Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How much of the "milk of human kindness" does the sleuth need?

One of the things that keeps crime and mystery fiction fans interested in a book or series is the appeal of the characters. In fact, a recent excellent post from Rob at The View from the Blue House raises the question of whether a story has to have likable characters, and it’s a good question. It’s especially interesting to ask whether the sleuth has to be likable. When there’s something likable about the sleuth, or something appealing, we care about that character. We want to see how things work out, and we want the sleuth to “win.” If the sleuth doesn’t appeal to us at all, we’re not engaged and we don’t really care as much about the outcome. In fact, the appeal of the sleuth is sometimes the most important thing that draws crime and mystery fiction readers to a book or series. On the other hand, sleuths are human, like the rest of us. They’re supposed to have faults. They’re supposed to be less-than-perfect. I’ve even read fine reviews of novels that mentioned that the sleuth was “too perfect.” That, in itself, can be off-putting. So the question is: does the sleuth have to be really likable to be appealing? Can sleuths catch and keep our interest without being friendly and congenial?

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes isn’t really what you might call a friendly, likable person. He’s arrogant, he’s egotistical, he’s reserved, and he hasn’t got a great many social skills. And yet, he is brilliant. Also, legions of readers are caught up in his enthusiasm for deduction. As Holmes himself says in The Sign of the Four,

“Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my own proper atmosphere.”

In The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, we get a sense of his passion for detection:

“It was Holmes. The candle in his hand shone upon his eager, stooping face, and told me at a glance that something was amiss.
"Come, Watson, come!" he cried. ‘The game is afoot. Not a word! Into your clothes and come!’

Little wonder that Watson is quick to comply.

It’s not just Holmes’ eager interest in detection. He can also be compassionate. For instance, in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange, he and Watson investigate the murder of Sir Eustace Brackenstall and the theft of some silver and valuable dinnerware. When Holmes discovers who killed Sir Eustace and why, he shows that compassion, and allows the murderer the chance to escape.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is also not exactly a “matey” kind of person. He’s obsessive, conceited, in some ways quite arrogant and not above snooping and eavesdropping. In fact, Agatha Christie was said to have lampooned Poirot in the form of Sven Hjerson, the creation of her fictional detective story author, Ariadne Oliver. Oliver is thoroughly sick of Sven Hjerson and often regrets creating him and it’s said that Christie used Oliver to vent her own dislike of Poirot. And yet, Poirot, too, has won millions of fans (including me ; ) ). He’s brilliant, and he has a genuine passion for truth. In fact, in Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot says that,

In all the world there is nothing so curious and so interesting and so beautiful as truth.

Poirot also has a compassionate side. In fact, in more than one story (I won’t name titles, so as not to spoil anyone’s fun), he knows exactly who the culprit is, and lets the guilty party go because of the circumstances. He doesn’t like innocent people to suffer, and he is gentle with the weak and vulnerable. He also has the ability to get people to confide in him, and that takes a certain amount of appeal.

Many people might say that Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse isn’t likable at all. He’s short-tempered, impatient, sometimes quite ungrateful (especially to Sergeant Lewis), and sometimes outright rude. At times, he flouts departmental policy, he won’t take care of his health, he’s far too fond of his pint, and don’t expect him to ever stand a round. So, why is Lewis so devoted to Morse? Why are so many readers also devoted to him?

In part, it’s because Morse is intellectually far ahead of most people. He thinks quickly and he makes connections that others don’t think of making. Morse also has the humility to admit when he’s made a mistake. To him, finding the answer to a puzzle is more important than “winning.” He’s also got real empathy for others’ weaknesses, since he knows he has his own, and that makes him less likely to make moral and social judgments. In his own way, Morse knows he’s flawed, and that makes readers sympathize with him.

Most people wouldn’t exactly call Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover a warm, friendly person. She’s grumpy, short-tempered and bossy. She’s not afraid to manipulate people and she’s got no patience at all. Oh, and don’t ask her to cook for you. Craig’s fans love Myrtle Clover, though. She’s smart, quick-witted and observant. She’s funny and very down-to-earth. She’s brave, too, and she has a loving side (you just have to look for it).

Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus also has some very unlikable qualities. He’s moody and impatient, reckless and thoughtless. He has no respect for authority, and like Morse, he’s a heavy drinker. Rebus can also be obsessive and inconsiderate. With a few exceptions, he doesn’t work well with others; in fact, he seems unable to learn how to function easily within the system in which he works. Right up to his retirement, he refuses to obey policy unless doing so gets him the results he wants. Despite all of these flaws, though, Rebus has large numbers of devotees. His passion for righting wrongs and for “getting the bad guy” gets in the way of prudence, but his fans admire him for not giving up and for going after even powerful criminals. In his way, Rebus stands up for the “underdog,” and readers respect him for that, too.

One thing all of these arguably unlikable sleuths have in common is that they get the job done. They’re not incompetent. For that, many people forgive them their flaws. Then, too, there’s something about each of them that has a certain appeal. Something about the character keeps readers wanting more, although of course, that certain something is different for each sleuth. We may not always like their personality flaws, their communication styles, or their behavior, but we are drawn to something else about them.

Does this mean that sleuths can get away with being obnoxious and nasty? I don’t think so. There needs to be something redemptive about the sleuth – something that makes readers willing to overlook the sleuth’s unpleasant characteristics. I’m sure that we all can think of books we’ve read where the sleuth was too obnoxious, or whiny, or wishy-washy, or something else, so that we couldn’t finish the book. I know that’s happened to me, and when it has, it’s usually been because the sleuth wasn’t well-rounded, so that there was nothing to “make up for” the sleuth’s faults.

Some readers are more than willing to forgive a sleuth’s faults if there is something appealing about the sleuth; others want their sleuths to be personable and likable. Where do you stand on this question? How much “milk of human kindness” does a sleuth have to have to appeal to you?


  1. This is a tough one and there really aren't any good answers for it. I love Myrtle, but she is difficult. :) I did some minor revisions a few weeks ago that my agent suggested to soften Myrtle up in a couple of instances. You want to make sure you don't go too far...


  2. Elizabeth - You are so right! It isn't easy, is it? In an odd way, I have sort of the opposite problem. I have to make sure that my own Joel Williams doesn't come across as, well, too nice. I like it that he's a good guy, but it's not realistic to have no faults at all...

    ...and about Myrtle? I love her just the way she is. I know all about the wisdom of listening to your agent, but she is a unique and terrific character exactly as she is. I hope she doesn't change too much.

  3. Sometimes the sleuth has the unique quality of being someone you love to hate. They have traits that you don't like, but at the same time you can't help yourself from wanting them to prevail. Underneath their crusty exterior, there usually beats a tender heart that the reader is given glimpses of. For that reason, the sleuth may not be a very pleasant person all the time but the reader knows why and can accept it.

  4. Mason - That's certainly true. There are definitely sleuths who have unpleasant qualities, but there's just something about them that makes the reader cheer for them. I like the way you put that too - people you love to hate : ).

    You hint at something else, too, that's interesting. Sometimes, sleuths are unpleasant for a reason. When we know that reason, it's easier to understand the sleuth and we may be less bothered by the sleuth's behavior.

  5. I agree with your choices...I've read all the sleuths you've mentioned and they aren't your warm, wanna-give-them-a-hug type of characters. But, I think that's why we like them, they're closer to real.


  6. Ann - You're right; sleuths like Poirot, Morse, Rebus, etc.., aren't friendly, warm people. But there's something about them that appeals to us, and yes, their personality flaws do make them more real. Their appeal is in part in their "prickliness," because we can identify with those flaws.

  7. I guess I like my sleuths to be Mr. Nice Guy. My favorites? Spenser and Richard Jury.

  8. Barbara - Oh, I like Richard Jury a lot, too : ). And Spenser is a good guy. I miss Robert Parker. I think a lot of people feel as you do, too, and prefer their sleuths to be likable. It's certainly easier to identify with them and "root for" them that way : ).

  9. The wonderful thing about the sleuths you've mentioned, Margot, is that although they can be a tad irritating at times, a reader has to love them just because they're just so darn good at their jobs. I adore Morse, bless him. I admit I warmed to the character more when he was personified by John Thaw than written in the books - but I think my issue was more with the way Dexter wrote the books than the character. Poirot's ego makes me roll my eyes, but laugh at the same time. And Rebus...well, Rebus has issues.

    I think the saving grace for all these characters is their desire to do good - they want to solve the case. They're on the side of the angels, even if each of them, occasionally, has a tiny devil whispering into their ears.

  10. Elspeth - Oh, you have such a way with words! I just love that last sentence: They're on the side of the angels, even if each of them, occasionally, has a tiny devil whispering into their ears. That exactly captures the reasons that these particular sleuths have so many fans, although they aren't exactly warm, friendly, congenial folk. They want to do the right thing, and for that, we forgive, if not overlook, their faults.

    I was very impressed with Thaw's performance as Morse, too; I think he made Morse's character very accessible and I'm sure, won lots of fans for the book series.

  11. Really good question that made me think.

    Why do I like Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Morse and John Rebus while I have never warmed to Hercule Poirot? I think the answer is that the three of them are just intelligent and difficult, but Poirot is also such a vain person. So grumpy nerds are okay, and I don´t mind them knowing they are more intelligent than most people - but vanity annoys me.

  12. Dorte - Thanks for your perspective. I think it's fascinating the things that draw people to characters or put them off. Admittedly, vanity is not my favorite quality, either, and you're right; Poirot is vain. I think it bothers me less than it does you about him because he admits that he's vain - at least in some of the stories. Doesn't excuse it, but he at least isn't deceiving himself. And I completely agree with your assesment of the other three sleuths, too! :)

  13. yes, as Dorte says, there is likeable and likeable. I have always liked Sherlock Holmes, I suppose (thinking about it in light of your as-ever excellent post) there are so many Englishmen like him, even today. Ironic, harsh, intellectually arrogant but at heart a softie and, unless you are a complete villainess, chivalrous. This softness at the core of the macho exterior is why I like his modern heirs such as Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) and Elvis Cole (Robert Crais).
    I also like Inspector Morse because he is again very much an English type- rather like my Dad in fact. You meet people like him in the older generation of gentlemen all the time - somewhat intolerant, withdrawn, cerebral, appreciative of culture and a good glass of something or other, yet engaged, curious and keen on what is right.

    I don't like Poirot all that much either but then he is Belgian ;-) ;-) A preoccupation with appearance and social class never bothers the true Englishman ;-)

    Bascially, I don't very much like "popular, likeable" people, I like people who are more individual, brooding, thoughtful, clever and who don't follow trends, fashions or curry favour with others. I can't honestly say that this has got me very far in life, however....

  14. Maxine - What a fascinating way to think of this question! I'm sure that what we think of as likable and unlikable has a lot to do with our culture and what we are accustomed to (along with, of course, personal taste and so on). Culture and background probably have a lot to do with the faults that we forgive and those we don't forgive. Since characters like Morse and Holmes are quintessentially English, it's no wonder they appeal to you. They are like people you've met. Hercule Poirot, on the other hand, is most definitely not English. In fact, he makes much of his cultural differences when it's expedient. I wonder how he's viewed by Belgian crime fiction fans....

    I'm glad you brought up folks like Connelly's Bosch and Crais' Cole. They certainly are like Holmes in that they have a soft, decent side that they cover with machismo. They're classy, too, in their ways, and I like them for that, too...

    Of course, culture aside, sleuths' appeal or lack thereof also has to do with our own personal preferences. If your preference is more for independent, as you say, thoughtful sleuths who go their own way and don't worry about trends, it's no wonder you like folks like Ann Cleeves' Vera Stanhope and Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander. You've really given me a lot to think about - thank you : ).