Tuesday, October 26, 2010

You’re Gone and Yet You Haunt Me Still*

One of the things that can make a well-written crime fiction novel memorable is if there is a character who is so vividly depicted that she or he becomes real to the reader. Some authors do this with the sleuth; over time, readers feel they've come to know the sleuth, and they enjoy meeting up with him or her again in each new instalment of a series. Other authors choose to paint a vivid portrait of the killer. This allows the reader to really understand what makes a person kill and how the fact of killing affects the murderer. But what's especially interesting is when the character who's depicted that vividly isn't even alive. Whether the person who's died is the victim or someone else, it takes a lot of skill to paint a memorable, clear, even haunting picture of someone we don't even get to meet in the course of a story.

Agatha Christie does just that in
Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect). In that novel, Carla Lemarchant asks Poirot to take on a very challenging case: the sixteen-year-old murder of her father, famous painter Amyas Crale. Crale was poisoned one afternoon while he was working on his latest painting; at the time, his wife Caroline Crale was the most likely suspect. Crale was regularly unfaithful to her and she'd been told he was going to leave her for his current mistress Elsa Greer. The poison used to murder Crale was found to be in Caroline Crale's possession, too. Based on this and other evidence, Caroline Crale was arrested, tried and convicted for murder, and died in prison a year later. Carla Lemarchant is convinced that her mother was innocent and wants Poirot to find out who really committed the murder. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the matter. He visits each of the five people who were "on the scene" at the time of the murder and asks each to write out an account of what happened. He also interviews several other people connected with the case. As he does, we begin to get a very vivid picture of both of the Crales. In fact, by the end of the novel, they seem to be at least as real as the characters who are still alive. When Poirot gathers all of the people involved in the case together to explain what really happened, Carla is keenly aware of her mother's presence:

Carla had a sudden feeling of someone in the room, gathering shape, listening, breathing, waiting. She thought: She's here - my mother's here. Caroline -Caroline Crale is here in this room!"

We don't get to meet famous writer John Gwathney, either, before he's killed in Dicey Deere's
The Irish Village Murder. When interpreter Torrey Tunet returns to her cottage in the Irish village of Ballynagh after a business trip, she expects to have a relaxing break between interpreting assignments. Instead, she gets drawn into Gwathney's murder. He was shot one evening in his home, and the prime suspect is his housekeeper and lover, Megan O'Faolain. There's some evidence against her, too: she was due to inherit quite a lot of money from him. Also, she has a very weak alibi for the time of the murder. There are also rumours that she'd taken a new lover, Liam Caffey, a local potter. Torrey Tunet happens to be a friend of Megan's, and doesn't think Megan is guilty of murder. So she decides to investigate the death. In the process of looking for clues, Torrey comes upon the manuscript of a book Gwathney was working on when he died, as well as a personal journal he kept. Deere uses these, as well as the recollections of other villagers and others whom Gwathney knew, to paint a very vivid portrait of the man. By the time the novel ends, we know enough about Gwathney's personal characteristics, quirks and scholarly work that he becomes quite as real as the other characters in the story.

That's what happens, too, with the character of Abe Handleman in
Alan Orloff's Diamonds for the Dead. Josh Handleman returns from San Francisco to his home in Northern Virginia when his father Abe dies from a fall down a staircase. At first, Abe Handleman's death is put down to a tragic accident. He was an older man, and the carpet at the top of the staircase was worn - easy enough for someone who needed a cane to get a foot or the cane caught and fall. But Lev Yurishenko, Abe Handleman's best friend, tells Josh that the death was not an accident. He even has a suspect in mind: Abe's boarder Yassian. Josh doesn't believe the accusation at first; he's dealing with his own grief, and he can't imagine his well-loved and well-respected father making any enemies. Soon, though, he discovers that his father had a valuable cache of diamonds that are now missing. He also finds out that his father was a lot wealthier than anyone had told him. As Josh Handleman sorts through what he's told about his father and what he finds out, we begin to get a clearer picture of what Abe Handleman was like. What's interesting about this picture is that we see it through the eyes of his son; as Josh learns more about his father, so does the reader. In the end, Abe Handleman is every bit as real and memorable a character as if he'd not been killed.

In Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's Last Rituals, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir investigates the murder of Harald Guntlieb, a German student studying in Iceland. His former friend Hugi Thórisson is arrested for the crime, but Guntlieb's family doesn't believe in his guilt. So they send their banking representative Matthew Reich to Reykjavík to work with Thóra and find out the truth behind Guntlieb's death. One of the interesting things about this novel is that we don't get to meet Guntlieb before his death. We learn about him as the story unfolds. And yet, even though he's the victim, Guntlieb seems in many ways as real as any of the living characters. As Thóra and Matthew interview witnesses, sift through the clues and put the pieces together, it's really Guntlieb's character as much as any of the others that's strong and memorable.

And then there's Bethany Friend, whose six-year-old downing death is investigated in Martin Ewards' The Serpent Pool. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her former partner and mentor Ben Kind had investigated the death when it first happened, but there was no clear evidence of foul play. Neither was entirely satisfied, though, so Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case. As the team investigates, they find that Bethany Friend's death is related to two more recent murders. With help from her friend and fellow Inspector Fern Larter, and Oxford Historian Daniel Kind, Scarlett discovers the relationship among the deaths and finds out who is responsible. Throughout this novel, the character of Bethany Friend comes into focus, so that she's a very real person. One might not describe her as strong, but she becomes almost alive again, although we never meet her.

A character doesn't even have to be the victim to have this effect on the reader. For example, in Alexander McCall Smith's
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, one of the very important, real characters is Obed Ramotswe, the father of Mma. Precious Ramotswe. Obed Ramotswe has already died when the series begins, but through flashbacks and other devices, McCall Smith tells us of his character and his life. In fact, Obed Ramotswe is a very real character, although we never really meet him. He's depicted quite vividly so that he seems at least as real, and certainly as memorable, as any of the living characters.

It makes a book that much more memorable when a character is so "real" that we remember her or him after the book is finished. It takes even more skill to do that if we never get to meet the character, really. Have you ever encountered characters like that? In which novels?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Fred Moolten's Someday Blues.


  1. Oh, reading your post really gave me a wonderful idea in my third novel and I had to go write it down. I'm not going to say what it was that inspired me because I don't want to ruin for you. However, I wish I had an example, however, I don't. Have a good night!


  2. Clarissa - Oh, I'm honoured I gave you an idea :-). Now I am so eager to read what you write. I am excited.... Thanks for telling me :-)

  3. I guess the "absent" character most memorable to me is Laura in the Vera Caspary novel and the great movie made of it. She eventually comes onto the scene but we already have such ideas about her.

  4. Patti - Oh, what a wonderful movie that is! Thanks for the reminder. I'm ashamed I haven't read the book, but the movie? Excellent! Folks, if you haven't seen this one, it's really worth a view. A great, haunting film...

  5. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is a classical case of "You’re Gone and Yet You Haunt Me Still"! She just popped into my mind as soon as I read the title of this post.

    Rebecca is the first wife of the man that our protagonist has married and has died under mysterious circumstances. But her memory has a strong hold on the estate and all of its inhabitants and visitors, especially the domineering housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers.

    The new Mrs. de Winter is intimidated by Mrs. Danvers and by the responsibilities of being the new chatelaine of Manderley. The continuous presence of Rebecca in the house starts to haunt her.

    In fact, we are not told the name of the protagonist in the entire book. While rebecca is mentioned in almost every page.

  6. Amey - What a wonderful example! And your summary captures the sense of the novel quite effectively. Many people don't think of Rebecca as a crime novel or a mystery novel, but it really is if you think about it. That's especially true as we learn what happened to Rebecca. You make a very interesting point, too, that Du Maurier shows how important Rebecca is, despite her having died, by never telling us the name of the protagonist.

  7. Was this post inspired by the book in yesterday's spotlight? Because Renata was one of the most memorable characters that I can think of. She and Carla.

    But of course, the BEST such example, as Amey said is Rebecca. The book is about her, but we see her not at all.

    How you do this day after day, everyday is beyond me. You are a genius, Margot.

  8. Ohh...Rebecca. Great example from Amey and Rayna. Loved that book and Rebecca was an ominous presence throughout.

    I loved Alan's book, too--very nice the way we find out more about the protagonist's dad...in surprising ways.

  9. Rayna - Actually you're quite right; I thought about how Renata Kearny influences the action in While My Pretty One Sleeps, and your comment about that, and it made me think of other books that do that. And yes, Rebecca is a wonderful example of what I had in mind - in fact, a classic example - and I'm glad Amey brought it up.

    ...and thank you for your kind words. Hardly true, but very kind...

    Elizabeth - Rebecca seems almost a stronger character than a lot of the living ones in that novel, and I like your use of the word ominous; it's a great description.

    Diamonds for the Dead is, indeed, a terrific book; it works as a character study and a mystery.

  10. It's always fascinating to only see an absent character through other character's eyes. Everyone's opinion of him/her will be different - some are haunted by her, some haven't given her a second thought. It can be thought-provoking on many, many levels.

  11. Elspeth - I agree completely. When the only way to learn about a character is through what other characters say and think, it gives us a whole different way to get to know that character. In mysteries, too, it means that the sleuth has to decide which other characters are telling the truth (or have an accurate portrait of a character), and which are lying (or mistaken). That can also add to the mystery...

  12. When I was lurking, and too scared to post, I used to wonder where you got the ideas for your posts from. I am so honoured that a comment of mine inspired such a fantastic post.

  13. Rayna - Oh, I am frequently inspired by your comments and your excellent blog. This is why, I think, there are so many people in the world. We give each other ideas.