If you’re kind enough to read Confessions of a Mystery Novelist regularly, you’ll notice that I focus quite a lot of attention on the sleuth in crime fiction. That’s because the sleuth is very often at the center of a story or series. That’s why it’s so important that the sleuth be an interesting character whom we can believe and who’s appealing at some level. Some sleuths, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley, Jo Nesbø’s Harry Hole and (I hope) my own Joel Williams are appealing because they’re good guys. They’re likable, decent human beings. There are many, many other examples of this kind of sleuth. Other sleuths, though, get their appeal because they’re unusual sleuths. They’re not your ordinary, everyday detective. Some special talent or quirk they have, or something else about them makes these sleuths, well, different. It’s often that difference that engages the reader, just as anyone else who’s a bit odd can be appealing because of that eccentricity. These sleuths sometimes turn detection on its head :).
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a very eccentric person. He certainly has some personal qualities, but it would be hard to call him a friendly, likable guy. His appeal comes from his extraordinary powers of deduction and his keen observation. He has very odd habits; for instance, he doesn’t keep anything like “normal” hours, he doesn’t socialize, and (except for Irene Adler) he shows no interest in women (or men, for the matter of that). Yet, he’s compelling. He’s often many logical steps ahead of everyone else, and he’s fiercely determined to “get the bad guy”). Small wonder that so many people are devoted fans.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is another example of an unusual detective. He is a compassionate, decent human being, but he can be insufferable. As a matter of fact, Christie herself was said to be fed up with him. Many people argue that she reflected that feeling through her fictional detective author, Ariadne Oliver’s distaste for her own creation, Sven Hjersen. Poirot is obsessed with neatness; a modern-day psychologist would probably diagnose him with obsessive-compulsive disorder. He’s often accused of being conceited and puffed up with a sense of his own importance. And yet, he, too, is compelling. He has the gift of getting people to unburden themselves to him, and in more than one novel, he uses his strong personality to convince others to say or do something they don’t want to say or do. Add to that his brilliance, and you have a detective with a huge following (trust me, I know ; ) ).
We see another kind of unusual sleuth in Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun, Laos’ chief medical examiner. At seventy-two years of age, Dr. Siri doesn’t really even want to be a medical examiner – at least, not at first. He’s looking forward to retirement. He’s been “volunteered” for the job, though, and after getting the proverbial offer he can’t refuse, he takes up his duties in The Coroner’s Lunch. Besides his age, Dr. Siri is unusual for another reason: he shares his body with a thousand-year-old shaman named Yeh Ming. Yeh Ming gives his “host” a special, keen insight into people’s motives, thoughts and actions, and this (together with the forensic information he’s learned to get) points Dr. Siri towards the truth.
I’m getting acquainted with P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson (thank you, Bernadette from Reactions to Reading). Sophie’s an FBI agent transplanted from her native Australia. Sophie’s specialty is “getting into the minds” of serial killers, so as to stop them before they kill again. There are, of course, other FBI special agents, including other “profilers.” What makes Sophie unusual is that she has the benefit of very vivid dreams – psychic visions – that put her into the mind of the killer. She’s known about this “gift” ever since her brother was abducted when Sophie was a young girl. Sophie doesn’t confide in many people about her visions, but they help her find important leads.
One of the most unusual sleuths to appear recently is Alan Bradley’s eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce, who lives in the village of Bishop’s Lacey. As if being a child didn’t set her apart already as a sleuth, Flavia is an avid chemist. She knows more about chemistry than many adults do, and makes use of that knowledge. Because she’s a child, most adults don’t take her seriously – to their detriment. Her invisibility as a child also helps her solve cases. She’s able to listen to lots of privileged conversations and she picks up important information without seeming to have an ulterior motive. She makes note of everything and everyone she sees as she pursues leads.
Another sleuth who’s often not taken seriously enough (at least at first) is Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover. Myrtle is a retired teacher, now in her eighties, but she isn’t a traditional, cookie-baking grandmother. She’s brave, smart, crotchety and impatient. She’s also not famous for her delicious cooking. But it’s her determination, along with her deep knowledge of the other people who live in Bradley, North Carolina, that help Myrtle solve cases. Myrtle isn’t an affectionate or sentimental person. In fact, she’s grumpy and short-tempered. But she’s bright, alert, observant and an interesting and appealing character.
Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax has in common with Myrtle Clover that, because she’s older and an amateur, she’s often not taken seriously. That serves as a good “cover” for her, though. From her first outing as a CIA agent, Mrs. Pollifax uses her wits and her ability to seem very nonthreatening to accomplish her missions – and to get out of some very dangerous situations. As a person, Emily Pollifax is appealing, although she’s sometimes a little overeager. Still, it’s her single-mindedness, bravery and quick wits that really keep the reader engaged.
We meet another kind of unusual sleuth in Ann Cleeves’ Inspector Vera Stanhope. She’s not at all an ordinary kind of detective. Her personality isn’t grating, but she’s certainly not stylish or silver-tongued. She’s overweight, not physically attractive, and sometimes comes across as plodding. Her clothes are frumpy, she drinks more than she should and she feels she’s missed out by not having a family. She has in common with some other famous sleuths that she’s got personal demons to conquer, but otherwise, her approach to solving crimes is unusual.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is also an unusual sleuth, especially for a police officer. A member of the Navajo Tribal Police, he’s a traditional Navajo; in fact, in most of the early books, he’s studying to be a yata’ali or singer/healer. He’s very much connected to his sense of spirituality, and he doesn’t take the normal “police” approach to solving crimes. Instead, Chee relies on his powers of observation and the memory skills he’s learned. He gets and uses evidence in the way that most of us think about when we think of police, but he certainly isn’t an ordinary detective.
That’s also true of Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri, the head of Delhi’s Most Private Investigators, Ltd. Puri is a middle-aged, married Punjabi who’s used to good food (his nickname is Chubby) and comfort. At the same time as he laments Western influences on India, he also takes advantage of those influences when it’s expedient. Puri is proud to be an Indian and a Punjabi, so he uses his cultural knowledge (and the help of some equally-eccentric friends and family members) as he solves cases.
In that way, Puri is very much like Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, to whom Puri’s has been compared in more than one review. Precious Ramotswe is a middle-aged Botswana woman who, when her father dies, decides to use her inheritance to open a detective agency. She’s not your typical “gumshoe,” though. Instead, Precious Ramotswe uses her cultural background and knowledge, her ability to get people to talk, and of course, Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Private Detection, to solve her cases.
Space has only allowed me to touch on a few of the many “oddball” sleuths who engage the reader with their quirks and eccentricities. Unusual sleuths capture the reader not because they’re likable (although they may well be) or because they’re average people who are easy to talk to (although they may be appealing). Rather, it’s their very oddness that keeps us reading. Which are your favorite unusual sleuths?
*Note: The title of this post is taken from the title of a Cyndi Lauper release.