Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Baggage Claim

All of us have a history – a set of past experiences that affects our attitudes and our behavior. The same is true of characters in a well-written mystery. Well-rounded, believable characters also have pasts – they carry “baggage,” just as we do, and the ways in which they deal with that “baggage” can add interesting depth to a story. What’s just as interesting is the way in which that “baggage” affects the characters and the way they approach the mystery at the core of a good crime fiction novel.

Sometimes, “baggage” is at the center of a mystery. That’s the case in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain, in which Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of a retired Oxford don and his former scout. What’s really interesting in this novel is the murder of the scout, Ted Brooks. As Morse unravels that particular mystery, he finds that Brooks’ past – his “baggage” and that of his family – has everything to do with the murder.

“Baggage” is also at the center of Carol O’Connell’s Shell Game. As the novel begins, magician Oliver Tree is attempting a trick where he evades four crossbow shots. When the trick goes horribly wrong, Detective Sergeant Kathleen Mallory realizes the death wasn’t accidental, and begins to investigate. As it turns out, the murder of Oliver Tree is directly caused by “baggage” that he and four other magicians have carried since World War II.

We also see “baggage” from the past in Rita Mae Brown’s Pawing Through the Past, which centers on a twenty-year high school reunion. All of the invitees receive a cryptic note – You’ll never get old – which most pass off as a joke. When the class Lothario is murdered at the reunion and later, more murders occur, it’s clear that these deaths are the direct result of the murderer’s high school “baggage.”

Childhood experiences also figure heavily in Ellery Queen’s The King is Dead. In that novel, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, are summoned to a mysterious island run by tycoon, “King” Bendigo, who hires the Queens to find out who’s been sending him threatening letters. One night, Bendigo is shot to death while sealed in his private office (a classic “locked room” mystery, by the way). The Queens then investigate the murder, and find that it has its roots in Bendigo’s childhood. So Ellery Queen goes to Wrightsville (the scene of several other Queen mysteries, actually) and uncovers the connection between Bendigo’s early years and his murder.

It’s also very interesting when the sleuth has “baggage.” Past experiences – even past trauma – color the way the sleuth views crime and criminals, and can make him or her a deeper, certainly more interesting character. A clear example of this is the character of Lisbeth Salander, one of the sleuths in Stieg Larsson’s Milennium trilogy. She’s a computer wizard, social misfit and kickboxer whose traumatic past affects her relationships and her approach to sleuthing. That “baggage” also makes her a fascinating character.

The same is true of Jim Qwilleran, Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth. He’s a former Chicago news reporter who has survived a disastrous marriage, a long bout with alcoholism and a failed attempt at suicide. Especially in the earlier Cat Who… novels, the reader can really see the effects of Qwilleran’s past as he tries to fumble his way back from oblivion. Qwilleran’s past often gets in the way of forming close relationships and, especially, of getting married. Qwilleran also has a certain compassion for others; he’s been in the depths himself, and understands what depression is like. John D. McDonald’s Travis Mcgee is also affected by “baggage.” His brother committed suicide when he was swindled out of his money by two con artists. Although it’s never stated definitely, it’s easy to see how this could affect the kind of cases McGee accepts. He tends to take cases where clients have been bilked by unscrupulous people, and he seems as focused on getting revenge for the client as he is on solving the case.

Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear have also created interesting sleuths with “baggage.” Dr. Maureen Cole is a half-Seneca forensic Anthropologist. William “Dusty” Stewart is an archeologist. They work together in the Gears’ Anasazi series, and it’s easy to see how their pasts have deeply affected them. Cole lost her husband, John, to an early heart attack and battles alcoholism, and Stewart is all but an orphan; his mother drove his father to suicide and Stewart was raised by a family friend and noted archeologist, Dale Emerson Robertson. At first, since both Cole and Stewart are badly wounded psychologically, they don’t work well together. But as they get drawn into the mystery of a number of unexplained graves in the Chaco Canyon area, they slowly begin to heal. Their pasts deeply affect them and the way they relate to others, and this makes them compelling characters.

Another interesting character in the Anasazi series is Magpie “Maggie” Walking Hawk, a Park Service employee whose job is to see that the archeological dig on which Stewart and Cole are working is excavated within government regulations. She’s a member of the Pueblo nation, and has her own “baggage.” Her mother was killed by a drunk driver, and her traditional aunts and grandmother have worked to raise her in the traditional way. Yet Maggie feels the pull of 21st Century Western civilization, too. She is at once keenly aware of her native heritage and modern life. She’s also a clear example of how characters with “baggage” can add depth to a mystery.

Agatha Christie also created some interesting characters with “baggage.” For example, in The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet Dr. John Christow, a successful Harley Street doctor. He’s married to a frumpy wife, Gerda, who does whatever he asks. Yet he’s restless and unhappy. He’s haunted by a stormy, passionate relationship he had with Veronica Cray, a beautiful famous actress, and has never been able to move past their love affair. When he meets Cray again (after fifteen years) during a week-end in the country, he almost feels like a young man again – until he realizes she’s not the idealized woman he thought he loved. When she tries to rekindle their romance, he finally realizes he’s moved beyond her. The next day, he’s shot, and Cray becomes one of the suspects in his murder. Their relationship, and the way it affects Christow, adds an extra layer of interest in the novel.

The same thing happens in Christie’s And Then There Were None, in which ten people, all with the “baggage” of having been responsible for at least one other death, are marooned together on a bleak island (my review of And Then There Were None is here). On the first night, one of them dies, and the rest slowly realize that one of their number is a murderer, bent on killing the rest. One of the most compelling aspects of this novel is the way that each of the characters deals with his or her “baggage.” Some deny it, some are terrified by it, and some try to bravely pretend that it doesn’t matter. In the end, though, they all pay the price for what they’ve done.

Do you like characters (including sleuths) with “baggage?” Does “baggage” make the characters more realistic or too melodramatic?


  1. I like both sleuths and characters with "baggage". "Baggage" makes plotting interesting :). As for realistic or melodramatic: I don't like melodrama, in my opinion it's too theatrical and makes me uneasy and wanting to throw the book out the window. I'm interested in what makes people tick :). Give me a realistic "baggage-carrier" and you've got me hooked!

  2. Christine - You've got a good point. When a character has some "baggage," whether or not it's the sleuth, that character seems more real and more interesting. You're right, too, that melodrama isn't necessary for a good mystery. In fact, "baggage," like just about everything else, is a balance. Some "baggage" makes a character interesting and adds to the story. But when it crosses the line into melodrama, the story's no longer realistic. That takes away from the reader's enjoyment.

  3. I love baggage! And secret baggage that characters want to *keep* secret.

    I enjoy police procedurals where the policemen have baggage, but sometimes it gets a little cliched when it's the divorced cop who lost his wife because his job got in the way (and he drank too much) and now he has a hard time starting relationships. If it's done well, it's still entertaining, but I think authors have to find ways to keep baggage fresh and not make it too stereotypical.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - You are absolutely right that sometimes, "baggage" can get stereotypical. You gave one of the best examples, too - the "cop-whose-personal-life-is-ruined-because-of-the-job." That's why I think it's important for authors to really get to know their characters - what makes them "tick" - and create whole people. Then, the "baggage" those characters come with is more varied (since real people are), and isn't so cliched.

  5. A character with no 'baggage' is a one-dimensional cut-out. Very boring. On the other hand, a character with too much 'baggage' is just a pain. I think the best move for the author is middle-ground, where a character's background and personal history plays into their decision making but doesn't affect their every move. And please, please stay away from cliches. Not every member of the police force is a hard-drinking, hard-talking divorcee. Not every young lawyer is bright-eyed and idealistic; nor is every older lawyer bitter and blase.

    Give me characters with carry-on lugguge. Not traveling trunks.


  6. Elspeth - You put that so eloquently! "Give me characters with carry-on lugguge. Not traveling trunks." That precisely describes the balance between characters who are real and interesting (and therefore, have some "baggage", and characters who are so overburdened that they become tiresome.

    Thanks also for mentioning stereotyped "baggage." All of us are different. That means that not all police officers, lawyers, ambitious amateur sleuths or criminals have the same "baggage." "Cut-out" characters are not interesting.

  7. Yes, I am very keen on novels in which the events of the (relatively distant) past need to be uncovered before one can fully understand the present. A lot of Scandinavian fiction is replete with this, eg Johan Theorin, Arnaldur Indridason, Karin Altvegen, Stieg Larsson but very many more - all in their different ways of course. One book which explores these views rather effectively is The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. It achieves some of its "smoke and mirrors" effect by the old device of having the story being told by one character to another (for the bulk of the book), which allows a certain amount of identity confusion.

    I do like serials in which the main chraracter (detective/police or whoever) has an unknown, or gradually revealed, past, but to me this is less important than the "crime" or plot being buried in the past. I think it's more interesting to have the crime related to the past than the investigator. There are other ways of making investigators interesting.

  8. I like baggage. The trick is not carrying so much it weighs the story down.

  9. Maxine - You're right about Scandanavian fiction. It does seem focused on how events in the past play out in the present. "Baggage" is often a big part of those novels. Thanks also for reminding me of the The Thirteenth Tale. I must reread that one....

    You've raised such an interesting point, too, about the sleuth's "baggage." The focus of a good mystery is on the mystery itself - on the plot. If there's too much focus on the sleuth and his or her past, then it's easy to get distracted from what's supposed to be the main point of the novel.

    Patti - You put your finger on the whole key - balancing a novel so that there's enough "baggage" to be interesting, but not so much that it gets cumbersome. Not as easy to do as it sounds, but when it's done right, it can make for a nicely-textured novel.

  10. Like Maxine, I think it is most important with some heavy secrets which are related to the plot. With thrillers and private detectives the protagonist may be personally involved in the plot (like Salander), and then it makes sense to have them bogged down by private worries, but for police procedurals it can be too much and detract from the central plot.

  11. Dorte - You make a well-taken point. The plot should be the center of a good crime fiction novel, so "baggage" that characters may have should also relate to the plot. Otherwise, there are too many subplots and other distractors that make it hard to focus on the mystery that's at the core of the novel. That said, you're also right that when the sleuth's a part of the plot, his or her "baggage" is relevant, and wroth exploring. Sometimes it's hard to say exactly how much "baggage" is too much, but your "rule of thumb" - Is it relevant to the central plot? - makes a lot of sense.