Sunday, September 27, 2009

Black, White and Gray

There are certain kinds of stereotypical characters in the classic "murder triangle." There's the Innocent Victim, the "Bad-Guy" Murderer and the "Good Guy" Sleuth. The sleuth saves the day by finding the murderer, and therefore, gets justice for the victim. That scenario is cathartic in a way; after all, readers of murder mysteries want to know who the murderer is, and more than one mystery novel has been called "unsatisfying" because the the murderer doesn't pay the price for being "evil."

The fact is, though, that life isn't really that black and white. Neither are good mystery stories. For one thing, the victim isn't always innocent. In Colin Dexter's The Daughters of Cain, for instance, the victim is Dr. Felix McClure, a retired Oxford don. As Inspector Morse investigates the case, he finds that the victim, far from being an "injured innocent," has an unsavory past that involves a custodian, his estranged stepdaughter, a schoolteacher and a housewife. In Caroline Graham's Death of a Hollow Man, we also see an example of a victim who certainly isn't at the mercy of an "Evil Murderer." In that novel, Inspector Tom Barnaby investigates the murder of Esslyn Carmichael, a Shakespearean actor with a napoleonic ego and a list of enemies. Again, he's hardly the "injured innocent." In my own Publish or Perish, the victim, Nick Merrill, isn't evil. He is, however, far from perfect. He's having affairs with two different women. And yet, he also has some likeable qualities. He's smart, he works hard and he has a sense of professional ethics.

Agatha Christie has offered more than one victim who, it would seem, is better off dead. Two of the most despicable victims are murdered in Murder on the Orient Express and Appointment with Death. In both of those cases, more than one suspect tells Poirot that justice has been served with the death of the victim. In those cases, the victim has made the lives of others unbearable. It's easy to be glad the vicim is dead in those novels, and we almost don't want Poirot to find the murderer.

Just as victims in good mysteries aren't always innocent, murderers are not always "bad guys." Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret, for instance, often has a great deal of compassion for the murderer, and in many mystery novels, the murderer turns out to be a sympathetic character. As an example, in Lilian Jackson Braun's The Cat Who Went Underground, the murderer turns out to be quite sympathetic. As Jim Qwilleran uncovers the forces that drive the murderer to strike, we feel pity for that character. We see the same thing in Agatha Christie's One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (AKA The Patriotic Murders). In that novel, Poirot is quite reluctant to reveal the murderer even though, as Christie fans know, he does not approve of murder. In that case, it's because of his underlying sense that the murderer is basically a good person. In Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot's sympathy for the murderer causes him to make an unusual decision (a decision that's actually referred to again in Appointment with Death, as one of the suspects compares the victim in that novel to the victim in Murder on the Orient Express).

Just as murderers aren't always "bad guys," well-written sleuth characters are often not perfect. While they are "on the side of the angels," they have flaws, too. For instance, Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse drinks too much, can be very harsh, and is very often impatient. Dicey Deere's Torrey Tunet commits a breaking-and-entering crime in The Irish Village Murder. Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone has a past that includes drug use and two failed marriages. There are many other examples, of course. In fact, although I must confess that I disagree with this, Dorothy Sayers was criticized for making her Lord Peter Wimsey "too good."

In the end, while it is satisfying when "bad guys get theirs," and the sleuth reveals the murderer, it's even more satisfying when there's more to a mystery novel than that. Crime and mystery fiction readers know that real, authentic characters have many sides, not all of them positive (or negative). That's what makes a good mystery novel so memorable. We can identify with the characters, and put ourselves in their positions.

What do you think? Who are your favorite "flawed sleuths?" Who are your favorite "not-so-innocent" victims? Without including spoilers, who are your favorite "not so bad" murderers?


  1. I adore Inspector Morse; even more when he was portrayed by the wonderful John Thaw. I have written mysteries where the victim was so evil that audiences would wonder why he/she hadn't been bumped off years ago! Although this technique works well for murder nights, I find it unsatisfactory in books. In my WIP the victim and the murderer are both very human; each with their good and their not-so-good aspects. I find the grey areas of human behaviour far more interesting than plain black or white. After all, none of us are angels; but none of us are pure evil either.


  2. Elspeth - I agree with you 100%. We are none of us pure good or evil. It's more realistic, more interesting and more engaging when the characters in a mystery have more dimensions than that. I look forward to reading your WIP when it's done.

  3. Like you, I am very willing to forgive Lord Peter for being near-perfect, and I don´t think it is only because I had a crush on him when I was seventeen. The conventions were different at that time, and characters were just more black or white than today. But as you know from my review of Louise Penny´s series, I think it is a flaw in a modern series if characters are less than human.

  4. Dorte - That's a very well-taken point! Today's conventions are quite different, and major characters are certainly more "gray" than they were. Like you, I happen to like that about modern crime fiction, which is why I agree with you that I hope that Penny makes her Gamache a little more "human" as the series goes on.