Thursday, July 1, 2010

Glory Days, Well, They'll Pass You By...*

Part of the appeal of a crime fiction novel is getting to know the sleuth. Crime fiction fans want to know who the sleuth is, where the sleuth comes from, how the sleuth got into “the business,” and what the sleuth’s background is. That information often helps readers see the sleuth as a person, and gives the sleuth a fuller, more well-developed presence. That’s especially true in series, where, in well-written series, the sleuth develops over time, and we get to know her or him better. Of course, the risk of giving a lot of backstory about the sleuth is that if it’s not done well, it can be cumbersome and take away from the story at hand. Clarissa Draper discussed just this point in a very insightful recent blog post. If backstory is presented effectively, though, it adds much to a good crime fiction novel.

For instance, throughout the course of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series, we learn several things about Poirot’s history, although no story is every really burdened with too much detail. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, we learn that Poirot was forced to flee his native Belgium during World War I, and that he and other refugees were given sanctuary by wealthy Mrs. Emily Inglethorp. Christie doesn’t waste prose telling the reader about Poirot’s history. Rather, it’s mentioned as it is relevant in that novel, in which Poirot investigates his benefactor’s murder. We learn through other novels and stories that Polrot was a member of the Belgian police force, but again, we aren’t bombarded with a lot of detail. Rather, we learn about his background as, for instance, he encounters people he knew in Belgium, or an incident occurs that reminds him of something that happened in Belgium. It’s a very effective way of telling us about Poirot without burdening the reader.

Dorothy Sayers uses a similar strategy in her stories about Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. Lord Peter has an impeccable social pedigree and an interesting background. But we don’t learn all about him, all at once. We learn his story as it’s relevant to the mystery at hand. For instance, in Clouds of Witness, we learn that Lord Peter has a sister, Mary and a brother, Gerald, who’s the Duke of Denver. We learn these things because Wimsey’s brother is arrested for murder when Captain Denis Cathcart (Mary’s fiancĂ©) is found shot to death at Riddlesdale Lodge, which is one of the family residences. We learn more about Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver in Whose Body?, because she involves her son in a murder investigation. She asks him to clear the name of her architect, Alfred Thipps, who’s been accused of murdering a stranger whose body has been found in his bathtub. We learn about Harriet Vane and her background in Strong Poison, because it becomes relevant when she’s accused of poisoning her former lover, Philip Boyes, and put on trial for murder. Harriet is a graduate of Shrewsbury College, Oxford, and we find out about her life there in Gaudy Night. Again, though, the backstory isn’t forced upon the reader; we learn about Harriet’s story because she returns to Shrewsbury for its annual Gaudy Dinner and later, learns of a series of frightening events at the college when the Warden asks her to investigate them.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is quite reticent about his personal background. In a way, that adds to his appeal, since his enigmatic personal history can make readers curious. Yet we do learn about his past in The Riddle of the Third Mile. In that novel, Morse and Lewis investigate the disappearance and presumed death of Oxford don Oliver Browne-Smith. Morse’s past is relevant because while he attended Oxford, Brown-Smith was his mentor. In fact, Browne-Smith was convinced that Morse could be an excellent scholar. We also learn in this novel that Morse fell very much in love with a young woman, Wendy Spencer, to the detriment of his schoolwork. When Wendy broke off the relationship, we learn that Morse fell into a funk from which he wasn’t able to recover enough to salvage his grades. He ended up having to leave Oxford. The reader also finds out that Morse joined the police at his father’s suggestion because it might give him a direction, once it was clear he wasn’t going to be an Oxford scholar. As this particular story evolves, Dexter integrates Morse’s story, so that we learn about his history without it detracting from the novel.

Janet Evanovich weaves the story of her sleuth, bounty hunter Stephanie Plum, throughout her series. Very often, this happens as Plum encounters people she knows. For instance, in Two for the Dough, Plum is looking for Kenny Mancuso, who skipped bail after his arrest for shooting a gas-station attendant. In one scene, Plum’s in a department store when she encounters Joyce Barnhardt, who works there. Plum caught her ex-husband, Dickie Orr, cheating on her with Barnhardt shortly after their marriage. In fact, it was their divorce and Plum’s subsequent layoff from her job as a lingerie buyer that got her involved in the business of fugitive apprehension in the first place. We learn this and much more about Plum as the series moves on, but the discussions of Plum’s backstory aren’t separate from the main plots. They’re interwoven with the cases on which Plum is working.

Alexander McCall Smith takes a different approach to giving readers the background of his sleuth, Mma. Precious Ramotswe. In The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, the first novel featuring her, McCall Smith devotes a few chapters to telling the story of Precious Ramotswe’s family, of her father, Obed Ramotswe, and of her devotion to her father. There’s also a separate chapter in which we learn about Mma. Ramotswe’s meeting with and disastrous first marriage to musician Note Makoti Rather than introduce the reader to Mma. Ramotswe’s background as the novel evolves, McCall Smith shares that history first. Then, as the series moves on, the reader is referred back to the history. For the reader, it’s almost like “inside information” (i.e. “Remember that chapter about Note Makoti?”). Mma.Ramotswe is a reflective character, so we also are reminded of her story as the cases she’s working on remind her of her past. There’s just enough information, too, so that readers who don’t begin the series with the first novel, or who’ve forgotten the backstory, aren’t at a disadvantage.

We learn about the backstories of Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett and Oxford historian Daniel Kind in measured pieces as their investigations progress. There’s often a link, too, between their histories and the cases they investigate. For example, in The Coffin Trail, where we first meet these sleuths, Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team investigate the murder of Gabrielle Anders. At the time, it was widely believed that Barrie Gilpin, a local resident, was responsible, and that his death shortly afterwards was suicide. But Ben Kind never believed that, and neither did Scarlett. In this case, we learn some backstory because Kind knew Gilipin when both were young, and doesn’t think Gilpin was guilty, either. Edwards’ other Lake District novels likewise weave backstory in with the cases being investigated in the present.

Jassy Mackenzie also weaves backstory and present cases together in Random Violence, the first of her Jade de Jong novels. Jade de Jong, a private investigator, returns to her native Johannesburg after a ten-year absence. The only daughter of a Johannesburg police commissioner, Jade has her own personal reasons for having left South Africa in the first place, and for having come back. When she does return, she’s almost immediately drawn into a murder investigation being conducted by Johannesburg police detective David Patel, who was her father’s top officer. As Jade works with Patel to solve a series of brutal murders, we learn about Jade’s past, we learn why she’s returned, and we learn how the murders she’s investigating are tied in with her own personal agenda. Random Violence is also my “Africa” contribution to the Global Reading Challenge
, ably led by Dorte at DJs Krimiblog.

Backstory is often very helpful in understanding a sleuth and her or his perspective. It also makes the sleuth more multi-dimensional and believable. Backstory also gives the reader very helpful information on how and why the sleuth evolved, and how the sleuth goes about investigating. On the other hand, there’s always the risk of overburdening the reader with too much detail, or of making a novel too “choppy.” How do your favorite authors share their sleuths’ histories?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen's Glory Days.


  1. Two very different sleuths with fascinating backstories that add to our understanding of the characters are:
    Dr Siri Paiboun, in Colin Cotterill's books.
    Bernie Gunther, bits of whose back story is included in Philip Kerr's books which move backward and forward in time.

  2. Norman - Oh, thank you for reminding me of Dr. Siri! He certainly has a very interesting backstory, and Cotterill does a fine job, I think, of sharing it with us without overburdening. I'd agree with you about Kerr, too. In fact, the Jassy Mackenzie novel I mentioned in the post does a similar thing with the backstory.

  3. Margot, your posts are gentle reminders that I am very far behind on reading all of my favorite mystery series, especially Alexander McCall Smith. Each time I stop by here, I just want to hide somewhere for a month with a big stack of books. I do enjoy the ones where the sleuth grows and changes over time, and where we have secondary characters that return, experience crises, get involved in the sleuths life. Sigh. I need to go on a reading binge.

  4. I'm always fascinated when, several books into a series, you learn something new about the sleuth. You think: Has the author known that all along, or did he/she just make it up?

  5. Patricia - I feel terribly behind in my reading, too. It's just amazing how many wonderful series there are out there, isn't it? And I agree with you that series where the sleuth evolves over time really are engaging. That's one thing I really like about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series: all of those characters grow, develop and change over time.

    Kerrie - I wonder about that, too. I think the picture of the sleuth becomes clearer to the author over time, just as we get a clearer picture of a person as we get to know her or him better. But sometimes those new things we learn as readers do seem to come as a surprise.

  6. Hi Margot, You already know I passed a happy award on to you today because you apparently are "up and at 'em" earlier than I am. Many thanks for being a great blogger friend.

  7. I think it's far easier for a sleuth to have a detailed background if they appear in several books - far more pages to drop in snippets of backstory! If the sleuth has a fear of jello and it's tied to his traumatic seventh birthday party then let me know if jello figures into the present plot. If not, I'll happily wait to find it out later.

    Every character with substance has to grow and to do that a reader needs to know the starting place - or at least the starting place right now.

  8. Patricia - LOL! Yes, I do get up early. And thanks so much for the lovely award; that means a lot to me : ).

    Elspeth - You put that so well - as always! I, too, like finding out things in snippets, and I definitely like it best when we find out things that are relevant for the story. I suppose that means it does make it easier if the sleuth is a character in more than one book. Doing that in a standalone takes special care.

  9. Morse, Archer, Beck, the more depressed the better.

  10. Patti - LOL! I know what you mean. Those characters always have such complicated and interesting backstories, don't they?

  11. I really like finding out the back story of a series character in this way, too - great post! The first few Harry Bosch novels (by Michael Connolly) were along these lines - particuarly the one where he followed up his mother. Later, Mickey Haller (the Lincoln Lawyer)turns out to have a very interesting back-story, which was very satisfying to regular readers of this author!

  12. Maxine - Thank you : ). I love the way Connelly shares Harry Bosch's story, too. Maybe it's because Bosch has a fascinating backstory : ). And I couldn't agree with you more: The Last Coyote tells Harry's story very well. And yes, Mickey Haller's story is woven expertly; no wonder Michael Connelly is on so many "top-ten" lists...including mine.

  13. I love how your examples have done it... a bit over time. Currently I've started a new series of books by Crombie and over time her detectives fall in love and I think in her latest, they're getting married. How cool is that!? You follow the characters through their lives and see them progress and grow as people. I especially like how Val Mcdermid has made Tony Hill grow in her series.

    Great post, Margot! Oh, and thanks for mentioning my blog. I was so wrapped up in your post I forgot you mentioned me! LOL. Sorry.


  14. Clarissa - Oh, it's my pleasure to mention your terrific blog! And thanks for bringing up Deborah Crombie's Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James; they are great characters, and I like it that we learn about them little by little. Over time, they've come to be friends to the reader. The same is, indeed, true of Tony Hill, I think.

    I think if the writer gives too much backstory at once, the risk is that the reader gets sated, and not caught up in the story, which, after all, should be the center of the novel.