finds it hard to tolerate. The first advice anyone might give him is that he should leave her, but this Horace cannot do. For him, divorce is far too scandalous. So, he makes other plans…
M.C. Beaton’s Love, Lies, and Liquor sees PI Agatha Raisin reluctantly agreeing to a seaside holiday with her ex-husband, James. It’s supposed to be a nostalgic trip to a hotel he loved as a child, but it turns out to be anything but that. For one thing, the town and the hotel have become dilapidated and worn down, with little to recommend either. For another, the hotel has some very unpleasant guests, among them Geraldine Jankers. When she is found strangled with Agatha’s own scarf, Agatha becomes a ‘person of interest,’ and it takes quite a lot of effort to clear her name. She’s curious about what happened, though, and she investigates. As you can imagine, the victim’s family and friends come in for their share of scrutiny. One suspect is family friend Cyril Hammond. As Agatha learns more about Cyril, she finds out that he has been abusing his wife, Dawn. Agatha confronts Dawn with what she knows, and convinces her to leave her husband. Then, inexplicably to Agatha, Dawn goes back to Cyril. It turns out that Cyril is wealthy and ‘connected,’ and Dawn has few marketable skills. She’s truly afraid of what will happen to her if she tries to go it alone. So, she stays in a toxic relationship that (to her, anyway) is at least safe.
Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger is the story of Fabien Delorme. The story begins when the police inform him that his wife, Sylvie, has died in a car crash. He feels the loss, but he’s not overly devastated, since he and Sylvie hadn’t had a close marriage for years. What shocks him much more is that he learns that Sylvie had been carrying on an affair with a man named Martial Arnoult. It happens that Arnoult left a widow, Martine, and Fabien becomes fascinated by her. He begins to stalk her and decides that,
‘That man stole my wife; I’m going to steal his.’
He finds out that Martine is planning a trip to Majorca with a friend, and he contrives to be there, too. He and Martine begin an affair which continues when they return to Paris. The relationship is not a healthy one, and Fabien isn’t a stupid man. He knows that ending the relationship would be the best choice. Still, he remains obsessed with Martine. Then he, Martine, and her friend Madeleine spend a weekend at Madeleine’s country home. Things soon spin out of control, and the ending doesn’t work out well for anyone. What’s interesting is that there are several places in the novel where Fabien could have ended things. He doesn’t, though, because of his obsession.
And then there’s Harriet Tyce’s Blood Orange. Alison Wood is an up-and-coming London barrister. She has what looks like the perfect life. She has a loving husband and daughter, a good job, and a bright future. But all is not what it seems. For one thing, she’s carrying on an affair with another lawyer. It’s not a healthy relationship, either, and she knows it. In fact, several times during the novel, she resolves to end it. But that never happens. Then, she gets a new client who’s been charged with murder. Oddly enough, Alison’s client doesn’t protest innocence; in fact, she insists that she’s guilty. But something about it doesn’t feel right. So Alison starts to ask questions. Throughout the novel, there’s a theme of returning to toxic situations, and that plays an important role in the story.
And that’s what happens sometimes. People remain in (or return to) toxic relationships, even though they may know full well that what they’re doing is self-destructive. There are a number of reasons this happens, and it can make for an effective plot line.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s You’ll Be Back.