Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Sleuth....


One of the most important characters in any mystery novel is the sleuth. I've been thinking about sleuths since a close friend of mine and I were talking about what draws people to read mysteries. She said she finds the sleuth interesting. So do I. Sleuths matter.

What makes a good sleuth? Some people would say that the sleuth should be brilliant - several steps ahead of the other characters in the novel. That's the way Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes was. So was Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe. I find sleuths more interesting, though, if they're human. I have a lot of respect for a sleuth who takes the pieces of a puzzle and puts them together. My favorite sleuths are "normal" people who have the ability to take the clues they find and make sense of them. For instance, Laurien Berenson's sleuth Melanie Travis isn't superhuman. She's a wife, mother, teacher and breeder of Standard Poodles who makes connections and puts facts and people's comments and actions together to solve mysteries. Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn were like that, too. They were officers with the Navajo Tribal Police who were able to figure out patterns and make those all-important connections among clues.

Sleuths don't have to have superhuman powers, but they do need to be curious. Curiousity is, to me, one of the most important qualities for a sleuth to have; it's what pushes them to use their ability to notice patterns and make sense of clues. My sleuth, Joel Williams, is driven by his curiousity. In fact, it's almost a running joke between him and his wife, Laura. Other sleuths are the same way. Rita Mae Brown's sleuth, Mary Minor "Harry" Haristeen, gets into trouble quite often because she can't let things go; she gets curious. Lilian Jackson Braun's sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, is a really curious person too. The same could be said of Robin Cook's Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton. That combination of curiousity and tenacity keeps the sleuth on the trail, so to speak.

The best sleuths also have personalities. They aren't one-dimensional. They have lives aside from the sleuthing they do. My own Joel Williams is a college professor; he's got an interesting background, too. He used to be a detective, and after eighteen years on the force, chose the academic life. He's married, and has a dog. Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee was studying to be a Navajo holy man. He has a personal life, too. He's married, and his home life matters to him. Melanie Travis raises Standard Poodles and is heavily involved in the world of American Kennel Club dog shows. One little note about sleuths' personalities: it takes time to develop them. Many mystery authors, myself included, create series of novels that feature the same sleuth. I think that's the best way to let the reader know what the sleuth is like. A series of novels allows the sleuth to develop as a character - as a person. Every novel lets you get to know the sleuth a little better. That's one of the best things about Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy series: we follow along as "Harry" Haristeen develops through the years. We see her grow as a character and as a person. The same thing happens with Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum.

Because sleuths are people, they, like all people, are affected by their backgrounds. Jim Chee's Navajo background has a profound effect on him. So does Stephanie Plum's working-class New Jersey background. Robin Cook's Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton are both affected by their backround in medicine. They're also affected by their personal backgrounds. My own Joel Williams brings his police background into the classroom, and into his sleuthing. He has a blue-collar personal background, and that affects him, too.

We authors are sometimes asked where we get ideas for our sleuths. The answer to that depends on the author. Conan Doyle's inspiration for Sherlock Homes was said to be Dr. Joseph Bell, who had extraordinary powers of observation. In my case, the sleuth isn't inspired by one particular person. Joel Williams is his own person. You might say he's a compilation of people I've met through my years in higher education, but that's not entirely true, either. Certainly his role as a professor is the product of that experience, but it's probably more accurate to say that I thought about a person who might make an interesting sleuth, and it turned out to be Joel Williams. That's not a direct, clear answer to the question of how I came up with Williams, but it is accurate.

One of the things I asked myself about Williams was, would I like him? That, to me, raises an important question: Does a sleuth have to be likeable? Some people thought of Agatha Christie's Poirot as insufferable. Certainly he was eccentric. Agatha Christie's detective-novelist Ariadne Oliver hated her creation, Sven Hjerson. In fact, some people say that Ariadne Oliver was Agatha Christie's lampoon of herself, and Hjerson a lampoon of Poirot. If so, then she didn't much like Poirot. I like sleuths to be likeable. I want to have a connection of some kind with them. So when I created Williams, it was important to me that he be the kind of person whose company I could enjoy. I have to say, I do like him. I could enjoy a cup of coffee with him.

What about you? Who are your favorite sleuths? Why? What makes a sleuth interesting to you?

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