One of the enduring kinds of characters in crime fiction is the ne’er-do-well with a bad reputation, the so-called, “black sheep.” Of course, like any other kind of character, the “black sheep” can be clichéd and overdone. But sometimes, a character with a bad reputation can add quite a lot to a crime novel. “Black sheep” can make believable suspects, and their doings can add spice to a novel. It’s also interesting to see how views of the person with a bad reputation can vary, depending on the kind of novel and characters, and, we can argue, depending on the era during which the novel was written.
Many of Agatha Christie’s novels feature “black sheep.” In fact, that kind of character seems to be a favorite of hers. I’ll just mention a few examples. In Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the death of Emily Arundell, a wealthy spinster whose relations are all desperate for their shares of her money. Miss Arundell writes to Poirot, asking his help with a delicate situation (which she doesn’t specify). However, Poirot doesn’t get the letter until two months after Miss Arundell sent the letter. By then, it’s too late; Miss Arundell has died of what seems to be liver failure. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Miss Arundell’s been poisoned, and suspicion soon falls on the members of her family. One of them, her nephew Charles Arundell, is a “black sheep” who’s perpetually short of money. In fact, during a visit to Miss Arundell shortly before her death, Charles asks his aunt for money. When she refuses, he tells her that she’s going about it the right way to get killed. His sister, Theresa, also has a questionable reputation. She spends money as quickly as she gets it, and runs with a “fast” crowd. While not exactly notorious, she certainly raises eyebrows. There are plenty of other suspects, too, of course, and Poirot has to sift through several clues and “out-think” the murderer in order to find out who killed Miss Arundell. What’s interesting about the way especially Charles Arundell is portrayed is that his aunt is almost indulgent of him. He’s got charm of manner, and an interesting honesty about himself. He’s a likable character.
We also see a likable “black sheep” in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder for Christmas and A Holiday for Murder). In that novel, Simeon Lee invites the members of his family to spend Christmas with him. He’s spiteful, vengeful and tyrannical, but no-one in the family dares refuse the invitation, because he’s also very wealthy. One of the family members he invites is his estranged son, Harry. Harry’s been traveling around the world for twenty years, since he left home as a young man. He’s been in trouble more than once over money and women, and has never been able to settle down and “go straight.” His siblings, Alfred, George and David, resent the fact that Harry is welcomed back to the family home so warmly, since he’s caused the family so much distress. Still, for their father’s sake, they try to make the best of the situation. Then, on Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is brutally murdered. Immediately, the members of the family fall under suspicion, since it’s not likely that a chance burglar committed the crime, and Harry certainly comes in for his share of accusations. Hercule Poirot, who’s staying with a friend nearby, is called in to help investigate. In the process, he untangles the complicated relationships that exist among the family members, and finds out who killed Simeon Lee. Despite that fact that Harry Lee is a suspect, he’s also a likable character. He’s friendly, even charming, and open. He has a sense of humor, and is forthcoming about his bad reputation.
Dorothy Sayers offers a very interesting look at a “black sheep” in Murder Must Advertise. Victor Dean, a copywriter at Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., dies after fall down the company’s spiral staircase. He left behind a half-finished note suggesting that someone in the company was working with a drugs ring, but wasn’t able to complete the note and give specific information. The company managers, afraid of a scandal, ask Lord Peter Wimsey to investigate discreetly. So, using his middle names of Death Bredon, Wimsey pretends to be a “black sheep” cousin of the Wimsey family, who’s looking for a position. He’s soon accepted at the company and, as it turns out, shows a skill for creating winning advertising campaigns. Of course, Wimsey is a likable character, and so is his alter ego. You might even say that this is a case of a “sleuth in sheep’s clothing.” ; ).
In Tony Hillerman’s Coyote Waits, we meet another character with a bad reputation, Ashie Pnito. Pinto is a disreputable alcoholic who, so reports say, has killed before. One night, Pinto is found near the scene of the murder of Delbert Nez, a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. Nez was investigating vandalism to some local outcroppings of rock when he was shot and then his body and car burned. When Jim Chee, one of Hillerman’s sleuths, finds Pinto, he assumes the man’s guilty. Pinto has the murder weapon, and his ever-present whiskey bottle would have made it easy to start the car fire. Since Nez was Chee’s best friend, Chee feels particularly strongly about this case, and is only too happy to have caught the person he thinks is responsible. So Pinto is arrested and jailed. Then, Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn, who’s working with Chee on this case, gets a visit from Pinto’s niece and a scholar who’s been doing research on Navajo stories, and has been working with Pinto. The two women try to convince Leaphorn that Pinto isn’t the killer, despite all appearances. Still, Leaphorn knows what Pinot’s reputation is, and isn’t prepared to believe them. Finally he and Chee are persuaded to look more carefully at the case when Pinto’s court-appointed lawyer, Janet Pete, convinces Chee that Pinto is being “railroaded.” In this story, Ashie Pinto isn’t shown as a likable, friendly character. Instead, he’s portrayed as a man who used to be respected among his people, but who has become a sad caricature of his former self because of alcohol. This is certainly a more complex portrait of a person with a bad reputation than we see in, for instance, many Golden Age novels.
In many modern crime novels, the ne’er-do-well – the “black sheep” – is depicted as more unpleasant and less likable than the “typical” (if there is such a thing) ne’er-do-well of earlier times. It may be that today’s readers want more realism. It may be also that today’s readers, being more sophisticated, want more complex characters. Whatever the reason, today’s “black sheep” often seem to send the message, “I’m guilty of a lot – maybe even other murders – but I didn’t commit this crime.”
For example, Ian Ranki’s John Rebus has several run-ins through the years with Morris Gerald “Big Ger” Cafferty, a local gangster and crime rings leader. Cafferty has a very bad reputation, and Rebus has caught him in more than one crime. Cafferty’s even been to jail. Yet, his notoriety doesn’t always mean he’s guilty. For instance, in Mortal Causes, he and Rebus form what you might call an uncomfortable partnership in order to find out who’s responsible for killing Cafferty’s son, Billy Cunningham. And in Exit Music, Rebus investigates the murder of Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet. There’s evidence that Todorov’s poetry and political views may have angered the elite Russian businessmen who live in Edinburgh, and there’s also evidence that Ger Cafferty may be in league with them. So Rebus thinks Cafferty may have had a hand in the murder. Of course, as with Rankin’s other novels, nothing is quite that simple…
The ne’er-do-well, “black sheep” character is a staple in crime fiction, so there are many, many more examples than those I've given here. Such a character can add interesting levels of suspense, backstory, and, of course, “red herrings” to a novel. It’s especially effective if the ne’er-do-well character is a little more complex then a simple “bad-boy-trying-to-go-straight.” What’s your view? Who are your favorite ne’er-do-wells?
*NOTE: I know the picture is actually of a ram, not a sheep; sometimes, one can’t be choosy about the pictures one gets, and I figured it would make the point ; ).
Thanks to an interesting comment exchange with Bob Gates, I'm now realizing how many references there are to animals in crime fiction. This is just another one ; ).