Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't marry a detective; it's often fatal.

Last night, I started reading a book in which the spouse of the protagonist dies.  I shan't say what book as, to quote Dr. Who's River Song, "spoiler."  But it started me thinking.

More than six other books; some historical mysteries, some contemporary, came immediately to mind in which the intimate partner/spouse of the protagonist dies.  The way in which they  are dispatched does vary.   However, whether by illness, accident or murder,  as a reader, I am often very distressed by the loss of that character and relationship.   I find myself often thinking, "Why did you marry them off it your only going to kill off the partner."

I certainly see the benefit of it for the author.  It allows their protagonist significant growth, the ability to have relationships with new people and, if a murder, solve a crime.

Some authors handle these transitions better than others.  I recall one author where it was so poorly done, I stopped reading the series, as did many others.   Whether a direct cause, I don't know, but the author did lose their publisher due to poor sales shortly thereafter.  Still, other have done it so well, it results in a significant growth of the character and the series.

What do you think?  Does it upset you when a partner/spouse dies?  Does the way in which the spouse dies matter or make a difference in the way you feel about it?  Do you wish the author would allow the protagonist a stable relationship?  Some authors do.  Do you wish the author hadn't created the relationship in the first place?

I should love to hear your views.


  1. Or cowboys. Anyone remember how each and every one of Little Joe's fiancées died shortly after they got engaged.

    Always killing off a spouse becomes as cliched and tired as the alcoholic cop, the tortured cop trying to overcome some past tragedy or the tough as nails, but a softee inside loner cop who always works alone. It gets tired when it's overdone.

    Why can't a cop have a solid relationship? Faye Kellerman does it with her Decker and his wife. Lauren Berenson does it too with her show dog mysteries. She's gone all the way from single to married to pregnant and I think her books remain popular.

  2. It does often feel as though the author couldn't think of another plot for their next book so decided, "I know, I'll kill off the spouse." I'm trying to think of series where they are still married. I don't think David Dickinson has killed of Lord Powerscourt's wife as yet. And, of course, Deborah Crombie's police couple are still alive. Donna's Leon's Brunetti still has Paola, thank heaven. Okay, now I feel a little better.

  3. I stopped reading Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak when she killed off Kate's significant other. So it does upset me. I probably feel like I've invested time in the relationship and feel robbed when it ends prematurely.

  4. That one really got me as well and I did question whether I'd read the next book. However, she handled it very well and in a realistic manner with the next book. There have been a few slight disappointments since then, but not due to that.

  5. I have been thinking some more. Always dangerous, in my case. :) I've realized I don't like it when authors kill off characters that I like. Preston and Child did it in their Pendergast series. Actually, I haven't read that one yet, my twin sister spoiled it for me. :) Don't get me started on the rumors I've heard about Echo in the Bone. :) I know that authors have their plans but I don't have to like it. :)

  6. I'm glad to know I'm not the only who gets upset by this. :-)

  7. It is purely my opinion: Don't marry a detective; it's often fatal.: "Last night, I started reading a book in which the spouse of the protagonist dies. I shan't say what book as, to quote Dr. Who's River ..."

    In my LaStanza Series (New Orleans police novels), I married off my homicide detective to a pretty and wealthy woman. They remain together through the books, however, two different editors told me I needed to kill her off. Idiots. Hell, I took too long creating Lizette, molding her. Lizette has her own fans who email me asking about her. There's enough conflict in the cases, I didn't need to saddle my hero with the death of his wife. Last time I checked, they are still together. I have four recurring characters who appear in novels and short stories and LaStanza is still the only one with a long-term relationship. You gotta write it your way.

  8. Elizabeth George's books have definitely been affected negatively since she did that! (won't be more specific... though it happened at least 3 books ago... )

    On the other hand, if we get the "spouse in peril" thing more than once and the spouse is rescued, it ruins suspense b/c we come to think "oh, it's okay - s/he'll be fine in the end" which also kills the read.

    I suspect our reaction is based on how we feel about the particular characters. If, as O'Neil commented, the author has crafted a real person on the page, we mourn as though we'd lost a friend, and our relationship w/ the survivor *and* the author changes, for good or ill.

    Mari Bonomi from CTT list

  9. Eileen; you're okay to read "Echo in the Bone" by Gabaldon. Good for you, O'Neil. Keep Lizette alive. I hadn't thought about it being the publishers who push for the death of a spouse. Mari; it is interesting to hear that some reader do quite a series when the spouse is killed. I'll admit, I've been close to doing so.

  10. I also hate it as with Harry Bosch (Michael Collins) protagonists have lovely relationships and then they go wrong or the man/woman dies. it's as if the author believes stable relationships as part of a twosome will lessen something.

  11. J.A. Jance's book, "Until Proven Guilty" was one for the record books and yet it was excellent.

  12. I've been thinking of this recently, too. I do think it has become cliche -- a quick way to give their detective a dark side.

  13. Gerry Boyle, author of both the Jack McMorrow and Brandon Blake series (both of which I highly recommend) sent me the following comment:

    Jack McMorrow would be lost without Roxanne. Behind every good hero (or heroine) is a voice of reason. To be disregarded much of the time, of course, but the counterpoint is there. After the dust clears they have only each other. Just as the noir hero is alone, they are alone together.

  14. You may (or may not) know that Brett Halliday was told that Hollywood didn't use any of his original novels for the Michael Shayne film series because Mike was married. He duly killed off Phyllis Shayne (in childbirth) between the current book and the next one...then the studio dropped the series, so her death was for nothing!

  15. Oh, that is adding injury to insult. Interesting.

  16. Lj, I think you have hitted a nail with this entry. Let me see, I have not stopped reading a serial because the spouse (or a closed friend of the protagonist died ->see James Patterson's Women's Murder Club) but I am not that happy about that, too. About Elizabeth George, I am really sad that she really letted the spouse died, I think that she was attacked hard and then E. George wrote this book from the view of the child who did it was a great idea to show another side, but I think a long recovering would have been better. For James Patterson I have to say that in the new serial I am reading by him, the death already happen in the first book, so it does not matter that much for keep on reading, it is just very sad, but you know it from the beginning of the book. For Women's Murder Club, it is sad in the book it happens, but the new character is added in the next book and I do not think that the serial got worse of it.
    For a German author I can tell you that his readers compared his protagonist so much with the author and the protagonist girl-friend so much with his own wife that he letted the relationship broke in the serial, but he did not let her die. And for this reason I have to say I can totally understand the author.

  17. Hi Jenny - I think the German author was smart. I haven't stopped reading a series because of such a death, but you can see others have. It's definitely a risk for an author.

  18. I am glad you raised this thread as I have been dealing with this! I had a character whose love interest (fiance) was set to die (I had decided) and it came to me that the character didn't want to die & that I was annoyed sometimes when others' characters did.

    In one series, I rather loathed the Inspector's wife who died and killing her off made it worse, actually a constant reminder of what an unrelenting annoyance she was and how ill suited they were for each other. If he had divorced her or if she had gotten a career or hobby it would have been much, much better and then the character would have been available in the future. Though he should have been sad about her death due to disliking the character and wanting less of her in the series, I could not stand the constant whinging about her murder and pretty well quit with the series over the whole thing. In that mystery to me it would have been fine if she had been an ex wife for awhile and killed off and it would have worked much, much better IMHO.

  19. I recently read Louise Penny's blog where she is discussing the writing of her next book. She and her husband were talking about it and coming up with different ideas about who would be the victim this time. So I began to wonder who else would die in Three Pines and if it would be someone I like or dislike? It is amazing how we become acquainted with characters as if they are real people. We all have our favorites! I just hope no one in Armand Gamache's family dies!


  20. I think it's all mired in a past tradition that stemmed from one line of crime novels -- the works of Hammet, Chandler on the noir side and Miss Marple and Poirot on the more traditional mystery/cozy. A lot of those first mysteries didn't exactly have the deepest characters. Giving them families and significant others would have been a distraction to solving the mystery.

    It's not necessary these days, but sticks around as a tradition that's easy to follow than being original.

  21. I agree, Diane. To me an indication of a really well-written series is how involved I become with the characters. They do become real to us.

    That's a good point, Pat, and one of which I hadn't thought. Yet some author's do make having a married protagonist really work. If Donna Leon ever kills off Paola, she will have lost me as a reader. Paola doesn't actively help Bernetti, but she's such an integral part of his character.

  22. One of the most interesting and unexpected series changes I've ever read was one where the detective himself was killed mid-book and his wife took over, solved his murder and continued in her own series. I guess the author really wanted to change things up. This was back in the 70's, so would I be giving it away to name him?
    As for the cliched aspects -- there's nothing new under the sun. I'm tired of serial killers, but people keep writing about them. As has been said here, it depends on the skill of the author to make a situation fresh and interesting.

  23. That's a series I definitely missed. Yes, I think it would be safe to name him.

    I know you're right about cliches and agree about series killers. Perhaps what so bothered me about the book I'm currently reading is the author, in general, has always given the protagonist a rather fickle attitude toward the women to whom he's attracted. When he finally married, I was relieved, so was particularly annoyed when, after only a couple(?) books with the character married, we're once again off to the next female.

    Sometimes, killing off the spouse has been very powerfully and effectively handled. But so often it really does feel as though the author ran out of ideas.

  24. I enjoy a series where the main character has a stable relationship. Laurie King has handled this well, allowing Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes to go off on separate adventures sometimes while at others working as a team.

    My favorite example of this has been the Fools Guild Series. Alan Gordon did a fine job of developing the partnership between Theophilus and his wife, in the tradition of Nick and Nora Charles. As the family coninued to grow, in true show business tradition, even the baby got into the act. If any member of that team were killed off, it would ruin the series for me.

    To me, the unhappy, lonely sleuth who always loses out on love has become a cliche. George's Lynley is such an outstanding example of this, I stopped buying hardbacks, than paperbacks, and now don't even look for them in the library.

    Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series is another of these. Not only the Scotland Yard detective but every other major character in his intimate circle loses their love interests to death or other causes: careers, family responsibilities, inability to commit. This has been particularly annoying as the series has become more about their personal lives and less about solving mysteries, to the point where I'm losing interest in the whole miserable group.

    Editors or film producers who think detectives always need to be single should widen their perspectives. There are many ways to create interest in a character other than giving them a new love interest in every installment. In fact, that's a rather immature attitude, and smacks of taking the easy road. James Bond, while fun, is basically an adolescent fantasy character, the cool guy who has amazing adventures and droves of gorgeous women throwing themselves at him. While the money men may wish every story they produce would sell like Bond, that doesn't mean the public wants an all-Bond reading or viewing experience.

    At any rate, rather than killing off the spouse, I would find it more interesting, and certainly less cliched, to find other ways of injecting interest into the relationship. Give them an ailing parent, a delinquent child, jobs on opposite coasts, religious differences, desires for different lifestyles, and any other reason possible for the couple to be at odds. Then let the romantic tensions revolve around whether they're going to make it through this one and get back together by the time the mystery is solved. And maybe sometimes they won't; and that will give the readers one more reason to pick up the next book.

  25. In my all-time favorite series, Anne Perry's Thomas and Charlotte Pitt, the romance/marriage of the two is a central part of the plot of the early books. Later, several members of Charlotte's family become involved in the crime-solving, and it all works beautifully. Tasha Alexander's Lady Emily Ashton series is another where there is a marriage between the detective and his lady which adds a wonderful dimension to the story. Charles Finch's Charles Lenox has recently married his lady, and how that will affect the series remains to be seen, but so far, so good.

  26. Jaye, the point you raise about Martha Grimes is one of the reasons why she fell off my reading list very quickly.

    You're right, Diane. In fact, spousal relationships play a significant role in all of Anne Perry's work. Deanna Raybourn is another one with Lady Jane and Brisbane. But the book that set me off on this tangent is an historical series and I was so disappointed at the path she chose.

  27. This is a good question, L.J. I agree, it's author inability or boredom to maintain an interesting relationship or mystery that has them cut off the spouse inside the story. Tells me this might reflect their storytelling skill. Often it comes across as cheating which is quite a let down. I read one of Elizabeth George's novels (the wrong one) and won't buy another.

    Why couldn't they have an affair, go missing without cause, be kidnapped (but only once in a series), reveal a secret life or any number of events to create conflict and tension in the relationship and show how they deal with it.

    I like it when an author uses the spouse as a respite from the main mystery like the movies The Thin Man series with glamour and humour based on Dashiell Hammett's novel.

    On the other hand, you have me thinking of TV stories where the death is the motivating force behind the series e.g. The Fugative. The death happened before the story began and we managed to cope with that. The same with the Mentalist, but this is less easy to cope with when we have the graphic reminders.

    In a recent review of yours, L.J. you mentioned the mystery began with an unconscious victim. I thought, how refreshing. So I could cope with a protagonist's spouse becoming unconscious in the course of the story, both as a reader or a writer.

    Thanks for stimulating my interest L.J. I enjoyed your post and all the comments.

  28. I can understand if an author starts a series in one direction and, after several books, the character suddenly changes direction on them so that their being married just doesn't work, but it often doesn't feel that's the reason. I feels more as though either their publisher has said, get rid of the spouse so they can have more partners, or that the author has run out of a plot. Either way, I am generally not a fan of the device.

  29. This is the 2nd time I've had this happen: I received an email alert that Stacy posted a response, but it does show. So, here is what she was kind enough to say:

    Stacy has left a new comment on your post "Don't marry a detective; it's often fatal.":

    This is my Good luck that I found your post which is according to my search and topic, I think you are a great blogger, thanks for helping me outta my problem..

    Dissertation Writing Service

    Thank you, Stacy.

  30. What I find troubling is the way an author builds an attraction between two people, then if he or she marries them, the story between the characters seems to run out of steam. I think sometimes that is why an author kills off the mate. I think they realize they have killed off the "tension" factor by marrying the couple. And of course there is the shock value in killing a prominent character.

  31. That can happen, Chris, but it doesn't always. Maybe because Leon's characters started out married, I can't imagine Brunetti without Paola. I'm currently reading a book by David Dickinson and Lady Lucy, wife of protagonist Lord Francis Powerscourt, adds a wonderful element to the stories.

    However, I am also reading the Peter Diamond series, by Peter Lovesey, in order and I know the book where the element I so dislike is coming up. I don't know how I'm going to feel about the series after that. It's going to depend upon how the event and aftermath are handled.