Friday, August 6, 2010

Maybe Then You'll See a Different Side of Me*

One of the reasons that crime fiction readers become devotees of one or another sleuth is that the sleuth is an interesting, well-rounded character. Of course, sleuths who are perfect can be insufferable. But when a sleuth has an interesting talent or skill besides sleuthing, this can add a solid layer to the sleuth’s character and can make the sleuth more appealing. It’s much like discovering that a friend is a former gymnast, or is highly skilled technologically.

Of course, there are lots of crime fiction series, such as Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series, where the sleuth’s special skill is at the center of a mystery, and those stories can be engaging. Many cosy series are like that. But what can be even more intriguing is to find out other skills or interests that the sleuth has.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is an accomplished break-in artist. We find that out in
Dead Man’s Mirror, which appears in Murder in the Mews. In that story, Poirot is summoned by Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore when Sir Gervase believes he is being financially cheated. Poirot visits the Chevenix-Gore home, but no sooner has he arrived than Chevenix-Gore’s body is found in his locked study. On the surface, it seems that Sir Gervase has committed suicide. But Poirot isn’t sure it’s that simple. In the first place, Sir Gervase was very full of a sense of his own importance. So it doesn’t make sense that a man like that would commit suicide. There are a few other clues, too, that make Poirot suspicious of the “suicide” explanation. The problem is that Sir Gervase was found in his locked study, and there seems no way that a killer could enter and leave again. In the end, Poirot is able to demonstrate how the French windows in the study could have been manipulated so that the killer could escape and make the crime scene look as though the French windows had been locked the whole time. It’s a neat example of his burgling skills.

We also see this in The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, which appears in Poirot Investigates. In that story, Hastings attends a party where he meets a young woman who tells him that she and her husband have just had a real stroke of luck in renting a beautiful flat for a ridiculously low rent. When Hastings tells Poirot about the woman’s story, Poirot becomes suspicious that something more is going on than just a piece of good fortune. So he begins to investigate the apartment building. Poirot finds that the young couple have inadvertently been drawn into a complicated plot involving international espionage and stolen Naval plans. One Poirot figures out who the people are who have engineered the plot, he lays a trap for them. This trap involves breaking into the cheap flat, and that’s exactly what he and Hastings do. In fact, they use a coal lift that goes to all of the flats to move from the flat Poirot has rented in the building to the flat that Hastings described. Poirot’s ability to break in to the flat allows him to catch the culprit.

And then there's Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, who shows off his athletic ability during a cricket match in Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, Wimsey investigates the murder of copywriter Victor Dean, who fell to his death down the spiral staircase at Pym's Publicity, Ltd., where he worked. At first, his death looks like an accident, but Dean left a half-finished letter behind, in which he mentioned that someone at the company was involved in illegal activities. Wimsey goes undercover at the agency to find out the truth behind Dean's death, and discovers who in the firm was guilty. At a crucial point in the story, the company is involved in a cricket match, and Lord Peter's skill comes in very handy. So does the skill he shows at creating successful advertising.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is also multi-talented. Not only does he have a brilliant investigative mind, but he’s also quite skilled with words and language. In fact, he studied at Oxford before joining the police force and is always quick to correct anything he sees as not “proper” grammar. Morse is an avid crossword puzzle fan, and sometimes, his crossword habit plays a role in the story. For instance, in The Daughters of Cain, Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure and the disappearance (and later murder) of his former scout, Ted Brooks. It turns out that the two deaths are connected in more than one way and slowly, Morse finds out the network of relationships and past history that have played a role in the murders. At one point, he’s doing a crossword puzzle with the clue:

A kick in the pants: __ __ __ - __ __ __ __ __

The answer, as we find out later, turns out to be hip-flask. What’s interesting about this particular clue is that a hip-flask figures in Morse’s complex relationship with Ellie Smith, a prostitute who turns out to be a suspect in both murders.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee also has skills besides his ability to solve crimes. He’s a member of the Navajo Nation, and has been taught from early childhood to “read” signs that he sees around him. So he’s quite good at tracking and drawing conclusions from what he’s seen. For example, in The Dark Wind, Chee is on the trail of someone who’s been vandalizing a water tower. He’s also on the case of an unidentified dead man found in the area, and the remains of a plane crash. In the end, the three cases are all connected, and Chee’s able to uncover the mystery. One of the things that adds interest to this story is the way in which Chee uses his tracking skills. For instance, at one point, Chee finds the wreckage of the plane, and finds tread marks of a vehicle that was at the scene. Later, he finds exactly the same tread patterns in an arroyo, and is able to find the car. That discovery helps Chee to connect the various threads of this mystery and solve the case.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe is a successful detective. In part, it’s because of her insights into human nature. But she’s also very much aware of the natural forces around her, and she’s got a good knowledge of cattle. Mma. Ramotswe’s father, Obed Ramotswe, had been a an excellent judge of cattle and he taught his daughter to also make wise judgments. That special knowledge of cattle doesn’t always help Mma. Ramotswe solve her cases – not directly, anyway. However, her insights into how the world works, and how nature works, also give her insight into how humans interact. That insight turns out to be very helpful as she solves her cases.

Even though Caroline Graham’s Inspector Tom Barnaby doesn’t rely heavily on his “green thumb” to solve cases, he’s an avid gardener. Barnaby often spends his free time doing battle with weeds and trying to improve the quality of what he’s growing. There are frequent references in the series to Barnaby’s love of gardening and in fact, in A Place of Safety, Barnaby’s daughter and son-in law manage to surprise him with a new lawn mower for his birthday. That scene isn’t a major part of the novel, but it adds a real layer of interest to Barnaby’s character.

Many people don’t think of those with special needs as having particular skills as well, but in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we find out that Christopher Boone actually does. He’s a fifteen-year-old boy with autism, who one day decides to be a detective. He’s found the body of his neighbors’ dog, and wants to know who’s responsible for the killing. He’s read about Sherlock Holmes, and decides to use his detective powers to solve the case. Christopher has an extraordinary visual memory, so he’s able to form very clear mental pictures. He notices very small details, too, and in fact in one chapter of this novel, he describes how his view of a room differs from that of other people. Despite his lack of what most people think of as social skills, Christopher finds out what happened to the dog, and in the process, learns some surprising secrets about his family and his past, too.

We all have faults and failings, and so do sleuths. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be interesting. But it’s also interesting and engaging when sleuths have special interests and skills that make them unique. They may or may not use those skills to solve cases, but even if they don’t, those special talents add to the sleuth’s personalities. Which special skills do your favorite sleuths have?

: The title of this post is a line from Matchbox 20's I'm Not Crazy.


  1. One wonders if Poirot's burgling skills were obtained in a misspent youth. :-)

  2. Al - LOL! Quite possibly : ). Poirot himself claims he learnt them from a burglar he apprehended, but we all know that Poirot is not averse to - er - stretching the truth when it's expedient ; ).

  3. I love it when characters have a skill. Like when they are a musical prodigy or a math genius. I know that's on TV but I find that interesting.

  4. Clarissa - Oh, I agree. It really is interesting, isn't it? It may be a "TV" thing, but it adds a spark of interest when it's done well.

  5. Miss Marple's skills lie in her powers of observation don't they and her ability to compare the mundane with the out of place. She doesn't look like a sleuth, and she's not particularly well-rounded either.
    I'm amazed, as always, at all the examples you can quote Margot. I want to come to join your lectures :-)

  6. Kerrie - You are so kind : ). Thank you! I think you do have a very good point. Miss Marple's real skill is in her observational skill. She's got a very keen eye, even for a facial expression. I might say that she also has a solid sense of human nature. But then, that falls in with your point about her ability to pick out the mundane from the unusual. She knows how humans "typically" (if there is such a thing) behave, so when something's amiss, she sees.

  7. When I saw the picture I immediately thought of Dexter. Not sure why LOL! But he has a special talent and used special tool. He's a slueth. No doubt about that.

    Stephen Tremp

  8. I have to agree with Stephen, Dexter was the first one I thought of too. I guess you could say he has a hidden talent for his ability to solve crimes.

    Thoughts in Progress

  9. Stephen - You do have a well-taken point about Dexter. He certainly has a special talent that he uses to solve crimes. I wouldn't have thought of that, but it does fit.

    Mason - Interesting that you and Stephen both thought of Dexter. Well, he certainly does have what you could call a skill that he uses for sleuthing.

  10. I love The Curious... I love that the story focused on his adventure ... Christopher seems to want us to root for him, not pity him because of his autism.

    Through his social interactions we see how horribly many other people treat him. The ones who don't treat him this way are the ones who understand him.

    The story was indeed mysterious. Very unpredictable!

  11. It's already been mentioned, but I'd have to choose Miss Marple, too. To my mind she is a more 'realistic' version of Sherlock Holmes. While he is a true master at observation, I always find him a bit far-fetched!

    I found you through the wonderful Clarissa Draper, and I'm very glad I did. You have a fascinating blog :0)

  12. I agree with Kit. I've always preferred Miss Marple to Poirot. She's much more 'human' and more interesting a character.
    The same might be said for Barbara Havers in Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series.

  13. Loveable-Homebody - Isn't The Curious Incident... a terrific story? You've got a good point, too. It focuses not on Christopher's disability (although that's mentioned and authentic), but on his curiosity and on his sense of adventure. When I read it, I thought it was as though he were saying, "See? Just look at things from my perspective and you'll understand." Anyone who does look at things from his perspective seems to treat him not as disabled, but as a person. It is an excellent book, I think.

    Kit - Thank you : ). That's very kind of you. And I agree; Clarissa Draper is fantastic : ). Interesting that you would mention your preference for Miss Marple. She does, as you say, have very keen powers of observation, but at the same time, she's quite human, too. I like that about her; it makes her more appealing.

    John - Miss Marple certainly is a human and approachable character, and that adds to her appeal. I like Barbara Havers, too, for that reason. She's got detection skills, etc., and she's smart nad courageous. But she really is very human, too, and we can relate to her. She gets prickly at times, but I don't think that takes away from her character; in fact, you could argue it's a logical part of her character.

  14. The Haddon book was excellent. Autism does confer special gifts, I think, which made him quite a good detective.

  15. Patti - You know, I think you're right. There's a level of observation and attention to detail that many folks on the autism spectrum have that the rest of us don't. That does "count" as a gift and certainly makes Christopher Boone a good detective. I wonder if Haddon plans more stories about him. I hope so.

  16. Do you mean the one who writes poetry, the one who creates crossword puzzles or one of my other gazillion favourites?

    My favourite Danish protagonist loves plastic surgery (her surgeon often reminds her of Michael Jackson), and my own Danish protagonist is engaged in genealogy.

  17. Dorte - LOL! I know what you mean. My favorite sleuths all have skills, too. How interesting that your Danish protagonist knows all about genealogy! I've often thought how fascinating people's family histories are, and here your protagonist studies that kind of thing. I must read more of your work.