Monday, April 12, 2010

Don't You See, You've Lived a Different Life From Me...*

One of the things that makes a crime fiction novel (or, for that matter, just about any sort of novel) engaging is its authenticity. If we can believe the characters, the context, and the events, it’s much easier to get drawn into the story and stay engaged. That’s especially true if we can believe the protagonist (in the case of crime fiction, that’s often the sleuth). Many authors make their sleuths believable because they have something in common with the sleuth, or because they’ve been inspired in some way by a real-life person or event. For instance, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is said to have been inspired by Dr. Joseph Bell, one of his professors at Edinburgh Medical School. What’s even more interesting, though, is when an author creates a completely different kind of sleuth, with whom the author has little in common. Creating a sleuth who’s very different from the author allows the author a fresh way to look at plot events and other characters. It also gives the reader an interesting perspective. On the other hand, this can be risky, as it can backfire, so to speak, if the sleuth doesn’t seem genuine.

Agatha Christie created several sleuths with whom she didn’t have much in common. One of the most famous is Hercule Poirot, former member of the Belgian police. When we first meet Poirot in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he and some of his countrymen have escaped World War I Belgium and found refuge in the village of Styles St. Mary. Through a chance encounter with an old acquaintance, Captain Arthur Hastings, Poirot finds out that his patroness, Emily Inglethorp, has died of poisoning. He investigates the case, finds out who the killer was, and begins a long career as a private detective. Poirot and Christie don’t have very much in common, and that allowed Christie a great deal of freedom. For instance, since Poirot isn’t English, Christie was able to use his character to “hold up a mirror,” so to speak, to her own culture. In the Poirot novels and stories, we see Christie’s society through another pair of eyes, and this adds much to those stories.

One could argue that Stieg Larsson was freed up in a similar way in his Millennium trilogy. Those novels feature antisocial punker Lisbeth Salander, who, although she has some similarities to her creator, isn’t much like him. By creating a sleuth who’s got a different perspective, a very different history, etc., Larsson was able to use Salander to critique what he saw as serious problems with Sweden’s social structure and cultural status quo. The commentaries that Larsson made through Salander would quite possibly not have felt as natural coming from a more conventional sleuth.

Sometimes, taking the perspective of someone quite different can free the author up in other ways, too. For instance, Alan Bradley created Flavia de Luce, the 11-year-old chemistry-loving sleuth who features in his The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag, and the upcoming A Red Herring Without Mustard. These novels take place during the 1950’s, when Bradley himself was a child. Like his creation, Bradley was precocious and a voracious reader. Apart from that, though, he and Flavia are different. Bradley said that, in part, he was inspired for Flavia by a young girl he met while he was working on another book – a book he never finished. He’s also said, though, that there are several advantages in having his sleuth be a child. For one thing, adults don’t tend to take notice of children’s comings and goings as much, so it’s easier for children to “fade into the background” and take notes, as Flavia frequently does. Bradley has also said that having a youthful sleuth allows for a little more unreliability and unpredictability, which makes for a more interesting plot.

Some sleuths are very different from their creators because the context or plot of a story works best with a certain kind of sleuth. We see that in Shona MacLean’s Alexander Seaton novels, which are set in 17th Century Scotland and Ireland. In The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, Seaton finds the murderer of Patrick Davidson, the local apothecary’s apprentice. In A Game of Sorrows, Seaton travels to Ireland, his mother’s homeland, when his grandmother asks for his help in lifting a family curse. Seaton doesn’t believe in curses and superstitions, but when he finds out that his cousin, Sean, has had a narrow escape from death, Seaton comes to believe that there’s more to the story than a curse. So he travels to Ireland to find out what’s behind the strange events that have happened to his mother’s family. When he gets there, he gets embroiled in Irish politics, family feuds and a threatened uprising. In both of these novels, the story involves the kind of travel, adventures and risks that seem more natural with a male protagonist, especially given the era during which the novels take place.

Martin Edwards has also created a sleuth with a very different background. His DCI Hannah Scarlett, who appears in his Lake District mysteries, is the leader of the Cold Case Review team for the Cumbria CID. Unlike her creator, Scarlett’s a career police detective whose personal life can sometimes get as complicated as the cases she investigates. Scarlett adds a very important perspective to the stories, and her background is a very appropriate fit for the mysteries, too. The same could be said of Colin Cotterill’s sleuth, Dr. Siri Paiboun, Laos’ septuagenarian chief medical examiner. Dr. Siri is quite different from Cotterill in many ways, but his particular personality and background are a good fit for the setting and the stories. Alexander McCall Smith is, in many ways, also quite different from his sleuth, Mma. Precious Ramotswe. Mma. Ramotswe is the owner and manager of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency of Gabarone, Botswana. She, too, is a natural fit with the surroundings and the context in which the stories take place.

Some authors create very different sleuths because of those attraction those characters hold. In other words, these authors create sleuths who embody qualities the author admires. That’s said to be the reason that Dorothy Sayers created Lord Peter Wimsey. In fact, she’s been criticized for making his character “too perfect” and for being besotted with him. Others, though, have said that Sayers created a brilliant “gentleman detective” who was a model for many other, later detectives. Far from being perfect, Wimsey is a complex, interesting character who, Sayers admitted, became more and more real to her as she wrote more about him.

Since novels are the creation of the author, there are nearly always some similarities between authors and their sleuths. For instance John Putnam Thatcher is the creation of economist Mary Jane Latsis and economic analyst Martha Henissart, who wrote under the name of Emma Lathen. While Thatcher is different from his creators, of course, there are some commonalities, too. Like his creators, Thatcher is involved in finance; he’s a senior vice president for the Sloan Guaranty Bank. Still, it can add a fascinating perspective and interesting depths to a story if the author creates a sleuth with whom she or he has little in common. Of course, like most everything else in a crime fiction story, this is a matter of balance. A sleuth who’s too different from the author may not “ring true” if the character isn’t well-drawn. When it’s done well, though, it can make for an interesting story. Which of your favorite authors have created sleuths with very different backgrounds?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's State of Grace.


  1. I read and enjoyed Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, and I would say her well-written, elderly sleuth seems to have nothing in common with the author.

  2. Jane - Isn't Pretty is as Pretty Dies a wonderful book? I agree that Elizabeth Spann Craig did a terrific job with that book, and you're right; she doesn't have a lot in common with her sleuth, Myrtle Clover, except for their shared American South background. Thanks for that example.

  3. This is not a true example, but this post immediately brought to mind Ariadne Oliver (a recurring character in Christie novels who is herself an author). Sven Hjerson, Oliver's Finnish detective, is the fictional equivalent of Poirot just as Oliver is the equivalent of Christie. Oliver had very little,or even nothing, in common with Hjerson and didn't even like him very much. I truly admire how Christie uses Oliver so creatively!

  4. Book Mole - I've always loved Ariadne Oliver and her relationship with Sven Hjerson; I'm so glad you brought that up! It's actually quite a good example of what I'm getting at in this post. In fact, it was said that Christie used Oliver and Hjerson to parody (and, perhaps, parallel) her own relationship with Poirot. You're right; Christie used Oliver brilliantly.

  5. I'm like Jane. The first author that came to mind was Elizabeth Spann Craig and her Myrtle Clover character. I also thought of J.D. Robb (Nora Roberts) and her Eve Dallas character. Very interesting post. Makes one think as always.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Thank you : ) You're right; Myrtle is certainly a great example of a sleuth who is not much like the author. I'm very glad you and Jane thought of her : ). You bring up a good example with J.D. Robb and Eve Dallas. It really is an interesting thing to think about, isn't it?

  7. Margot, Andrea Camilleri and his detective Salvo Montalbano may both be Sicilians but I was amused in The Wings of the Sphinx that the 85 year old author had Montalbano aged 56 worried about getting old.

  8. I have Pretty Is as Pretty Dies on order, good to see so many give it a thumbs up.

    Interesting post, Margot.

  9. Norman - Oh, that is funny! I haven't read The Wings of the Sphinx yet, but thanks to you, Montalbano and I are becoming friends : ).

    Glynis - Thank you : ) I'm so glad you'll get the chance to read Pretty is as Pretty Dies, too. I don't think you'll be disappointed. It's a terrific read!

  10. I think it's fun to write someone different than ourselves...or sometimes to write someone who has traits of ours that we try to suppress!

    Alexander McCall Smith's mastery when writing "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" was a surprise to me.

    Thanks to everyone for plugging Myrtle. :) She does have a lot of my bad traits! But she and I are obviously very different, too...

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  11. Elizabeth - Believe me, it's my pleasure to spread the good word about Myrtle! She's wonderful! I can't wait to meet Lulu, too : ). But Myrtle can't possibly have any of your bad traits; you haven't any... :)

    I agree with you that it's a lot of fun, and it the author "fresh," to write a character who's quite different. I like the new perspective it gives; it can be cathartic, too ; ).

  12. I agree. But, in some way, either little or a lot, we are like all our characters, even the evil ones. All of us know what it's like to go through the things our characters do.

    Great post and insights here.


  13. One of the wonderful things about being a writer is your characters can say things that you'd never have the nerve to say. I don't have much in common with my detective - he can paint (that's a big no for me) and he likes opera (that's an even bigger no for me). However, we are both observant and we share a dry wit. He's way smarter than me and his vocabulary is better.

    Another vote for Ariadne Oliver! I'm sure AC loved writing her - what a cathartic character!

  14. Ann - Thank you : ) And you've made a very well-taken point. Since our characters come from us, they also bear, in some ways, a resemblance to us. It may be in just one small way, but our "signature" is there.

    Elspeth - Isn't Ariadne a wonderful character?! I just love her : ).

    I know exactly what you mean about the freedom we get with our characters. We can explore so many things in ways that we wouldn't be able to do in real life. In fact, Dorothy Sayers mentioned how cathartic (there's that word again!) it was that her Lord Peter Wimsey was wealthy. When she, herself, was pressed for money, she could have him spend whatever he wanted, and it allowed her to see what it was like to be rich.

    Only one thing, though: I don't see how your sleuth could be smarter than you are - that would be a very tall order.