Saturday, June 5, 2010

Everybody Hurts Sometimes*

I recently read an interesting and very thoughtful post on characters facing challenges from Elspeth at It’s a Mystery. That post inspired me to think about how often sleuths in crime fiction have to deal with difficulties – even real heartache. I’m not talking here so much about physical danger (although of course, investigating murders can be dangerous). I’m talking about the difficulties and challenges that sleuths have to face as they go through life. Sometimes, those difficulties can be hard for the reader, especially if the sleuth is a very appealing character. But the fact is, difficulty and heartache are part of real life. If characters (in this case, sleuths) didn’t face them, they would be less “real,” and most likely, much less interesting. Still, crime fiction fans hate to see their favorite sleuths go through pain. Besides, if too much attention is paid to the sleuth’s difficulties, and not enough to the plot at hand, that can detract from the plot and add too much un-necessary detail to the story. So a balance works best, just as it does with most aspects of a well-written crime fiction novel.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes doesn’t seem to outwardly face a lot of personal difficulty or heartache. Nonetheless, he struggles with cocaine and morphine addiction as well as bouts with depression. He accepts those aspects of his character and doesn’t really try to change them, but they are his personal demons. Watson, too, has his share of difficulties. In The Adventure of the Empty House, for instance, we learn that his beloved wife has died. Those personal struggles make those characters more human, and allow us to have sympathy for them.

Agatha Christie’s novels don’t focus on her main sleuths’ personal difficulties. Yet they’ve certainly faced personal troubles. Hercule Poiriot, for instance, was forced to flee his native Belgium because of World War I. After a successful career as a police detective, Poirot had to leave everything and move to a completely new country (England). Add to that that he was wounded, and it’s clear that Poirot has faced his share of troubles. In fact, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we learn that wealthy Emily Inglethorp had been personally responsible for caring for several Belgian refugees, including Poirot, and that Poirot feels he owes her a debt for that. When she is murdered, Poirot takes on the case for personal as well as professional reasons.

We also see how sleuths face their personal difficulties in Dorothy Sayers’ novels. In Strong Poison, for instance, Harriet Vane has to deal not only with a difficult breakup with Philip Boyes, but also with a charge of murder. When Boyes is poisoned, Harriet’s accused of killing him and put on trial – twice. Few of us face the reality of being charged with murder, but it takes an enormous emotional and physical toll. So it’s little wonder that Harriet takes quite a while to recover from the trauma of that trial, and then to learn to trust Lord Peter Wimsey. In the end, they do find each other, but for Harriet, it’s not an easy process.

Jeffrey Deaver’s Lincoln Rhyme faces the continuing challenge – sometimes even heartache – of being severely disabled. He’s a forensics genius who was injured at a crime scene and left a quadriplegic. He’s found ways (e.g. state-of-the-art assistive technology) to manage his life, but he sometimes struggles greatly to cope. Rhyme faces another kind of challenge in The Broken Window, when his cousin, Arthur, is accused of a brutal rape and murder. Rhyme has been estranged from Arthur for years – since before Rhyme’s accident – so when Arthur’s wife, Judy Rhyme, pays him a visit, Rhyme has to deal with all of the pain and awkwardness that goes with that estrangement. There’s also the personal difficulty of facing the fact that a family member could be a vicious killer. Judy Rhyme, though, is convinced that her husband is innocent, and pleads with Rhyme to investigate. Very reluctantly, Rhyme agrees, and he and his partner, Amelia Sachs, begin to look into the matter. In the end, they find that a serial killer has been “hiding” behind innocent people to commit some brutal killings.

Martha Grimes’ Inspector Jury faces several personal heartaches as he investigates cases. One of them is the killing of Jane Holdsworth in The Old Contemptibles. In that novel, Jury and the recently-widowed Jane Holdsworth meet at a street fair/antique show and immediately take to one another. They soon begin a passionate relationship; in fact, Jury is even considering a marriage proposal, although they’ve only been seeing one another for a short time. Then, Jane’s son, Alex, comes home one afternoon to find his mother dead. At first, the death seems like a suicide. But it’s soon clear that Jane Holdsworth was murdered. As if Jury’s having to cope with the death weren’t enough, he’s a major suspect in her murder. Because of that, he can’t investigate the killing himself, so he sends Melrose Plant to the Holdsworths’ Lake District home to find out what he can. Plant finds out that there’s been more than one mysterious death connected with the Holdsworth family, and that Jane Holdsworth’s death, far from being a suicide, was deliberately planned.

Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander has also faced his share of personal difficulty. He wasn’t able to hold on to his marriage with his wife, Mona (and of course, he’s one of many detectives who’ve ended up getting divorced). His daughter, Linda, attempted suicide, and his father has never approved of Wallander’s choice of career (a fact of which he is fond of reminding his son). With these personal difficulties, it’s no wonder that Wallander doesn’t take particularly good care of himself, and is a much heavier drinker than prudence would dictate.

Martin Edwards’ Lake District sleuths, DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind, have faced quite a lot of personal difficulty, too. Kind continues to cope with the suicide of his former fiancée, Aimee. That loss still haunts him. And, in The Cipher Garden, Scarlett, too, faces a very sad personal challenge that changes a lot for her.

Two of the best-known books in which the sleuth has to face real personal heartache are Elizabeth George’s With No One As Witness and Jo Nesbø’s The Redbreast. In both of those novels, the detective has to cope with devastating personal loss. In fact, many of George’s fans were extremely upset with that turn of events in With No One As Witness; many thought that that aspect of the plot was, if you will, too hard on the sleuth.

It isn’t just personal heartache, though, that can present difficulties for the sleuth. Walter Mosley’s Ezekial “Easy” Rawlins faces the difficulty of being a black man in post-World War II Los Angeles, a time of segregation and other discrimination against African-Americans. As if that’s not enough, in Devil in a Blue Dress, Rawlins faces losing his job at an aircraft-assembly plant. That job loss and the financial crisis it brings are actually part of what drives him to become a private investigator in the first place.

Putting a sleuth through personal difficulty can seem very unfair to the reader, especially if the sleuth is well-liked and appealing. After all, no-one likes to see a friend suffer. The reader can be tempted to ask the author angrily, “Was that necessary?!” And too many personal problems and difficulties can detract from a strong plot. Depending on how the sleuth handles those difficulties, the sleuth can come across as too complaining, too. On the other hand, we all face personal problems, even tragedies. If fictional sleuths are to be “real,” it only makes sense that they would, too. What’s your view on this? Do you think it adds to a series when the sleuth faces personal challenges? Do you think that’s too hard on the sleuth?

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REM’s Everybody Hurts.


  1. I think the sleuth has to have a few problems from time to time to be realistic. However, if the sleuth's problems get to be too many, they can overwhelm the story. If that happens then the story is about the sleuth's problem and not about the plot line. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thank you : ). You put that very well about the sleuth's problems. If too much attention is paid to the sleuth's challenges, that's what the story becomes, instead of what it should be - a mystery.

  3. is difficult to get the right balance on this one I think. If I really wanted to read books where people were coping with all the challenges that someone might face in the real world I'd read self help stuff or books like Eat Pray Love. But I don't. I don't mind characters facing challenges up to a point but I think it can go too far...such as with Elizabeth George's Thomas Lynley character who is still befuddled by his wife's death two books after the events and it's become laboured. It may be realistic but it detracts from the storytelling for me. One of the reasons I enjoyed S J Bolton's Awakening so much earlier this year was that the main character does indeed face a particular kind of challenge but it doesn't overwhelm her or get in the way of the storytelling too much.

  4. Bernadette - You put that quite well. People who are very interested in characters who cope with all kinds of real-life challenges can read (and probably do read) books like Eat Pray Love. And there are plenty of crime fiction novels that focus so much on what the characters are facing that they don't do a good job just telling the story and focusing on the main plot. As you say (and I like your wording!), "It may be realistic but it detracts from the storytelling..."

    When characters face the kind of challenges that Clara Benning faces in Awakening, but deal with them and still solve the mystery, this can add to our respect for the character. It also allows the author to add some interesting aspects to the character's personality. Not an easy balance, as you say...

    Folks, Bernadette's excellent review of S.J. Bolton's Awakening is here. There's another excellent review of the novel here from Dorte at DJ's Krimiblog.

  5. I do enjoy these types of subplots...especially if they tie into the main plot or provide motivation to the sleuth to investigate.

    Over the course of a series, I like to see how the sleuths start working through their personal challenges. It definitely adds something to the series for me.

  6. Elizabeth - Oh, you are *so* right. Those kinds of subplots are best if they are related to the main plot. Then it's far easier to see the sense of them.

    Interesting, too, that you mention a series. I agree that in a series, more than in a standalone, it's so important for the sleuth to actually grow and change and cope with challenges. Otherwise, the sleuth can become, well, cardboard.

  7. Great post Margot.

    I think it is really important for a sleuth to go through some hardship. It helps the reader to see how they react to adversity and hardship, and to show some emotional depth. In series characters do need to grow as people, and by having them deal with the kind of family issues, or pressures that many readers do it helps the reader to relate to this person.

    When this is incorporated into the subplot, as long as it enhances the story it can help prevent the novel from being too linear and avoid the crime happens, detective talks to people, detective solves the crime scenario. If well done it provides a far more satisfying read for the punter.

    Also, sometimes we just like to do nasty things to our characters!

  8. Vanda - Why, thank you : ). I think you've made two really important ponts here. One of them is, of course, that characters should grow and show some emotional depth, especially over the course of a series. It's hard to go through growth and add depth of nothing happens to one. It's often through adversity that we learn, so why shouldn't our characters have the same opportunity?

    I also like your point about readers identifying with sleuths who have to face real personal challenge. We all do have to face heartache and other challenges at times. As you say, sometimes that loss can be devastating. So it is easier for a reader to empathize with a sleuth who also has to face such things.

    Of course, the main thing in any novel, including crime fiction, is the plot. A plot that's too thin, and where the characters are uni-dimensional, isn't going to be as strong and interesting as is a plot where other things are going on. As you say, so long as the things the sleuth faces add to the plot and are integrated, then those aspects of a story can add richness and depth.

    And of course, yes, some nastiness can be fun. We mystery writers are a strange breed..... ; ).