A Crime Writer Looks at Love

Love and CrimeVicki here on Valentine’s Day, letting myself count some of the ways that love and crime connect.

Let’s start with crimes of passion. I have to confess a certain fascination with murders committed in jealous fits of rage or heartbreak. Maybe it’s because my mother used to sing the classic “he done her wrong” song, “Frankie & Johnny,” and the lyrics got under my skin:

Frankie and Johnny were sweethearts/Lordy, how they could love/They vowed to love one another/Underneath the stars above.

There are many, many versions of this traditional American folk song, but the story is essentially the same. Frankie comes home to find her lover Johnny (in some renditions he’s called Albert) cheating on her so she shoots him with her forty-four. “He was her man, but he done her wrong,” goes the refrain. According to my extensive on-line research (i.e., Wikipedia) the song was inspired by one or two actual murders. The most likely took place in 1899 in St. Louis, Missouri, when twenty-two year old Frankie Baker shot her seventeen-year-old lover Allen (also known as “Albert”) Britt in the abdomen. Britt had just returned from a local dance hall, where he and another woman, Nelly Bly (also known as “Alice Pryor”), had been slow-dancing.  Britt died a few days later while Baker, who claimed she acted in self-defense, was aquitted.

Judging by the number of recordings of this song (at least 256, and by musicians as diverse as Leadbelly, Dylan, Johnny Cash, Lena Horne, Stevie Wonder and Lindsay Lohan) to the number of films and plays it has inspired, the crime of passion theme as portrayed in this song of jilted love really resonates.

In books, I think of Scott Turow’s classic Presumed Innocent (although one could argue whether that murder was premeditated or not.) Dame Agatha uses passionate love as a motive for murder again and again (my favorite’s gotta be Death on the Nile.)

Obsessive love brings two books immediately to mind Misery, by Maine’s own Stephen King, and Wuthering Heights. I know, I know — While Wuthering Heights isn’t crime fiction, so why bring it up in a crime writer’s blog? Because it’s Valentine’s Day and it’s hard to beat it for a story about bleak, undying, tempestuous, obsessive love.

Crime novels can also make love the bond between a criminal pair (a.k.a. Bonnie & Clyde) or between a crime-fighting pair, such as our own Julia’s books featuring Russ Van Alstyne and Clare Fergusson, or Dorothy Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. In my own books, a love affair is blossoming between my main character, Darby Farr, and her investigative journalist boyfriend, Miles Porter. Not yet sure where it will take them, but that is half the fun.

I’m closing with what is in my opinion one of the most beautiful expressions of love ever written. Technically it doesn’t fit the scope of this blog, but it seems to me that on this day dedicated to love, it would be a crime not to include it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

How do I love thee?/Let me count the ways./I love thee to the depth and breadth and height/My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight/For the ends of Being and ideal Grace./I love thee to the level of everyday’s/Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight./I love thee freely, as men might strive for Right;/I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise./I love thee with the passion put to use/In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith./I love thee with a love I seemed to lose/With my lost saints,–I love thee with the breath,     Smiles, tears, of all my life!–and, if God choose,/I shall but love thee better after death.

by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, from Sonnets from the Portugese


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