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?