Thursday, November 25, 2010

Out of the Spotlight...

One reason for which crime fiction fans follow their favourite series is the sleuth. We all have our favourite sleuths, and we love to see them in action. Sometimes, though, the “regular” sleuth takes a less prominent role, and someone else does the investigating. Having the “regular” detective step out of the proverbial spotlight can add novelty to a series and can give other characters a chance to evolve. So long as the other characters are interesting and believable, it can add innovation to a series to have someone else do the sleuthing once in a while. It can also add some authenticity. After all, it’s realistic that a sleuth wouldn’t be able to do all of the investigation all the time.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not one to pass up an interesting case. However, there are times when someone else does most of the investigation. For instance, in the short story The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, Poirot and Hastings get a visit from Roger Havering. Havering has received a telegram from his wife, telling him that his uncle, Harrington Pace, has been murdered. Poirot isn’t able to take the case because he has influenza. So Hastings goes in his stead. They arrive at Hunter’s Lodge, Derbyshire, where Chief Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp is already at work. Together, Hastings and Japp work the case and stay in touch with Poirot only via telegram. It turns out that not very much at Hunter’s Lodge is as it seems, and that the murder has to do with uncovering what’s beneath the surface, so to speak. Although it’s Poirot who puts the pieces of the puzzle together, it’s interesting to see how Hastings works when he’s on a case.

In Christie’s The Clocks, we meet Special Agent Colin Lamb, who’s on the trail of a spy ring that seems to be operating in the town of Crowdean. He’s in a particular Crowdean neighbourhood one day when a young woman rushes out of a house screaming that there’s a dead man in the house. Lamb helps the young woman calm herself, then goes inside to investigate. Sure enough, she’s discovered the body of an unidentified man. The police are notified and soon, Lamb works with Inspector Richard “Dick” Hardcastle to find out who the dead man is. The mystery deepens, and Lamb decides it might be interesting to his father’s old friend, Hercule Poirot. So he visits Poirot and tells him about the case. In fact, he challenges Poirot to solve the case just by thinking, as Poirot has always claimed it’s possible to do. Poirot gives pointers and hints, but interestingly enough, it’s Lamb and Hardcastle who take “center stage” here. We follow along as they interview neighbours and other witnesses and get the clues. Poirot makes sense of the clues and figures out who the murderer is, but Lamb and Hardcastle do the work. And it’s Lamb, not Poirot, who tracks down the spy ring which is an important sub-plot in this novel.

Although the vast majority of the Ellery Queen novels feature Queen as the sleuth, there’s at least one instance in which his father, Inspector Richard Queen, takes “center stage.” In Inspector Queen’s Own Case: November Song, Inspector Queen has reached the police department’s mandatory retirement age. He’s not coping with it well, since he no longer feels useful, so he decides to spend some time with an old friend of his who retired earlier and is now the police chief in another, very small, town. One day while walking on the beach, Inspector Queen meets Jessie Sherwood, a nurse/nanny who’s been hired by wealthy Alton and Sarah Humffrey to look after their adopted baby. The two slowly begin a relationship, but the peace and calm of the small town is shattered when tragedy strikes the Humffrey family and Jessie Sherwood is accused of a crime. Inspector Queen works to solve the case and in this novel, the spotlight is definitely on him, rather than his more famous son.

Sometimes, an author allows a “regular” sleuth to take a more minor role so that another major character can be introduced and developed. That’s what happens in Michael Connelly’s The Brass Verdict. In that novel, Harry Bosch, who’s taken “center stage” in many of Connelly’s novels, doesn’t have as much of the limelight. This time, he shares it with attorney Mickey Haller, whom readers meet in The Lincoln Lawyer. In The Brass Verdict, Haller is left with several cases when fellow attorney Jerry Vincent is murdered. One of those cases is that of Walter Eliot, a producer who’s been charged with killing his wife and her lover. Bosch is investigating Vincent’s murder, and he thinks that it may be related to the Eliot case. So he and Haller work together to find out the truth behind both of the murder cases. In this novel, Bosch certainly plays an important role, but he’s not “onstage” during the entire case in the way he is in other novels.

In Colin Dexter’s The Remorseful Day, Inspector Morse, who is usually the focus of the Dexter novels, doesn’t take “center stage” in the way he typically does. In that novel, the police re-open the two-year-old murder of nurse Yvonne Harrison when anonymous tips suggest that her killer was Harry Repp, who’s just been released from prison after being convicted of burglary. Morse is, strangely for him, not disposed to investigate the case, but Superintendent Strange wants the case closed, so Sergeant Lewis does most of the work. He discovers that several people besides Repp might have had a motive for murder. Yvonne Harrison had a sexually-obsessed private life, and more than one of her “friends” could have been guilty. The same is true of her family members. In the course of the investigation, Lewis also thinks he has discovered the shocking reason Morse isn’t as keen on this investigation as he usually is. In the end, Morse does provide valuable assistance, but this is really more Lewis’ case.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is definitely not one to yield the limelight when he’s on the case. It’s not so much that he’s looking for fame or credit, but he is obsessed with this work. There are times, though, when he has to allow others to do most of the work of a case. That’s what happens, for instance, in Resurrection Men. Rebus and several other police officers have been sent to Tulliallan Police College to try to redeem themselves and start over. All of the men have been in serious trouble on the force, mostly because of trouble working with others. So the “Resurrection Men,” as they’re called, are given a cold case to solve in which they have to work together. The idea is to teach them how to work as a team. While Rebus is sidelined, so to speak, Siobhan Clarke takes up the investigation of Edward Marber, an art dealer who was brutally murdered outside of his home. That’s the case that Rebus had been working on, and now, Clarke’s got to take over and find her own way to untangle the threads of the case. And then it turns out that the Marber murder may be connected to the case that Rebus and the “Resurrection Men” have been assigned to investigate…

In Rankin’s The Falls, Rebus is under department suspension, and it’s Clarke who does quite a lot of the work in the mysterious disappearance of university student Philippa Balfour. Balfour was a member of an Internet gaming group, and Clarke finds several clues to her disappearance through that group. Rebus takes a role in this novel; he’s following up a line of inquiry about some macabre clues left behind in a series of other murders. But this novel is really as much Clarke’s show as it is anything else.

There are lots of other cases, too, where the “regular” sleuth steps offstage and someone else is at the forefront. What do you think of this plot strategy? Do you enjoy these novels? Or do you miss the “regular” sleuth too much?


  1. Lately, in Elizabeth George's novels Lynley hasn't been "all there" and my favorite regular - Havers - is in the novels less and less. Because of this, I haven't liked her books as much as I used to.

    I think it's nice to change things sometimes but when series go for books at a time with change, the reader will get frustrated.


  2. Clarissa - It's interesting that you would mention that. I've heard from some folks who feel exactly as you do about Lynely and Havers, and then I've heard from others who love the books in which Simon and Deborah St. James play major roles. I agree that changing things a bit can be engaging, bur as you say, sometimes, readers rebel...

  3. I'm stumped on this one because I can't think of an example. But I'll guess I would be disappointed to pick up a novel I thought would feature my favorite sleuth and then find out a sidekick or lesser character was going to have the starring role.

  4. Patricia - I think a lot of people would agree with you. Many, many crime fiction fans follow a series mostly because of the sleuth. If that sleuth isn't featured, it can be a let-down. I think it takes a very good "fill-in" sleuth or some extra-fine writing to get beyond that.

  5. Hound of the Baskervilles.

    After I have read a couple of books starting a particular sleuth, I like it if someone else takes the limelight. For variety more than anything else. But if it is the second or third book I am reading starring the particular sleuth, I would be terribly disappointed and it may even be a reason to stop following that series.

  6. Rayna - Oh, Hound of the Baskervilles is, indeed, a fine example of what I mean. Watson has a very important role in that story, doesn't he, and he does quite a lot of the work.

    You make an interesting point, too, that having a different sleuth after a run of books, so to speak, can be interesting. Having a new sleuth after just a few can be disappointing. I'd never thought of the effect of when in a series the sleuth steps aside. Thanks; that's a very well-taken point.

  7. I like the idea of a second sleuth filling in from time to time if it's written well. If the main sleuth steps aside there should be a plausible reason. If not, then it's like the author has written a book under the pretense of being one thing and completely changed it without telling anyone. Another great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Two of my favourite series vary in their approach, in Andrea Camilleri's Salvo Montalbanos he always takes the lead part; while in the Martin Beck books in which other members of the team Gunvald Larsson, Lennart Kollberg, Per Mansson [in Malmo] frequently do more of the investigating.
    Another variation is worked by S.J.Rozan who writes her books alternately from the different perspective of investigators Lydia Chin, and Bill Smith.
    There are a wide range of different techniques used by crime fiction writers to keep things fresh, so I don't mind my favourite sleuths being sidelined for part or all of a book. If they are actually killed off I, and other fans, would get annoyed as Conan Doyle discovered.

  9. Mason - Thanks :-). You brought a really important point. If the sleuth is sidelined, it has to be for a plausible reason. Otherwise, it seems liked a contrived effort to change things around. It's simply not as believable that way. And yes, it almost seems like false advertising.

    Norman - I agree; having one's favourite sleuth killed off is a big risk to take, but authors like Sjöwall and Wahlöö do a very good job of allowing different sleuths to do a lot of the work. Ed McBain does that well in the 87th Precinct series, too. I think one reason for that may be that with an "ensemble cast," as you've got in most "police precinct" series, there are several sleuths who can be featured. And it is effective, too, to switch points of view as writers such as Rozan do. That allows for lots flexibility.

  10. Great examples in your post and in the comments - Hound of the Baskervilles is a good one. I remember reading that as a child and avid Sherlock Holmes fan and being so disappointed at the length of time it took for him to appear in the book (and I think the book got a lot better after that point too, from memory!).
    Harlan Coben does this a bit, in that some of his characters from his Myron Bolitar series appear in his standalones, or some from one standalone appear in another,but these are usually minor characters not major ones. I can recall Hester Krimstein the lawyer and Little Pochahontas the ex-wrestler.

    In Jan Costin Wagner's two novels translated into English, the "main" character's boss in the first, Ice Moon, has a much larger role (and somewhat different personality) in the second, Silence. But you can't tell much from only two books in a series!

  11. Maxine - I have to say I agree with you; Hound of the Baskervilles did get better once Holmes made his appearance. I really do think his character is such an integral part of that series, isn't it?

    You know, I hadn't thought of Coben's Bolitar novels when I was writing this post, but they do indeed sometimes spotlight characters other than Bolitar.

    Thanks, also, for bringing up Silence. I confess I haven't read Ice Moon,but I can see what you mean just from the second novel. I could see how the roles that Ketola and Joentaa would change. Really interesting example.

  12. I agree with Mason. I do like to get a different perspective, particularly seeing the Main sleuth through someone else's eyes, but I probably bought the book because I *like* that main character, so there needs to be a good reason to sideline them.

  13. I guess it comes down to how much you like the original sleuth. Tana French's approach to having different detectives step out of the shadows seems like a good idea. McBain used to do that in his books too.
    No one will ever improve on Morse for me. But I never found Poirot particularly interesting. He was quirky but not real. Just there to solve the crime.

  14. Karen - Oh, that's such a good point! Sometimes, another sleuth taking the "spotlight" can give readers a whole new perspective on the "main" sleuth, and that can make for good character development. But you're also right that it's best if there is a real, plausible reason that the sleuth would be on the proverbial sidelines.

    Patti - Well-taken point! The more you like the sleuth, the more annoying it is when the sleuth steps offstage, so to speak. And I agree about Mcbain; more than one detective gets the "spotlight" in that series, and that makes it realistic. After all, a real-life precinct's got more than just one detective.

    Morse is one of my all-time favourite detectives, too :-). I can see why you feel as you do about Poirot, although I have a very soft spot for him. He's not everyone's cuppa, and even for those who like him, he's not always the full, rounded character that people like Rankin's Rebus, Dexter's Morse or Hillerman' Chee and Leaphorn are.

  15. Oh, I'm afraid I don't like it. It is like thinking you're going to be all alone with your best friend to find out she's had to bring her cousin along. No matter how delightful the cousin might be, I'm disappointed. And I'm with
    Clarissa - I so miss Havers so I don't bother much...

  16. Jan - You're very much not alone. Lots and lots of people feel nothing but a sense of disappointment and loss when they read a novel in which their favourite sleuth is not the central character. I like your analogy, too :-).

  17. Ngaio Marsh has had Roderick Alleyn enter the fray late in some books, with Agatha Troy carrying a lot of the story. It seems to work in her books.

    Personally I prefer to have the main sleuth of a series telling the story, otherwise it just doesn't feel right to me.

  18. Vanda - You know, it's funny; I almost mentioned a few of those Ngaio Marsh novels in which Troy carries most of the action, but I didn't, so I'm very glad that you did. I know what you mean about preferring the main sleuth to be the main actor. Many people read books because of that person, and it can feel awkward - a little off - if someone else takes the reins, so to speak. It's got to be done well if it's going to work.