Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma"

One of the most important aspects of any well-written crime fiction novel is the characters in the story. Well-drawn and interesting characters keep the reader engaged and make the story that much more absorbing. Sometimes, characters are engaging because they’re very real – they’re just like us. We can identify with these “everyday” people thrust into extraordinary situations like a murder investigation. Sometimes, though, characters are made interesting because they’re enigmatic. We don’t learn a lot about them, and they keep us guessing. Characters with some mystery about them can add to a story’s appeal because they make us curious. Of course, a character who’s too mysterious can be off-putting. It can be frustrating not to know anything about him or her. But a soupçon of mystery in a character can add quite a lot to the appeal of a story.

That mystery is part of the appeal of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Irene Adler, whom we meet in A Scandal in Bohemia. In that story, Holmes is approached by the King of Bohemia, who is about to be married. He wants Holmes to find a compromising photograph taken of him and a former lover, Irene Adler. Holmes agrees and traces the photograph to Adler herself. In the end, Adler outwits Holmes and escapes, but Holmes gets the photograph back. We never do learn much about Irene Adler, and it’s partly because of that (and because she’s his intellectual equal) that Holmes finds her so fascinating.

Agatha Christie created several mysterious characters. One of them, Madame Deaubreuil, appears in The Murder on the Links. In that novel, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Madame Deaubreuil is Renauld’s neighbor and is rumored to be having an affair with him, so the police are interested in her background. As it turns out, Madame Deaubreuil has a somewhat mysterious history, and seems to delight in making it even more mysterious. Her role in Renauld’s death is also somewhat enigmatic. We do learn some things about her past, but there’s enough mystery in her character to keep us interested.

The same is true of Mr. Robinson, a very enigmatic character who appears in several Christie novels (e.g. By The Pricking of My Thumbs, Cat Among the Pigeons, Passenger to Frankfurt and Postern of Fate). Mr. Robinson is a wealthy businessman whose dealings involve him with all sorts of international buyers and sellers. He learns a lot of very useful information in these dealings, and sometimes shares that information with the authorities. He is, most of the time, on “the side of the angels,” so to speak. We know nearly nothing about his background. The only thing we do know (or at least, can guess) is that, despite his very English name and flawless use of the English language, Mr. Robinson isn’t English by birth. He makes no effort to hide his motive in getting involved in cases: financial. Despite his focus on making a profit, though, we get the sense that Mr. Robinson isn’t personally greedy or power-hungry. Christie leaves his character with just enough mystery to keep readers interested in who he is and what his background is.

There’s also very interesting enigmatic character in Passenger to Frankfurt, in which Stafford Nye, a young diplomat, is approached in an airport by a strange young woman who begs him to allow her to use his diplomatic credentials to board a plane, so she can leave the country. He reluctantly agrees, and is soon swept into a mystery involving a worldwide conspiracy, greed and power. The woman who gets Nye involved in this intrigue is known by several names: The Countess Renata Zerkowski, Daphne Theodophanous, and Mary Ann, among others. Nye meets her again and again throughout the novel, and finds himself falling in love with her, despite his better judgment and the fact that he knows almost nothing about her. In the end, we never do learn a lot about Mary Ann, but she’s a fascinating character, and enough of an enigma that her character keeps the reader interested.

Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead features another interesting enigmatic character, Diane Jacobsen, an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI). We meet Jacobsen when David Hunter, Beckett’s sleuth, travels to Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory, also known as The Body Farm, to take a much-needed break from London and to take part in some research (Hunter is a forensic anthropologist). Soon after Hunter’s arrival, a decomposed body is found not far from the laboratory, and Hunter is drawn into the investigation. Diane Jacobsen and her partner, Dan Gardner, are assigned to the case on behalf of the TBI, and as the investigation goes on, we learn a little about her through Hunter’s eyes. We don’t learn much, though, and that’s part of her appeal. We only learn that Jacobsen has a background in psychology, and that her partner died the year before. A few times, too, we learn some of her views of the case. Throughout much of the novel, Jacobsen is successful at guarding her emotions and what she says, and Hunter is sometimes frustrated by her refusal to let her guard down. He’s physically attracted to her, although he doesn’t make a concerted effort to pursue her, and he thinks she also feels the chemistry between them – at least at times. In the end, we learn an important reason for Jacobsen’s behavior towards Hunter, and a few other things about her. Even then, though, she remains just enigmatic enough to pique the reader’s interest.

There are also several enigmatic characters in Harry Dolan’s Bad Things Happen. That’s the story of the odd characters who work for Gray Streets, a mystery magazine based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. David Loogan, who, himself, is somewhat of a “mystery man” has recently arrived in Ann Arbor, and finds a job as an editor for Gray Streets. One night, his boss, Tom Kristoll, who owns the magazine, asks Loogan to help him bury the body of Michael Beccanti. Kristoll tells Loogan that he killed Beccanti in self-defense when he caught Beccanti breaking into his office. He also tells Loogan that Beccanti is a thief with a criminal record. Loogan’s pretty sure that’s not true, but he accepts his boss’ account because he’s been having an affair with Kristoll’s wife, Laura, and feels guilty about it. Later, Kristoll himself is killed by a fall from a window. At first, the death seems to be a suicide. However, soon enough, the police suspect Loogan, because of his relationship with Kristoll’s wife. Officer Elizabeth Waishkey, who investigates the case, tries to find out as much as she can about Loogan, but it turns out he’s quite mysterious. Then, a retired New York police officer turns up what might be some important information about Loogan’s past, and Loogan flees Ann Arbor, even as more murders occur. Still, Loogan knows that he has to stay involved in the case; otherwise, he could end up in jail. So, in his own way, he tries to find out who Michael Beccanti really was, and what the truth is behind Tom Kristoll’s death without giving away too much information about himself.

Lee Jackson’s historical mystery, A Most Dangerous Woman features a protagonist who’s actually quite enigmatic. Sarah Tanner has just opened a dining and coffee room restaurant on London’s Leather Lane. Her real name isn’t Tanner, and although she says she is married, no-one ever sees her husband. Still, no-one asks too many questions in that neighborhood, and Sarah enjoys some success with her shop. Then, one day, a friend of hers is brutally murdered – and Sarah is the only eyewitness. She can’t go to the police with what she knows, because they would ask too many questions about her, and that’s the last thing Sarah wants. So she’s forced to turn to some old associates – several of them rather unsavory – to help her solve the case. Meanwhile, she’s being dogged not only by her past, which we find out bit by bit, but also by one of London’s master criminals. In the end, we learn some things about Sarah and her history, but enough is left untold that the reader remains intrigued by her.

Enigmatic characters pique the reader’s interest, add layers of mystery to a novel, and sometimes, add to the suspense. On the other hand, they can also be frustrating if we don’t see them as real characters. What’s your view? Do you find yourself interested in those “human enigmas?” Which are your favorites?


  1. I love reading Val Mcdermid because of her character Tony Hill. He is off the wall and odd. You are never quite sure of him. I can't think of anymore at the moment but you're right, a novel is made that much better by the enigmatic character.


  2. Ann - Thanks for bringing up Val McDermid. I'm not as familiar with her work as I wish I were, but I agree that Tony Hill is an enigma. I think that's what makes him so interesting as a character; you just don't know about him. Characters like that can really make a mystery more interesting.

  3. I love reading about (and writing) characters that aren't completely revealed. Why not keep the reader wondering? After all, these are mysteries!

  4. Elspeth - Well-said! It certainly makes a lot of sense in a mystery to have, well, mysterious characters. What I like about them, too, is that they can re-appear in other novels, and the author can share them with us bit by bit. That strategy keeps the reader coming back for more...

  5. I agree very much with your point in this post (and could have done with knowing more about Diane, too!). Some books can be very unsettling (in a good way!) if you aren't sure of the reliability of the narrator. Recent ones I have read that make you question in this way are The Reunion (Simone van der Vlught) and The Missing by Jane Casey. It certainly adds to the excitment of the mystery, in my view!

  6. Maxine - I like term you use - unsettling. Good crime fiction keeps the reader intrigued, and it can be very effective to do that with characters that the reader's not entirely sure of; as you say, it adds a "spark" to the mystery. I'd heard that The Missing was quite good,and I certainly enjoyed your review of it, as you know. Folks, I haven't gotten a chance to read this novel, but please do read Maxine's excellent review. I know it made me add the book to my TBR list.