Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Like a Rock*

Any crime can be a traumatic experience, but murder is especially traumatic. So it’s perfectly natural that people affected by murder would be tempted to fall apart. It’s a terrible thing to happen, and absolutely shattering when it happens to someone one knows or even loves. Some people, though, seem to be able to endure this kind of tragedy and remain strong. They more or less retain their presence of mind, and others turn to them and depend on them in a crisis. In crime fiction, characters like that can provide a welcome solid core to a story. After all, if too many characters fall apart under the stress of murder, a story runs the risk of becoming disjointed. Dependable, rock-solid characters can be part of the “glue” that holds a novel together. Of course, solidity doesn’t necessarily mean that a character isn’t shaken by the murder; it does mean that the solid character is able to pull him or herself together, even while others cannot.

Agatha Christie’s novels feature several of these rock-solid characters. For instance, in Dead Man’s Folly, Ariadne Oliver is commissioned to create a Murder Hunt (similar to a scavenger hunt) for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Oliver begins to believe that that there’s more going on with this Murder Hunt than a simple competition. So she asks Hercule Poirot to investigate, under the guise of presenting the awards to the Murder Hunt winners. Poirot agrees and spends the week-end at Nasse House. Ariadne Oliver’s worst fears come to pass when she and Poirot discover the strangled body of fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt. Now, Poirot and Inspector Bland sift through the clues to find out who would have wanted to murder her. As they interview all of the Stubbs house party and those who had the opportunity to kill Marlene, they meet Amy Folliat, the former owner of Nasse House, who still lives in the lodge on the property. She hasn’t had a particularly pleasant life, but she remains steady and strong, even as a murder investigation goes on in her former home. Her strength of character wins everyone’s respect; in fact, several other characters in this novel comment on their admiration for Amy Folliat.

The same is true of Honoria Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school that's the scene of Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. When games mistress Grace Springer is shot in the school’s new Sports Pavilion, there’s every concern that the school’s reputation might suffer. But Miss Bulstrode remains calm and collected, and does everything she can to help the police. Then, a kidnapping occurs, followed by another murder. Now, student after student is leaving the school, and it seems that Miss Bulstrode’s life’s work is in ruins. Yet, she stays strong, counters the natural panic parents feel with a brilliant set of decisions, and is able to, as the saying goes, ride the storm out. At this point, Julia Upjohn, one of the students in the school, visits Hercule Poirot to ask him to find out what’s behind the murders and kidnapping. Poirot visits the school and works with the police to find out the truth. Throughout this novel, Miss Bulstrode’s rock-solid dependability and determination lend an undertone of strength to the plot. In fact, Hercule Poirot admires her character so much that when the murders have been solved and the culprit caught, he uses all of his considerable influence to try to lure new students to the school, so that it can stay open.

In Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead, we meet Tom Lieberman, the director of the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center. Lieberman is not in the best of health; he has serious heart trouble. But he tries to disguise his illness as best he can when David Hunter, a forensic anthropologist and former student, visits the laboratory for an extended stay. Shortly after Hunter’s arrival, a decomposed body is found not far from the lab. The lab sends a team headed by Lieberman to work with the police and Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) to investigate the death. Then, another body is found. Now it’s clear that the team is up against a serial killer. As the team continues to try to get to the truth, Lieberman stays as focused and calm as he can. And, despite his failing health, he continues to lead the team. He works long hours, supports the other team members and serves as a strong source of support for the members of the team. Hunter can see that his former mentor is struggling physically, but Lieberman more or less shrugs off Hunter’s concern. Lieberman’s character is a clear example of how calm strength can provide a helpful counterbalance to the frenzy and bursts of activity that almost always accompany a murder investigation.

And then there’s Custis Norman. He’s the assistant commonwealth’s attorney for Patrick County, Virginia in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. In that novel, brothers Mason and Gates Hunt grow up in an abusive family, and when they’re adults, they take very different paths. Mason takes advantage of every opportunity, gets a scholarship to law school and eventually becomes an attorney. Gates, on the other hand, wastes his considerable athletic talent, turns to drugs and ends up living on his girlfriend’s Welfare check and on money he gets from his mother. One day, Gates Hunt has a run-in with Wayne Thompson, a rival for his girlfriend. Wayne leaves after the argument but later that night, the Hunt brothers meet up with him again. An argument starts and before anyone really knows what’s happened, Gates Hunt has shot Wayne Thompson. Out of a sense of duty and gratitude, Mason Hunt helps his brother cover up the crime and life goes on for both brothers. Then, Gates Hunt is jailed on a cocaine trafficking charge. He asks his brother to help him get out of prison, but Mason refuses. Gates is furious at what he sees as betrayal, and devises a plan to free himself from jail. He tells the police that he can prove that Mason shot Wayne Thompson if he can get out of prison. Now, Mason Hunt faces indictment on a charge of murder – a murder he didn’t commit. As Mason works frantically to clear his name and find a way to show his brother as a liar, he depends heavily on his assistant, Norman Custis. Custis is steadfastly loyal to his boss and remains a rock of support throughout the investigation. Even when Mason becomes increasingly unhinged by what’s going on, Norman supports him. His character adds an important layer of steadiness to this novel.

We also see that in the character of Lulu Taylor, whom we meet in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Suspicious and Delicious. That’s the story of the poisoning death of Rebecca Adrian, scout for the Cooking Channel. She’s in Memphis to find the best barbecue in town, and one of her top choices is Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. Aunt Pat’s has been run for years by the Taylor family and is now owned by sixty-something Lulu Taylor and her sons Ben and Sebastian (Seb). When Rebecca Adrian arrives in town, she wastes no time in alienating everyone, and it’s not long before she’s got some people truly upset. Then on the afternoon of her official visit to Aunt Pat’s, Rebecca Adrian is poisoned. Since Rebecca died not long after her visit to the restaurant, several people at Aunt Pat’s, including Lulu Taylor herself, are possible suspects. Lulu is as upset as anyone else is about the accusations being made about her family and employees, but she doesn’t allow herself to fall apart. She stays strong and remains very much the family matriarch as she tries to find out who killed Rebecca Adrian.

There are lots of other examples of crime fiction characters who stay as solid as a rock during a time of trauma. They add an important dose of steadiness to a plot, and they can sometimes give useful hints, clues and other help. Which of these steady characters have you enjoyed?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by the Dean of Detroit, Bob Seger.


  1. "When you can keep your head when all around you are losing theirs..." came immediately to mind while I was reading your post, Margot! I've found it fascinating which characters can 'keep their heads' when dealing with the fallout of such a horrific crime. Sometimes it's because they're so secure in their own innocence. Sometimes, it's because they're putting on an act. Sometimes it's because the murder hasn't affected them at all (which brings up all sorts of other questions).

    You make a very good point about how the reader needs these sort of characters. If everyone fell apart, chaos would ensue. Many times the rock is the detective, but I like it when it's the quiet one in the corner who reveals themselves has having massive inner strength that might not ever have seen the light of day.

  2. Elspeth - That's so interesting that you thought of that quote. I did, too, as I was preparing this post. You really are right that some characters keep their heads, so to speak, because they really are innocent, and some have other reasons. It can add a real layer of suspense, too, as the reader and the sleuth try to figure out whether a character is strong, lying, innocent, or something else.

    I'm glad, too, that you mentioned that sleuths can often keep their heads. Yes, murder affects us all, and it wouldn't be realistic if a police officer never ever got upset or sick at his/her stomach at a crime. But I think real cops do learn to control themselves. So it makes sense that a professional like a cop or private investigator might stay strong. But it is interesting, isn't it, when it's really someone else who stays calm. I like that, too :-).

  3. I thought of Elizabeth George's Tommy Lynley in the novels involving and immediately after the murder of his wife. Despite dealing with the horror of his personal tragedy he still functioned and did his job.

  4. John - You've got a very strong point. Whatever else Lynley is, he is a consummate professional, and yes, that's how he behaves, despite his own tragedies.

  5. I like how they're making women detectives stronger in fiction. Women used to be flighty-screamy characters that hid behind men when facing death but now women are stepping up as strong lead in novels.

    One character is the Kathy Reichs' Temperance Brennan. She's strong and has a lot of skill and when a case comes her way, we have faith that she'll solve it.


  6. Clarissa - You are right that fictional female sleuths have certainly come into their own. They are often strong and professional, and many people who love crime fiction get very put off if they aren't. You could argue that these days, female professional sleuths are expected to behave as skilled, in-control professionals. That doesn't mean they don't have feelings and don't react to the horrors they sometimes have to see, but they are professionals.

  7. I agree with Clarissa. I'm glad women detectives are being portrayed stronger. Temperance Brennan was one character that came to mind, as well as J.D. RObb's Eve Dallas. She has her own demons that she deals with, but when faced with murder she keeps calm and cool.


    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - You make a well-taken point. Both Temperance Brennan and Eve Dallas wrestle with personal issues and certainly react when they deal with horror. But they remain competent and professional.

  9. I thought of the same quote as Elspeth did when I was reading this post.
    Lulu Taylor was the first cozy I ever read, and I loved her. Miss Marple is another lady who rarely loses her cool. Guess the older ladies seldom do.

  10. Thanks for the mention, Margot. :)

    I think, for the sleuth, it's definitely important to keep her cool and find the clues.

    Sometimes, in crime fiction, I'll read supreme coolness of a suspect after a murder as a sign the suspect didn't care about the victim's death. I'm frequently misreading this. :)

  11. Rayna - Isn't that interesting how certain quotes can just come into one's mind like that? If Delicious and Suspicious is your introduction to the world of cosies, you're got wonderful start :-). And yes, both Lulu Taylor and Miss Marple seem to be able to keep their cool, even when they are scared. It's funny you would mention that about older ladies. There does seem to be a pattern of older ladies who can stay calm like that under pressure. Maybe I'll do a post about that some time..

    Elizabeth - Oh, it was my pleasure. Delicious and Suspicious is terrific! And I agree, the sleuth really does need to try to stay calm. It's not always easy to do, but s/he needs to; a sleuth who's hysterical without a very compelling reason is not interesting.

    And I've been "caught," too, by the outwardly cool and calm manner of a suspect. As you say, that doesn't always mean the suspect didn't care about the victim's death...

  12. I also love Miss Marple for her calm, collected way of dealing with crises. On TV, J.T. Fletcher of Murder She Wrote comes to mind. And dare I mention the elder ladies of the Florida Flippers travel club from The Desert Hedge Murders?

  13. Patricia - Oh, yes, you should mention the wonderful Florida Flippers! They are terrific characters, and they certainly do seem able to keep it together, despite all that happens to them in The Desert Hedge Murders. Thanks for bringing them up. And Jessica Fletcher, too. She's another example of a character who stays cool and calm.