In just about every social group, there are (usually unwritten) rules of speech, dress and behavior. People who don’t follow those “rules” are often considered social misfits, and they are sometimes rejected because they don’t “fit in” with what’s expected of them. Social misfits are often very interesting characters, because they have unique perspectives and often an interesting way of looking at the world around them. That’s part of why social misfits can be such effective characters in crime fiction. Social misfits can also be a little unpredictable, and that, too, can make them appealing characters for crime fiction. They can add to the suspense, too, because there’s often a razor’s edge of difference between a social misfit who’s “on the side of the angels” as it were, and a social misfit who turns out to be a murderer.
Agatha Chrisite introduces us to several social misfits, and it’s interesting to see how they fare in her novels. For instance, in Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), we meet David Hunter, a former member of the Commandos during World War II. When he’s wounded and has to leave the Commandos, Hunter drifts for a bit until his sister, Rosaleen (a young widow), marries wealthy Gordon Cloade. When Cloade is unexpectedly killed in a bomb blast, Rosaleen, now very wealthy, moves to the village of Warmsley Vale, where Cloade and his family have homes. Hunter joins his sister, and soon finds himself very much at odds with his sister’s new relations, who all depended on Cloade for financial security. Hunter is a reckless risk-taker who finds it difficult to fit in with village life, and that challenge adds an interesting level of tension (and a solid sub-plot) to the larger plot of the story. One day, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden turns up in Warmsley Vale. Arden throws out hints that Rosaleen’s first husband isn’t dead; there’s even a possibility that Arden may, in fact, be her supposedly dead husband. If that’s true, this means that Rosaleen has no claim on Gordon Cloade’s fortune. The Cloade family and David Hunter all have stakes in Enoch Arden’s real identity, and the stakes get even higher when Arden is killed one night. Hercule Poirot gets involved in the investigation after two members of the Cloade family approach him at two different times to ask for his involvement. Throughout the novel, we see not only the investigation, but also the realities of being a “peacetime misfit.”
We meet another misfit in Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, in which Porirot finds the murderer of a village charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger, James Bentley. There is evidence against Bentley; he knew where his landlady kept her extra money, he was in need of money, and he can’t really account for his movements on the night of the murder. But what really makes Bentley suspicious is that he’s a social misfit. He doesn’t have a pleasant personality, he doesn’t “fit in” in the village, and he’s very much what’s called a “loner.” He doesn’t seem to be able to keep a job, either. So when Mrs. McGinty is murdered, he’s the natural choice for a suspect. Superintendent Spence, who investigated the case, at first thinks Bentley’s guilty – after all, the evidence points that way. However, he comes to believe he got the wrong man, so he asks for Poirot’s help.
One of the most interesting Christie misfits is Alexander Bonaparte Cust, whom we meet in The ABC Murders. Cust is a very unassuming man who has difficulty even carrying on conversations. He’s fairly soft-spoken, never noticed by the young ladies, and certainly not a man you’d expect to “get on” in the world. A veteran of World War I, Cust suffers sometimes from debilitating headaches and occasionally from frightening blackouts. He also just might be a dangerous serial killer who sends Hercule Poirot cryptic warnings before each of a series of murders. In this novel, Christie uses the interesting strategy of switching points of view, so that part of the story is told from Cust’s perspective, and part of it from Captain Hastings’ perspective. That allows the reader to see the world from a misfit’s perspective, and it adds to the story.
There’s a very interesting social misfit in James W. Fuerst’s Huge. Huge is the story of twelve-year-old Eugene “Huge” Smalls, a New Jersey teen who doesn’t fit in well with his classmates or the local community. He’s small for his age, so he’s often the target of bullies. As if that weren’t enough, he’s also intellectually gifted. “Huge” has several idiosyncrasies and anger issues, too, so he’s not exactly at ease with others. He is, though, passionately interested in “hardboiled” detective stories, especially the work of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammettt. In fact, “Huge” wants to be a detective himself. He gets his first client one day when the sign at the local home for the aged is badly defaced, and he’s asked to find out who the culprit is. As “Huge” looks for clues and tries to make sense of what happened, he also begins to make sense of his own life and of the people in it. In this story, we get to see a community through the eyes of one of its misfits, and that makes for an interesting perspective.
Sometimes, social misfits give the sleuth some very interesting information and clues. For example, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, retired English teacher Myrtle Clover decides to investigate the bludgeoning death of rapacious real estate developer Parke Stockard, if only to prove that she’s not ready to be “put out to pasture” just yet. Myrtle’s son, local police chief Red Clover, wants his mother to stay away from the murder investigation, in part because it could be dangerous, and in part because he’s afraid she’ll get in the way. Besides, that’s not what elderly ladies like his mother should be doing. So he gives Myrtle a false lead that ends up with Myrtle visiting Crazy Dan, who keeps a ramshackle business on the outskirts of town, where he sells a little of everything (hubcaps, boiled peanuts and live bait are among his wares). Crazy Dan's not exactly known for his coherence or for his social skills. In fact, when Myrtle first arrives, he all but threatens her, and at first, doesn’t want to talk to her. Gradually, though, she draws him out, and although Crazy Dan isn’t exactly forthcoming, Myrtle does get some useful information from their conversation.
One of the most currently-famous social misfits in crime fiction is Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, one of the sleuths in Larsson’s Millenium trilogy. Salander has a deeply troubled history that includes vicious abuse, and that past certainly plays an important role in her refusal to “fit in” with what’s expected of her socially. Salander is a brilliant but antisocial punker who excels in kickboxing and computer hacking. In her dress and manner, she’s a non-conformist who doesn’t fit in well with the social status quo. Salander proves her merit, though, in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, when she and her employer, Mikael Blomqvist, are hired by industrial magnate Henrik Vanger to solve the almost-forty-year-old mystery of the disappearance of his grand-niece, Harriet Vanger.
Sometimes, of course, social misfits do turn out to be criminals as well. And in some novels, we really see the razor’s edge of difference between social misfits who turn out to be helpful and those who are simply killers. In some novels, the “social misfit killer” theme can be tiresome. But when well-written, this kind of novel can be compelling. For instance, in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, FBI trainee Clarice Starling is sent to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane to interview Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Lecter is a brilliant doctor specializing in criminal psychopathology. He is also criminally insane. Starling’s been sent to him because the FBI needs Lecter’s help in finding a former patient of his, a serial killer nicknamed “Buffalo Bill." Starling’s been warned not to let Lecter get “in her head,” and she’s determined to simply get the information she needs and leave. Lecter, though, has other plans. He agrees to help Starling on the condition that, for each piece of information he gives her, she has to reveal a personal secret. When “Buffalo Bill” abducts the daughter of a congresswoman, the pressure is on for the FBI to find him as quickly as possible, and Starling has to depend on Lecter’s information, even as he gets to know more and more about her. The “tightrope” between social deviance and psychopathology is one of the themes explored here.
Not everyone fits neatly into “typical” social categories. Those who don’t are often branded as misfits, but these people can lend an interesting perspective in a novel. They can also add a compelling layer of suspense. Which are your favorite “misfits?”