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.