I Love Her, She Loves Me*

One of the tropes we see in a lot of classic and Golden Age crime fiction (and some more contemporary crime fiction, too!) is the couple whose relationship is threatened (or even thwarted) by a crime or its investigation. Sometimes it’s because one or the other person is suspected. Sometimes it’s something else. This trope can work if it’s done well and woven naturally into the story. It’s a bit risky, as this sort of relationship can take over the main plot of the story. That said, though, it can be effective, and it’s certainly a part of the genre.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Boscombe Valley Mystery, a man named Charles McCarthy has been murdered. The evidence suggests that his son James is the killer, as the two had a loud quarrel just before the murder. In fact, James McCarthy has been arrested for the crime. But Alice Turner, James’ fiancée, is convinced that he is innocent. She asks Inspector Lestrade to re-consider the case. He can’t see how anyone else could be guilty, but out of consideration, he asks Sherlock Holmes to review the matter. Holmes puts the pieces together and deduces that James is innocent. In fact, the dead man’s final words give Holmes the important clue he needs to solve the case and free James McCarthy and Alice Turner to be together.

As Patricia Wentworth’s Grey Mask begins, Charles Moray has just returned to England after four years out of the country. When he gets to his family’s home, though, he finds that it’s occupied by a gang of criminals led by a man called Grey Mask. Worse, he learns that his former fiancée Margaret Langton (who jilted him, hence his departure from England) may be mixed up with the gang. Moray’s friend Archie Millar advises him to visit Miss Maude Silver, who may be able to help. Moray does so, and Miss Silver quietly begins to look into the matter. Meanwhile, Moray tracks Margaret down to the shop where she works, and the two slowly pick up the pieces of their relationship. They really can’t be together, though, until Grey Mask is out of the picture. And there’s more danger for them than they think as they work with Miss Silver to find out who Grey Mask is.

Agatha Christie included this trope in more than one of her stories. In Five Little Pigs, for example, Carla Lemarchant is young, wealthy, and independent. She’s in love, too, and engaged to be married to John Rattery. But she is haunted by the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time, Crale’s wife (and Carla’s mother) Caroline was suspected of the crime. In fact, she was arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter, and she died in prison a year later. Carla, though, has always thought her mother innocent, and she really needs to know the truth before she plans her future with her fiancé. Carla asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, and he agrees. He interviews all five of the people who were present at the time of the murder. He also gets written accounts from all five. From this evidence, he works out who killed Crale and why. 

Lest you think that the ‘threatened couple’ trope can only be found in vintage work, there are plenty of examples in more modern crime fiction, too. For instance, Faye Kellerman’s The Ritual Bath introduces Rina Lazarus. As the series begins, Rina is a widow with two sons who lives in an Orthodox Jewish community outside of Los Angeles. One night, the community is shocked when one of its members is raped. LAPD Detectives Peter Decker and Marge Dunn investigate, but the rape survivor is deeply observant, and doesn’t want to discuss what happened. So, Decker begins to rely on Rina Lazarus, since she is well-respected in the community. The investigation goes on, but without much success. Then there’s a murder. Now the stakes are even higher. As the case moves along, Decker and Rina Lazarus develop feelings for each other. The problem is, though, that Rina is also an observant Orthodox Jew who couldn’t conceive of marrying a man who wasn’t Jewish. There’s also the fact that she has two sons who must be considered, and everyone’s in the middle of a murder case. If she and Peter Decker are to be a couple, they’re going to have to work through those challenges.

And then there’s Nick Louth’s The Body in the Marsh. Well-known academic Martin Knight reports that his wife Elizabeth ‘Liz’ has gone missing. Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Craig Gillard starts the investigation, but this is going to be very difficult for him. He and Liz were a couple thirty years earlier, but she ended the relationship, and he still smarts from that. Still, he’s going to try to handle the case professionally. In the meantime, Gillard has recently met Samantha ‘Sam’ Phillips, a community police officer, or as she puts it, a ‘hobby bobby.’ The two are at the very beginning of their relationship, and hoping that it will work, but there are challenges. For one thing, Gillard is busy with the case he’s working and even getting a little obsessed with it. He hasn’t completely gotten over Liz, and that doesn’t help matters. For another thing, Sam’s got her own problems. Her ex, Gary Harrison, is violent and controlling, and refuses to let her go. The two are going to have to get through this case, and Sam will need to be free of her ex, if they’re going to have a chance.

Most crime fiction fans don’t want a romance that overshadows the main crime story. So including the ‘threatened couple’ trope isn’t easy. But when it’s done well, it can add depth to characters and a solid sub-plot.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe South’s Down in the Boondocks, made famous by Billy Joe Royal.

12 thoughts on “I Love Her, She Loves Me*

  1. I quite like it as a trope because it adds a human interest element to the story. If the couple in question are likeable, then there’s the added tension of hoping that everything works out for them in the end. In fact, I sometimes feel quite cheated if the threatened couple don’t end up walking off into the sunset together! But you’re right that it has to be done carefully so that it doesn’t overwhelm the story and turn the mystery into a romance. Having just read Grey Mask, I thought it was handled very well in that, with just the right amount of romance and humour to lift the tone of the central mystery.


    1. You make a well-taken point, FictionFan. If the couple are likeable, we want them to end up together, and the romance isn’t a problem – it can even be welcome (Agatha Christie did that several times). And I don’t like it, either, if a couple I like don’t end up together. I think the key is to make sure that it’s all in service to the story. Otherwise, as you say, it does overwhelm the story. Wentworth did it very well in Grey Mask, I think. And a big part of that (in my opinion) is that it all fell out naturally from the story, so it didn’t feel contrived. And Charles and Margaret are likeable!

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  2. Interesting post Margot, and I do agree that it’s a trope that has to be used carefully. I’m not averse to a little romance in my crime, and it often adds nice angles to the motives. But I prefer it not to take over – balance is all!!


    1. That’s exactly it, KBR – it’s all about balance! If a romance falls out naturally from a plot, and the people involved are sympathetic, I think you’re right, and it can add a solid layer to a plot. For me, anyway, if there is going to be a romantic angle to a story, it has to serve the main plot.

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  3. I liked The Grey Mask a lot and must get around to more Miss Silver books. Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans is possibly another example of the threatened romance trope, although the couple are not together at the start are they, so maybe not. The Boscombe Valley Mystery… I think that’s the Cornish one? The dramatization of which scared me so much as a child I wouldn’t go to bed. It was the experiment with burning something, the fumes of which were about to kill Holmes and Watson that did for me. I had too vivid an imagination as a child. LOL!


    1. I think a lot of children have imaginations like that, Cath! And thanks for mentioning Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?. I like the way Christie wove that budding relationship into the larger plot, and I do like Frankie and Bobby as characters. So in that case, the romance works, at least for me. As for the Miss Silver mysteries, I think they can be quite good, and I hope you’ll enjoy them as and when.


  4. Margot: Your post was timely as I am in the midst of reading at least 3 Inspector Chen mysteries by Qiu Xiaolong. The brilliant inspector’s potential relationships have been thwarted by the cases he has investigated. The lovely Ling, daughter of a high official wanted a relationship but it never worked out. She has now made a re-appearance in Inspector Chen and the Private Kitchen Murder. I have hope again they may come together. However, in the previous book, Becoming Inspector Chen, his lover, Shanshan, from an earlier book comes back into his life but there is no renewed romance. I fear the good inspector may never find lasting love and will grow old alone like Harry Bosch.


    1. I remember Ling, Bill, and I’m glad she’s back. I hope she and Chen will get together, too. And those are examples of how fictional couples can be kept apart for one reason or another. I like the way Qiu handles it, too. Chen’s love life doesn’t become the main plot of the book. That said, though, I do hope he finds someone, even if it’s not Ling. I’ve always wanted that for Harry Bosch, too.

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  5. I actually like this particular trope, and I agree that it adds depth and tension to the story if done well. Tana French’s In the woods is an unconventional take on the threatened couple trope which ends in tragedy. It’s one of the better crime novels in my opinion because there’s absolutely no closure for both the protagonist who falls in love with his partner and the case in general.


    1. You’re right, OP, about In the Woods, and I hadn’t thought of that one. It’s definitely a good example of the trope works well, even though the romance is doomed. It’s an interesting mix of the crime plot itself and the characters’ relationships.

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