I recently had an interesting comment exchange with E Leen from Act Write about the game Cluedo/Clue. In that game, there’s a set of “stock” characters, any of whom could have committed the murder that the players investigate. It’s interesting to think about some of the “stock” characters that recur in crime fiction. Of course, as crime fiction fans know, the characters in Cluedo/Clue are, in a way, more parodies than real examples of “stock” characters that we see in crime fiction novels. It’s a very diverse genre, with well-written novels that take a variety of different forms. But are there “stock” characters who really do show up in the genre? Which characters would appear in the Crime Fiction Fan edition of Cluedo? Here are a few ideas:
This character is a police official who’s involved with a case, but always seems to be a thorn in the side of the sleuth. Sometimes, it’s because the official is inept or unobservant. Other times, it’s because the official is self-protective or for some other reason doesn’t want the sleuth involved in the case.
The classic example of this character is Arthur Conan Doyle’s Inspector Lestrade. Lestrade’s not exactly inept, but he’s quick to jump to conclusions, he’s self-satisfied and smug, and he’s jealous of Holmes. He also resents what he considers Holmes’ interference. Still, he grudgingly admits Holmes’ talent at deduction.
There are other examples of this “stock” character, of course. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Candian émigré to France. Renauld wrote to Poirot, hinting that his life might be in danger and asking Poirot’s help. By the time Poirot and Hastings arrive at Merlinville, though, it’s too late; Renauld’s already dead. Poirot is welcomed as a part of the investigation by everyone except for Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté. Giraud thoroughly resents Poirot, and the feeling is mutual. Giraud jumps quickly to conclusions, ignores everyone else’s input, and is rude, arrogant, officious and stubborn. In fact, Poirot gets so annoyed by Giraud that, uncharacteristically, he bets Giraud 500 francs that he can solve the case before Giraud does. Not surprisingly, Poirot wins the bet.
In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, we meet Officer Alvise, who’s the first officer called to the scene of the murder of an illegal immigrant from Senegal. Alvise arrives, but doesn’t get any valuable information, look very far for witnesses or do very much else. In fact, he doesn’t even know how the man died. Commissario Guido Brunetti, Leon’s sleuth, knows that Alvise isn’t going to be very helpful, so as soon as possible he finds a job for Alvise to do, and sends him away. It’s a humorous example of this kind of “stock” character. Brunetti’s life is also made more difficult by his boss, Vice-Questore Patta, who’s far more concerned with his reputation than he is with justice or with finding out who really commits the crimes his Questore investigates. More than once, he impedes Brunetti’s investigations, and Brunetti often finds himself solving crimes in spite of his boss, not because of him.
This “stock” character is the enigmatic “mystery character” that we don’t know very well and who sometimes has a very shady reputation. Very often, “Mr. or Ms. Grey” is a suspect, and sometimes knows more about the case than he or she says.
A clear example of this character is Irene Adler, who features in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. Holmes gets a visit from the King of Bohemia, who wants him to retrieve a compromising photograph of the king with his former lover, Irene Adler. Holmes tracks the ‘photo down and discovers that Irene has it. She bests him, though, and escapes before he can confront her directly. In the end, she leaves the photograph and a note for Holmes. After that, he always refers to Irene Adler as “the woman.” We never learn much about her or her background. She remains somewhat mysterious, and, possibly for that reason, an interesting character.
There’s also a mysterious character in Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil. In that novel, Queen’s in Hollywood, working on his writing and trying to get some peace and quiet. His plans are interrupted by Lauren Hill, who wants Queen to investigate the untimely death of her father, Leander Hill. Hill died of a heart attack which Lauren swears was deliberately caused. Lauren says that her father and his business partner, Roger Priam, have both been receiving macabre gifts and cryptic warnings, and that they’ve got an enemy. When Queen approaches Priam on the subject, he refuses any assistance, and it’s clear that Priam knows more than he’s saying. When Queen discovers who’s behind the threats and Hill’s death, it’s despite Priam, not because of him. The most enigmatic character in this novel is Alfred Wallace, Priam’s valet/assistant. Wallace entered Priam’s service after waking up from a blackout with no memory of his life or even his name. Throughout the novel, we never learn very much about Wallace, but he does add to the mystery of the story.
Mr. or Ms. Golden is an elderly (though usually active) character who provides interesting insights, common sense, advice and sometimes, valuable clues. It’s actually surprising how many of these characters there are in crime fiction.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, we meet Odell and Carrie Gardner, elderly American tourists who are staying at the Jolly Roger Hotel for a holiday. Also staying at the hotel is beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall and her husband, Ken. With them is Ken’s daughter, Linda Marshall. Sparks begin to fly when Arlena Marshall strikes up a friendship with handsome young Patrick Redfern. Everyone is convinced the two are having an affair, and everyone feels sorry for Redfern’s wife, Christine. Matters come to a head late one morning when Arlena is found strangled on a cove not far from the hotel. Hercule Poirot is staying at the same hotel, so he gets involved in the investigation. Throughout the novel, he has several conversations with the Gardners, from whom he gets some valuable insights about Arlena Marhsall. He also gets a few clues from them as to her murder.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo, so he’s been raised to have a great deal of respect for elders. One of the important elders in his life is his uncle, Hosteen Frank Sam Nakai, who’s a Navajo yata'ali, or singer/healer. In fact, throughout much of the series, Chee is learning from his uncle how to be a singer. Frank Sam Nakai doesn’t solve crimes with Chee. He does, however offer an interesting perspective on human nature, and his wisdom does help Chee.
More active in investigation is Margaret “Aunt Peg” Turnbull, owner of Cedar Crest Kennels and breeder of Standard Poodles. Her niece, Melanie Travis, is Laurien Berenson’s sleuth. Travis is a wife, mother and teacher – and a breeder of Standard Poodles in her own right. She’s got a reputation for curiosity and for solving mysteries, so she ends up drawn into investigations. Very often, Aunt Peg’s the one who encourages her; Aunt Peg even refers people to Melanie. And, in several of the Berenson novels, the two women work together. Aunt Peg isn’t just a helpful resource about breeding dogs; she also provides helpful insights on the locals and the gossip, and offers a lot of common sense about her niece’s cases.
There are lots of other examples of Mr./Ms. Golden – far too many for me to mention here. I must admit – I like this character : ).
Mr. or Ms. Rose is innocent – perhaps even a bit naïve (although not necessarily) – but is suspected of the crime. Very often, it’s on her or his behalf that the sleuth gets involved in an investigation.
That’s certainly the case in Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, in which novelist Harriet Vane is arrested and tried for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey, who attends the trial, falls in love with Harriet and resolves to clear her name. With the help of his friend, Miss Amanda Climpson, he does just that.
Another example of this character is Jack Renauld, son of Paul Renauld in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. Jack’s suspected of killing his father (see my description of the novel above). The two quarreled over Jack’s girlfriend, Marthe Daubreil, and Jack was heard to all but threaten his father. Jack’s being a suspect isn’t the original reason for Poirot’s involvement in the investigation, but Poirot is certainly spurred on when Inspector Giraud arrests Jack Renauld.
In Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we meet Charles Thom, the local music master. He’s in love with Marion Arbuthnott, the apothecary’s daughter; so is his rival, Patrick Davidson, the apothecary’s assistant. When Davidson is poisoned one night, Thom is immediately suspected and soon thrown into jail. He begs his friend, Alexander Seaton, to help clear his name. Seaton, undermaster of the local grammar school, has his own “baggage,” but promises to clear Thom’s name if he can. Seaton soon finds out that there was more to Davidson’s death than rivalry over a woman, and before he finds out who really killed Davidson, there’s another death.
Again, because this character is a staple in crime fiction, there are many, many more examples than there is room on this one post for me to mention them all.
What do you think? If there were a Crime Fiction Fan edition of Cluedo, which characters would you add?