Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Who Will You Run to When it All Falls Down*

One of the most interesting things about well-written crime fiction is the way in which it reflects the way people really might behave. For example, when people are in groups, very often one person takes on a leadership role. Sometimes it’s because that person has authority, but interestingly, authority doesn’t seem to be required for leadership. What seems to be required is that that person be looked up to and respected by the other members of the group. It might because of social position, education or something else, but for some reason, people defer to leaders. We certainly see that in real life, and we see it in crime fiction, too.

One of the very interesting looks at how leadership roles emerge is in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (AKA Ten Little Indians). In that novel, ten very different people receive invitations for a stay on Indian Island, off the Devon coast. For different reasons, each accepts the invitation and they all travel to the island. When they arrive, they find that their host is absent, but the staff is present and the guests soon settle in. On the first night, they’re all shocked when each one is accused of having caused the death of at least one person. Then, one of the guests suddenly dies of what turns out to be poison. The next morning, another guest is found dead. Now it’s clear that everyone’s been lured to the island, and that there’s a killer among them. So the survivors try to figure out who the killer is, and how they can get to safety. What’s interesting is that the guests include a doctor, a military leader and a teacher, among others. Several of the guests have what you might call leadership positions, but the character who emerges as the group’s leader is Mr. Justice Wargrave, a retired judge. Any one of the others could have become the group’s leader, but he’s got a strong personality and a way of getting others to listen. He’s the one several guests depend on as they try desperately to survive.

In Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, there’s another interesting look at how characters become leaders. Hercule Poirot visits the village of Broadhinny to find out who killed one of its residents, a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her landlord. At one point in the novel, another character has something to report that might be relevant to the case, but doesn’t want to tell the police. The dilemma is resolved when Johnnie Summerhayes, a long-time resident of Broadhinny, comes on the scene. As soon as he makes his appearance, it’s decided to look to him for a solution:

“The villagers knew little of him personally, but because his father and his grandfather and many great great grandfathers had lived at Long Meadows, they regarded it as natural that he should advise and direct when asked so to do.”

Johnnie hears the information and he himself takes the character to another police station, so that the locals won’t know exactly who saw or said what. It’s an interesting example of how leadership can emerge from other people’s assumptions.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, Letitia Martin, Dean of Shrewsbury College, Oxford, takes on an interesting leadership role. Some disturbing events have been taking place at the school, including vandalism and frightening anonymous notes. Martin decides to take some action of her own instead of going to the police, which would cast aspersions on the school. She writes to mystery novelist Harriet Vane, an alumna of the school, asking her to come and help find out who’s responsible for these troubling occurrences. Vane agrees, mostly because of her respect for Martin’s leadership. Under the guise of doing research for a novel, Vane goes to Shrewsbury and begins to investigate. The closer she gets to the truth about what’s been going on, the more danger she finds for herself. In fact, she’s attacked at one point. Lord Peter Wimsey has fallen in love with Vane, and is very concerned for her safety. Against her own better judgment, Vane tells him about the incidents and he travels to Shrewsbury to find out the truth. In this novel, although it’s Wimsey and Vane who put the pieces of the puzzle together, Letitia Martin proves to be very much a leader.

So does the indomitable Lady Ursula Berowne in P.D. James’ A Taste for Death. When her son, Crown Minister Paul Berowne, is murdered one night in a local church, Commander Adam Dalgliesh and his team investigate the death. There are several suspects in this murder, as Berowne’s personal life was complicated and he also had made several political enemies. As Dalgliesh gets to know the Berowne family, he quickly discovers that Lady Ursula is the family’s leader. She’s got a very strong personality and is highly intelligent. In fact, the investigation team discovers that Lady Ursula knows more about the case than she says at first, and when we discover the real truth about Berowne’s murder, it’s interesting to see just how much she’s exercised her leadership.

In Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun novels, it’s sometimes Mr. Geung, Siri’s mortuary assistant, who takes a leadership role. Dr. Siri is Laos’ chief medical examiner, and in The Coroner’s Lunch, we learn that he’s been “volunteered” for the position. This means that Dr. Siri learns quite a lot by experience, and needs to depend on his staff. Mr. Geung, his mortuary assistant, is a rather unlikely leader in that he’s got mental retardation, and he’s younger than Siri in a culture where age is traditionally revered. However, as we find out in Thirty-Three Teeth, Mr. Geung,

“…was a morgue assistant par excellence… and knew the procedures better than [Nurse] Dtui or Siri himself. He was strong and reliable, and he wielded a mean hacksaw.´

Dr. Siri depends on Geung’s expertise and is wise enough to look to him for leadership during autopsies.

In Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, the focus is on bounty hunter Plum, who takes up the profession when she suddenly finds herself single and out of work, with more bills than she has money to pay them. As she gradually learns the trade, Plum turns to her work partner Ricardo Carlos “Ranger” Manoso. Ranger’s been a bounty hunter for quite a while, and he’s also got several “business operations” on the side. We never learn all the details about Ranger’s past, and he remains somewhat enigmatic. He’s not afraid of speaking his mind, but he’s hardly the most vocal character in the series. And yet, he’s a leader. He’s got a lot of surveillance skills, he’s cool in an emergency and Plum looks to him (although not as often as she should) for guidance. In many ways, he’s at least as strong a character as Plum is.

Tony Hillerman’s novels sometimes include the strong character of Frank Sam Nakai, a Navajo yata'ali, or healer. He’s the uncle of Jim Chee, a member of the Navajo Tribal Police and one of Hillerman’s sleuths. For several of the novels, Chee himself is an aspiring yata'ali, so he looks to his uncle for guidance in things spiritual. Chee is a traditional Navajo, a culture which holds the wisdom of older people in very high regard, so Chee also looks to his uncle for other kinds of leadership. He depends more than once on Frank Sam Nakai’s wisdom as he’s working on cases, and it’s obvious that he looks up to his uncle.

It’s very interesting how sometimes an unexpected person emerges as a leader, whether or not she or he is an authority figure. In crime fiction, it’s even more interesting when that person is not the sleuth; after all, we expect the sleuth to show at least some leadership. What’s your view? Who are your favourite unexpected leaders? If you’re a writer, have you found one of your characters emerging as a leader when you hadn’t planned it?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Heart’s Who Will You Run To?.


  1. I love the topics you come up with on your posts. They are so unique. How do you come up with these. I agree that there are characters in books that take a leadership role. Even in movies sometimes the minor characters will step up and steal the show. If one of my characters do this I will see if it takes the plot where I want it to go under their leadership and if I'm all right with it, let them command.


  2. Clarissa - How nice of you! Thank you :-). I like it, too, when minor characters step up, so to speak. When it happens in books I'm reading or movies I see, it can be a nice surprise and an interesting plot twist. When my own characters do that, I see where it leads, too. I like having more than one character who's actually got enough oomph to be a leader.

  3. Another great post to make one ponder. One character that came to mind was J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas. She's usually in charge but occasionally she has to let her husband lead because he has some personal knowledge of the shady side of things. When other characters step up and lead, it does add some interesting twist to the plot.

    Thoughts in Progress

  4. Mason - Thank you :-). You know, I'm very glad you mentioned Eve Dallas. I admit I haven't read the entire In Death series, but you do have a point that her husband sometimes has to step up and take the lead. To me, that's realistic. In real life, nobody has all of the answers all of the time, so other people do sometimes have to lead. And you're right; it adds an interesting twist to a story, doesn't it?

  5. One of the reasons I like procedurals that focus on a team of investigators or police is that I enjoy seeing which of the team will take on that leadership role for a specific book or part of a book. There is often an official leader but sometimes that person has to let someone else take over for a while - whether it be because their personal lives are getting temporarily in the way or they don't have the particular skill set for the investigation currently underway or some other factor is playing out. As you say that tends to add to the realism because no sensible person thinks they know it all

  6. Bernadette - I agree completely. In a good police procedural, the workload's divided so that everybody has a task to do. As you say, there is an official leader but the reality is, the leader can't do everything. So it is nice when one or another of the team can take on that leadership role. It adds to the realism of a story, and it also, I think, gives the author the chance to develop some of the other characters a bit and gives the reader a chance to get to know some other characters.

  7. One of my favorite looks at leadership comes from the novel THE ADMIRABLE CRICHTON. Shipwrecked on a desert island, the butler becomes the obvious leader, but once back home he assumes his traditional position. We saw this a bit in REMAINS OF THE DAY too.

  8. Patti - Oh, thanks for those examples! I have to confess I haven't read The Admirable Crichton (although it really sounds interesting!). But I agree with you about Remains of the Day.

  9. It's an interesting question. A writer can't assume their MC will be the leader in the group of characters. In fact, a weak MC might make for very interesting plot situations.

    Hadn't thought about this and will have to give it some more time to settle in my brain before applying it to my book! Thanks, Margot.


  10. Michele - Thanks :-); I think it's interesting, too. The question really is: is a very strong MC necessary for a great plot? Conventional wisdom would be, "yes," but actually, all sorts of characters could be strong for different reasons. In my humble opinion, the plot can let you know whether the MC should be strong, "medium," or weaker. I can see excellent plots for any of those situations...

  11. I was certainly surprised when a character (who I was sure was no more than supporting) suddenly stepped up and informed me in rather dulcet tones that he was my sleuth's go-to man. He was certainly right. Needless to say, (from a writer's point of view) editing was involved. Ah well.

  12. Elspeth - LOL! I've been through exactly the same thing. A couple of characters in Publish or Perish whom I first thought would be just "background people" to set the sleuth in context turned out to be important in cracking the case. Go figure...

  13. Interesting question.

    When I set out writing "The Cosy Knave", I intended Rhapsody and Archibald to take turns, but Rhapsody turned out to be much stronger than I had expected.

  14. Dorte - I know exactly what you mean! And I really do like Rhapsody as a character. I'm glad she turned out to be strong.

  15. What a great topic, Margot. And yes, who can ever predict who will emerge as the leader when things are evened out.
    And Patti is right, The Admirabel Crichton is an example of this.

  16. Rayna - Why, thank you! You're right that in a good book, you can't always predict who will end up being the leader. And a wise author will let the plot determine that, not some narrow set of assumptions.