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.