Tuesday, May 11, 2010

You Have No Idea What You're Getting Into...

One kind of character that we seem to see a lot of in crime fiction is the “babe in the woods,” the naïve character who, sometimes quite innocently, gets into very nasty business. Very often, that happens because the character has no idea what she or he is getting involved in, and by the time it’s clear, it’s too late. This sort of character can be appealing, even poignant. Of course, if the character’s not drawn well, then the story can seem contrived. After all, just how naïve can we expect someone to be? So, like anything else in crime fiction, this is a balance that authors need to strike.

There’s a clear example of this kind of naïveté in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. In that story, Violet Hunter pays Holmes a visit, asking him his view on whether she should accept a job as governess to a six-year-old child for the eccentric Rucastle family. Holmes isn’t sure she should, but Violet decides to take the job when her prospective employer, Jephro Rucastle, raises the salary offer. Holmes assures his client that if she ever needs him, all she need do is send him a telegram. Sure enough, she soon does. She’s had some strange and frightening experiences at the Rucastle home, and asks Holmes to figure out what’s going on. Holmes agrees, and soon uncovers the story behind the strange events. Violet Hunter naïvely believed that she was being hired simply to be a governess, but it turns out that she’s been used in a plot to steal a fortune.

Agatha Christie also uses ingenuous characters in several of her novels. For example, in The Man in the Brown Suit, we meet Anne Beddingfield, who becomes an orphan when her professor father dies. Anne’s eager for a life of adventure, and she gets more than her wish when she moves to London to stay with the family of her father’s solicitor. While Anne’s in London, she happens to witness a tube accident where a man falls to his death under an oncoming train. On impulse, she picks up a paper that’s fallen out of the dead man’s pocket and before she knows it, Anne’s swept up in a adventure involving a beautiful and mysterious dancer who’s been murdered, a fortune in diamonds and an enigmatic crime boss known only as “The Colonel.” In her way, Anne’s quite naïve, at least at first, but quickly learns to use her wits to get out of more than one very dangerous situation.

We also meet naïve characters in Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. Adriadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional author, has been invited to create a Murder Hunt as a kind of scavenger hunt for an upcoming fête at the home of Sir George Stubbs. Once she arrives and preparations for the fête are underway, Oliver begins to suspect that there’s more going on than a simple scavenger hunt. So she asks her friend Hercule Poirot to visit, under the guise of giving away the prizes for the Murder Hunt. Poirot agrees and he, too, soon begins to suspect that something is going on. On the day of the fête, Marlene Tucker, the young teenager who’s playing “The Victim” in the Murder Hunt, is actually strangled. Then, Hattie Stubbs, Sir George’s wife, disappears. Now Poirot and the police are on the trail of a real murderer. One of the suspects (and one of the naïve characters) is Alec Legge, who’s taken a local cottage with his wife for a long holiday. Legge naïvely got mixed up with some very unsavory people because he thought they shared his political views, and got in much more deeply than he imagined. We also see naïveté in the character of Hattie Stubbs, the beautiful but “subnormal” wife of Sir George Stubbs. She married Sir George at the urging of her guardian, so that she’d have a safe home where she’d be treated kindly and taken care of. Unfortunately, she, too, has no idea what she’s getting involved in when she agrees.

In C.J. Box’s Three Weeks to Say Goodbye, we meet Jack and Melissa McGuane, the proud adoptive parents of beautiful baby Angelina. While neither parent is gullible (a fact that makes them all the more appealing), they have no idea what they’re getting into when they decide to fight an attempt by Angelina’s biological father to assert his parental rights. Several friends, including police officer Cody Hoyt, try to warn the McGuanes that the baby’s father is well-connected (his father is a powerful judge) and has several other dangerous friends. Jack, especially, determines to fight for Angelina, anyway, and ends up doing things he never would have imagined he’d do. In fact, one of the interesting aspects of this novel is the way in which Jack loses his naiveté as the story progresses.

Naiveté also figures in Pablo De Santis’ The Paris Engima. In that novel, young Sigmundo Salvatrio has no real idea what he’s getting into when he applies to be apprentice to the famous Argentine detective Renato Craig. Salvatrio has starry-eyed illusions about what famous detectives do, and his dream is to be one of them. So when he’s accepted into Buenos Aires’ Academy for Detectives, he’s ecstatic. Then, Salvatrio loses some of his naiveté when he discovers a devastating truth about his idol, Renato Craig. He’s still very idealistic about the group of detectives, known as the Twelve, that Craig co-founded, though, so he’s almost as starry-eyed when he’s unexpectedly sent to the Paris World’s Fair in Craig’s stead. Before he knows it, Salvatrio is more deeply involved with the Twelve than he imagined. Soon after his arrival, one of the Twelve is murdered. Now, Salvatrio and one of the other detectives are on the trail of a murderer, and. It’s not long before Salvatrio realizes he got much more than he bargained for when he decided to become a detective. This novel is, among other things, my contribution for South America to the Global Reading Challenge meme being skillfully led by Dorte from DJ’s Krimiblog.

Shona MacLean’s A Game of Sorrows also shows us some naiveté in the character of Alexander Seaton, a university teacher in Aberdeen. Seaton gets a visit from his Irish cousin, Sean Fitzgarrett. Fitzgarrett has come to Aberdeen to convince Seaton to go to Ireland and help lift a curse that’s been laid on the family. Seaton’s not much of a believer in curses, but then, Fitzgarrett mentions some incidents that lead Seaton to believe that someone really may be threatening Fitzgarrett’s life, and the family. So he reluctantly agrees to go to Ireland. When he gets to Ireland, Seaton realizes how little he really knows about his Irish mother’s family, and how naïve he’s been about the political, economic and religious issues that are tearing at Ireland. Before he knows it, Seaton’s deeply enmeshed in the family drama.

There’s a very haunting example of naiveté in Megan Abbott’s Bury Me Deep. Marion Seeley stays behind in Phoenix when her husband, Dr. Everett Seeley, loses his medical license due to his use of cocaine and goes to Mexico. Seeley has set his wife up in an apartment and arranged for her to have a job as a typist and file clerk at the exclusive, private Werden Clinic, and he thinks she’ll be just fine. Soon, Marion is befriended by outgoing nurse Louise Mercer and Louise’s room-mate, Ginny Hoyt. At first, Marion takes their gestures of friendship as kindness. Soon, though, she’s drawn into much more than she bargained for when she begins to get involved in their debauched lifestyle. At one of their parties, she meets Joe Lanigan, one of their “friends,” and before long, she’s even more deeply enmeshed in events she couldn’t even have imagined. In the end, Marion loses her innocence and her naiveté, and her friendship with Louise and Ginny ends in tragedy.

Sometimes even sleuths can be naïve. That’s the case with Emily Pollifax, Dorothy Gilman’s New Jersey widow who decides that she wants more than a “typical” widow’s life. So in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax, she answers an ad and applies for a job as a CIA agent. In a case of mistaken identity, she’s actually given an assignment. She’s asked to do a “routine” delivery of a message, but soon gets involved in a case of international espionage. In this case, Emily Pollifax learns quickly and uses her wits to get out of some very dangerous situations, including an Algerian prison.

Crime fiction that involves naïve characters can be compelling, even haunting, if the characters are believable and not gullible. Otherwise, these stories can turn out contrived and very unrealistic. Which are your favorites?


  1. I also like it when the twist is that a character who seems naive actually isn't (or is naive in a different way). At Bertram's Hotel has some of that.

    There are so many variations you can play with on this theme - naive characters who become wise, others who are catalysts who cause things to happen without knowing it. And then there are the stories about cynics who learn to let go of their wisdom and start trusting something.

  2. Daring Novelist - I like that twist in At Bertam's Hotel, too. There's a wonderful twist like that in Cards on the Table, as well.

    You've a good point, too, about the many ways that you can use naïveté in a story. What I like about that is that the reader doesn't always know what's going to happen with a naïve character; is s/he going to turn out to be worldly? Is s/he going to be a catalyst? Is the wise person going to see the world through fresher eyes? That can keep the reader engaged.

  3. I enjoy those characters, if they don't frustrate me too much. Christie, as always, did it well. :)

  4. One of the reasons an innocent is sometimes involved is because of his or her appearance. Two very different examples are Jabez Wilson in the Holmes story "The Red Headed League" and Mrs. Robinson in Agatha Christie's short story "The Adventure of the Cheap Flat".

  5. Elizabeth - Oh, you are so right about the way Christie handled those characters. Sometimes, as you say, they can be annoying, but I've never had that problem with her work.

    Book Mole - Thanks for bringing up the whole point about appearance. In fact, that's exactly why Violet Hunter becomes involved in the plot in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches - her appearance. And I loved <
    The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, so I'm glad you brought that one up. Many people don't realize what a master short story writer Agatha Christie really was...

  6. It depends how they are used. Sometimes these characters make you want to shake them until they wake up but soemtimes they can be refreshing and interesting. Thanks for sharing some great examples.

  7. Great post, as usual, Margot. I think that sometimes the "babes in the wood" gullibility is stretched too far in some crime novels. I have just read one by James Grippando (Money to Burn0 which has the nice twist of an investment banker as the "babe in the wood". Hard to see that he could be quite that naive about the financial aspects of his babe-in-woodness, but I can understand it about the gangsters. However, as a reader, I enjoyed the financial details much more than the gangster plot, so I am not sure what this means!

  8. Cassandra - You put that well. Naïveté can be refreshing, and it can even be raelistic if it's doing well. When a character who ought to know better seems too naïve, that can be annoying. It all depends on how the character is drawn, and how much we can believe.

    Maxine - Thank you : ). I'd seen Money to Burn, and read reviews, etc., but hadn't raed it yet. It is unusual that an investment banker would be naïve about banking. I suppose people new at the job might fit in that category... I'd say, though, that most of us who aren't criminally-inclined would be naïve about gangsters and how they really operate. As an aside, I think it can be challenging to write a plausible gangster plot, so I'm not surprised that you enjoyed the financial details of this novel more.

  9. There's a difference between being naive and being stupid. I like when someone gets swept up in an unexpected situation, but once that's happened I like the character to open their eyes and see what's happening. The innocent lamb can be a lion under all that white fleece. It's a great opportunity for character growth, it can also be a great opportunity for comedy. However, a character who just metaphorically stands around and spins with dismay gets dull fairly fast.

  10. Elspeth - You put that quite well; naïveté is not the same thing as stupidity. It is much more interesting (and, if you think about it, more realistic) for a character who's initially naïve to realize what's going on than it is for a character to remain a "babe in the woods." You also make a well-taken point that for a writer, having a character "wake up and smell the coffee," so to speak, allows for lots of rich character development and therefore, interest. Otherwise, characters who are naïve can end up as flat as cardboard - and about as appealing.