Saturday, October 3, 2009

Quirks and Kinks

I’ve been having some really interesting comment exchanges with Dorte at DJ's Krimiblog, Elspeth at It’s a Mystery and Elizabeth at Mystery Writing is Murder about characters. All of us seem to agree that even a fascinating mystery will likely fall flat if the characters aren’t well-written, so that readers can identify with them or at least find them interesting. Interesting, not-always-perfect characters add spice to a mystery novel, and they make readers care what happens to them. Perhaps no character adds more spice to a good mystery novel than the quirky, offbeat character.

Quirky characters may or may not be “regulars” in a series. Whether or not they appear in more than one novel, it’s their unique qualities that set them apart and make the stories in which they appear memorable. Agatha Christie had more than one quirky character in her novels. One of the oddest is Mr. Harley Quinn. Quinn seems to appear out of nowhere and then disappear just as mysteriously. He seems to be almost supernatural, and he’s often got clues to the mystery. For instance, in The Harlequin Tea Set, a short story that appears in The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories, Mr. Satterthwaite visits an old friend and his family. While he’s there, his friend suddenly dies. With Mr. Harley Quinn’s help (and some prodding!), Sattherthwaite solves the mystery of his friend’s mysterious death. Mr. Satterthwaite is actually an interesting, quirky character in his own right. He’s a nondescript gentleman, almost a throwback to the Victorian Era. He’s a bit of a social snob and has a passionate interest in people. He’s a looker-on at life, and that role suits him. In Murder in Three Acts (AKA Three-Act Tragedy), we find out that he’s had one failed attempt at romance. Since then, he’s remained single. Satterthwaite gives an interesting perspective on the other characters in the stories in which he appears.

Plenty of quirky characters appear in Ellery Queen’s mysteries, too. For instance, in The Origin of Evil, Ellery is investigating threats against the life of Roger Priam, a Hollywood business tycoon. While he’s on the case, he meets Crowe McGowan, Priam’s stepson. MacGown lives in a tree, wears no clothes and is convinced the world is about to end. He’s very eccentric, but he’s by no means stupid, He gives Queen helpful information and adds zest to the mystery. In The Four of Hearts, Queen meets Paula Paris, an agoraphobic Hollywood gossip columnist whom he visits for helpful background information on a case he’s investigating. He strikes up a relationship with her, and throughout the case, she gives him very valuable information and help without leaving her home. She’s eccentric, but likeable – at least Queen thinks so.

Some quirky characters appear in several novels in a series. For instance, Miranda Hogendobber is one of the eccentric characters in Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. She’s the widow of the former postmaster of Crozet, Virginia. After her husband’s death, she runs the post office until Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen takes over. Miranda is a very religiously observant woman who can quote the Bible as accurately as any scholar can. She’s warm and compassionate, helps “Harry” in more than one of her cases, and is the only one in town who doesn't think twice about standing up to Marilyn "Mim" Sanburne, Crozet's reigning social queen.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Mma Silvia Potokwane is the Director of a local orphanage. She is stubborn, bullying and never takes “no” for an answer. She is also compassionate and fiercely protective of the orphans who live under her care. She has strong insights into people’s characters, and Precious Ramotswe trusts her judgement.

One of the quirkiest characters in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series is Lulu, who works in Plum’s cousin Vinnie’s bail bond office. Lulu is a former prostitute who’s sassy, loud and wears outrageous clothes. She’s also smart, brave and willing to take on tough assignments – so long as there’s food involved. Lulu gets some of the funniest lines in the Plum series, and adds real zest to the novels. There are also a number of quirky characters in Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series, a series I’ve only recently discovered and begun enjoying. Most of the members of Lady Julia’s family are eccentric in some way or another. For instance, her sister, Lady Portia Bettiscombe, flouts convention. She lives openly with her female partner, is completely unafraid to share her opinions, and enjoys arranging other people’s lives. Even quirkier is Lady Julia’s Aunt Hermia, also known as The Ghoul. Aunt Hermia revels in family funerals and positively delights in mourning customs and conventions. She takes turns visiting the homes of family members in mourning, and stays until the next death sends her to another relative.

Sometimes, an entire mystery novel is filled with quirky characters. That’s how Robert Pollock’s Loophole is. In that novel, Mike Daniels, a professional London thief, hires three other crack thieves, as well as an architect and civil engineer, to break into a supposedly impregnable bank. As the novel progresses, we find out that all of the characters are a little quirky, which adds to the fun of this novel.

Quirky characters add spark and zest to a good mystery. When they add to the plot, and don’t detract from the mystery itself, they can keep the reader thoroughly engaged. I respect authors who create memorable quirky characters, and that’s something that I’m working on for my own Joel Williams series.

Who are your favorite quirky characters? What makes these characters so memorable for you?

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for these thoughts Margot. I agree with your about Mma Potkwane. The quirky characters make you think "what do they want now?" I think in the Michael Robotham's novels the policeman Ruiz fits this bill. I must keep my eye out more for the quirky ones!

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  2. Kerrie - I think you're right; Vincent Ruiz fits the bill as a quirky character. I find his half-Gypsy background and somewhat mysterious past interesting. I also like his almost-grumpy way of heading straight for the facts. Thanks for bringing him up.

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  3. Quirky characters are great fun, and usually inject a bit of comedy into the plot (always good in my opinion!). However, quirky can metamorphose into annoying if the character stays around for too long. Melrose Plant's Aunt Agatha is a wonderful example. She is hilarious in small doses, but a continual diet of Agatha would be dreadful. I love meeting these odd characters, but I don't want them as my continual traveling companions. Come along, be funny, perhaps make an apt observance or two; then go away. That way I'll always be eager to meet them again!

    Elspeth

    P.S. Thanks for mentioning me; I don't think I've ever been mentioned in someone's post before. I'm really quite chuffed.

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  4. Elspeth,
    You make an excellent point! Quirky is best in measured doses. Otherwise, it's too easy to lose track of the plot - the mystery - which, in my opinion, should be the focus of a good mystery novel. I would add, though, that there are some quirky characters whom I enjoy in larger doses than I do others. I thoroughly enjoy Mma Potokwane, for instance, and can read a good bit about her. On the other hand, as you say, Aunt Agatha is best in sips, not gulps. So is Stephanie Plum's Grandma Mazur, funny as she can be. Thanks for that observation. And by the way, I've really enjoyed discussing characters with you. You have a lot of interesting insights : ).

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  5. I love quirky characters in mysteries, too. I'd say Grandma Mazur in the Stephanie Plum mysteries is also a quirky character - she gives Lulu a good run for her money! And I guess there are different kinds of quirky; from a certain perspective, I think I might call Nero Wolfe quirky, but not the same type of quirky as Lulu or Grandma Mazur.

    I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Satterthwaite! The Harley Quinn stories are among my favourites.

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  6. Ms. Bookish - You are absolutely right; Grandma Mazur certainly counts as quirky. I think her hobby of finding funerals to attend is hilarious. It's funny you would mention Nero Wolfe, too. He certainly has idiosyncracies and quirks, as do some other famous sleuths.

    One of the best things about quirky characters is that they make the novels and series in which they appear unique. They set those novels apart from others. Certainly that's true of Nero Wolfe, Grandma Mazur and Mr. Satterthwaite : ).

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  7. The problem with quirky is that they either work really well for me as a reader or they fail miserably - there's no middle ground. Of the ones you mention I like Mme Ramotswe, but can't stand Lulu (or for that matter Grandma) in the Stephanie Plum novels and so won't read that series any longer.

    I do have my favourites though - Corinna Chapman is a baker/sleuth who hangs out with a strange collection of people in inner city Melbourne in Kerry Greenwood's Earthly Delights series - there's a white witch and a dominatrix and an ex-junkie and I love them all.

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  8. Yes, quirkiness is a matter of taste! I liked those quirky characters in the first few Janet Evanovitch series - laughed out loud a lot - but they and everything else about that series have long since palled and I don't read any more. Too much striving for humorous effect.
    Little Pocahontas in Harlan Coben's Myron Bolitar and a couple of other books is one I quite like - which is an achievement for the author as I have no interest in sports or that mud-wrestling or whatever it is she does. One reason why I think she works is that she is usually a very minor, even fleeting, character.
    Some detectives (protags) themselves are pretty quirky, eg Hakan Nesser's van veeteren, who is explosively irritable - as a way to reduce the tension of their jobs, the police team have a very upfront yet laconic dialogue which is pretty quirky and certainly not a bit politically correct!
    Perhaps the quirkiest books I've read recently are Len Tyler's "The Herring Seller's Apprentice" and the Siri Pangbourn (Coroner) books by Colin Cotterill. I enjoy those very much, they are a nice mix of the weird and witty (as well as well-plotted, always important in a crime novel!).

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  9. Great post! I love quirky characters in a mystery. I know that sometimes there's a danger that they'll steal the show, but they're so much fun. Anne George's mysteries are full of them. The 2 sleuth sisters are quirky enough, then pretty much ALL her suspects are funny oddballs, too.

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

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  10. My favourite is Catarella the Sicilian cop in the Montalbano novels of Andrea Camilleri whose malapropisms are a constant delight thanks to translator Stephen Sartarelli.

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  11. Bernadette - I know exactly what you mean. There really is no middle-of-the-road with most quirky characters, because they have such distinctive qualities. Thanks for introducing me to Kerry Greenwood; I'm not familiar with the Earthly Delights series, but it sounds intriguing.

    Maxine - It's funny you would mention what's happened to the Stephanie Plum series; I think you must be psychic, because keeping a series fresh (or not doing so) is going to be the topic of another post of mine! You're right, too, that detectives can be quirky; in fact, if it's done well, that adds to their appeal. You also make an interesting point about Little Pocahontas: quirky characters often work best if they appear in little doses and dashes. Unless the author's particular skill is creating offbeat characters, it's best if they serve as seasoning, so to speak, rather than as a main dish : ).

    Elizabeth - Thanks for reminding me of Anne George : ); she does, indeed, have some really interesting quirky characters, and her sleuths, Mary Alice and Patricia Anne, are oddballs, too, in their way. What I like about that series is the way the sisters' personalities compelement one another; they're a funny pair : ).

    Uriah - I'm a linguist, so I, too, am drawn to well-written malapropisms and other linguistic touches. That's one thing I like about Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse - he loves language. Malapropisms and good translations plus all those lovely food descriptions are really making me want to give Camilleri's novels a try! :)

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  12. Right now, I´ll have to name Lisbeth Salander :D
    And apart from all the fine examples in your post and the comments, I´d like to add Elizabeth´s protagonist, Myrtle Clover, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies. In my opinion some cozy series are a bit bland, but Myrtle really makes that book stand out, because she is such a stubborn individual.

    Thank you so much for featuring my blog, by the way.

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  13. Dorte - First, it's a pleasure to feature your blog; it's creative and interesting, and I enjoy it very much. I also enjoy Lisbeth Salander, and as I've said, I am *very* eager to get my copy of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest . Lisbeth is striking, and I'm glad you mentioned her. She's unusual without being too bizarre, and she is compelling - I'd even say magnetic.

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  14. I think Norm/Uriah's nomination of Caterelli is spot-on - he's fantastic, and a great example of a quirky sympathy between author and translator!

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