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?