Saturday, April 10, 2010

Misfits...

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?”

11 comments:

  1. Another nice post, Margot. This brings to mind Elizabeth George's "A Traitor to Memory" in which the leading character is Gideon Davies, a talented violinist. He is very self-centered and a bit of a misfit, partly by virtue of his having been a child prodigy and fawned over by all around him. He is by no means my favorite misfit - I did not like him very much at all and this was certainly not one of George's best books, but he does have a unique perspective of the world as you mention.

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  2. Book Mole - Thank you : ). And thanks for mentioning A Traitor to Memory. I have to admit that I wasn't as fond of Gideon Davies as I have been of other misfits, either. For folks who haven't read this one, Inspector Lynley and Barbara Havers investigate the death of Davies' mother in a deliberate hit-and-run crash which turns out to be related to a tragic incident in the Davies' past. As you say, Book Mole, Davies does have an interesting perspective that we get to learn about as the story unfolds. It's certainly an interesting psychological study.

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  3. As always Margot I am in awe of the depth of your knowledge about crime fiction and the way you look at stories from different angles.

    As for misfits...one of my favourites from recent reading is Maureen O'Donnell in Denise Mina's Garnethill. Having been abused by her father she is estranged from most of her family (except her drug dealer brother) and is undergoing therapy but manages to find the resolution to who killed her boyfriend with the help of a few other misfits including a homeless woman.

    I also like Kerry Greenwood's Corinna Chapman series partly because one if its enduring themes is the acceptance of misfits

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  4. Bernadette - Thank you : ). That's very kind. And thanks for the reminder of Garnethill. You're absolutely right that Maureen O'Donnell is a great example of a misfit. She's certainly got her issues and she doesn't exactly fit in, but she is a great character. Folks, Bernadette's terrific review of Garnethill is here , and here is a fine review of Garnethill by Dorte at Dj's Krimiblog.

    I confess I haven't read the Corinna Chapman series, but I've heard from several sources that I need to repair that gap. Thanks for the reminder.

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  5. A very interesting and thought provoking post, Margot. As always.

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  6. Absolutely - another great post. I often think when I read your posts, Margot, that it is a pity I can't remember the Agatha Christie novels more clearly. I read them when not even quite a teenager so it is hard to remember much except the impact the first one had on me - and hence why I then devoured the rest. So I often can't comment on your posts in the way I'd like to.

    However, I am glad you got onto Lisbeth as she must be the most striking of recent misfits! I also like the main character, a boy, in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the NightTime, because although it gradually becomes clear that he is "different" in some way, the author does not make a big deal out of it, by giving him labels, etc, and leaving the reader to judge for herself. S Larsson was the same about Lisbeth, which I wish some commentators would respect as they rush to label her condition in some medical way. (I also like the way, in TCIOTDITNT, that the boy's way of looking at the world is so integral to the mystery).

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  7. Jose - Thank you : ). I appreciate your kind words : ).



    Maxine - And I appreciate your kind words as well : ). Agatha Christie had a powerful impact on me, too. I think one can feel that even if one's only read one of her books.

    You make a good point about Lisbeth Salander. Larsson simply explains what happens, what she's like and what she does without overanalyzing her particular medical/psychological situation. I like that, too, as it makes her character much more real and less "clinical." I really do find her a very compelling character, the more so because Larsson doesn't put her "in a box." As you say, he leaves it to the reader to judge.

    I have to say, The Curious Incident... is on my TBR list; it's not got to the top of the list, but your mention of it just bumped it up. I find the premise interesting, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

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  8. Another typically thought-provoking post, Margot. Whenever I read your posts, I can't help but think how lucky I am to be able to "crash" a top rated creative writing class without paying tuition!

    This article brought to mind the Jack Reacher series by Lee Child, where the protagonist himself, Jack Reacher, is a social outcast by choice. I also have the recollection that Sherlock Holmes was a bit of an outcast; however, I can't cite any one of Doyle's stories that explicitly states this since I haven't re-visited any of his Holmes' stories for quite some time.

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  9. Bob - Thank you so much : ). But before you wax euphoric, you should talk to my students; they might beg to differ with you ; ).

    You've got a very solid point about Jack Reacher. I think that's especially clear in the early novels such as The Killing Floor, where Child focuses on Reacher's "otherness." You've a good point about Holmes, too. I notice that especially in A Study in Scarlet, when Watson and Holmes meet. In fact, the man who introduces the two gently cautions Watson that he may not get on with Holmes. Of course, as generations of readers have been glad to learn, they do form a solid friendship and partnership. Thanks for bringing this up.

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  10. How do you remember what happens in all these novels. You're amazing. I love the AC's you mentioned. I happened to feel for Cust and how he got abused by the killer. I also remember Myrtle.

    ann

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  11. Ann - Thank you : ). But there's no magic about it; I do my share of going back and looking for things...

    I agree with you about Cust; I felt for him very soon after meeting him, and even more so towards the end of the novel. Christie was a master at getting people to care about characters, wasn't she? And Elizabeth Spann Craig really does paint vivid characters; I think Myrtle, Crazy Dan, and the other characters in her novels are memorable.

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