Friday, November 13, 2009

Rooted and Uprooted

We all have roots somewhere. Sometimes, we maintain close ties with our roots throughout life. Other times, of course, life takes us far away from our roots. Either way, though, our roots color our perceptions and assumptions. That’s what makes them so interesting when it comes to crime fiction. Background and roots affect the sleuth’s judgment and make her or him either “one of us” or “a fish out of water.” Either result can make for a fascinating level of interest in a mystery novel, and can add texture to the plot. The same is true for the other major characters.

In some mystery novels and series, the sleuth is part of the local community – “one of us.” Those deep roots give the sleuth a valuable perspective on the community, the other characters in the novel, and on the mystery. For example, M.C. Beaton’s Hamish Macbeth is the local constable for the Scottish town of Lochdubh. He grew up there, he lives in the local police station, and he knows everyone in town. It’s obvious in the Macbeth books, too, that he loves his hometown. That attachment to Lochdubh, along with Macbeth’s deep knowledge of the town and its characters, is frequently useful as he investigates. For instance, in Death of a Maid, Macbeth wins the cleaning services of Mavis Gillespie, a local maid, in a lottery. He’s not happy with her to begin with, and when he finds out she’s stolen a private letter of his, he decides to fire her. By that time, though, Mrs. Gillespie has already been murdered. Macbeth soon finds that nearly everyone in town had a motive; it turns out that Mrs. Gillespie used what she found out about her customers’ private lives to blackmail many of them. In the end, Macbeth’s local knowledge, as well as the fact that he’s accepted as “one of us,” helps him to get important information and clues that are crucial to figuing out who murdered Mavis Gillespie.

Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is also deeply rooted in her small community of St. Mary Mead. She knows everyone in town, and everyone knows her. In fact, it’s that long, intimate association with the village of St. Mary Mead that’s given Miss Marple her “education” in human nature. She frequently draws parallels between the events of a mystery she’s solving and people she’s known in St. Mary Mead. When murder strikes close to home, as it does in The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple uses her knowledge of the people in town to help her solve the case. In that novel, the despised Colonel Protheroe is murdered in the local vicar’s study. When Inspector Slack is sent to investigate, he finds that Protheroe had made more than one enemy in the village. In the end, Miss Marple’s keen mind and intimate knowledge of the residents of St. Mary Mead help to solve the mystery.

Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Rita Mae Brown’s sleuth, is also deeply rooted. She and the other major characters in Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series live in Crozet, a small town in Virginia. “Harry’s” lived in Crozet nearly all of her life, and, since her ancestors were among the first European settlers in Virginia, she’s considered a membjer of one of the “First Families of Virginia.” “Harry” knows just about everyone in town, and her status as “one of us” makes her privy to a great deal of “inside information.” So does her role in many of the Mrs. Murphy novels as Crozet’s postmistress. In Wish You Were Here, for instance, a wealthy paving contractor and a storeowner are both murdered in gruesome ways. Before each death, the victim receives a postcard with a picture of a tombstone or a cemetary. Each postcard says only Wish You Were Here. The postcards turn out to be very important clues to which only “Harry” has access at first. In the end, they, together with a small mistake the killer makes, help “Harry” to find the murderer.

Sleuths with roots in the community can also give the reader a great deal of perspective on that community. For example, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti lives and works in Venice, his home town. He knows the city very well and therefore, is able to show the reader much more than the “touristy” surface of the city. Brunetti’s intimate knowledge of the city, its infrastructure and its cold, brutal realities gives the reader a fascinating look at real life in Venice.

It can also add a real layer of interest to a mystery novel if the victim has deep roots in a community. Those roots are often connected with the murder, so finding out what that background is can be central to the plot. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Mary Gerrard, who’s the protégée of wealthy Laura Welman. Mary’s the lodgekeeper’s daughter and she’s lived in Maidensford all her life. As Poirot investigates her death, he finds that Mary’s roots in the community have everything to do with her death.

Of course, it can be just as intriguing if the sleuth or a major character is a stranger – a “fish out of water.” When a sleuth is an “outsider,” he or she gets a much less biased view of a community. That objectivity can give the sleuth a more accurate picture of the suspects, because he or she isn’t hampered by the tendency to think, “Oh, I’ve known _____ for years; ____ would never do a thing like that!” Sleuths who aren’t deeply “rooted” also give the reader an unbiased portrait of a community, and show that community for what it is – warts and all, so to speak. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is such a sleuth. He’s a Belgian, and despite years living in England, has retained his Belgian identity. He is distinctly and determinedly un-English. That identity allows him to hold a mirror up to his adopted country. It also allows him to be unbaised. In fact, one of Poirot’s mantras is that he suspects everyone. Sometimes, even, it’s Poirot’s very foreign-ness that leads other characters to unburden themselves to him. It’s as though what they say to him “doesn’t count” because he’s not English.

Ellery Queen is another example of a sleuth who’s (at least occasionally) a “fish out of water.” In two sets of novels, he travels away from his native New York and gets caught up in mysteries that take place elsewhere. In Calamity Town, Ten Days Wonder, and The King is Dead, it’s the small town of Wrightsville. In those novels, Queen’s status as an “outsider” lets him see the town (and show it) for what it is: a small, provincial town, deeply divided along class lines. That very objectivity helps him solve the murder mysteries in which he gets embroiled. Since he’s no respecter of privileged position, Queen has no qualms about suspecting even the wealthiest and most influential citizens of Wrightsville; he’s therefore able to get to the truth behind the murders. In The Devil to Pay and The Four of Hearts, Queen visits Hollywood. In both of those novels, he hobnobs with the wealthy and powerful in the film world. Since he has no real stake in the outcome of the murders he investigates, though, Queen can remain objective. He doesn’t get caught up in the glamor, and he’s certainly not impressed with the displays of wealth he sees. In fact, he’s not very happy at all in Hollywood, and that in itself adds an interesting depth to the novels.

When the sleuth is an “outsider,” it’s also interesting to see how he or she adjusts to a new and different community. That discomfort can add depth to the sleuth’s character and make him or her more human. For instance, in several Christie novels, it’s mentioned that Hercule Poirot isn’t fond of afternoon tea, an English institution. On those occasions when he does have tea, Christie makes his distaste for it clear, and that makes Poirot all the more interesting and human. The same is true when the reader finds out how annoying Ellery Queen finds the small-town atmosphere of Wrightsville. He’s accustomed to New York City, and he wouldn’t be human if he adjusted to being in a small town with no difficulties.

Sometimes, it’s not the sleuth, but the victim who’s an oustider. That fact can add an interesting twist to a story, and make the victim’s character more intriguing. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, a young woman who works for a secretarial agency arrives at the home of a woman she thinks is a client. When she follows the instructions she’s been given and walks into the house, she finds a dead man on the floor of the woman’s home. The dead man turns out to be a complete stranger to the neighborhood. In fact, another character says of him that “he came there to be killed.” Finding out who the man is and how he’s come to be in that house adds a very interesting subplot to the novel, and complicates the main plot in an intellectually challenging way.

What do you think? Do you prefer stories where the sleuth and/or the victim is “one of us?” Do you prefer the sleuth and/or the victim to be “an outsider?” Does it make a difference?


  1. I don't have a preference. If the sleuth is "one of us" then he/she is coming into the puzzle several steps ahead of a stranger; which can be useful. On the other hand being "one of us" means he/she is approaching each suspect with long-held opinions of each of their personalities; which could be a hinderance.

    A "fish out of water" is going to come up against anyone's natural distrust of strangers. On the other hand, their views are less prejudiced and he/she may note something or some behaviour that a long-time acquaintance might dismiss.

    My reluctant detective is a bit of both. He knows many of the suspects, but he isn't English. However, he sounds English having been educated at Cambridge. My poor man really could be called a "fish out of water"; he's a Venetian who left Venice when Mussolini built the road connecting it to the mainland!


  2. Elsepth - Your detective sounds really interesting!! He sounds mulitlayered and compelling. I'm sure your book's terrific, and I look forward to reading it. You've outlined really well, too, the advantages and drawbacks to being "one of us" and to being an "outsider." The beauty of crime fiction is that both work, and we can read wonderful examples of each.

  3. I like both! It's fun to have insider knowledge--I LOVE Hamish. But it's also fun to have Scotland Yard come in on a local policeman's patch...makes for interesting personal conflict.

    Great post as usual, Margot!

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - Thanks :) You have a really well-taken point: it can be really interesting and add a solid layer of conflict to a story when an "outsider" gets involved in a local case. As you know, that's what frequently happens to Hamish Macbeth when Chief Inspector Blair investigates. It's even more interesting, as you say, when Scotland Yard (or the FBI, or some other faraway authority)investigates. Jim Chee goes through that more than once in Tony Hillerman's novels. Thanks for bringing it up : ).

  5. I like both too, but I do think it makes a difference. Poirot is more of an outsider than Marple and this is one reason why the mood of the two series is not identical. Ann Cleeves' Jimmy Perez is a Shetlander through and through, and the books benefit from that. I've written one series where my hero was a local, and another where one of the two main protagonists is an outsider - the idea being to give contrasting perspectives on the locale.

  6. Martin - You are absolutely right; the differences between Miss Marple and Poirot (in terms of being "insiders") does make a difference in the "feel" of the series. Witnesses, suspects and other characters react to them differently. I agree with you about Cleeves' Perez, too - one gets a real feel for the area and the locals because Perez is one of them.

    I must confess I haven't read your Harry Devlin novels, yet, but if your Lake District series is any indication, I know I will enjoy them, and I look forward to seeing how you give those different views of the local areas. You certainly do an outstanding job in the LD series.