Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Personal Touch

The main point of any crime novel is, of course, the crime. Readers read crime fiction because they want to find out what the crime was, who committed it and why it was committed. The crime, then, should be the center of any crime novel.

That being said, there's also an important place in a mystery/crime novel for the personal touch - for being able to see the characters as fully rounded people. I've mentioned this before in a general sense, but today, I'm going to focus on the sleuth as a fully-rounded charcter. Sleuths should, I think, have personal lives. They should act like people. That way, the reader can identify with them, or at least feel that they know those characters.

For example, I feel that I know Joan Smith's sleuth, Loretta Lawson. She's an academic, a feminist, and an ex-wife. She has friends (including her best friend, Bridget). She goes grocery shopping, and sometimes, on dates. Knowing her helps me to identify with her, and to be interested in what happens in her life - including the mysteries she solves.

James Patterson's Alex Cross is also a real person. We know about the tragedies in his personal life; his wife was murdered and he's raising his two children alone. We also know his professional background: he's a psychologist, formerly in private practice, and now is a liaison with the FBI and the Washington, D. C. police. Since we know Alex Cross as a person and a professional, we are more interested in him. We care about him. We want him to succeed.

We know something of the personal lives of Agatha Christie's two most famous sleuths, too. Miss Jane Marple, who has never married, went to a finishing school in Europe. She has no children of her own, but her nephew, Raymond West, is mentioned in several novels. She has a live-in companion, Cherry Baker, in some of the later Marple novels, and she enjoys knitting and gardening. Hercule Poirot is a Belgian, wounded during World War I. He, too, has never married, although he has a real attraction to Countess Vera Rossakoff, a flamboyent and accomplished jewel thief. He also has a sweet tooth. He is almost obssessed with neatness and is meticulous in his personal habits. He prefers square to round shapes. He has a very English valet, George, and a frighteningly efficient secretary, Miss Felicity Lemon. Knowing these things about Poirot makes him more real to us. We're just simply more interested. Of course Christie wrote novels around other sleuths, too. For instance, in The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfield, a young orphan whose father's death has left her in near poverty. We learn that she's been educated mostly by her professor father and that, since she has no siblings, she's alone in the world. Again, those little details make Anne real to us.

Carolyn Graham's Inspector Tom Barnaby is a real person, too. He's been married to Joyce for years, although he doesn't like her cooking. They have an adult daughter, Cully, who is the apple of Barnaby's eye, and who can usually get him to do anything she wants. I like the way Graham lets us see some of Barnaby's home life. I've tried to incorporate that in my own writing.

In my own Joel Williams series, I like the reader to see Williams as a real person. He's got blue-collar roots, although he's now a professor. He's happily married to Laura Williams, an Assistant District Attorney and has a mutt named Oscar. He isn't always comfortable with people who've been in academia most of their lives, since he didn't come to the field until after he'd been in the Tilton, PA, police force for eighteen years. He enjoys microbrewed beer and reads the paper every day. Those are the kinds of details, I think, that make a reader feel as though the sleuth is a real person. Those personal touches add a richness to a mystery novel that don't have to take away from its central point.

What do you think? Do you like to know a lot about the sleuth? How important are those personal touches to you?


  1. I think that's why I enjoy both Ruth Rendell's Wexford series, and Donna Leon's Brunetti series so much - both detectives feel so real - reading a new title is like getting together with an old friend. I should include Precious Ramotswe in that list too,

  2. Oh, I agree 100%, Kerrie. I'm friends with Chief Inspector Wexford and with Precious Ramotswe, too, so it really is like "catching up" with a good friend when a new book comes out. I would add Jim Qwilleran, and I do like him, but I've gotten quite disappointed in the series. I've just met Guido Brunetti, but I'm sure I'll come to like him just as much. Thanks for your comment.