To Girlfriend or Not To Girlfriend (by Andrew Welsh-Huggins)

Andrew Welsh-Huggins is a reporter covering criminal-justice issues for The Associated Press in Columbus, Ohio. He is also the author of seven mystery novels featuring P.I. Andy Hayes. It’s a series Publishers Weekly has called “Intriguing,” but writing any series creates challenges, and Andrew discusses one of them here.  —Janet Hutchings

 Early in my new novel, An Empty Grave, my lead character—Columbus, Ohio, private eye Andy Hayes—is having a beer with a friend as he debates the logistics of letting his younger son live with him on a more permanent basis. It would be a big change from Andy’s current custodial arrangement with his ex-wife—ex-wife No. 2, if we’re counting, which for the purpose of this essay we must—and he’s worried whether it will work. “It’s the whole girlfriend problem,” Andy laments. “Late-night stakeouts are just as bad for child-raising as they are for romance.” He should know—or at least thinks he does.

After all, when my series opened, in Fourth Down and Out, Andy had two divorces and a broken engagement under his belt, along with a string of other, semi-disastrous relationships. By this point, his love life was reduced to a strictly-on-Sundays-only triste with a local judge in her condo, the unorthodox conditions dictated by her and not subject to negotiation. “Bodyguard with benefits,” Andy dubs it, referring to the job that initially brought them together. By the end of that first book, he’s met someone new, a college professor named Anne Cooper. They stay together for three more volumes, until Andy’s chaotic life drives them apart. Some readers still think they should be together.

And why not? Because if there’s one question I receive more than almost any other (after, of course, the perennial “Where do you get your ideas?”), it’s, “Will Andy ever have a steady girlfriend?” It’s a query I think about a lot, since these days the lone wolf private eye trope is both common and, frankly, a bit overdone. Why shouldn’t Andy hook up for good? Or as I like to put it: “To Girlfriend, or Not To Girlfriend, That Is The Question.” But as mystery fiction shows us, there’s not always an easy answer when it comes to detectives and significant others.

Starting near the beginning, Sherlock Holmes isn’t much help. He admires his rival, Irene Adler, an American and a former opera singer, acknowledging that she’s one of the few people to ever best him—and the only woman. But Arthur Conan Doyle makes it clear there’s nothing else there to see there. “It was not that [Holmes] felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler,” Doyle’s Watson writes in A Scandal in Bohemia. “All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”  

For a long time, private eyes with steady partners were rare enough that it was considered remarkable when Brock “The Rock” Callahan, the Los Angeles private eye created by author William Campbell Gault, not only had a regular girlfriend in Jan, an interior designer, but married her in 1982’s The Bad Samaritan. (My character might take a lesson from Callahan, who, fictionally at least, was also a former pro football player, in this case with the Los Angeles Rams). More typical of the genre was John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, the self-proclaimed “salvage consultant” (and yet another former pro football player—for the Detroit Lions—turned investigator), who jumps from bed to bed throughout the twenty-one McGee books. “I had sure cut myself a wide swath through a wall of female flesh,” McGee notes in Free Fall In Crimson.

For his part, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe took an appropriately tough-guy attitude toward women. “I like smooth shiny girls, hard-boiled and loaded with sin,” he says in Farewell, My Lovely. The only time he sleeps with a woman in print is at the end of The Long Goodbye, when he goes to bed with heiress Linda Loring. Ultimately, Chandler chose to marry the couple off, with Loring proposing to Marlowe in Playback, Chandler’s last finished novel. Poodle Springs, an unfinished Chandler manuscript completed by novelist Robert B. Parker, opens with the two of them married. For all that, it’s clear that Marlowe conducts most of his career as a loner.   

Speaking of Parker, his iconic Boston private eye Spenser bucks the single guy trend by spending the series romantically attached to psychologist Susan Silverman. Fictionally, the relationship works because both are solitary sorts who live on their own and don’t have children, although Spenser takes on an unofficial foster son named Paul Giacomin. Spenser and Susan also share custody, so to speak, of a succession of German Shorthaired Pointers named Pearl. Parker deserves credit for keeping Spenser, the quintessential tough nut, in a more or less monogamous relationship. But he also holds the pair at arm’s length compared to a traditional coupling, since it’s not as if you see them haggling over bill paying and whose turn it is to take out the garbage.

Juniper Song, Steph Cha’s Los Angeles-based amateur sleuth turned private investigator, frequently channels Marlowe as her inspiration. And even though Song appears to be headed for a semi-stable relationship at the end of Dead Soon Enough, her reflections on the impact that her professional life has on the ability to form relationships captures the tension so many fictional private eyes face.

It turned out that the events in my life that formed me into a good detective had also hardened the softer parts of my person, the parts that could start to trust and adore in a way that overwhelmed suspicion. I felt like one of those TV cliches, the lonely hero who finds truths and changes fortunes and ends the day in a quiet home with a drinking problem for company. Of course, those heroes were men almost by definition.

Another Los Angeles investigator, Easy Rawlins, the off-the-books hard-luck investigator created by Walter Mosley, experiences more than his share of romantic encounters even as he yearns for a long-time relationship. He marries and has a daughter, but his wife leaves him and takes their child to the South. For a while he focuses on raising his adopted son, Jesus, and daughter, Feather—“my beautiful patchwork family,” as he calls them—along with live-in girlfriend Bonnie Shay, an Air France flight attendant. Nevertheless, Easy’s demons run deep, and Bonnie’s liaison with an African prince weighs heavily on him. Whether Bonnie actually cheated is an open question, but the dilemma is too much for Easy even as Bonnie flies to Europe in Cinnamon Kiss to find medical treatment with the prince’s help for the terminally ill Feather. Easy himself strays twice while they’re away, but in the end decides to move on. “‘It’s not either me or him,’ I told the love of my life,” Rawlins says at the novel’s painful conclusion. “‘It’s either me or not me.’” (Later in the series, however, Easy has a change of heart and even proposes to Bonnie.)

Matt Scudder, Lawrence Block’s unlicensed New York private investigator, has a semi-permanent attachment with former call girl Elaine Mardell and eventually moves in with her. But he also takes up with another, considerably younger woman named Lisa Holtzmann. “I suppose it wasn’t much of a stretch to say she was like a drug or a drink to me,” Scudder says in A Long Line of Dead Men. “I’d thought fleetingly of calling the liquor store, reached for the phone, and called her instead.” Sara Paretsky’s Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski divorced after two years of marriage, and while she has a number of romantic relationships through the series, never settles down. As a Chicago Public Library blog post noted, Warshawski is “a complex woman with a law degree from the University of Chicago, a pile of dishes in her sink and the occasional man in her bed.” At least that’s better than Amos Walker, Loren Estleman’s tough-as-rivets Detroit private eye, a divorced Vietnam vet who apparently left romance behind for good after his split, the settlement of which looms large mainly because it ruined his collection of early rock and jazz records. “I could do without the depression playing one would bring on,” Walker says in Motor City Blue, which opens the series.

If Andy has a counterpart in complicated relationships, it might be Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton’s private eye working in and around fictional Santa Teresa, California. In comparison to Andy’s two ex-wives and periodic girlfriends, Millhone had two ex-husbands and plenty of relationships throughout the long series, including with fellow private eye Robert Dietz. But nothing ever seems to take for good. In R is for Ricochet, Millhone confesses that she understands men less and less the older she gets, and for that reason tends to shy away from them: “I’ve learned the hard way that love and work are a questionable mix.”

So, what’s the issue here? Why can’t fictional private eyes—or literary police detectives for that matter—have long-term relationships like the rest of us? Is stability within the pages of a book too much to ask? Are the ties that bind really so boring? Turns out they may well be, at least when it comes to storytelling. Because let’s face it: one reason for keeping investigators solitary—or at least constantly looking—is that solitude provides both entertainment and plot points. Personal baggage can get tiresome in real life but portrayed well it can enliven a fictional narrative at just the right points, from an ill-timed liaison to an angry confrontation that shakes loose a clue. Which, it goes without saying, is the difference between novels and real life. Most actual private eyes are unlikely to be beaten up, shot at, or chased down mean streets with anything close to the frequency of their fictional counterparts. They’re similarly likely to have regular girlfriends, longtime partners, or beloved spouses they go home to at the end of a hard day conducting online background checks or occasional surveillance jobs. Novelist and former police officer Colin Conway pointed out this discrepancy in a recent blog post in which he noted that despite the myth of widespread failed marriages among law enforcement personnel, police officers actually have lower divorce rates when compared to other occupations. Or as writer Eve Fisher has suggested, the profusion of modern characters so damaged that they’re unable to love—on the page or on-screen—reflects what she calls “jalapeno culture” or the contemporary tendency to wipe out subtlety in our fiction with sex and violence in the same way we drown perfectly good food with a smothering of jalapenos and melted cheese.

To be fair, some fictional detectives do settle down. Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey had his share of flings as a bachelor—in Busman’s Honeymoon, he declares, “that it is a gentleman’s first duty to remember in the morning who it was he took to bed with him.” But eventually he marries mystery writer Harriet Vane, a woman he considers his intellectual equal, and they have a family together. Louise Penny’s Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache and his wife, Reine-Marie, have a long and happy marriage, as do French detective Jules Maigret and “Madame Maigret,” his wife Louise. Characters in four different series by Louisiana mystery writer O’Neil De Noux, himself both a former homicide detective and private investigator, have long-term relationships, including his 1940s-era private eye Lucien Caye, who started as a loner but becomes a family man. “It’s a lot of fun to write, mixing a sharp private eye with an equally sharp girlfriend and a precocious daughter,” De Noux told me of his Caye series. And, naturally, where would The Thin Man and its cinematic sequels have been without both Nick and Nora Charles?

In the end, from story to story and book to book, I haven’t ruled anything out when it comes to Andy Hayes and romance. He’s going to continue to carry a torch for Anne Cooper, his girlfriend over the course of the first three books—and the first woman he had a functional relationship with after a lifetime of bad boy behavior. He’ll still have a complicated, and occasionally romantic relationship, with Judge Laura Cooper. He’ll likely indulge in a fling or two, for better or worse—usually for worse. But most significantly, he’s going to place his relationship with his two sons and the demands of his job—hopefully in that order—above a monogamous coupling. Perhaps that certain someone is still out there for Andy. Or not. Only time, and maybe a few more chases down mean streets, will tell.

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