Monday, May 17, 2010

Getting Closer...*

As life goes on, most of us change, at least somewhat. We may become more introverted or extroverted. We may become more spontaneous or more cautious. There are lots of other changes we make, too. Sometimes, those changes happen because (let’s hope) we get wiser as time goes by. We also change as a reaction to life’s circumstances. It only makes sense that fictional characters would grow, develop and change over time, too. In crime fiction series, the main character is usually the sleuth, so it’s interesting to see how sleuths change in their outlook, approaches and so on as the series moves on. I had an interesting comment exchange about this with Elspeth from It’s a Mystery, and Elizabeth from Mystery Writing is Murder brought this topic up in an interesting blog post recently, so I’ve been thinking about it a lot. Authors of series have different ways of approaching the changes that happen to their characters, but many of them seem to have in common that in some way, the sleuth changes over time.

When we first meet Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, he’s already an experienced detective, and no longer young. Yet, as the years go on, Poirot does go through some changes. In the earlier Poirot novels, you could argue that he does more of the legwork, so to speak, himself. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder on the Links, and The Big Four, Poirot does quite a bit of traveling, finding out information, and so on. He even searches for physical clues quite frequently. In many cases, he’s quite active. In later novels, though, that’s much less so. For instance, in The Clocks, Poirot hears about the case of a mysterious dead man from Colin Lamb, the son of one of Poirot’s friends, and a member of the British Secret Service. One day, Lamb’s visiting the small town of Crowdean, on a case of his own, when a young woman comes out of a house screaming that there’s a dead man in the house. Lamb calms the woman down and goes in to see what’s happened. The dead man has no real identification, and there’s no connection between him and the homeowner, who wasn’t even there at the time of the murder. So Lamb takes the case to Poirot and challenges him to sit back and think and solve the murder. In this case, Poirot doesn’t even interview any witnesses or look at any physical evidence. In the end, though, he’s able to show that what looks like a complicated crime is really quite simple.

In Cat Among the Pigeons, Poirot gets drawn into the investigation of the murder of a games mistress at an exclusive girls’ school. The summer term has just begun, and everyone’s arriving at Meadowbank, which is run by the superbly talented Miss Honoria Bulstrode. The award-winning school is soon rocked by the late-night shooting death of Grace Springer, the new games mistress. Not long afterwards, one of the students disappears, and then there’s another murder of another mistress, Eleanor Vansittart. Another student, Julia Upjohn, slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together. One day, she finds a valuable cache of jewels and makes some very shrewd guesses as to what’s been going on at the school. That’s when she goes to see Hercule Poirot. Poirot himself does little of the legwork in this novel. He does travel to the school, and interviews Miss Bulstrode and some of the other characters involved in the story. Yet, while it’s Poirot who solves the mystery, it’s really other characters who do what you’d call the legwork.

There are also changes in the character of Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane. When we first meet her, in Strong Poison, Harriet’s on trial for poisoning her former lover, Philip Boyes. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial and is quickly smitten with Harriet. When the jury can’t agree on a verdict and Harriet’s given a new trial, Lord Peter resolves to clear her name. He finds out that the reason for Boyes’ death had nothing to do with Harriet, and that the real murderer has been “hiding behind” the unpleasant breakup Harriet had with Philip Boyes. In that novel, Harriet’s almost fiercely independent, and although she’s grateful to Lord Peter for helping clear her name, she’s very much focused on her career. As time goes by, Harriet learns to be more interdependent. She learns to balance a personal life with her career, and she learns to accept Wimsey’s love for her. In the end, the two marry and have a family. Lord Peter, too, changes as time goes on. He’s infatuated with Harriet right away, but it takes some time for Lord Peter to also accept her competence and work as a team with her.

We also see some interesting changes in the character and approaches of Ellery Queen. Queen’s a Harvard graduate and well-educated, so it’s no surprise that in early novels, such as The Roman Hat Mystery, Queen is more or less strictly an intellectual. He doesn’t have much of a personal life, and his approach to solving crimes is quite cerebral. He gets involved in solving crimes because they stimulate his intellectual interest. As the series continues, Queen becomes more human, you might say, and gets much more interested in the relationships among the people involved in the cases he investigates. In novels such as Calamity Town and Ten Days Wonder, he gets much more emotionally involved in the lives of the people affected by the crimes he solves. Queen even becomes romantically susceptible when he falls in love with Hollywood gossip columnist Paula Paris in The Four of Hearts, in which he investigates the poisoning murders of film legends Blythe Stuart and John Royle. The Queen novels remain focused on intellectual challenges, both for Queen and the reader, but Queen himself becomes, one could argue, more well-rounded over the years.

Dick Francis’ Sid Halley changes over time as well. In Odds Against, Halley is bitter and depressed, and with good reason. He was a champion jockey, and had wanted to continue riding. A fall from a horse led to Halley’s left hand being injured, so he couldn’t ride any more. In need of a job – any job – Halley became an employee of the Hunt Radnor Associates Detective Agency. His life seems to falling apart – even his marriage is ending – until his father-in-law offers Halley a chance at a new life. It seems that underhanded businessman Howard Kraye is trying to take over Seabury racetrack. Halley’s father-in-law hires Halley to look into Kraye’s plans and try to save the racetrack if he can. In the process of uncovering the truth about Kraye, Halley also embarks on a new career – racetrack investigator. As the series continues, Halley becomes more purposeful and less bitter. And, while he struggles to come to terms with the loss of his left hand, he finds some fulfillment and seems to become more settled. He even falls in love again and later marries.

There are also some interesting changes in the character of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason as that series goes on. In the early novels, such as The Case of the Velvet Claws, Mason is portrayed as a fighter – almost “hard boiled” in his approach. He’s tough, a whiskey drinker, a smoker and not afraid to get in a fistfight if that’s what it takes. As the series goes on, Mason slowly becomes more settled and less “hard boiled,” although he is, of course, relentless in the courtroom. He works with Paul Drake, who owns the Drake Detective Agency, to get information that he needs As the series moves on, he seems to take a more intellectual and less “physical” approach to getting clues and solving cases, and depends a little more on Drake to do the “legwork.”

Alexander McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe and her assistant, Grace Makutsi, also change as his No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series goes on. When the series begins, Precious Ramotswe is just beginning to put her life back together after leaving a very abusive relationship and after the death of her beloved father. She uses money from the sale of some of her father’s cattle to open a new business, the No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency. She’s not 100% sure how to run an agency, so she depends heavily on Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection. As the series goes on, and the detective agency gains some reputation, Mma. Ramotswe becomes more assertive and more self-confident. She also begins to delegate some of the work she does. We see possibly even more growth in Grace Makutsi. At the beginning of the series, Mma. Makutsi doesn’t play nearly as significant a role as she does later. She’s a highly efficient secretary, but soon, Mma. Ramotswe realizes that her assistant also has solid detection skills, so she begins to rely on her for some of her cases. We also see Mma. Makutsi take over as manager of Tlokkweng Road Speedy Motors and later, start her own business. As time goes on, Mma. Makutsi becomes much more assertive as she goes about her work. The two women seem to become more proactive as the series moves on.

It’s only natural for major characters in series to change over time, especially in longer-running series. Not only does life sometimes change us anyway, but times change and so do authors. So it makes sense that major characters would, too. I’ve only had space here to mention a few, though. How have your favorite fictional sleuths changed over time?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.


  1. I'm not a fiction writer but it seems to me this must be one of the hardest things about writing a series. It reminds me of musicians who either stay the same and time passes them by, or change and lose their audience (they're usually accused of selling out). It must be such a challenge to allow the characters to grow while remaining true to their origins.

    Well, this is one reason that I'll leave the writing to you. :)

  2. Karen - It's funny; when I was writing this post, I was also thinking of music and musical artists who change (or don't change) over time. At some level, change is pretty inevitable; we all do change. On the other hand, as you say, it's hard when readers (or listeners) expect their favorites to act or perform in certain ways and they don't. You're right; it can be difficult.

  3. I agree with Karen above, I think this must be hard for authors because a lot of fans probably don't want their favourite characters to change too much.

    I noticed with the last couple of Sue Grafton novels that Kinsey Millhone is changing in quite subtle ways - she is more open to the idea of being in touch with her family for example. But I can't think of any major changes in her life from the beginning of the series to now and I suspect that is deliberate (although also probably because in the series only a half-dozen years have elapsed while in the real world it's been nearly 30 years since the first book was published).

    One change that struck me recently was Ruth Rendell's Reg Wexford. We read the first book FROM DOON WITH DEATH last year for an online book group and Reg was quite crude and bombastic and didn't really talk about his family at all. In the later books his love for his wife shows more and his manners improve. But I don't know if this was just Rendell changing her writing of him or him going through the changes as a character.

  4. Bernadette - I agree with you; Kinsey Millhone has gone through some changes in the last few years, and one of them is definitely a certain softening in her attitude towards her family. She hasn't changed in other ways, and you could be right - that could be a function of the fact that only a few years have gone by in the novels. Or it could be that Grafton's fans like Kinsey Millhone the way she is, and Grafton knows that. In a way, though, you could also say it's realistic, because in real life, people do change in some ways, but not in others. It'll be interesting to see what Grafton does next with her.

    It's interesting that you would bring up Reg Wexford, too. We really do see his love for his wife and family in Road Rage and The Monster in the Box, and less so in From Doom With Death. Ruth Rendell was able to make those changes, I think, quite successfully, too; her fans seem to have been quite happy with the way Wexford has changed over the years, and I don't hear of a lot of dissatisfaction with seeing him as a family man.

    It's the same way, I would argue, with Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, who's also changed over the years. We see him now, for instance, as a father, as well as the hard-edged cop he also is (among many other things he also is). I want to learn from those authors because, as Karen says, this is a difficult thing to do well.

  5. One character that comes to mind is J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas. The change isn't major but noticeable to those who follow the series. After she marries Roarke she doesn't seem quite as hard and is slowly learning to trust and accept friendship.

    Always enjoy the references to Perry Mason. :)

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. I'm a real fan of the Inspector Morse and Lewis series. I know there are books but the show has run for years and you can see how the two have changed over the years. Growing with the characters, I like that.


  7. Mason - I thought you'd like that reference to Perry Mason : ).

    It's interesting, too, that you bring up Eve Dallas. She, too, is a long-running character whose fans like her very much. So Robb's no doubt had to think and plan carefully the changes in her character. I think that the kay may be slow and gradual change. Those changes are easier for fans and they're realistic.

    Clarissa - I like growing with characters, too : ). And thanks for bringing up Morse and Lewis. In the novels, one really does see Lewis, especially changing through the years as he becomes more self-confident and as his relationship with Morse develops. At the end of the series, Morse acknowledges how capable Lewis is, and for followers of that series, it's easy to see why.

  8. Margot - another great post! I like characters to grow and change with time too. Poirot, Wexford and Morse are all great examples. I like the way Lynley and Havers grow too - both become more mellow with time, and part of it probably has to do with experiences in their personal life. Love and loss lead to growth.

    I also like to see the biological ageing of sleuths - it is hard for me to come to terms with eternal youth! Agatha Christie was great at this - we can see how Poirot gets frailer with time, and Curtain made me cry. Miss Marple gets less physically active too.

  9. Book Mole - Why, thank you : ). That's very kind. I have to agree - Curtain got me, too. I think it's because of what a Poirot fan I am, as much for sentimental as for any other reason.

    Your post made me also think of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, who change in some ways over time. They age, and that naturally brings on changes. But I think they also become less impetuous and more subtle.

    You make a well-taken point, also, about Lynley and Havers. They both do mellow as time goes on, and they both do have to deal with both love and loss. That's bound to change one's outlook. They also seem to become more comfortable with each other (although, of course, that may be natural for partners who work together).

  10. I love it when characters really grow and change with time. Thanks so much for sharing this.

  11. Miss Marple's personality changes, too--she's a little more unlikable in the early books and gets fluffier (at least, on the surface) as the series goes on.

  12. Cassandra - It's only natural, I think, for characters to grow and change over time. It makes them more human. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    Elizabeth - Right you are! In The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple is not all that well-liked, and she has the reputation of being far too nosy. As the series goes on, she does get warmer and more likable. I like your word "fluffy," because at least on the surface, that's what does happen. Underneath, though, she's just as sharp and smart.

  13. It's a tightrope for authors, isn't it? If the sleuth changes too much then it's not the same character that the readers loved, but if they don't change at all then there's a level of unreality. I think there are characteristics you just can't change - I couldn't imagine Morse going on the wagon or Poirot being humble. But there are manageable changes - especially if the author allows the passage of time over the series. Characters can become more tolerant, or develop fears. Aging happens. Relationships develop or end. As a reader, I have no problem with a character evolving, but I don't want the character to suddenly appear unrecognizable.

  14. Elspeth - "Tightrope" is exactly the way to describe it! As you say, there are some changes we just can't see; you've mentioned some terrific examples, too. I couldn't imagine, for instance, John Rebus meekly following a directive "from above," or Barbara Havers adopting a que sera, sera attitude. But it's also true that people get older, learn from mistakes and so on. So it's logical, even necessary, for a character to evolve. That balance is something I hope to go for in the long run...