Sunday, July 11, 2010

Like Oil and Water...

None of us is perfect; we all have our little faults and weaknesses. If you put that fact together with the fact that we are all different, it’s easy to see why some people just don’t get along. It could be something as simple as having very different tastes and priorities, or it could be some more serious cause. Either way, just about all of us have people in our lives that we simply don’t like very much. Sometimes, because of work or for some other reason, we have to deal with people we actively dislike. When it’s impossible to avoid people we don’t like, we might do our best to be what’s sometimes called civil, but it definitely adds to our stress and tension. It’s no different in crime fiction (which, after all, is a mirror on our lives when it’s done well). It can add a layer of interest, a layer of tension and even a comic twist when characters in crime fiction have to deal with people that they don’t like.

For instance, in Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate a series of murders that are linked only by cryptic warning notes sent to Poirot before each killing, and an ABC railway guide found next to each body. When it becomes apparent that this is a series of killings, and not isolated cases, Inspector Crome from Scotland Yard is assigned to the team of investigators. Crome has just successfully caught the killer in a series of child murders, so he’s confident that his expertise can help. The only problem is that he and Poirot (and he and Hastings) just rub each other the wrong way. They’re all aware that squabbling won’t solve the case, so they manage to work together. But it’s obvious that Crome thinks Poirot outdated in his methods and not well-equipped to solve this case. For their parts, Poirot and Hastings think Crome is arrogant and condescending, so it’s not a particularly congenial mixing of personalities. The group (which also includes Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp) does work together and in the end, the killer is caught. But throughout the novel, there’s an undercurrent of added tension that adds to the story.

In Christie’s Hickory Dickory Death (AKA Hickory Dickory Dock), Poirot investigates a series of mysterious thefts and other events at a hostel for students. When one of the residents, Celia Austin, admits that she’s responsible for most of the thefts, everyone thinks that the matter is settled. Then, two nights later, Celia dies in her sleep, seemingly the victim of suicide by poisoning. But Mrs. Hubbard, who manages the hostel, shows Poirot and the police evidence that Celia didn’t kill herself, so now they have not just some odd thefts, but a murder on their hands. As Poirot and Inspector Sharpe look into what’s been going on at the hostel, they also uncover some interesting animosities. For example, one of the residents is disliked because of her sanctimoniousness. Another is disliked because he enjoys saying things that he knows annoys other people. There are other personality clashes, too, that add a very interesting layer of suspense to this novel. In fact, ironically enough, the only resident of the hostel who doesn’t seem to have any of this sort of conflict is the victim, Celia Austin. She’s not particularly bright, but no-one actively dislikes her. In the end, Poirot finds out the truth about the events at the hostel, and we learn that having a pleasant personality couldn’t save Celia from the danger she was in.

There are some interesting ongoing personality conflicts in Rita Mae Brown’s Mrs. Murphy series. Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen, Brown’s sleuth, is the former postmistress of tiny Crozet, Virginia, where everyone knows everyone else. One of the other residents of Crozet is Olivia “Boom Boom” Craycroft, whose husband, Kelly, is murdered in Wish You Were Here. She and Harry have never gotten along very well, not even in high school. Harry considers “Boom Boom” to be man-crazy, looks-obsessed and shallow. “Boom Boom” thinks of Harry as awkward, frumpy and almost unfeminine. Things are not improved, either, by the fact that she had an affair with Harry’s husband, Pharamond “Fair” Haristeen. In fact, that’s an important part of the reason Harry and Fair divorced. As the series goes on, the two women make a sort of peace with each other. In fact, they work together on a few of the cases that Harry investigates. But they never really become close friends, and it’s interesting to see the way these two very different people interact.

In Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, there’s an ongoing, sometimes very funny, personality conflict between Plum and Joyce Barnhardt. They grew up together and have never liked each other. In fact, in more than one of the books in the series, Plum recounts unkind things that Joyce Barnhardt has done to her. The most flagrant was when Plum came home from work shortly after her marriage to attorney Dickie Orr, only to find him with Joyce. The two women have more than one run-in throughout the course of the series. For instance, in Four to Score, Plum finds out that Joyce is having an affair with Vinnie Plum, Stephanie’s married cousin and employer. That’s bad enough, but then, she finds out that Joyce wants to work for the bail bond agency that Vinnie owns. The last thing Stephanie Plum wants to do is work with Joyce Barnhardt, but Vinnie insists. Almost immediately, sparks fly. For one thing, Joyce has a habit of taking all the cases for herself (which means she’s the one that gets the money for catching the fugitive). For another, she’s not cut out for the dirty, difficult work that is fugitive apprehension. Fortunately for Stephanie, Joyce doesn’t last long as a bounty hunter, but the conflict between them continues to flare up throughout the series.


Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s series featuring Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir features a personality conflict between Thóra and Bella, secretary for Thóra’s law firm. Bella is often rude, doesn’t do her job, smokes in the office (although she’s been asked not to do so), and complains about everything she’s asked to do. Needless to say, she and Thóra do not get along. The problem is that Thóra and her law partner Bragi can’t fire Bella. When they originally took the offices where they practice, their landlord (who’s also Bella’s father) included a proviso that they had to hire Bella as their secretary. They can’t get out of the contract, so they have to tolerate Bella, although Thóra is sure she’s cost the firm dozens of potential clients. The ongoing feud between Thóra and Bella makes for realistic comic relief in the series.

In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover has an interesting conflict with her next-door-neighbor, Erma Sherman. Erma’s a busybody whose favorite topics of conversation include her own health and other people’s doings. Myrtle isn’t happy about the fact that Erma encourages squirrels and other wild animals into the area, since they’re harmful to lawns and gardens. She’s also not fond of Erma’s habit of trying to run her life. Erma thinks Myrtle’s ungrateful and sometimes un-neighborly. She’s also not fond of the large collection of ceramic gnomes that Myrtle puts in her yard whenever she’s angry at her son, Red. To Myrtle’s chagrin, she has to co-operate with Erma when she decides to investigate the murder of beautiful but malicious real estate developer Parke Stockard. When Parke’s body is found in a local church, Myrtle sees it as a perfect opportunity for her to prove that she’s not ready to be “put out to pasture” just yet. So she starts to gather clues, listen to gossip and choose the most likely suspects. Much as Myrtle doesn’t want to admit it, Erma proves helpful a few times throughout the novel; their “oil and water” relationship, though, adds an interesting twist and some humor to the story.

Colin Cotterill’s sleuth is Laos’ chief medical examiner Dr. Siri Paiboun. The Dr. Siri novels take place in 1970’s Laos, a time of Communist party rule and entrenched bureaucracy. Dr. Siri is not one to kowtow to authority, and he has a great respect for the old ways of Laos. So he doesn’t take kindly to officious bureaucrats, and he has some interesting personality conflicts with those who try to use their “clout” to interfere with what he’s doing. For instance, in Thirty-Three Teeth, Dr. Siri and his assistants, Nurse Dtui and morgue assistant Geung, are investigating the deaths of a pair of bicyclists and a woman who’s apparently been killed by a wild animal. In the midst of this, Dr. Siri is sent north to Luang Prabang to identify two charred corpses and find out how and why they died. When he arrives at Luang Prabang, he runs headlong into Comrade Houey, the head Communist leader of Luang Prabang. Comrade Houey is bloated with his own importance, rude to Dr. Siri and disrespectful of local customs. Dr. Siri, of course, is not one to calmly accept such disrespect, so he and Houey go up against each other several times in the novel and that personality conflict adds an interesting layer of tension to it.

And then there's Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers. When they first meet in A Great Deliverance, they don't get along at all. Mostly that's because of differences in their backgrounds and approaches. As the series moves along, they come to work better together, but that first novel is a clear example of a personality conflict.

Personality conflicts are a part of life for most of us, so it’s not at all surprising that they also show up in crime fiction. Which novels have you enjoyed that feature these conflicts?

22 comments:

  1. I was just thinking about this while I was thinking about the role of the policeman in traditional mysteries. I think part of the reason so many mysteries have the detective at odds with the police (or someone else) is because the real badguy is hidden. You need conflict, and what better than a rival?

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  2. Daring Novelist - You've got such a good point! Rivalry is a very effective way to introduce some conflict into a story, isn't it? So it makes an awful lot of sense if the detective doesn't get along with a police officer (or someone else "official"). Interesting perspective.

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  3. Hmmm, I love when people don't get along... in a novel, I mean. I think it adds such a wonderful twist and extra tension. I can't think of any examples but love the ones you gave.

    CD

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  4. Clarissa - Thanks : ). It does add a an interesting level of conflict and tension, doesn't it? Funny, too: I tend to dislike conflict in real life...

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  5. It occurred to me while reading this post that some authors are successful when they make their protagonists the irksome character. Dave Robicheaux's constantly vexing his boss, his wife, and even his best friend Clete. The same can be said for Lucas Davenport, except he doesn't have a best friend in the series. Then there's Nero Wolfe who has no friends at all, just employees. These characters don't encounter personality conflicts so much as initiate them. I'm sure these authors know that their fans don't just expect these clashes but relish them.

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  6. Bob - You've got a very interesting point. Sometimes, the protagonist is irksome (I like your choice of word, too)and that adds to his or her appeal. Certainly Robicheaux's an example of that. So is Inspector Morse. I like your other examples, too and yes, fans do look forward to those clashes. The risk the author runs with an irksome sleuth is not making the sleuth appealing enough to readers, so it's also important to make the sleuth likable.

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  7. Thanks for the mention! I do really like the extra conflict and tension when characters don't get along--and I like crime novels that reflect real life...in real life we don't always get along with others.

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  8. Elizabeth - My pleasure; I just love Myrtle, and I can't wait to "meet" Lulu : ). I agree with you, too, that in real life, we don't get along with everyone. Even if we make an effort to be what people call "civil," it doesn't always work. So why should characters get along with everyone? That conflict really does add an interesting layer of tension.

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  9. What a great post! I like these kinds of conflict too - but what about when the character has a conflict with the author? I recall Michael Connelly saying that he had to get rid of one of Bosch's partners as he did not like the character in the end (and I think this has happened in the first few novels in the series, too). Also, Ian Rankin's Rebus began with a sidekick called Brian someone, but one sensed the author did not like him much, so out he went and was replaced by Siobhan (who if I recall had to work at it a bit to get accepted - but by the last Rebus book, she's the one who is perhaps a better policeman than him, and certainly respected by him.) Ian Rankin's new novel, The Complaints, covers this topic too, with the two partners in the novel definitely not trusting ones - to the contrary in fact. This certainly gives the novel an unusual edge.

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  10. Maxine - Thank you : ). And what an interesting point you bring up: when the author doesn't like a character. Agatha Christie was said to have gotten quite fed up with Hercule Poirot; in fact, her fictional detective, Ariadne Oliver, was supposed to have parodied this in her dislike of her sleuth, Sven Hjerson. Thanks, too, for bringing up Rankin's Brian Holmes. He wasn't nearly as engaging a character (at least in my opinion) as Siobhan Clarke is, and perhaps that's why (or because - hard to say, really) Rankin doesn't seem to have liked him, and got rid of him. And Connelly's a fine enough writer that it makes sense that he'd not rest until he had characters he really liked. Such great food for thought you've given me : ).

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  11. You are so right, Margot. As well as the 'big conflict' (murder, theft, blackmail) of our crime stories there needs to be several smaller conflicts to keep the reader engrossed. As you say, this is what real life is like too. Interesting post, thank you. Nx

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  12. Nettie - Thanks : ). I appreciate the kind words. No doubt about it; life is full of both large and small conflicts, and no-one gets along with everyone, so if a fictional character never has a dust-up, it can be much less realistic.

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  13. As you know, Margot, I'm a huge Elizabeth George fan, so I greatly enjoyed the fireworks between Havers and Lynley. Even more interesting are the hints I inferred from her latest book. Hmmm.

    Changing the subject (it's my comment and I can, so I will) did you see the David Suchet "Murder on the Orient Express" last night? Verrrry interesting interpretation. I really admired it.

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  14. Elspeth - I thought of you when I was writing that bit about Lynley and Havers. It will, indeed, be interesting to see what happens next...

    As to Murder on the Orient Express, I, too, respect what the creators (and Suchet) were doing, and to me, Suchet is Poirot. However, I have to confess to being a bit of a purist. I really prefer what's aired to stay faithful to the book. Still, it certainly wasn't a slapped-together mess.

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  15. I like to see a little bit of oil and water in a novel. I have tried to add it to mine, not sure if it will work, but we will see.
    I loved the Erma and Myrtle pull in Pretty is as Pretty Dies.

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  16. Glynis - Isn't that Erma/Myrtle dynamic interesting? Fun, too : ). I agree that a little oil and water can add some interesting zest to a story, and I'll bet you've done a fine job of it.

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  17. The oil and water description is perfect for some of the characters you mentioned. One of my favorites is the character of 'Boom Boom' and Harry in the Rita Mae Brown series. Their relationship is so typical of everyday life. The same could be said of Myrtle Clover and Erma Sherman. This makes the stories more believable because they don't always get along, but sometimes they do need each other. Enjoyed the post.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

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  18. Mason - Thanks : ). I like those relationships, too. "Boom Boom" Craycroft and Harry have no reason to get along - so they don't. It really is very realistic. The same's true of Myrtle Clover and Erma Sherman. The reader can identify with the friction between them because it makes sense that they wouldn't get along. You're right; that adds a nice touch of everyday believability to a story.

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  19. Fine examples, and Maxine´s comment made me laugh. When I had finished the first draft of my Danish novel, I was exasperated by my protagonist because she was such a wimp.
    I think I have improved her a bit now, at least we have learned to get along :D

    In my new cozy manuscript there are several characters who don´t get along, and it is really funny to write about their clashes and misunderstandings.

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  20. Dorte - I agree; Maxine's comment was funny : ). I'm very glad that you're getting along better with your protagonist; I am very much looking forward to meeting her. And I am very much looking forward to reading your cozy. I'm sure it'll be a great story.

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  21. How about Peter Lovesey's Peter Diamond, who is a fine detective of the 'old school' and antagonises just about all his professional colleagues? He runs rings round Wigfall, his rival in the Murder Squad; he drives his sidekick Julie into requesting a transfer when she reaches her limit of tolerance, and he makes it very clear to the top brass that he doesn't suffer fools gladly and they are at the top of his insufferable list. The strongest point in all this is that Diamond has to live with the results of his own actions, most important of which is resigning in a fit of temper. This is, in effect, his Reichenbach Falls, and his recovery from over the brink in 'The Summons' has its comic (even karmic, perhaps?) moments to be savoured.

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  22. Fiona - Oh, you are so right about Peter Diamond. He really is a victim of his own inability to get on well with others (and thanks for those examples). He's not the only sleuth who has the habit of being antagonistic, but he is a terrific example. I like your point, too, that he has to deal with the consequences of not working well with others. Thanks for sharing this!

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