The Sick Wife

….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 offscreen 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.


7 thoughts on “The Sick Wife

  1. One of the best Sick Wife characters is in Lawrence Sanders early (first) Edward X. Delaney mysteries, The First Deadly Sin. (Later made into a so-so movie with Frank Sinatra and Faye Dunaway.) I think the Sick Wife is often used to show the tough guy has a heart—a nearly broken heart–some vulnerability, some conflict.

    Yes, I’ve done the Sick Wife. I think she adds dimension to the Detective. Is it cheating for a writer? Yeah, maybe. Do readers notice? I’m not sure. The Sick Wife might be a cliche. Or is she an archetype now? Hm . . . .


    1. Nancy, I will have to read The First Deadly Sin.

      Now I am wondering about the difference between the Sick Wife who is married to the protagonist, so of course we want to see his full life and his spouse’s place in it. But what about the Sick Wife who is rarely seen and all we know about her is her illness?


  2. This is an excellent, thought provoking post, Ramona. And you were right, it applies to my protagonist in DDB. But, I think I have a bit of a different twist on it, which I can’t tell about right now — don’t want to give anything away. Just so you know, I am printing out this post to keep in my character notebook, because it has given me so much to think about and work with. This is one of your best ever!


  3. Terrific Blog, Ramona! I am going to risk a smack upside the head for this, but since I am not an author, (and I don’t watch L&O) the first character I thought of was Sue Sylvester on the TV show Glee. She is a total bitch, but then you find out she is devoted to a sister with Downs, and for a few moments, you see a beautiful person. I know it’s just TV, but I think the concept is the same, and if it is done well, I don’t mind.


    1. Kathy, do not fear, no smacks upside the head are allowed here.

      I’ve never seen Glee but I agree, the concept seems to be that we never know all that goes on in person’s private life, both on TV and in real life.


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