Saturday, October 10, 2009

Extraordinary Moments in Ordinary Lives

Many mystery and crime novels are exciting because the characters in them are exciting. Sometimes, they’re spies (John Le Carré’s George Smiley novels are an example of this). Other times, the sleuths are in law enforcement or they’re private detectives, so they deal with crime on a regular basis. Many of the “hardboiled” detective novels such as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer novels and John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee novels are examples of this kind of novel. They get their suspense and excitement from the kinds of people that populate them. Spies, crime lords and international criminals are exciting characters, and we read about them because they intrigue us. But the reality is, most of us don’t live like that. We live much more ordinary lives. Most of us identify much more with ordinary characters that get into extraordinary situations… like murder.

Sometimes, all of the characters in a novel are what one might call ordinary. It’s just that one of them has been driven to murder by extraordinary circumstances. That’s what happens in Laurien Berenson’s Melanie Travis mysteries, which take place in and around Greenwich, Connecticut. In those mysteries, the characters (including the sleuth, Melanie Travis) are not spies. They’re not major crime kingpins. They do laundry, go to the grocery store and attend their children’s play practices. We identify with these characters because they live the kinds of lives many of us do. So when murder strikes, it’s doubly shocking. In these novels, the reader gets involved because it’s easy to ask, “What would I do if this happened to me?” Even the sleuth is ordinary, which, in a way, adds to her appeal. Sometimes she gets involved in a crime against her will. She balances investigating crime with going to work, making sure her son gets to practice and does his homework, and spending time with friends and family. The attraction of this kind of mystery novel is that the reader empathizes with the characters, sometimes even with the murderer.

What can be even more suspenseful is a novel in which an ordinary character is drawn into a web of murder and intrigue. Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train is an example of this kind of novel. In that novel, Katherine Grey, who’s lived a perfectly ordinary life as a paid companion for the last ten years, suddenly inherits a fortune when the woman she’s been working for dies. When she decides to use some of the money for a trip to the Riviera on the Blue Train, she gets caught up in a murder plot that involves jewels, an exotic dancer and an international criminal known only as the Marquis. It also involves Hercule Poirot, a fellow passenger on the Blue Train. In fact, Poirot refers to this mystery as his and Katherine’s own roman policier. As Katherine mixes with wealthy Riviera relatives, juggles two admirers and somehow, still keeps her sanity, we identify with her. She’s a perfectly normal, everyday character who’s been thrust into extraordinary circumstances. As an aside, here’s an interesting fact: Katherine Grey and Miss Marple both live in St. Mary Mead; yet, they never meet in any of Christie’s work.

We can also identify with Stafford Nye, the diplomat who’s the protagonist of Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt. He’s a low-level diplomat who’s led a fairly ordinary life until the day he is approached in an airport by a strange young woman who begs him to let her use his diplomatic passport. He agrees and before he knows it, he’s swept up in an adventure full of international intrigue, danger, and a plot for world domination. He gets mixed up with spies and ends up having to match wits with a power-crazed countess. We care about Nye because we empathize with his bewilderment at the things that are happening to him. We understand his craving for things to make sense.

For the same reason, it’s easy to care about Professor Arnold Wechsler in John Alexander Graham’s The Involvement of Arnold Wechsler. Wechsler is a classics professor at Hewes College, who wants to cause as little trouble as possible and be involved as little as possible in campus politics. He’s drawn into them dramatically and very much against his will when he’s called to the office of the president of the college for an urgent meeting. At the meeting, the president tells Wechsler that Wechsler’s brother David, a leader of a radical student group, is in the area and may be involved in criminal activity. Then, the president asks Wechsler to contact his brother and do what he can to persuade David to leave the area and end his involvement with the group. At first, Wechsler protests; he and David have a complicated relationship. When the president insists, Wechsler agrees reluctantly and promptly gets involved in a bizarre web of student protest groups, campus politics, a kidnapping, and the bombing of the president’s home. What’s particularly interesting about this novel is that it’s told from Wechsler’s point of view. That choice of point of view heightens the feeling of an ordinary, everyday person caught up in an extraordinary situation.

The real attraction of mystery novels with such ordinary, everyday characters is that they strike close to home. We get involved in these novels because the characters are so much like us.

Of course, not every thing is as it seems, especially in a murder mystery. In some mystery novels, the characters seem ordinary, and in that sense, we identify with them. Beneath the surface, though, they aren’t ordinary. Many of Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby novels fall into this category. In The Killings at Badger’s Drift, for instance, Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy are called to the village of Badger’s Drift when it’s discovered that the death of elderly spinster Emily Simpson was not a heart attack, as was originally thought, but was from hemlock poisoning. As Barnaby and Troy investigate her death, more murders occur, and soon they find that the people in this supposedly idyllic town have secret lives that aren’t so ordinary. The same is true of several Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels. In those stories, Morse frequently finds that the supposedly ordinary people he meets as part of his investigation actually have many secrets to hide.

One final note: the title of today’s post is the title of a song by The Hooters, a Philadelphia, PA band.

What’s your view? Do you prefer spy thrillers? “Ordinary folks” mysteries? Who are your favorite “ordinary” characters?


  1. Again, an immensely enjoyable read that hits the spot Margot. I suspect I would love to be in your lectures!

  2. I endorse Kerrie's comment. I always very much enjoy reading your thoughtful, stimulating and engaging posts, Margot. I am sorry I don't always comment, but this is because yours are the kinds of post that require a bit of time and thought to comment - which is really great, but I don't always have the time.

    However, today I will have a go at mentioning Liza Marklund. In some ways her character of Annika is not "ordinary" in that extraordinary things happen to her as she is a journalist and so follows dramatic events as part of her job. She's also had some drama in her personal life.

    But these books appeal to me strongly for "ordinary" reasons. One is that Annika's story is a domestic one - over the series of books she meets her partner, has two children, and has to struggle with issues of returning to work, childcare, being late to the nursery to pick up the children because of some crime crisis, etc. She and her partner always have to fit in taking the children to nursery as part of their daily routine. I really like the way that the plot has to fit around all these worries that we all have - as well as Annika's constant neurosis about work vs being a "good mother", etc. All very realistic and I for one strongly identified with her dilemmas in my rather mundane life.

    Another novelist whom I think fits in "ordinary" life very well into the plots is Helene Tursten, in her novels "Inspector Huss", "The Torso" and "The Glass Devil" - though these novels are more upbeat on the domestic front than Liza Marklund's, and Helene's husband is more ideal (idealised?!) at the domestic side, one still gets the sense of a woman juggling everything, while solving crimes!

  3. Kerrie - Thanks so much for your kind words : ). Wow! I'm not sure my poor, hapless victims - er, students - would agree with you ; ), but thank you.

    Maxine - Thanks to you, too, for being so kind. Also thanks for mentioning Liza Marklund. You're absolutely right that Annika is an everyday person in many ways. It's easy to identify with her challenges and her character is very authentic, isn't it? I'm less familiar with Turston's work, although I've read bits and heard good things about it. Thanks for bringing her up; time to give her a serious try : )

  4. I think I like to read both kinds of books--featuring "normal" people (like in Harlan Coben's standalones, for instance) and bigger-than-life people (Jack Reacher or Jason Bourne).

    When I write, however, I seem to gravitate toward plain-guys-with-major-problems protagonists.

  5. Alan - I know what you mean; my own Joel Williams mysteries feature "regular folks," too. I feel most comfortable writing about "normal" (if there is such a thing) people with, as you say, problems.

    And thanks for bringing up Harlan Coben's work; it's a great example of everyday people in not-so-everyday circumstances.

  6. I agree, Alan - I agree that one of the appeals of books by Lee Child, Harlan Coben, Michael Connelly etc is that the protag "seems" like an ordinary guy - thinks like one, for sure, even if they have superhuman skills like Reacher. Not so sure one could apply the "ordinary guy" moniker to Joe Pike in Robert Crais's novels (you can to Elvis Cole) - but even Joe got his previously secret backstory told in a relatively recent novel and as a result, he's become a bit more ordinary and a bit less iconic (not too ordinary, I hope, he's rather an attractively mysterious figure!).

    I haven't kept up with Janet Evanovitch, but until about book 10, when I read them, Ranger was like this. Everyone else in the books was pretty ordinary (maybe very eccentric, mad, "larger than life", etc, but basically people one can imagine meeting or (heaven forbid) having as a neigbour). Ranger, no.

  7. The theme of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances is the theme of many great novels of many different genres. For all that readers like to escape their own realities and reach into worlds of deep intrigue or high-risk escapades they also like to identify with characters. Not too many people are going to identify with James Bond (*pausing for a moment as a vision of Pierce Brosnan appears before my eyes*) but they are going to identify with a regular guy who suddenly finds himself caught up in events seemingly beyond his control.

    It is when this occurs that an ordinary person can demonstrate extraordinary abilities; be it bravery, morality or intelligence. It gives the plot a greater measure of reality for the reader and thus, resonates at a deeper level.


  8. Elspeth - Thanks for that wonderful image of Pierce Brosnan *pause to wipe up drool on keyboard* :). You have such a well-taken point! Most readers really do like to identify with the characters in a story of any kind, mystery or not. So when a "regular" person gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances, it's easier for readers to really care about what happens. That's the secret of a good story of any genre.

    You also have a good point about the way that "ordinary" people can rise to extraordinary heights. That really does add depth to a plot, and can lead to a really satisfyiing novel.