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.