Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I Don't Want to Hear It, But He Won't Turn It Down*

It’s interesting that very often, it’s little things that affect our dispositions, very often much more than larger things. If you’ve ever sat through a film next to people who wouldn’t stop talking, had a meal interrupted by a telemarketer, or had to listen to the private details of someone’s life as told through a loud conversation on a mobile, you know what I mean. We all have “pet peeves” that have the capacity to thoroughly annoy us, and if we let them, to ruin the entire day. Of course there are larger tragedies in life; there’s war, sickness, poverty and many other problems in the world. But most of the time, it’s those “pet peeves” that we really notice and that get to us the most. That’s certainly true in real life, and it makes crime fiction characters realistic and human when they have “pet peeves,” too. And anything that makes a crime fiction character more accessible and human can add to the story and keep readers more interested.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has a passion for order and neatness. One of his “pet peeves” is sloppiness, whether it’s in the way something is folded or the way someone thinks. More than once he gets annoyed with Captain Hastings, for instance, for untidiness. For example, in The ABC Murders, the two work with the police to solve a series of murders. Before each murder, Poirot receives a cryptic warning letter. One of the warning notes arrives only a few hours before the murder is supposed to occur. With little time to lose, Hastings tries to help by packing a suitcase for himself and one for Poirot. Here’s Poirot’s reaction:

‘Mais qu’es-ct que vous faites-là?’

‘I was packing for you. I thought it would save time.’

‘…Is that a way to fold a coat? And regard what you have done to my pyjamas. If the hairwash breaks what will befall them?’

‘Good heavens, Poirot,’ I cried, ‘this is a matter of life and death. What does it matter what happens to our clothes?’

‘You have no sense of proportion, Hastings. We cannot catch a train earlier than the time that it leaves, and to ruin one’s clothes will not be the least helpful in preventing a murder.’”

Interestingly, there are a few stories in which Poirot’s “pet peeve” about neatness helps him to solve cases. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, he and Hastings investigate the murder of wealthy Emily Inglethorp. Most of her relations are eager for money, so there are plenty of suspects. Poirot’s looking for a key piece of evidence against the person he’s sure is the murderer. It’s not until Hastings makes a remark about Poirot’s habit of setting untidiness to rights that Poirot realises where the evidence must be. He finds it and it proves to be central to incriminating the culprit.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is rather cantankerous and has several “pet peeves.” One of them is language usage. He’s quite a purist when it comes to standard English, and gets irritated at what he perceives as mistakes. For instance, in The Secret of Annexe 3, he and Sergeant Lewis are investigating the New Year’s Eve murder of a costumed partygoer at the Haworth Hotel’s New Year’s gala. Towards the end of the novel, Lewis gets a hard-won statement from someone who was, in a way, a party to the crime, and he’s very pleased with himself. Excited, he brings the statement to Morse who reads it over. Morse’s response?

“‘The adverb from ‘bad’ is ‘badly,’ mumbled Morse.”

Lewis, too, has “pet peeves.” One of them is his boss’ tendency to leave Lewis to pay his pub tabs.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus also has a few “pet peeves.” One of them is office politics. He wants to get the job done, and he has very little patience for the niceties of officaldom. In fact, as any fan of the Rebus novels knows, Rebus gets in more than one conflict because he doesn’t respect the “way things work.” Rebus also isn’t much of a one for traveling. Although he does go afield in Tooth and Nail and Black and Blue, Rebus much prefers his own Edinburgh.

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Salvo Montalbano. He takes his cuisine very, very seriously, and one of his pet peeves is when people don’t appreciate fine food. For instance, in The Snack Thief, Montalbano and his team investigate two quite different but related murders. One is the shooting of a Tunisian sailor working on an Italian fishing boat. The other is the stabbing of a retired businessman in the elevator of his apartment building. One afternoon, Montalbano is having lunch at one of his favourite local restaurants when his colleague Mimì Augello joins him at the restaurant. Augello then orders his own meal.

“When the spaghetti arrived, Montalbano had fortunately finished his hake. Fortunately, because Mimì proceeded to sprinkle a generous helping of Parmesan cheese over his plate. Christ! Even a hyena, which, being a hyena, feeds on carrion, would have been sickened to see a dish of pasta with clam sauce covered with Parmesan.”

Of course, Augello’s taste in food isn’t the only thing that annoys Montalbano about him, but this is a good example of the way Montalbano feels about anyone who doesn’t respect good food.

In Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen’s short story collection Candied Crime, we meet Knavesborough resident Arnold Kickinbottom, an amateur mushroom enthusiast. One of his pet peeves is his wife Mildred’s relations, especially her two aunts. In fact, in A Christmas Tragedy, Arnold is terribly upset because Mildred’s aunts are spending the Christmas holidays, and

“…Christmas with Mildred’s catty old aunts around the house was already more than most human beings could bear.”

When Mildred’s crazy uncle visits, too, it’s more than Arnold can stand, so he devises his own way of dealing with the problem.

Whether it’s loud neighbours, litterers, or something else, we all have “pet peeves,” so it really does make sense that crime fiction characters would have them, too. What are the pet peeves of your favourite sleuths? If you’re a writer, what is it that most annoys your protagonist?

On Another Note...

I’d like to take a moment and congratulate Dorte Hummelshøj Jakobsen on the release of Candied Crime. It’s a delightful collection of mystery confection and I recommend it highly. Oh, you’re intrigued? Wonderful! Click the cover to check it out!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel's Close to the Borderline.


  1. Caroline Garcia-Aguilera's sleuth, Lupe Solano, has a quirky male cousin who works for her. Her cousin's tendency to avoid work while he uses his exercise equipment and his habit of wearing bizarre outfits to work are a couple of Lupe's pet peeves. These are very enjoyable mysteries, by the way.

  2. Pat - Thanks for that reminder. I have to confess, I'm not as familiar with that series as I'd like to be, but you're not the first one who's recommended it. I like that premise, too, of having to work with someone whose habits can be annoying. It makes for a good story arc, sub-plot or just layer of interest...

  3. Great post--and very timely for me, because I'm starting to write character sketches for a whole new series and a new sleuth. I see her as very picky about interior decoration. I'll need to play that up. Thanks!

  4. One of my biggest pet peeves is parent's who don't care for their children. It's often mentioned in a negative light in my novels. As usual, I love your post. Thanks for visiting my blog today and commenting.

  5. Pet peeves ...I think because I have soooooo many that I've given some to my protagonist. In my non-mystery, my protagonist becomes almost another person when she is cut off in traffic. One of the cops - the protagonist's side-kick, is really picky about good food and good coffee and can't understand why he should drink Timmy's inferior brew just because he's a police officer. I think having just a few pet peeves, some quirks and passions make the characters that much rounder! I love Poirot's pickiness - it is delightful. But I also love Dalziel's slovenliness.

  6. Anne - Oh, my pleasure! And I'm intrigued with this new series you're writing..Hmmm...a sleuth who's picky about interior design. I can see that very helpful if she's looking for clues. How cool! I look forward to reading it when it comes out.

    Clarissa - I have very strong feelings about parents and their children. I think that's probably played a role in why I got into education in the first place. So I can completely empathise with the way that theme comes through in your writing.

    ...and thanks for the kind words :-). And believe me, your blog is one of my must-stops. I learn with every visit and I always get really annoyed with myself when I get too crazy-busy to get there promptly.

    Jan - Oh, I agree with you completely!! Characters are so, so much more interesting if they have some "pet peeves," quirks and eccentricities. And I can relate to your protagonist's feelings if she gets cut off in traffic. I wouldn't say I become another person, but I do not like it.

    Isn't it interesting how Dalziel and Poirot are two such different characters and yet so many people love 'em both? They're so opposite in some ways...

  7. Just out of curiosity, how long does it take you to prepare the average post. I can never get over your memory or research,

  8. Patti - Oh, you are so kind!! *Blush* Since you asked...the amount of time it takes me to do a post depends a lot on what else I have to do in a given day. Sometimes it flies by. Other times, it takes a very long time because I have to do it in fits and starts, so to speak. Maybe an hour or so, but that's just a proverbial shot in the dark. Too many factors involved to be more precise.

  9. I hadn't thought about it that way - but you are so right! It's the pet peeves that push more people over the edge. And Poirot's fussiness often did help him out. Terrific points!! :)

  10. Jemi - Why, thank you :-). I know for me, those little "pet peeve-y" things are much more likely to drive me crazy than the larger things that have happened to me. But, as you say, sometimes "pet peeves" come in handy. They do for Poirot :-).

  11. Pet peeves. Pet peeves. Don't we all have them. Why them do we find it difficult to understand that the other person has them too. And no, my comment is not directed at anyone but myself who has been getting increasingly upset because she is so busy, and knows she is just being silly.

    And great examples, each of those. You have no idea how much I missed you, Ms. Daily Fix.

  12. Very good examples, and post topic, as ever, Margot! And how nice to highlight Dorte's new book.
    Your post reminds me of the truism (?) that the topmost reason for people moving home is to get away from their neighbours.

    I can't think of any fictional pet peeves just at the minute, but I think Lisbeth Salander had a few....and took unique action about them!

  13. Oh, Myrtle has too many peeves to list here!

    Looking forward to reading Dorte's new book. :)

    Morse's peeves always made me smile.

  14. Great examples Margot. Nice to see Dorte's new book mentioned.

  15. Rayna - How nice to see a comment from you :-). I've missed you, too, very much and I know just what it means to get very, very busy....
    You're right; it is funny, isn't it, how we all have pet peeves, and yet we don't like it at all when someone else has them. But I think that's true of a lot of things. It's sometime not easy to take others' perspectives. We get in a hurry to go somewhere and curse the traffic, forgetting that other people get in a hurry, too!

    Maxine - Thank you :-). And I like that saying very much! It's true, too; we all get annoyed by things, don't we? And I'm glad you brought up Lisbeth Salander. Yes, one could say that she has a list of pet peeves and of course, polite restraint is not exactly her style... ;-). And I'm very happy to mention Dorte's book. It's a great collection of stories from a talented writer.

    Elizabeth - LOL! You know, I thought of Myrtle Clover when I was writing this post. I didn't get the space to mention her, but oh, yes, she's definitely got her share of "pet peeves!" I really hope to read more about her... And I've always thought Morse's "pet peeves" made him, in a way, all the more appealing.

    I think you're going to love Dorte's book :-).

    José Ignacio - Why, thank you :-). And trust me, I am thoroughly enjoying telling people about Dorte's book.

  16. Thank you, Margot. Most of the last week, I have been without an internet. Travelling in rural India has been absolutely worth it, and strangely I didn't even miss not being connected. I did start missing it after I got back, but the kids took so much of me I couldn't really log on to do anything but work.

  17. Rayna - I can imagine that travelling in rural India must give one a lifetime of lessons. I would guess that you wouldn't really feel the loss of the Internet. And of course the kids come first, especially when mum's just back after being away. I like your priorities.

  18. Ooooooh, Margot - and this post has sat here for hours without me even knowing it! MY story being used in one of your wonderful posts!

    There is a huge glass of first-rate champagne for you at my official (virtual) launch party tomorrow! Plus plenty of candy - or perhaps crisps & mushroom dip?

    And for once I have a good example of a pet peeve ready: I read a Roald Dahl story last night; The Way Up to Heaven, where Mrs Foster is on the verge of a break-down because she needs to be on time while her husband bullies her by being ready in the very last minute.

  19. I left out pet peeves because I did not want to offend any readers. My biggest is people who talk with food in their mouth. Ugh! Can't say enough about someone who looks directly at me with a big glob of food in their mouth and carries a full on conversation. Don't get me started.

  20. Dorte - Oh, trust me - I am so, so very excited about the release of your book. Such great, great news :-). And I'm happy to feature your terrific stories on my blog. I just love the Kickinbottoms, so I was really happy they feature in your stories. Thanks, too, for the invitation to your launch party! I'll be honoured to be there :-).

    Thanks for mentioning that Roald Dahl story, too. I'll have to look that one up again. I like his work very much and I know I've read that one but not in a very long time.

    Stephen - That's an interesting point about being careful which pet peeves you include. I hadn't thought about that, but it makes sense to think carefully about whether readers might get offended. Good point! And I agree about people who talk with food in their mouths - not my favourite habit, either...

  21. I have a MC who has very high standards when it comes to food and since he's in England is often disappointed with what appears on his plate. My thought is it might give readers a bit of a smile along their way.

  22. Elspeth - Oh, that's a great idea for something to be a bit fussbudget-y about. I know I've said it before but the more I learn about your novel, the more I want to read it!