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Love stories: Tainted Love

Posted on 12th February 2016 by Ruth Ware
Ruth Ware, author of In a Dark Dark Wood, explores some of fiction's darker loves.

When I was growing up, my aunt had an embroidered sampler hanging above fire. It showed a coyly simpering young man sauntering through some flowers, and bore the text:

In the spring a young man's fancy, lightly turns to thoughts of love…

It's almost spring now, and this week being Valentine's day, I am sure a lot of our thoughts have lightly turned to love, but for a crime writer, it's a mere hop skip and a jump to the next logical step: murder. Because, as we all know, love and hate are two sides of the same coin.

It's something Tennyson, author of the verse on the sampler, knew well, as it's only a line or two later that the narrator of the poem reveals that the girl he loved deserted him, and he wishes he had killed her rather than let her go: “Better thou wert dead before me, tho' I slew thee with my hand!”

For some reason that's not a line you see on samplers very often.

To celebrate the season, here are a few of my favourite books dealing with tainted love – thrillers that focus on the moment where the coin flips, and obsessive adoration turns to darkest hatred.

For fifty shades of love-gone-bad, you can't do better than Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier's masterful study in unhealthy relationships of all shapes and sizes, running the gamut from creepy to murderous. From Maxim's brutalistic wooing of the narrator “I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool,” to the shadow cast over the house by Maxim's unhappy marriage to his dead wife Rebecca, to the obsessive adoration of the creepy Mrs Danvers, which survives even Rebecca's death to continue wreaking havoc on her successor, it's pretty much an advert for single life. Even the kind-of-happy ending, where most of the ghosts have been laid to rest, leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Has our narrator been subjected to the ultimate gaslighting?

Gone Girl, by Gilian Flynn is a similarly bleak look at the marital state. What starts off as a fairly simple set up, of a man coming home to find his wife disappeared, quickly descends into a nightmare game of cat and mouse as Flynn peels back layers of a supposedly perfect marriage to reveal the litany of ways this couple have screwed each other up. Almost from the first page we know that there's something not quite right with Nick, our narrator and husband to the missing Amy, as he reveals in a casual aside to the reader, “It was my fifth lie to the police. I was just getting started.”

It turns out Flynn is just getting started too, and events unravel a whole lot further before Nick's lies come home to roost, and we discover how bad things can really get when you've lost that loving feeling.

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights isn't a crime novel or a thriller, but I'm going to put it in here anyway, because after all, crime writers don't have a monopoly on screwed up relationships. Here it's very hard to tell whether what's being presented is the romance of the century, or a textbook case of unhealthy obsession, filtered as the novel is through several layers of different narrators, each with their own agenda. For all the chemistry between Cathy and Heathcliff, she tries to break free from what is surely a doomed relationship by marrying another man, the gentle and aristocratic Linton who is the polar opposite of Heathcliff in every way. Surprise, surprise, the marriage is not a success, probably not helped by Heathcliff who reacts by marrying Linton's sister and violently abusing her. As you do. At the end (spoiler!) everyone is reunited in death.

Finally, classic crime isn't big on passion, preferring the more genteel motivations of money or perhaps blackmail, if you're pushing the boat out. Where love does appear, it's more often as a noble motivating force – as with A Study in Scarlet for example, where the Jefferson Hope is seeking revenge for the death of his love, Lucy. However when you've written as many novels as Agatha Christie, it's not surprising that at least one of them should feature an unhealthy romance, and in Endless Night she presents not one, but two screwed up relationships. What begins as insta-love romance, when heiress Ellie falls for the penniless working class Michael, quickly descends into a nightmare of paranoia, and eventually Ellie's death in a fall from her horse. But like Flynn, Christie is only just getting started, and the true chilliness of her plot is yet to unfold…

As for my own book about love gone cold, In a Dark, Dark Wood? Well, I’m not going to spoil my own plot, so you’ll just have to read it. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a sampler to embroider.

Happy Valentine's everyone!

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