I’ve got your back: longterm relationships in genre

beckett and castle back to back

Last Sunday, Steven Popkes talked about rewatching three old films. Briefly, he discusses how, viewed as an adult, the Thin Man films and His Girl Friday hold up, while the famous It Happened That Night, starring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, doesn’t.

It brought to mind something I hadn’t been aware of: though as a kid I’d watched the Gable/Colbert film when it was syndicated, I hadn’t sought it out again for rewatching—though I’ve enjoyed a number of other Claudette Colbert films as an adult.

But the other two, yes. Especially the Thin Man films—and Steven is right. Aside from the witty writing, at the center is the relationship.

Which brings me back to film and television. Judging by how very few films and shows feature married couples with a good relationship, their makers seem to assume that tight and complex buddy relationships are all right, but no hero or heroine is interesting if married or committed. These relationships aren’t entertaining, so a lot of high emotion has to be manufactured, and what is higher than “first time” encounters? We get endless meet-cutes, arguments and breakups, ending with moving in/wedding bells/sleeping together as denouement. But what about those of us who feel the real story is just beginning?

There is a large audience for manufactured angst, just as there is for sports movies, horror, and any number of other tropes. No quarrel with them.


But this assumption that relationships aren’t interesting, that I can’t get behind. One of the recent TV shows I enjoyed most was Castle, especially the seasons after Rick Castle, the highly successful thriller writer, and Kate Beckett, the homicide detective, got together. Those two back to back, fighting evil while trying to work with trust and anxiety about the other’s safety, was far, far more interesting than quarreling all the time.

To my disgust, it just got cancelled after eight good years.

At least the makers stuck a few seconds of a good future onto what was obviously meant to be yet another cliffhanger season ending. (Another thing I hate. But one hate at a time!) The best episodes, by far, were those in which they were striving to understand one another and to compromise as well as deal with roller coaster emotions, while also dealing with the outside threat. They didn’t bicker endlessly, they communicated, and then dealt with the result of that communication.

I loved watching the evolution of their relationship, the icing on the cake being Castle’s relationship with his mother and daughter. (One of my favorites of all time was the one in which the daughter gets kidnapped, usually a storyline I’m tired of, but driving this episode beneath the hair-raising action was a story about the strength of love.)

nick and nora

Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn were admirable in various films, though each storyline was separate. The Thin Man films were comedic detective episodes that featured a married couple over the series.

These had a highly stylized structure—most of them ended with all the suspects gathered in a room as Nick delineated the clues that reveal the killer in a big surprise moment. Okay, many times you can guess ahead, but the pleasure wasn’t in the mystery, it was in how Nick and Nora Charles handled mysteries as a married couple.

nick and nora threesome

During the action, the writers often steered the couple toward the standard drama-causing moments—Nora walks in while a platinum blond floozy is hanging on Nick, Nick enters while a slick gangster is moving in on Nora—but then the wit would kick in, turning away from standard bickering, jealousy, and accusation.

Either Nick or Nora would cleverly evade the trap, often with a witty exchange—but underneath the fast quips was the sense that these two knew each other well, that their relationship was based on trust. As well as a sense of humor as dry as Nick’s endless supply of Martinis.

zoe and walsh

Back to TV series, Zoe and Wash from Firefly come to mind—and Tara and Willow from Buffy—but in both cases, Joss Whedon was at the helm, and he can’t seem to avoid flogging the dramameter with sudden death, rather than letting us have the pleasure of seeing these couples’ relationships evolve as they deal with their crazy lives.

In books, one of my favorite married couples of all times is Aral Vorkosigan and Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan.

cordelia's honor

Watching the two of them get together was a pleasure—they were enemies, trying to survive on a hostile planet—but their relationship really blossoms as they deal with civil war, their house being attacked, their son nearly destroyed (and surviving to become severely handicapped physically), then protecting and guiding said son as well as a young emperor.

Even when the focus of the series shifts to Miles, Aral and Cordelia are still vital parts of the long story, as they are part of Miles’ life.

lee miller local custom

Another set of books that features couples is the Liaden novels  by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller. Over the course of these, we see the development of an entire clan, with all kinds of interrelationships, generational included.

And if you want an enduring relationship that includes a heavy dose of fire and flair, Alec Campion, Duke of Tremontaine, and Richard St. Viers, introduced in Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint;  we don’t see the enduringness of the relationship until a generation later in The Privilege of the Sword,  but what we do see is poignant in all ways.


How about you? Any working relationships you favor in genre books and TV?



I’ve got your back: longterm relationships in genre — 79 Comments

  1. There was one TV show in the 1970s, a detective show featuring a husband-and-wife team, but now I can’t think of the name. (Husband supplied it: Hart to Hart.) I recall enjoying it in an uncritical, teenage way. I don’t know what it would seem like if I looked at it now.

    We just finished watching all but the last season of Fringe. (The last season is a sudden, lurching change in story type that we just couldn’t bring ourselves to complete.) The center of the show was in some respects the mad scientist character played by John Noble (Denethor in The Return of the King film), but there was also a young attractive female FBI agent and the young attractive son of the scientist, and they slowly, over the course of the show, became deeply committed to each other. The series played with timelines and alternate universes, so various episodes and episode arcs imagined different levels of future relationship for them, but even in their most estranged periods, they remained sensitive to each other and strove to communicate, and I really appreciated that. The whole show was really good at showing people trying to communicate and work through the consequences of bad decisions.

      • There are gross, squicky things in each episode, yes, and especially in the pilot, and those things might get in the way of your enjoying it. I just leave the room for those parts.

        The John Noble character is so enthusiastic about his discoveries, amidst the blood and squick, that it **almost** makes me not mind those parts.

        There’s also a surprising amount of gentleness, though, and almost no casual violence: the horror comes from contagion/disease fears, and from fears of medicine/doctors/needles

  2. One of my favorite writers of longterm relationships is ljs on LJ and AO3, who does very wonderful fics of Giles and Anya and various other couples, including a very magical pair of her own, the Stones. But her writing reminds me of a couple of other mystery pairs. Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey actually don’t get far beyond the honeymoon (at least not in Sayers canon) but they do have the supportive, witty relationship that seems like a long-lasting pairing. I thought that Tommy Lynley and Helen Clyde, in Elizabeth George’s mysteries, were headed that way, but evidently George decided that a good marriage lacked drama–she’s also let the friendship with Simon drift away and is now focusing on the extremely single Havers (whom I love, but still wish the marriage had stayed in the books).

    But sadly, real life is the same. It’s much happier to live in all the middle days of a good relationship that lasts and grows, but it’s easier to tell stories about beginnings and endings.

    • Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. — J.R.R. Tolkien

      I note that The Bell at Sealey Head has a good working couple — who are never the point of view characters, and the tale keeps much about them secret for a long time.

      • Yeah, but not likely. Sayers introduced Harriet because she had resolved to marry him off and be done with him. Then she found she had an aesthetic problem of how to make their marrying plausible. Having succeeded, it’s not surprising she didn’t linger.

  3. Don’t be disgusted at the cancellation of Castle. Eight years is a good run for a TV series, and I stopped watching Castle some time ago because they ran out of plausible plot ideas, though the relationships are still good.

    I prefer ensembles to one-on-one friendships, but in general yes: I like stories in which, while there may certainly be some friction, in general the protagonists get along, watch each other’s backs, and each bring their own skills to the table. The antagonist relationship is between them as a group and whatever they’re battling in the outside world.

    Great examples? The Fellowship of the Ring is spoiled by what happens to Boromir, but otherwise they’re a fine one. I’m especially caught by the band of rabbits in Watership Down. Yes, they’re all male, a huge implausibility for rabbits, but they’re actually the author’s WW2 troop. I agree with your frustration with Joss Whedon’s predictable insistence on torpedoing everything, which is why I most like Firefly, which was cancelled before he could screw it up. Note that the frictions within that group are just enough to give it spice without turning them into a band of quarrelers like, for instance, most superhero groups are.

    • You might enjoy The Cloak Society trilogy by Jeramey Kraatz even though the ensemble is built over the course of the three books.

      • Adams’ memoir, The Day Gone By – a wonderful book – specifies that Hazel is his paratroop commanding officer, for whose ability to lead without being bossy Adams had the profoundest respect. He also identifies Bigwig as one of his fellow officers, and the troop in general inspired the rabbit band.
        Also, the Dr. Adams who helps the little girl rescue Hazel at the end? That’s the author’s father, who was an old-time country doctor of exactly that description.

  4. The detective – police genre is particularly good at these.Brit tv provides terrific female-female got your back duos. At the moment I’m particularly thinking of Scott & Bailey.

    In print, I really admire Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers pairing, in which it’s all about their professional relationship, which over time the respect and shared experiences has made warmer — but NOT romantic. They even lose liking and respect for each other on occasion, and their relationship flounders and almost disappears. That’s is so cool, and so few writers can resist the pull of centuries since Courtly Love and the marriage plot to turn every relationship into sex, if not love and marriage.

    I haven’t seen the last season(s?) of Elementary but that’s a great deal of why the series began to engage me — it was about the development of Watson as a sleuth and their friendship, and wasn’t going to turn into that other very dull and tiresome thing that is so dull and tiresome because centuries of it, and thus lazy writing of character and plot.

    • I do think that friendships are more easily done, and we have more examples of them. Interesting that as soon as a closer relationship is introduced, there is a tendency to stray into cliche territory.

      • Cagney and Lacey. There’s been speculation (can’t remember where I read this) that the series creators envisioned a very different relationship between the two, but it wouldn’t have flown at the time. It would be interesting to see if they’d have the courage if the series was to be produced today.

        Now that would be some ground-breaking television!

  5. I’ve been reading an urban fantasy series lately where those involved in a complicated relationship (let’s just say it’s a three-way to keep it simple) work together to fight evil forces. Good relationships all the way around. I like it better than most urban fantasy’s that include much relationship angst.

    I can think of more TV shows and movies with good relationships working together (Hart to Hart and Spy Kids, to name one of each) than novels I’ve read, I think.

  6. Well, Sandy Mitchell’s Ciaiphas Cain has Amberly Vail. The thing is, a number of his adventures predate their meeting, and the nature of their jobs means that his subsequent adventures do not always include her. The only certainty is that because it’s presented as excerpts from his private writings as edited by her that she will be commenting in footnotes.

  7. Holmes and Russell in the Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell books. They’re uneven–and there’s not much romance in them (a plus in my book) but over the course of the series Laurie King works out ways in which these two irritable, breathtakingly intelligent people come to care for each other, first as mentor and mentee, and then as equals. I’m particularly pleased by the rare occasions when Holmes’s genuine love for his wife breaks through his usual rather sardonic manner. They not only have each other’s backs, each knows when to let the other take a risk (even if it drives them nuts).

  8. I really loved Eureka, the tv show. One season they took a look at the effect of time travel on the travelers, and their relationships, in depth that I’ve never seen anywhere else. It was kind of heartbreaking, but beautifully done.

  9. I like the Holmes and Russell books a lot. Some of them are better than others, but in general they do a good job of balancing the marriage and the mystery elements.

    Deborah Crombie writes a procedural mystery series set in Britain featuring a couple. They started as investigative partners but fell in love and got married, which of course meant they could they could no longer work together. So they’ve had to deal with changes in their careers as well as the problems created by blending two families and being married to someone who regularly puts themselves in harm’s way. I don’t read as many procedurals as I used to, but I keep coming this one because of excellent way the author develops both the mysteries and their personal lives as a couple.

  10. I’ll pipe in with, “Outlander”, a 7 volume (so far) story of the 30+ year (so far) marriage of Claire, a 20th century English woman, & Jaime, an 18th century Scotsman. There are also 2 seasons on Starz network & Amazon Prime.
    Claire & Jaime certainly have each other’s backs. Thier relatives, offspring, neighbors, & lively adventures spanning 18th century Scottish highlands, Paris, sailing ships, pirates, the American colonies are beautifully researched & engaging.
    I have loved knowing these fictional characters & seeing thier marriage grow & deepen through the decades. Yes, sextagenarian hot sex. Love it!

    • I didn’t care for all the rape and flogging in the first book (seemed like Lymond fanfic focusing on all the elements of those books I liked least) but it sounds like they got better!

      • I thought so (& I’ve read them all 3X).
        Gabaldon is pretty strong on the drama & adventure.

  11. Then, there is Winston Graham’s, “Poldark”, series. Season one is streaming on Amazon Prime & there are 12 books in the series to read.
    The story of Ross & Demelza’s marriage takes place in Cornwall, 1783 to about 1820 (not sure, I’m reading the last book now).
    This is also a wonderfully researched period piece & also brings to life the rhythms & surroundings & life of Cornwall.
    Demelza & Ross weather social class disparity, financial ups & downs, the effects of the French Revolution & the Napoleanic era on Britain, the nascence of steam power, infidelities, & 5 children.
    Loving this did ecology (?) & hating for it to end…

  12. What you have said here resonates completely. Elizabeth and Henry in Madam Secretary are also of this relationship type, and Monroe and Rosalie’s long-term relationship in Grimm is pretty much the redeeming feature of the show for me at this point.

  13. My series The Wolf Riders of Keldarra features a long term relationship between the two protagonists, and although close to the completion of book 2, I can’t tell how it it’s going to end for them, the notion of “I’ve got your back” is already present in the story. I hope to be able to come back on the completion of the series to see the “yes it’s one of those I’ve got your back” relations in the book. (ticks the two boxes at the bottom purposely).

    Personally I love watching television series and reading book series where there’s a long term relationship, but in terms of when created my own series I wanted a relationship to evolve in it that people could relate to one way or another…

  14. I love a good relationship in books or series, but I have a problem with the Thin Man series. So much of it is good, but a lot of it, to me, revolved around his trying to keep her out of the mysteries by locking her in a closet or otherwise tricking her, and in one he starts to spank her. The first one is pretty good and you can excuse his trying to protect her since they are newlyweds and she hasn’t been involved before, but it became very deliberate after that and ruined the rest for me.

    • You are right. In that sense it is very dated–but it was still ahead of its time in that she gave as good as she got, and ended up part of the mysteries. I don’t recommend it for depth of relationship, only that there WAS one! (And I liked the onscreen chemistry between them)

  15. A lot of mystery series have collaborative friendships. I like them best when the detective is not some kind of super being, and there is parity with the intelligence and talents, so that they complement each other.

  16. The tv series “Bones” has run for over 10 years and continues to be excellent, although the main couple have been married for several years and have children together. Their relationship continues to develop, & there’s lots of lovely snark & repartee. I adore the ensemble aspect, especially where lots of very different women are friends & talk to each other & drive plots & everything.

  17. There is an old Swedish series on police work, by authors Sjöwall and Wahlöö (a couple also in life, until Per Wahlöö’s untimely death); you can search for the main investigator, Martin Beck, or for the common subtitle of the series, “novel about a crime”. The series covers ten books in as many years, and while no relationship is central, a number are seen as developing, becoming important, and in some cases terminating.
    I have no idea how good the English translation is. The original has a very quiet style with interesting undertones.

  18. Laurie B. King’s Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes mysteries begin with the courtship, but continue long after they’re married (but never settled). I find them uneven, but even the not-so-good ones are fun.

      • The first two or three are the best. The second one, A Monstrous Regiment of Women, is the best. The plots aren’t as tight as they could be–she’s more interested in theology and philosophy (and Mary & Holmes’s relationship) than in classic mystery plots. But they sure have that what a long-term marriage (between two odd ducks) looks like thing down pat.

  19. I like Willie Garvin and Modesty Blaise. They weren’t married, but they were a long term, loving, trusting partnership.

    • I was thinking of them, but as more of the friendship model, which is easier to find–though we don’t have as many with one of each gender. But they are a great partnership.

      • Agree with your Aral and Cordelia assessment. Miles and Ekaterin seem to be following in their footsteps. Modesty and Willie are a perfect example of opposite gender frienship pairing. Despite the age of the books I think their partnership remains fresh. All I could think of was Alias Smith & Jones and Starsky and Hutch. My psi-tech universe novels feature Ben and Cara who get together at the end of the first book and remain a solid couple through the second one… and I’m just writing the third one now. No I’m not going to split them up, though they may spend a little time travelling in opposite directions.

  20. Check out Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They start off as bright young married things (in the twenties) trying to get a private investigation firm started (Partners in Crime), go through WW2 as spies (N or M?) and fetch up as a retired couple in Postern of Fate, circa early seventies. (I actually hesitate to recommend this last, since it was the final novel that Christie wrote and I understand she was beginning to suffer from what we would know as Alzheimer’s, so it isn’t quite as well done as some of her earlier stuff. But the relationship is still right there.) There was also a British TV series made from Partners in Crime (that’s the title to look under, anyhow) from the seventies or eighties starring Francesca Annis and James Warwick, and though I have not seen it since, I remember liking it at the time.

  21. I’m somewhat hesitant to mention these in this august company, but the “In Death” SF procedurals by J.D. Robb have numerous strong, ongoing relationships. J D Robb is a pseudonym for Nora Roberts who’s been a bestselling romance author for decades, so perhaps a focus on relationships shouldn’t be surprising. The central romance begins in the first book, Naked in Death – she’s a homicide detective in 2050’s NYC, he’s a gazillionaire playboy criminal (?) that she interviews in the course of a homicide investigation. Basically it’s love at first sight … and how they deal with it. Over the course of 30+ books we watch their relationship grow and evolve, and other couples come on scene – some arrive on scene as established couples. Others we get to watch develop.
    Even when the mystery plot is uneven I find these books compellingly readable – “popcorn books”. I can’t think of any other series that I’ve actually stuck with for this many books…
    Trigger warning: often the crime plot is a sexual homicide. Plots and backstories involve child abuse.

    • I’m very fond of these. I will say that Roarke strikes some people as too overbearing. He mellows somewhat during the series. If you find him hard to take early on, try “Divided in Death” as a later-in-series book that still makes a reasonable on-ramp.

  22. Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories is a 5-book series following a couple that meet and marry in the first book, and then work together making magical illusion art and having adventures. Good reads.

    • I agree with this one. I love the way Jane and her husband inspire each other. The second one was a bit angsty as they worked out issues of trust and information sharing. The one in Venice was angsty but they always stand by each other no matter what.

      I also second the Amelia Peabody mysteries. I love her although I find her too sanctimonious at times (she’s a Victorian British woman and though an unconventional one, she is influenced by the cultural norms of her society).

      My most favorite literary couple is Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe. It takes a lot to get them together and they have a wonderful relationship. (Ignore that one chapter in Anne of Ingleside… better yet, ignore the whole book). He is able to laugh with Anne about her schemes and scrapes and never ever tries to make her into a boring, conventional Edwardian wife. Gilbert, as portrayed by Jonathan Crombie in the miniseries, was my first crush!

      Another favorite couple is Venetia and Damarel from Georgette Heyer’s Venetia. Some don’t like the “boys will be boys” attitude but that was common at the time and I don’t think he is likely to continue being the Wicked Baron when he has Venetia.

      I also adore Nick and Nora. The dialogue is witty and Myrna Loy and William Powell’s chemistry was amazing. I found it hard to believe they were not a couple in real life. The first two movies are the best and funniest. The censors got ahold of the rest an ruined them.

      I know there are others but it’s late and I can’t think right now.

  23. There was a Canadian series in the 1980s called Seeing Things, starring Louis Del Grande (of Scanners fame) and Martha Gibson. He played a journalist who solved mysteries with the aid of visions; she played his estranged wife who still helped him out. In spite of their unorthodox and sometimes antagonistic relationship they were reconciled by the end of the series. It was a fun show.

    The two actors were married to each other in real life, had divorced and then remarried before they starred together in the series. I guess that’s how they managed to make the characters work so well.

  24. They aren’t read much nowadays, but Ngaio Marsh’s Roderick Alleyn mysteries from the 1930s and 40s have a really strong relationship between gentleman police detective Alleyn and his wife, the famous artist Troy whom he meets in “Artists in Crime.” The relationship is somewhat understated which fits in with the times, but is obviously devoted. The mysteries often start with Troy doing something on her own and encountering a crime, and her detective-inspector husband being called in to solve it. They often involve artists or the theater (Marsh was a theater director in her native New Zealand) and are excellent, solid mysteries.

  25. Later in the Vorkosogan series, Bujold gives Miles Vorkosigan his own LTR, starting with Komarr, where they meet, and continuing through A Civilian Campaign and Diplomatic Immunity. Miles’ wife, Ekaterin, had a wonderful arc of growth and change over these 3 books, and they develop a strong partnership.

    Dag and Fawn, in her Sharing Knife series, are another terrific LTR, negotiating their culture clash but always supporting each other. Bujold is one of the best when it comes to writing marriages that work.

  26. Another great long-term love story over many books: Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco and his love, Helena Justina. Set in the times of the Emperor Vespasian and his immediate successors, but very much in the modern “hard-boiled detective” mode! They meet, of course, when Falco is investigating a murder: Helena Justina’s former husband. Davis is an excellent scholar: Helena (a Senator’s daughter) and Falco (son of a dealer in fake antiquities) offer opportunities for a wide social spread, from the Emperor’s household to the street people in the wrong-side-of-Rome where Falco’s digs are. The stories follow Falco from Rome to Britain, to towns on the Rhine, in Spain, Greece, Egypt and the Levant. Theirs is a durable love, but I won’t spoil the pleasure you’ll have in following them through rough times, children (both natural and adopted), in-laws and other obstacles — not to mention too many murdered bodies to count!