(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet*

As this is posted, it’s 427 years since what is thought to be the first performance of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The play has resonated through the years, and inspired other writing, such as Arthur Laurents’ West Side Story. And it’s not hard to see why it’s had such an impact. That theme of, if you will, forbidden love, has a lot of appeal, and so does the tension that comes from two people loving across barriers.

We see that theme in crime fiction, too, and that’s not surprising. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Jack Renauld has fallen in love with Marthe Daubreuil, who lives in the villa next to the one he shares with his parents. The feeling seems to be mutual, and Jack wants the two of them to marry. The problem is that his parents are dead set against the match. The Renaulds have their reasons, which become clear as the novel goes on. Jack has a loud argument with his father about it just before he leaves on a business trip. That night, his father, Paul, is murdered, and his body found by a new golf course being built at the Renauld home. At first, the police believe that Renauld was killed by some thugs who were looking for ‘a secret.’ Then, they learn about Jack Renauld’s argument with his father, and he becomes the prime suspect. But Hercule Poirot believes differently. He received a letter from Renauld shortly before his death, in which Renauld mentioned that his life was in danger. Poirot and Captain Hastings traveled to the Renauld villa in France, but they got there too late to prevent the murder. Now, Poirot investigates the killing, and he finds that this murder has everything to do with the past.

Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinjū takes place in 1687, in what is now Tokyo. Sano Ichirō is a yoriki, a senior investigator and police officer. The main action of the novel begins when Sano is assigned a new case. Two bodies have been pulled from the Sumida River. One of them is a ‘wellborn’ young woman named Niu Yukiko. The other is an artist named Noriyoshi, someone who would never be considered a ‘proper’ husband for someone of Yukiko’s class. On the surface of it, it looks as though this is a case of shinjū, or double suicide. That’s a reasonable conclusion, too, since it’s not uncommon at this time for lovers who can’t be together to take this step. The Niu family is wealthy and powerful, and they want the case settled as soon as possible and as quietly as possible. They want Sano to ‘rubber stamp’ the double-suicide explanation. But Sano soon suspects that more might be going on. He begins to ask some questions, and he comes to the conclusion that these two people could have been murdered. As he looks for answers, Sano finds that some very important people do not want him to solve this case.

Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope features academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. In the novel, we are introduced to Riel Delorme, a Saskatchewan-based Métis activist who is also one of Joanne’s former graduate students. He belongs to a group called the Warriors, who strongly oppose any development. Their claim is that development does nothing for people who actually need support, and only puts money into the developers’ pockets. The Warriors soon come into conflict with a company owned by Leland Hunter. The company wants to create a planned community in the economically depressed North Central part of Regina. The community is designed to help the people who live there, but the Warriors believe it will just make things worse. That conflict is made worse when one of Hunter’s employees is murdered, and it looks as though Delorme might be involved. As though that weren’t enough of a challenge, Delorme is romantically involved with Joanne’s daughter, Mieka. It’s a very difficult situation, since Joanne treasures her relationship with Mieka. At the same time, if this young man is a killer, or involved with killers, she can’t support that romance. And in any case, she’s against some of what the Warriors have been doing to call attention to their cause. The romance adds a real complication to the story, and it puts a strain on Joanne’s relationship with her daughter.

In Stuart Neville’s The Ghosts of Belfast, we meet former IRA fighter Gerry Fagen. He is, quite literally, haunted by the ghosts of twelve people that he killed. And it turns out that they won’t leave him in peace until he kills those responsible for their deaths. At first, Fagen refuses. But the ghosts make things worse and worse for him until he finally gives in. In one plot thread, Fagen meets and falls for Marie McKenna, who is the niece of one of the men he’s killed. He soon finds out that Marie is a pariah among the Republicans. She was raised in a well-off Catholic family, but she married a police officer named Jack Lennon. To the Belfast Republicans, that amounts to treason, and very few people will speak to her now, let alone be friends with her. That marriage is considered unpardonable, even though Marie’s now divorced, and it shows how hard it is to be in a ‘forbidden’ relationship.

And then there’s Graeme Macrae Burnet’s His Bloody Project. The story tells the history of Roderick, ‘Roddy’ Macrae, who was responsible for three murders in the village of Culduie, on Scotland’s Applecross Peninsula in 1869. The novel is composed of Roderick Macrae’s own journal, court documents, and other fictional sources, and explains how this 17-year-old came to kill his victims. As the story goes on, we see what happened between the Macrae family and the family of Lachlan Broad, one of the victims and the local constable. Suffice it to say that the two families are not exactly friends. In one plot thread, Roddy falls for Broad’s daughter, Flora. Broad wants his daughter to have nothing to do with a Macrae, and Roddy’s warned against the relationship, too. As it turns out, this plays its part in the tragedy that is the focal point of the novel.

Doomed love affairs, if that’s the term, have their own drama and even tragedy. So it’s little wonder they can work so well in crime novels. They can add to the suspense and even to motives for murder.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Bob Hamilton and Freddie Gorman.

 


10 thoughts on “(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet*

  1. I read Shinjū back when I was first getting back into mystery fiction and I had a great time with it. Thanks for this little trip down memory lane (and for some other interesting reading suggestions, as always).

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    1. Thanks, Aidan – glad you enjoyed the post. Shinjū is a solid story, and I really ought to catch up with that series better than I have. There’s just never enough time for it all.

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  2. Thanks for the reminder of Stuart Neville’s work, I still haven’t read him, Margot. I recently saw the remake of West Side Story which I believe has it’s origins in Romeo and Juliet. That was fun.

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    1. It does, indeed, Col, and I’m glad you enjoyed that remake. I’ve seen the original, but not the new one. And as for Neville, he’s written some good stuff (at least in my opinion). I hope you’ll like his work when you get to it.

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    1. You’re right, KBR, about love and money. I think they play a bigger role in crime motives than just about any other factor. And they’re strong incentives! There’s just something, too, about being involved with someone who’s from the ‘wrong’ family, class, and so on. It adds to the tension, I think.

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  3. I’ve just acquired Graeme Macrae Burnet’s new one, Case Study – all his books so far have been excellent, so I have high hopes! As for doomed lovers, it’s certainly a recurring plotline, isn’t it? Though naturally I can’t bring any to mind just at this moment… 😉

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    1. I want to read the new Burnet, too, FictionFan! I hope it’ll be good; I think he really has talent. And yes, there’s something about doomed lovers and that plot point that comes up a lot in fiction. It does add drama and suspense, so I can see why.

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  4. Margot: I enjoyed your examples. While he does not have classic doomed affairs I thought of Harry Bosch whose loves have not lasted. He is a fine man but all his relationships have failed. I consider Eleanor Wish his great love. Had she not died during their rescue of Maddie I thought they might have grown old together. Am I too much the romantic?

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    1. I don’t think you’re too much the romantic, Bill. I’d have very much liked to see Harry and Eleanor together permanently, and I could see them growing old together, too. It’s interesting that, apart from her, Harry’s relationships don’t work out. I hope he finds someone.

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