Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Sick Wife

By Ramona DeFelice Long

Originally posted April 18, 2010
At: ramonadef.wordpress.com

….wherein I wonder about the various, and maybe convenient, illnesses the poor spouses of cops develop in mystery novels, and how it’s all the fault of Benjamin Bratt.

After 16 years on the job, S. Epatha Merkerson is leaving Law & Order. I hadn’t watched L&O in a while, but after hearing that announcement, I tuned in. I lucked into an episode with a guest appearance by Benjamin Bratt. Lt. Anita Van Buren and Detective Rey Curtis, together again. It was like a Law & Order, Old Home Week spinoff.

But it was not a happy reunion. Anita, I learned, is retiring because she has cancer. And she and Rey reconnected at the funeral of Debra, Rey’s wife.

I remember when Debra was diagnosed with MS. It was a Big Deal. Back in the day, L&O didn’t truck with personal info about the cop and lawyer characters. We saw the cops on the street and the lawyers in the courtroom. Double-divorced Lenny sometimes quipped a one-liner about marriage if the body in the opening scene happened to be an unfortunate husband, and he sometimes snarked about Mike Logan’s revolving-door love life. That pretty much covered the warm and fuzzy stuff. There was law and there was order and that’s all that could be crammed into a one-hour time slot.

Until Rey Curtis came along. Suddenly, woven into the weekly dead body story was Rey’s personal life. His strict Catholic upbringing. His three little children. His afternoon tryst that nearly wrecked his marriage. Debra’s illness. The pressure of home life impacting him at work.

Suddenly, it was Law & Order & Family Problems.

I don’t personally know any police wives, but I’m sure it’s a tough gig. Constant worry. Crazy schedule. In mystery novels, it’s not any better. In fact, it might be worse than reality. I haven’t done a formal study on this so I can’t quote fun stuff like percentages, but as a reader, I’ve encountered an amazingly high number of sick cop wives. Wives with MS, debilitating arthritis, post-partum depression, bipolar disorder, to name a few. I’m not making light of these illnesses; just the opposite. In real life, the wives of cops become ill just like anyone else. What’s different, and what I’m wondering about, is how and why the Sick Wife is used as a plot device.

Consider this. You may recognize it from a cozy or two out there. Our protagonist repeatedly hooks up with the same detective because she keeps stumbling over bodies and he, usually much to his early annoyance, has to work the case with her. They keep getting thrown together. They kinda hate each other and kinda like each other. If they’re both single, all’s fair and then we have the plot device called the Cop Boyfriend. Which is another blog.

But what if the cop is married?

As readers, we might want some romantic tension in the story, but we don’t want our cozy characters to be cheaters, do we? I mean, our nice protagonist really shouldn’t be looking at a married guy, and he shouldn’t be looking back. But, if they are both honorable and true, well that’s no good, because there’s no conflict. We want conflict. But we want to continue to respect them. But we want them to get together. But…

Wait! What if there are extenuating circumstances. Such as, what if the cop’s wife is sick? He can’t leave her, because of that “in sickness and in health” thing, plus deserting a Sick Wife is scummy. But maybe her illness makes her unable to … you know … or maybe their marriage is over emotionally but he can’t leave … and he really wants the protagonist and she really wants him, but they must stay apart because they both refuse to dishonor the Sick Wife.

So now we have longing, longing, longing and angst, angst, angst and unrequited lust (or maybe requited, which they both feel terrible about, but come on, it’s been ages because his wife is Sick). And before where there were barriers to their ability to stay nice people while falling in love, they can be in love and be totally conflicted about it. Which is what we want. Yay! Conflict! And all it took was a deadly disease as a plot device.

Or, is that callous? Okay, how about this:

How about a Sick Wife who populates a story to show vulnerability in a traditionally stoic character? Think of the cop who is tough, strong, brave and true, but when his wife gets sick, it takes him out at the knees. He shows up on the job every day, as he has the last X number of years, but now he’s got his wife’s doctors’ appointments, and his kids need him home at night, and so maybe he’s distracted or loses his temper or makes a little mistake or misses a clue here and there. Which is all terrible to wish upon a good cop, but hey, look how it drives the plot forward. And we get a glimpse of the human being behind the gun. He may be stone cold on the job, but we see him touched and worried over someone he loves.

And, again, is that callous? Is giving a character who is usually off-screen a terrible illness to muddy the waters a little too convenient? Sure, in real life, cops’ wives get sick, but is it a fair plot device?

What do you think? Have you written a Sick Wife? Do you care? Are you old school Law & Order where you want your cops to leave their personal issues back home where they belong? Or are you the post-Rey Curtis type, who wants to see how trouble at home impacts the detective on the job?

Tell me about it.

Ramona DeFelice Long writes fiction and non-fiction for children and adults and everyone in between. She works as an independent editor, specializing in mystery novels and short stories, and teaches workshops on all aspects of writing. Ramona is a member of Sisters in Crime, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, the Delaware Literary Connection, the Hillendale Farm Critique Group and is an honorary member of The Written Remains writing group.


Nancy Martin said...

Yeah, the Sick Wife is a cliche. I've done it myself because . . . it works. It's writer shorthand--a way of emotional instilling conflict ASAP, of putting the reader squarely in a character's corner. Lazy writing? Yeah, okay, maybe so. My bad.

I think there's a difference between a cliche and a universal plot element. Sick Wife is . . . . probably a cliche.

I'm glad we're elevating the discussion of craft. I just wish I wasn't in the wrong by using Sick Wife!

Polly said...

I'm beginning to wonder what isn't cliche and how much is accepted by agents and editors because it's safe. And, yes, cliche. Let's not forget that not all people read the same books. So what's cliche to one reader may not be to another. As for L&O, I liked it when they touched on the characters' backgrounds. It made the show more human. Life doesn't stay out of the job. Maybe it should, but it doesn't. Great post, Ramona.

Ramona said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Nancy and Polly.

The odd thing is, with Law & Order, the injection of Rey's personal life was a sea change for the series. In mysteries--cozies, in particular--readers want character backstory and personal life details.

Is the Sick Wife a cliche, or a tried and true plot device? Jury still out?

E. B. Davis said...

I had to laugh because I've read all of those books with THE SICK WIFE (catchy title, yes?). The scenario creates tension, angst, etc., just as you described. But, it has been overdone and a new cliche must be created.

How about the female detective who is unhappily married and suddenly realizes that she is gay? What about the police dog who falls in love with the protagonist's dog, throwing the detective and the protagonist together?

Hey-this is fun. Thanks Ramona!

Nancy Martin said...

I think there's a difference between a cliche and a universal archetype---a writerly device so big and understandable that everybody knows what it means. (The Mentor in the big myth-based plotting, for ex.) It's how the individual writer handles the archetype--making it unique--that elevates it above a cliche.

Over the weekend, for example, my husband and I finally got around to seeing Avatar--a movie that obviously got a lot of praise, but I kept thinking; "No, that line comes from Field of Dreams. That line comes from Star Wars." The whole story felt average, but the visual details were breathtaking. Much like the movie Independence Day that even had the guts to re-write Henry 5's St. Crispin's Day Speech--it didn't feel as though there was much of anything new. By contrast, we saw a Harry Potter movie the following night, and although many of the same mechanical plot devices were put to use, the Harry Potter story had so much more depth of character, so many more clever ideas (the magic shop where Harry & friends poke around was a wonderful glimpse into fertile imaginations) that the story even felt more fresh. But when Sigourney Weaver dies in Avatar, my husband and I said; "There goes Dumbledore!"

Roberta Isleib said...

Interesting post Ramoma. I have definitely used the sick wife in my advice column mysteries and am horrified to hear it's considered a cliche! Don't you think it partly depends on how well the characters are developed? If the scenario is used just to provide instant conflict for the cop and the amateur sleuth, I can see the cliche. But suppose the cop (my Detective Jack Meigs) has been blindsided by his wife's illness and is yearning to return to a normal family--whatever that meant, it sure looks good now. And suppose the sleuth (Dr. Rebecca Butterman) represents the healthy, spunky woman he once had.

I hoped the resulting sparks rang true...