Thursday, January 7, 2010

S/he's so unusual... *

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.


  1. lovely to think about all these sleuths - I am friends with many of them but not all. I like the eccentric ones and I also like the dependable good guy ones. Thanks for this.

  2. Jan - Isn't it great that there are so many different kinds of sleuths out there? I agree with you that it's nice that there's such a mix to choose from : ). I find myself sometimes choosing a sleuth/book based on my state of mind. Sometimes I like the "regular good guy," and sometimes I like the "oddball."

  3. You are both right. It depends on my mood; sometimes I want the comfort of the dependable, straight-as-an-arrow sleuth and some days I roll my eyes at them and reach for the stories that feature the sleuths who are not such good role models.

  4. Bobbi - I had to laugh when I pictured you rolling your eyes and tossing a book aside in favor of another. I think that one of the beauties of the crime fiction world is that there can be all sorts of different "sleuth scnarios." So whether one's a reader or a writer, one can find a scenario and sleuth that fit. So long as the sleuth is engaging and interesting, that's the most important quality. Well, that and the ability to to solve crimes : ).

  5. What a great post, Margot! I do so love your blog and look forward to your mini-reviews/questions each day. I'm lost in admiration for how you write so many posts of the very highest quality, each one with research and thought behind it. Bloggers should use your blog as an example to which to aspire.

    Turning to your question - I like loads and loads of sleuths/detectives, once I get to like a character this means I want to read more about him or her, and so I am therefore hooked on the series.

    One of my favourites is Erlendur (Indridason) because I think of all the sleuths I've come across he is the one most like me, or at least, the one I identify with the most and feel that his emotional reactions to events are very like mine. He and I have some shared history which adds to this sensation.

    You mention Harry Hole in your post - for me it is the character of Harry that makes me read these books. Otherwise, I find Nesbo a bit over-long, the plots don't really stand up often, and I don't like his trademark set-piece "eccentric violence" that he adds into each book (usually two or three separate times). But Harry is like a character from another world to the rest of the book(s), and I just want to keep reading about him.

    Another "sleuth" I really like is Annika Bengstrom (Liza Marklund) - again I identify with some aspects of her personality, and she's very human with flaws. When I see comments that people don't like her, it makes me smile as I see this as a success of the author in creating a real, as opposed to idealised, character. She may not count, though, as she's a journalist not strictly a "sleuth", in fact in Marklund's books the crime/solution often kind of peter out, sometimes with other people taking over the investigation at the end. The "crime mystery" is not the main deal for Marklund, she's more interested in exploring a fast-changing society and how oddballs adapt or don't, as well as exposing social injustice.

    There are lots of other detectives I like, eg Hary Bosch (Connelly)- he's fantastic; Elvis Cole (Crais), another lovely "new man tough guy" like Bosch; Irene Huss (Tursten); Hannah Scarlett (Edwards); Vera as you mention in your post, and also Jimmy Perez (Cleeves); Alex Delaware in the early Kellerman books, though he has long since become unbearably smug, judgemental and prissy. Van Veeteren (Nesser) is great- irascible, hardly says much, profane and hilarious. Wallender (of the books) is also someone I identify with, though his massive popularity puts me off a bit as I am not too keen on "going with the crowd" (similar effect happened to me with Morse (Dexter), whom I liked before the TV series but then felt a bit put off). Peter Temple's protags are usually the same person whatever their name/book (Jack Irish, Joe Cashin, etc) - I really like that character.

    I could go on and on but I had better stop monopolising your comments, Margot! Just before I go, as you mention a girl sleuth in your post, I must recommend a lovely but dreadfully sad little book in this regard- What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn (Karen M's review is here: It is a really marvellous book, featuring a young girl "detective" and it sticks in the mind for a long time. It won a prestigious first novel award and deservedly so.

  6. Thanks for the plug, Margot!

    I love Morse, Agatha Raisin, Hamish Macbeth, and Poirot. :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder
    Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

  7. Maxine - You are so very kind! I'm really quite honored . Wait just a moment, please, while I draw closer to my keyboard; my swelled head is getting in the way.. :)

    I think one of the key points you make in your thougtful, informed and interesting response is that sleuths appeal to us when we can identify with them. For example, you and Erlendur have things in common, so besides all your other reasons for liking him, there's a bond of sorts there. I feel that way about Melissa Cleary's Jackie Walsh. In fact, I raed several books in that series simply because of her character rathet than the plot, etc. (rather like you and Harry Hole). I think that's one thing that makes unusual sleuths so appealing; we get so interested in them that we're willing to forgive lapses in plot, etc., because we like the sleuth so much.

    I like Annika Bengtzon's focus on social justice, too, and I like several of the other sleuths you mention (especially Edwards' Scarlett, Cleeves' Stanhope, Connelly's Bosch and Temple's Irish).

    As I was thinking about the rest of your comment - about sleuths that get incredibly popular - I was thinking about how difficult it must be to maintain a sleuth once she or he attains "cult status." Many people argue that Patterson's Cross and Cornwell's Scarpetta are almost parodies of what they where/could have been. Part of that must come from the fact that people expect certain things from a sleuth they've come to like, so editors and publishers expect it. So do booksellers. I have to say, though, that even after the TV show, I didn't lose my interest in Morse : ).

    Thanks for your recommendation of What Was Lost. I haven't read that, and will definitely read Karen's review of it.

    Elizabeth - I really like Hamish and Agatha, too. I admire Beaton for being able to create two series with too interesting sleuths! And as for Poirot, well, 'nuff said : ). And it was my pleasure to mention Myrtle. She's terrific!

  8. Interesting post. I enjoy books with odd ball sleuths. It makes for some very light-hearted reading even thought you're dealing with a serious subject such as murder.

  9. Mason - No doubt about it; when you have an unusual sleuth, you can also have an unusual kind of book. That can let the author create a light mystery or a darker one, depending on the kind of story the author wants to write. You have a good point, too, that it can be nice to include some humor in a mystery. As you say, murder is a dark topic, but it can be approached from lots of angles, including a lighter one.

  10. It's fun to have a sleuth cut from a different cloth, but he/she can't be too different. Someone who's amusing for 20 pages is going to turn down right irritating by page 100. I don't mind sleuths with a few issues (Rebus, Morse), but every sleuth has to actually solve the case, not have it drop into their laps, or have the main work done by the trusty aide.

    Retreating back to my usual theatre metaphors, it's like characters in a play. The main characters, because they ARE the main characters need to be fairly straight-forward. They're the one's pushing the plot. Sure, they can be odd, but they're not out-of-this-world. The wild, colourful characters are supporting ones. Fun and interesting (or frightening) in a few key scenes. But not all the time, as they would become tiresome really fast. You can't have a whole play centered around a klutzy maid. However have her in a few key scenes and she's hilarious. (and that's the role I usually played!)


  11. Elspeth - Now that's a very well-taken and important point. Whatever the sleuth's quirks, oddities and eccentricities, he or she has to solve the case and move the plot along. That's very hard to do if the sleuth doesn't have a sound core. I love your theater analogy, too. A play has to be centered on strong characters who have solid cores.

    I think it's interesting, too, that you bring up the idea of having other, stronger characters solving a case instead of the supposed sleuth. There's a balance there (a whole blog post in itself, methinks) between working as a part of a team (an aspect of many, many fine crime novels) and not having a central role (not good if one's supposed to be the sleuth). Ian Rankin managed to make a more "distant" sleuth work with Rebus and Clarke in Resurrection Men, but it's not easy to do.

  12. One of my favourite oddballs is Vera Stanhope, but if I had read as many books about Myrtle Clover, I might like her just as much.

    One of the aspects of writing I will have to work on is creating quirkier, but still credible characters. Some of mine are just too bland.

  13. Dorte - I know what you mean about creating credible but still interesting and quirky characters. I wouldn't worry about your characters, though; the ones I've met are terrific. I like Arnold and Mildred very much : ). I'm thinking about that in my own writing, too, actually. That's one reason I like Myrtle Clover, Vera Stanhope, and many of the other sleuths I mentioned in this post. They're not your ordinary, everyday chracters. They make the reader want to find out more about them, and they hold our interest because they're not usual. Of course, realizing that's one thing. Writing that way is another... : )