Sunday, November 28, 2010

And I'm Not Ashamed to Say the Wild Boys Were My Friends*

One of the appeals of a good crime fiction novel is the set of characters. When they’re drawn well, we identify with them, we feel for them as they deal with the tragedy of murder, and we breathe a sigh of relief when the “bad guy” is caught and the other characters can start putting their lives back together. The more interesting the character, the more we get involved with that character and want to find out what happens to her or him. That can be especially true with what I’ll call “spicy” characters. These are reckless characters who can’t resist taking chances. On the one hand, we want to warn them to be careful and watch what they do. On the other, we secretly (or maybe not so secretly) admire their willingness to take chances and we admire them for not being trapped in fear. When they’re believable, these characters can add a solid layer of life to a novel or series. They can also add a layer of suspense, as we wonder what they might do.

Agatha Christie included several of these characters in her novels. For instance, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we meet brother and sister Charles and Theresa Arundell. When their Aunt Emily Arundell dies of what seems to be liver failure, both of them believe they’ll stand to inherit a large fortune. To their dismay, though, they discover that she’s left her fortune to her companion, Wilhelmina “Minnie” Lawson. Both Charles and Theresa live reckless lives, and are much in need of money, so they do everything they can to try to break the terms of their aunt’s will. Matters are complicated when it’s discovered that Emily Arundell was poisoned. Now, both of these young people are suspects in a murder case. Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate Miss Arundell’s death and find that Charles and Theresa Arundell are far from the only suspects. Their somewhat reckless approaches to life add a layer of interest to this novel; so does the question of whether either of them was reckless enough to commit murder…

In Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Poirot investigates the death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. He seems to have died a natural death, but when the family gathers after the funeral to hear the will, his sister Cora says that he was murdered. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, doesn’t take Cora’s words very seriously at first, although like everyone else, he privately wonders about it. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day, Mr. Entwhistle is convinced that she was right about her brother’s death and visits Poirot to ask him to investigate. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. He finds that several of Richard Abernethie’s relations stood to gain by his death. One of the more interesting of these relations is Abernethie’s niece, Susan Banks. She’s a bold, ambitious planner who wants to start her own beauty shop and needs her inheritance to do so. She’s got lots of personality and isn’t afraid at all to take risks. Her character adds “spice” to this novel, and although she’s bit “modern” for Poirot’s taste, she adds a lot of interest to the story.

Phoebe Griffin, who figures strongly in Benjamin Black’s Christine Falls and The Silver Swan is another interesting “spicy” character. In Christine Falls, we learn that Phoebe is the daughter of Doctor Malachy Griffin, whose step-brother, pathologist Garrett Quirke, is Black’s sleuth. One night, Quirke goes to his office unexpectedly, only to find that his step-brother is altering the medical records of a maid called Christine Falls, who, it turns out, died in childbirth. Quirke looks into the death, and the more he does, the more corruption and secrets he finds. The mystery of Christine Falls’ death touches Quirke’s own family, including Phoebe Griffin. As the story evolves, Phoebe makes a shocking discovery about herself, and this affects her profoundly. Even before that discovery, though, she’s a headstrong, proud young woman who isn’t at all afraid to take chances.

We see this again in The Silver Swan. In that novel, in fact, Phoebe’s recklessness gets her into real trouble when Quirke investigates the mysterious death of Deirdre Hunt. Deirdre died of what looks like suicide by drowning and her widower, Billy Hunt, wants Quirke to support that theory and not perform an autopsy. Quirke suspects foul play, though, especially since he’s found a puncture wound on Deirdre Hunt’s arm. He begins to look into her past, and finds plenty of mystery there. Under the professional name of Laura Swan, Deirdre co-owned a salon called The Silver Swan, and it’s there that Quirke starts his investigation. It’s also there that Phoebe Griffin gets caught up in the mystery – and finds herself in grave danger.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, DCI Alan Banks and his team investigate a series of crimes in the small Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Someone’s been responsible for a string of housebreakings in the area. The team is also looking into several complaints of voyeurism. To add to everyone’s concern, Alice Matlock is murdered. Bit by bit, the team puts the pieces of these various puzzles together to find out who’s been committing these crimes, and how they are related. One of the likely suspects is Mick Webster, a young teen with a bad reputation and no real life plans. He takes all sorts of risks, and is considered a bad influence. In fact, his friend Trevor Sharp is forbidden to spend time with Mick, not that that stops Sharp from seeing his friend. In the two boys’ conversations, we can see the kind of recklessness that adds interest to this story. For instance, here’s a snippet of a conversation in which they’re in a pub illegally, making plans for a late-night adventure:

“Trevor nodded. The thought…was frightening and exciting. ‘We’ll need flashlights,’ he said. ‘Little ones, those pen-lights.’

‘Got ‘em,’ Mick said proudly. ‘Lenny gave us a couple before he split for The Smoke.’

‘Fine then,’ Trevor smiled. ‘We’re on.’

‘We’re on,” Mick echoed. And they drank to it.

These two young boys’ recklessness ends up having tragic results, and it adds to the suspense of this novel.

And then there’s Clete Purcell, who appears in several of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels. He’s Robicheaux’s best friend: a former police officer-turned-private-investigator. Purcell drinks too much and has little respect for the letter of the law, especially if it seems to be protecting criminals. He’s got no fear of getting involved in even the most dangerous of cases, and he’s willing to take just about any risk. Purcell is even more reckless than Robicheaux is, and that’s saying something.

One of the “regular” characters in Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia series is Lady Julia’s sister, Lady Portia Bettiscombe. She flouts the conventions of the Victorian Era in which she lives. She lives openly with her female partner, dresses as she chooses, and takes all sorts of risks, social and otherwise.

In my own work in progress, there’s a young and reckless character who takes several chances he shouldn’t, and goes up against people he doesn’t think are as dangerous as they are.

There are also plenty of very reckless sleuths. For instance, Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander, Robert Crais’ Joe Pike, Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum and Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer are all sleuths who take a great number of risks. There are many others, too.

Reckless, “spicy” characters can add zest to a story and they certainly build the suspense. Since they can be unpredictable, they also can keep readers guessing. On the other hand, though, reckless characters can be clichéd and take away from the plot if what they is too unbelievable. What’s your view? Which are your favourite reckless characters? If you’re a writer, do you integrate reckless characters in your work?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Keeping the Faith.


  1. Susan Banks is one of my favourite characters- just one of several, but she stays with you. And that malachite table I was attracted to right from the start, and I loved that it played a role in nailing the culprit.

    Personally, I love sleuths who have darker shades of grey- they are far more interesting than the perfect ones. Come to think of it, I am not sure I have heard of too many perfect sleuths after Nancy Drew.

    Incidentally, I have just got delivery of Gallow's Way- am almost tempted to take a day off and read the book, but shall resist the tempatation somehow.

  2. Rayna - Isn't Susan Banks fascinating!? I would like to know her in real life :-). I agree with you, too, about that table. I noticed it right away, and I have to say I was pleased, too, that it ended up mattering :-).

    You're right, too, about sleuth; most of them have a reckless side. I think one has to take risks, don't you, in order to solve cases.

    I really hope you will like Gallows View. There are some terrific characters in that novel, and the setting is quite well-detailed, I think.

  3. Great post! These reckless characters definitely add an extra zing to the plot.

    Also I think they give the author a higher degree of freedom to twist and turn the plot as these characters are not bound by any "rules of engagement".

    In "The shape of snakes" by Minnete Walters every character is reckless ( though not in a
    prototypical way). Except the teenager son [surprising,isn't it? :)] of the protagonist! It creates a thick fog of suspicion and makes this novel a hell of a roller coaster ride!

    Also, I love those characters who are "carefully reckless" (sorry, I can't find any better words to describe this). Philip Marlow by Raymond Chandler and Perry Mason by Erle Stanley Gardner epitomize this attribute very well.

  4. Amey - Thank you :-). You make a well-taken point, too about how reckless characters "free up" the author. Reckless characters allow the author a certain amount of freedom to do all sorts of things with the plot. As you say, reckless characters are less predictable, so it's easier to move the plot in all sorts of different directions.

    You know, I hadn't thought of it, but there certainly are characters who are, as you put it, carefully reckless. That's as good a description of it as I can think of. They do take all sorts of risks and can behave recklessly, but only in certain circumstances. That's quite well-said.

  5. I agree if the sleuth or their sidekick are a little reckless, it gives the story a certain edge. As long as the author doesn't have them taking risks that aren't plausible.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - Oh, you definitely put your finger on an important point. Whatever risks that a character takes, they do, indeed, need to be plausible. A character who's reckless in an implausible way can take away from the story.

  7. I have no problem with a character taking risks but I do have problems with a supposedly clever character being stupid. After all, no one passed the police exams or qualified to be a detective if they were stupid. Reckless? an extraordinary situation; when their eyes are focused on the prize and not what's right in front of them. Secondary reckless characters usually end up dead - which is great for plot twists. Or they're hiding their fears under a cloak of recklessness, which is wonderful fodder for character development.

    Once again, thanks for getting me thinking, Margot!

  8. Elspeth - :-) You're very kind. And you are also absolutely right about how easily recklessness can become stupidity, which is, well, really annoying. As you say, sleuths have to have a certain intelligence. And even non-sleuth characters usually have a sense of self-preservation, so recklessness has to be drawn in a way that seems reasoned.

    And I like the way you mention hiding fears under recklessness. I think lots of characters do that. In fact, you've inspired me to add that into my WIP :-). Thanks.

  9. Hmmm...yes, I like the reckless ones - I like the wounded ones, the dark ones, the cynical ones. I like detectives who are like the people I know - complex, layered like a good pousse cafe not like rice pudding. I love Jackson Brodie of Kate Atkinson fame - he is reckless, feckless and the most reluctant detective around. My girl - Kitty MacDonald - isn't quite reckless enough - she gets into trouble with her boss for being too tentative but then when she finds her confidence - wheeehaw!

  10. Jan - I'm like you; I like characters to be multi-layered people, and that includes shades of recklessness, cynicism, and whatever else a character happens to be. And I really like your analogy, too! You put that so well :-).

    I think a lot of people are like your Kitty MacDonald. Her initial tentativeness, followed by that "shot in the arm" that comes from taking risks is something that I am sure resonates with people. I know that happens to me!!

  11. One of my readers sent me a note that said Sylvia was lucky to have her level-headed brother, Willie, around to get her out of trouble since she seemed to do so many stupid things. I personally would have like the word "reckless" instead of "stupid"... :)

  12. Patricia - I agree with you. Sylvia is impetuous at times - even reckless. But stupid things? I agree with you - I like the word reckless better, too ;-).