Thursday, December 23, 2010

Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin*

In Mrs. Mcginty’s Dead, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says this about victims of murder:

“It is the silent dead in whom I am usually interested. Their hates, their loves, their actions. And when you really know the murdered victim, then the victim speaks and those dead lips utter a name – the name you want to know.”

And in that novel, he’s proven right. Mrs. McGinty is a charwoman in the village of Broadhinny. Among her other personally characteristics, she’ overly curious – one might even say nosy. It’s that quality that gets her into trouble when she finds out a secret that someone wanted to keep hidden. At first, it’s believed that her unpleasant lodger James Bentley killed her, but Superintendent Spence isn’t sure the police got the right man, so he asks Poirot to investigate.

The picture that emerges of Mrs. McGinty reflects something important about well-written crime fiction: the victim’s character matters. If the victim is too likeable or too innocent, this can actually be off-putting for a couple of reasons. First, it’s hard to make a very, very likeable or innocent character believable. We all have faults, so it’s realistic to include at least some imperfections in the victim’s character. And if the victim is too innocent or likeable, there are far fewer really believable motives for murder other than the serial-murderer motif and that becomes cliché far, far too easily. Suppose the victim is truly nasty? That can be cathartic for readers who may be happy to see such a horrible person killed. But it’s not usually realistic. Even a very nasty person has some positive qualities. And crime fiction readers want characters who are realistic and have depth. In well-written crime fiction, the victim has enough positive qualities that we are sorry at the murder and want the “bad guy” caught, and enough negative qualities that we can see why the victim was killed, or at least can believe the circumstances that led to the murder.

In Christie’s Death on the Nile, we meet a victim who’s got that sort of complexity. Linnet Ridegway is wealthy and beautiful. She’s also friendly, generous, and intelligent. She’s not particularly vain and certainly not deliberately malicious. And yet, she’s not perfect, either. She can be autocratic and she doesn’t take others’ perspectives at all. Which is why she has very few compunctions when she meets and falls in love with Simon Doyle, fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort. She and Simon soon marry, and are off on a honeymoon cruise up the Nile. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise, as is Colonel Race of the Secret Service. Jacqueline de Bellefort goes on the same trip, although Poirot has warned her against being bitter about losing Simon. When Linnet is shot on the second night of the cruise, Jacqueline is the natural suspect. But she has an unimpeachable alibi, and it’s soon proven that she could not have committed the crime. So Poirot and Colonel Race have to look elsewhere for the killer. In the end, we find that Linnet’s character played a role in her murder.

Dorothy Sayers introduces readers to a multi-dimensional victim in Murder Must Advertise. Victor Dean is a copywriter for Pym’s Publicity, Ltd., an ultra-respectable advertising agency. He discovers that someone at the agency is using the company advertising to set up meetings between a drugs gang and local dealers. So he begins to write a letter telling what he’s discovered. Before he can finish the letter, though, Dean dies from what looks like an accidental fall down the spiral staircase at the agency. When the company managers find the letter, they figure out that Dean’s fall was not accidental and hire Lord Peter Wimsey to go undercover to find out who the criminal in the company is. Wimsey does, but in the process, he finds out that Dean was not an entirely innocent victim. He’d found out who the criminal was, and was blackmailing that person. That streak in his personality plays an important role in his murder.

So does the character of Giorgio Tassini in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly. Tassini works nights at a Venice-area glass-blowing factory. He believes that the local factories are illegally dumping toxic waste and not using established safety practices to get rid of it. In fact, Tassini blames these illegal practices for his daughter’s having several special needs. One night, Tassini dies in what looks like a terrible accident. But Commissario Guido Brunetti suspects that he could have been murdered and begins to investigate. As he learns more and more about Tassini, Brunetti finds that Tassini was a more complex person than it seems on the surface. He was a hard-working, almost crusading “whistle-blower.” At the same time, he was blind, you might say, to what was happening in his own family. When Brunetti finds out the truth about Tassini’s daughter, he also finds out that Tassini didn’t accept, or didn’t admit, what’s really behind her special needs. On one hand, Tassini’s character is likeable: he’s trying to do good, and he’s standing up for a cause. On the other, he’s far from perfect. Besides his “blindness” about his own family, he’s somewhat of a “gadfly.” He’s certainly not everyone’s cuppa. We can feel some sorrow at his death, but at the same time, we see how his murder is believable.

In Martin Cruz Smith’s Polar Star, former Soviet special investigator Arkady Renko finds himself drawn against his will into the investigation of the murder of Zina Patiashvili. Renko has been removed from his former high-profile job in Moscow and exiled to the Polar Star. He’s just as well happy with his re-assignment, since he’s had his fill of the corruption and bureaucracy at the top levels of government. One day, a fishing net dredges up Patiashvili’s body. At first, everyone thinks she fell overboard and drowned. Very quickly, though, it’s clear that she was murdered; her body bears evidence that she was stabbed and beaton before she was thrown overboard. So now, Renko is compelled to investigate. At first, there seems no motive for the murder; Patiashvili was a galley worker who, so it seems, didn’t have enemies. It’s not long, though, before Renko finds out that she wasn’t all she seemed on the surface. She was also a smuggler and blackmailer; it’s that aspect of her life, you might say, that got her killed. It’s also that side of her character that makes her murder much more believable.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the death of a complex victim in Death is Now My Neighbor. Geoffrey Owens is an investigative journalist who has a talent for finding out truths that others would rather hide. He’s determined that the rich and powerful aren’t going to be able to “hide” behind their power. When Sir Clixby Bream, Master of Lonsford College, Oxford prepares to retire, Owens finds out some dirty secrets about the two candidates to replace Bream. When he’s shot, Morse and Lewis find out that he’s more complex than a simple journalist who wants to inform the public. He’s also a blackmailer who uses his knowledge of people’s secrets for his own gain. His death makes a lot of sense when we find out that negative side to his personality. And yet, readers don’t exactly cheer his killer on, either.

In Peter Robinson’s A Necessary End, DI Alan Banks and his team are gearing up for an upcoming anti-nuclear demonstration to be held in Eastvale. The day of the demonstration arrives, bringing all sorts of conflicts, anger and chaos. In the midst of all of this, PC Edwin Gill is stabbed to death. Superintendent Richard Burgess is convinced that one of the demonstrators is responsible for Gill’s death. This explanation suits Burgess’ book, as he seems to have a personal vendetta against the demonstrators. Banks isn’t so sure that the killer is one of the demonstrators and, against orders, he begins to look elsewhere for the murderer. As he finds out more about PC Gill, he finds out that PC Gill was not simply a brave police officer killed in the line of duty. For instance, Gill was a school bully-turned thug, who enjoyed the “enforcement” part of his job far too much. As we discover more about Constable Gill, we can see how his murder makes sense. And yet, he’s not a completely one-dimensional nasty person, and that’s part of what makes this story interesting.

Even readers who prefer plot-centered stories rather than character-centered stories don’t want their characters to be flat. And the victim’s character is especially important. It’s often the reason the victim is killed. What’s your view, though? How important is the victim’s character to you? Which complex and interesting victims have you enjoyed reading about?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sly and the Family Stone’s Thank You.


  1. I think that the victims character is important. Nothing will stop me reading more than if I don't care, or even that I wanted the victim to be killed. Sometimes with AC's novels, she kills the bad guy and in that case, the plot intrigues me but with most new writers, I think the character is extremely important.

  2. Clarissa - Oh, I know exactly what you mean. If I don't care what happens to the victim, I lose interest entirely myself. You're right that Christie's plot do include some pretty nasty people getting killed, but in general, I like it better if the victim is more complex than that.

  3. I'm reading so much this week, and it is so great. Haven't hit the true mystery stack yet, but am currently enjoying one of Harlan Coben's novels. Life is so good when we have time to read.

  4. Patricia - Isn't it great? I love it when there's time to just sit back and enjoy the books that are waiting in the TBR pile :-).

  5. The victim's character is often the reason for the crime being committed in the first place, is it is super important for me. And you do know how much I love great characters.

    Of course, the character you left out is probbaly the best example of this (and may be the reason you even thought of this post) - the Ridgeway Disease obsessed doctor!

  6. Rayna - Ah, yes! I actually did leave him out of this post deliberately, actually. I was worried it might be too easy to leave a spoiler, but yes, you are so right.

    And I agree 100% - characters are crucial to a good mystery.

  7. Margot I think I rather prefer plot driven novels to character driven, although characters must be realistic and interesting. I've recently finished 'A Certain Justice' and I found Venetia Aldridge QC most appealling.

  8. José Ignacio - You are not alone; many, many readers prefer plot-driven novels to character-driven stories. But even then, as you say, characters who are not interesting and believable take away from a story. I'm glad you found Venetia Aldrige to be an appealing character. P.D. James does a fine job, I think, of developing characters without taking away from the plot that is at the core of the story.

  9. Margot, this is another thing I admire Benjamin Black for -- in the Quirke series, the characters are usually dead before we meet them, yet we care about what happened to them because Quirke does, even when no one else notices they're gone. That doesn't seem like a formula for success, but it works.

  10. Karen - Oh, I agree completely. We get to know the victims bit by bit and yes, we care about them because Quirke does. You really put that quite well. What I like, too, as that we learn about the victims gradually. It's not all dumped on the reader at once. That allows us to see the complex nature of the victim, and we can see how Quirke sees the victim as a whole person.

  11. Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.