Monday, May 3, 2010

Life is Just What Happens to You While You're Busy Making Other Plans*

I had an interesting comment exchange with Dorte at DJ’s Krimiblog about the mismatches we see between what fictional sleuths seem to want in life, and what they actually get. I also had an interesting comment exchange with Norman at Crime Scraps about the way life takes us in different directions from the one we’d originally planned. One reason this is such an interesting phenomenon when we read about it is that life really does take us in different directions at times, so when we see that mismatch in sleuths, we can identify with it. Another is that crime fiction fans want to get to know their sleuths. That’s especially true in series, but it’s also true for standalone novels. If the sleuth isn’t an authentic character whom we can imagine meeting, the sleuth becomes too “wooden” – not engaging at all. It’s tricky, too, though, because crime fiction fans also want – and deserve – a novel or series centered on strong plots. Too much detail and too much focus on the sleuth’s life can detract from a strong, focused plot. That said, though, it’s surprising how many of crime fiction’s well-written sleuths haven’t ended up where they thought they wanted to be in life.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has quite a different life from what he probably imagined he’d have. Poirot was a Belgian police detective, renowned in that field. While he doesn’t directly say so, one can imagine he’d planned to retire to live somewhere in Belgium. Instead, World War I erupted, making it necessary for Poirot to flee Belgium. We learn about his life as a refugee in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which introduces Poirot. In that novel, he solves the poisoning murder of his benefactor, Emily Inglethorp. Poirot’s life changes again in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which he makes the decision to retire to the English village of King’s Abbott and grow vegetable marrows. Poirot thinks that he wants peace and quiet, and one can hardly blame him. Yet, life intervenes again, and he’s asked to solve the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Interestingly enough, Poirot suggests that perhaps retirement wouldn’t have suited him anyway, as he’s missed the intellectual challenge of solving crimes. So Poirot changes his life again, and moves to London to become a private detective, and the rest is, well, history.

Dick Francis’ Sid Halley also becomes a private investigator when his life turns out differently from what he’d planned. Halley was a successful jockey and had planned to make riding his career. However, during a fall from a horse, the horse stepped full on his left hand. That injury ended Halley’s racing career. In need of some sort of job, Halley got a job at the Hunt Radnor Associates Detective Agency, where he worked for two years. Then, his life changes again when he’s shot during an investigation. While Halley’s recovering from his wounds, his father-in-law, Charles Roland, asks him to look into the shady business practices of Howard Kraye, whom Roland suspects of trying to take over his Seabury racecourse. Halley finds out the truth about Kraye and a conspiracy in which he’s involved. He also starts a new life as a racecourse investigator. It’s not at all the life he’d imagined for himself, but he’s able to make a success of it.

Halley isn’t the only sleuth who never planned to be a sleuth, but has, so you might say, ended up as one. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum had a solid job as a lingerie buyer. She was married to Dickie Orr, who’s turned out to be a very shady lawyer. She’d planned for a stable, middle-class life. That changed dramatically when she caught her husband cheating on her with her rival, Joyce Barnard. Then, she was laid off from her job. Financial desperation drove Plum to her cousin Vincent Plum’s bail bond agency, where she’d hoped to get a job as a file clerk/receptionist. It turned out, though, that the only job available was as an apprentice bounty hunter. Within a short time, Plum ended up with a life and lifestyle that was very different from the one she’d imagined she wanted.

There’s a sense of mismatch, too, in the character of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Morse had gone to Oxford, intending to take a degree; he proved to be a brilliant student, too. Then, he met Wendy Spencer and fell deeply in love with her. His schoolwork suffered, and when Wendy ended their relationship, Morse fell into a deep funk and ended up having to leave Oxford. His father suggested a career with the police, and Morse’s life went in a new direction. Despite his brilliant successes as a detective, though, there’s still arguably a sense that he might have liked a life as an academic. He’s quite cerebral at times, and a purist about language (and never fails to correct Lewis if he sees the need). He’s also a fan of what’s often called “the classics.” There’s also a strong sense that Morse, despite being a bachelor, would like to find someone special and marry. He’s had several affairs and “one-night stands,” but hasn’t met a permanent partner.

One of the more ironic mismatches in crime fiction is the mismatch between what Isaac Asimov’s Elijah “Lije” Baley had planned for himself, and wants, and what his life actually brings him. Baley is a New York detective on a futuristic Earth where humans have populated other planets. Those humans who live on Earth have a deep-seated prejudice against Spacers, humans who travel to or who’ve populated other planets. Baley wants a “regular” cop’s job of solving “regular” crimes, and shares most Earthmen’s dislike of Spacers. In The Caves of Steel, though, Police Commissioner Julius Enderby assigns Baley to the one kind of case he didn’t want to solve: the apparent murder of prominent Spacer Dr. Roj Nemennuh Sarton. As if that weren’t enough, Baley finds out that the Spacers want a quick solution to the case, and don’t trust Baley to find it. What’s worse, they think Sarton was murdered by an Earthman. So they require that Baley work with a partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. Olivaw is a positronic robot, and if there’s anything Baley dislikes more than he does Spacers, it’s robots. Among his many reasons is that robots have taken many human jobs. In order to avoid a terrible confrontation between Earthmen and Spacers, Baley and Olivaw have to establish some sort of working partnership if they’re going to solve this murder.

We also see an interesting case of this kind of mismatch in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who runs the titular detective agency, grew up in a traditional Botswana home, and imagined that she would eventually marry and have her own family. So did her assistant, Mma. Grace Makutsi. Life, however, hasn’t turned out the way either of them had planned. Mma. Ramotswe ended up briefly married to an abusive husband whom she left. Suddenly single, she had to make her own way after her father, Obed Ramotswe, died. So she used some of the money from the sale of his cattle to open the detective agency. In several books in McCall Smith’s series, Mma. Makutsi, who would very much like to find a husband and settle down, is single. She learns to be a skilled detective, manager and entrepreneur instead. Each in their own way, the two women do find a way to make their new lives work for them, and they find the relationships they seek. But they’re quite different from what these detectives had imagined for themselves.

There’s also the very interesting (and ironic) mismatches that we see in Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope and Liza Marklund’s Annika Bengtzon. Stanhope is single, middle-aged, with a a very strong personality and not what one would call very attractive. She would like to have married and had a family, but that’s not what life has brought her. Instead, she’s a Yorkshire Detective Inspector who’s on her own in terms of a personal life. On the other hand, Bengtzon is married with two children. She loves her family, but juggling her career and her family is often very difficult for her, and certainly that’s not the life she had imagined for herself.

These differences between what we plan for ourselves and what actually happens can be interesting, ironic, sometimes even funny. It’s the same for fictional sleuths. You could even say that that’s part of what makes their lives interesting, even appealing. What’s your view? Do you get interested in these aspects of sleuths’ lives? Or do you prefer that your crime fiction stick to the mystery at hand?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Lennon's Beautiful Boy.


  1. I'm constantly amazed at the depth of your discussion and knowledge Margot. Excellent again

  2. Kerrie - Thank you very much *blush* : )! That's very kind of you.

  3. So many detectives in fiction seem quite disappointed with their lives. It's almost a prerequisite. Or I'm reading too many Scandinavian books perhaps.

  4. Patti - LOL! Oh, that's funny! I don't think it's just Scandanavians, though. I can think of a lot of non-Scandanavians, too, who aren't happy with their lives. You're right that it really seems to be a trend...

  5. I love the little tidbits from book to book about the sleuth's private lives. To me, it adds to the investigation to have some insight into why they operate the way they do...and why they use the approaches they do. Are they outgoing? Taciturn? I love seeing how they got where they are now.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  6. Elizabeth - I feel exactly the same way! When we know at least a little about what's happened in the sleuth's life, it's a lot easier to understand why s/he wants or doesn't want certain cases, how s/he thinks, etc.. And, since every sleuth has a different background, it really is interesting to see how the sleuth got where s/he is.

  7. I love that John Lennon quote! My other favourite one is by the immortal philosopher Kenny Dalgliesh, "This is as good as it gets". (Think Liverpool Football Club).

    I really like your examples in the post, too, especially the back-story of Precious Ramamotse which is poignant, isn't it? Some sleuths seem born to be sleuths and for it to be in their blood, others stumble across it by accident.

  8. That's a good quote. You should put it on Facebook as people like to collect such lines.

    Stephen Tremp

  9. You've mentioned one of my favourite characters, Sid Halley. I so enjoyed watching his journey through the three (or was it four) books and his gradual acceptance of his changed circumstances and his ability to succeed at a career he had never considered. Very few people have their life unfold exactly as they planned - why should our characters have it any different?

  10. Margot, a couple more of cases of life turning out differently from planned.
    Helene Tursten was a dentist who developed a chronic rheumatic condition and had to retire becoming a crime fiction writer. Her creation Detective Inspector Irene Huss is a happily married detective which makes her an exception compared with most other Scandinavian detectives.

    Reed Farrel Coleman's fictional Moe prager was a cop who I think fell over and damaged his knee and had to take early retirement becoming a PI.

  11. Maxine - Thank you : ); I like those quotes, too. And thanks for the Dalgliesh quote; it fits really well. It is interesting, isn't it, how some sleuths just seem to be born to that calling. Others fall into it, or have it thrust on them. Interestingly, both kinds of sleuths can end up being really skilled at what they do...

    Stephen - Thanks; isn't that a great quote!? Maybe I will put it up on Facebook...

    Elspeth - You put that very well. Most of us don't end up doing what we thought we would do, planned to do, or even imagined we'd do. Why should fictional life be any different, indeed. And I agree; Sid Halley is a terrific character, isn't he? He grows, matures, and slowly changes as time goes by to fit his new circumstances. Interesting guy...

    Norman - Thanks for those examples. I didn't know that about Tursten - really interesting! And I must cofess, I'm not familiar with Moe Prager. Sounds like a terrific example of what I'm talking about, though. Looks like I'm going to have to repair that hole in my reading...

  12. Ah, thank you for this fine post!

    And I came across a good example in a Danish novel today: a detective who is happily married and has two adult children who love and respect him. Nonetheless he cannot help having affairs with other women - I am not sure he has any idea what he really wants, but I think he is immensely stupid!

  13. Dorte - Oh, no; it's I who should thank you for the inspiration. You really did give me a good idea : ).

    When I read the rest of your comment, I couldn't help but wonder why some people seem to be like that Danish detective. They have what one would think is everything they want. Still, they seem bent on ruining what they have. As you say, it seems so stupid, and I wonder what motivates those people...