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?