Monday, July 19, 2010

Seeing the Sleuth Through Different Eyes...

We get to know characters in novels in lots of different ways. Obviously, there’s the reader’s own perspective on the characters. We get that perspective from simply following what the characters say and do and making up our minds about them. What’s just as interesting is what we learn about the characters from other characters. When we read what other characters think of a sleuth, for instance, we can get a very clear picture of what that sleuth is like. It can be especially valuable for sleuths who are less forthcoming, and for sleuths who aren’t really self-aware. Even for sleuths who are fully aware of what they’re like, it’s interesting to see them as other characters see them.

That’s one of the most important functions that Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson serves. Since the Holmes stories are told from his perspective, we get to learn what Watson thinks of Holmes. Here, for instance, is part of Waton’s description of Holmes as the two men first get to work together in A Study in Scarlet.

"He was quiet in his ways, and his habits were regular. Sometimes he spent his day at the chemical laboratory, sometimes in the dissecting-rooms, and occasionally in long walks, which appeared to take him into the lowest portions of the City. Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night. …I might have suspected him of being addicted to the use of some narcotic, had not the temperance and cleanliness of his whole life forbidden such a notion.

…His very person and appearance were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing, save during those intervals of torpor to which I have alluded; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination. His hands were invariably blotted with ink and stained with chemicals, yet he was possessed of extraordinary delicacy of touch, as I frequently had occasion to observe …"

And nearly all of the Holmes stories feature Watson’s reactions to Holmes’ deductive abilities.

We also get interesting descriptions of Agatha Christie’s sleuths from other characters. Of course, Captain Arthur Hastings is one of Hercule Poriot’s frequent companions in his cases. His descriptions of Poirot show his respect (even admiration) for Poirot’s deductive abilities, while at the same time acknowledging that Poirot is far from humble. For instance, here’s what Hastings has to say in the short story The Veiled Lady, which appears in Poirot Investigates. In that story, Poirot and Hastings agree to recover a compromising letter that a blackmailer named Mr. Lavington is using to extort money from Lady Millicent Castle Vaughn. Poirot and Hastings use an unorthodox approach to get the letter and nab a jewel thief in the process. Here’s how Hastings describes Poirot at the beginning of the story, when Poirot complains that London’s criminals fear him too much for there to be interesting cases:

“He [Poirot] always imagines that the whole world is thinking and talking of Hercule Poirot. He had certainly made a name for himself in London, but I could hardly believe that his existence struck terror into the criminal world.”

In Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage, we meet Miss Marple for the first time. Here’s what Vicar Leonard Clement says about her:

“’I rather like Miss Marple,’ I said. ‘She has, at least, a sense of humour,”

Clement’s wife, Griselda, disagrees, saying:

“'She’s the worst cat in the village…and she always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.'”

Later, Clement says:

“Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle appealing manner – Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous.”

Clement proves to be right, as Miss Marple is instrumental in solving the murder of Colonel Protheroe, who’s shot while he’s at the vicarage. And, interestingly enough, Miss Marple’s character becomes softer and less nosy over time.

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel is a unique character who sometimes has unorthodox ways of getting to the truth behind the cases he investigates. He’s described this way in Good Morning, Midnight:

“It would be hard to describe Andy Dalziel as a soothing presence, but like a shark dumped in a swimming pool, he provided a new and unignorable focus of attention.”

In this novel, Dalziel and Pascoe investigate the supposed suicide of successful businessman Pal Maciver, whose father supposedly committed suicide in exactly the same way ten years earlier. It turns out that Dalziel himself investigated the earlier killing and may have an uncomfortably close relationship with Kay Kafka, the dead man’s stepmother, and widow of his father. At one point, Pascoe is trying to convince Dalziel that the two deaths are connected, and deserve more investigation. Dalziel’s silent for a while, and Pascoe thinks:

“He still doesn’t want to give it up [whatever it is that Dalziel’s hiding about the first death], thought Pascoe. …and he hates the idea of admitting he’s fallible. I know the feeling.”

Andrea Camilleri’s Livia Burlando is not afraid to say what she thinks of her lover, Salvo Montalbano. She does love him, and respects what he’s trying to do. But to her, he’s not always a brave, shrewd and hardworking detective. Livia also sees Montalbano’s faults and gives us a fascinating look at Montalbano from another perspective. For instance, in The Snack Thief, Montalbano is investigating two cases, one of which is the stabbing death of retiree Aurelio Lapècora inside an elevator. In the course of interviewing some of the people who lived in Signor Lapècora’s apartment building, Montalbano finds that one woman and her daughter saw the man in the elevator and did nothing to help him. Another resident rode in the elevator with the dead man because he’d lost a bottle of wine. He didn’t report the death, because he was afraid of his wife finding out about the wine. Montalbano isn’t happy at what he perceives as the women’s callousness, and he has sympathy for the man who’s lost the wine. So he arranges for the two women to be taken down to the police station for further questioning, and for the man to receive a replacement bottle of wine. This, he thinks, is very clever. Livia does not agree. She says,

“'You’re…a sexist. First you disgrace those two wretched women, and then you buy a bottle of wine for a guy who had no qualms about riding up and down in the elevator with a corpse. Now tell me that’s not acting like a jerk.'”

It’s a very different perspective, and gives us another side to Montalbano’s character.

In Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton, we meet former candidate for the ministry Alexander Seaton, who’s been disgraced because of an incident he wants desperately to forget. He sees himself as eternally damned, but when his friend, Charles Thom, asks for his help, Seaton responds. Thom’s been accused of poisoning his rival in love, Patrick Davidson, and he asks Seaton to help clear his name. Seaton agrees and begins to put together the pieces of what happened the night Davidson died. In his quest to find out the truth, Seaton also begins to reflect on his own life. He eventually realizes that he has friends who have a completely different perception of him from his own. This point is made several times in the novel. For instance, at one point, Seaton helps to save a maid, Sarah Forbes, from disgrace because she became pregnant out of wedlock. He finds her a place to live and work with friends of his, and helps assure her future. When Seaton’s friend, Jaffray, finds out about it, he says,

“That was a good thing you did, Alexander. Neither you nor your friend Cargill will have cause to regret it.”

It’s in scenes like this that we get a completely different perspective on Alexander Seaton.

Very often, other characters can give us perspective on the sleuth that we might not have ourselves. Those other perspectives can add much to a crime story, and help us get to know the sleuth. Whose perspectives have helped you get to know your favorite sleuths?


  1. Good post! I love stories where you get differing perceptions.

    And, of course, let's not forget how much what a character thinks about someone tells us about himself. Whether a character is astute, or blinded to certain things we learn a lot about that character when they judge someone else.

  2. Daring Novelist - Thank you : ). You've got a very well-taken point, too. The way that characters think about others (and, sometimes, about themselves) says a lot about them. When you see the way the sleuth treats others, and speaks of them, you do get a good picture of what s/he's like.

  3. Those closest to him, his friends and his enemies. My protagonist had been profiled by one of the best hackers M.I.T. has ever produced (and there have been some great ones). They can profile him and his friends, then make desicions accordingly.

    Stephen Tremp

  4. Stephen - Those are definitely useful characters for helping us get to know the protagonist! Friends and family will often have a very accurate way of seeing a protagonist, and sometimes there's a lot of past history that they share. That history can help us, too. Enemies can be useful, too, as they'll know a character's weak points. Your story, by the way, sounds intriguing.

  5. Andy Dalziel is among my favorite modern sleuths. The 'shark in a swimming pool' discription is perfect. Never a dull moment when he's on the job.

  6. John - Isn't Andy Dalziel one of a kind? He is a terrific sleuth, and I have to say, I chuckled when I first read that description. It suits him perfectly!

  7. I love it when I get the chance to see the sleuth through another character's eyes - it gives such a wonderful perspective not only on the sleuth but on the other character as well! Perhaps, this is why I write from more than one POV...

  8. Elspeth - ...and I'm glad that you do. I think it's one of the most effective ways to share the sleuth's character with the reader. And of course, as you say, different POVs also lets one give the reader information on the other characters. I also think it's an effective way to break things up and avoid tedium.

  9. It is so funny the way Miss Marple develops, but the interesting thing is that as Griselda gets to know her, her view on the old ´cat´ also changes. So perhaps Griselda is young and makes sweeping generalizations, but during the novel she matures a bit?

  10. Dorte - Oh, that is a really interesting possibility! Griselda is young (twenty years younger, I think, than her husband), so it makes sense that she makes those generalizations. And why shouldn't she do a little growing as the story goes on. I love that perspective of yours : ).

  11. It's one of my favorite reasons for writing in third person and from various POVs. I think that it's a perfect way to see the different character from each other's POV.