Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Out of the Box

One of the pleasures of reading is the chance to "meet" all sorts of different characters. In fact, even a less-than-great novel can be saved from the DNF pile by interesting characters. Characters who really have original thinking add layers of interest and sometimes fun to a novel, and in crime fiction, they can add a touch of suspense, too. Original thinkers have fascinating ways of looking at life and they can keep readers turning pages. It's tricky to create a character with truly original thinking because characters also need to be believable. We need to be able to imagine that a character who has a very unusual way of thinking could also really exist. That said, though, an original thinker can add much to a novel.

Agatha Christie's novels sometimes feature quite original thinkers. For instance, there's Lady Lucy Ankgatell, whom we meet in
The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours). She and her husband Sir Henry invite a group of people for a week-end at their country home, among them Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. Tragedy strikes on the Sunday afternoon when Christow is murdered. Hercule Poirot, who's taken a nearby cottage, has been invited for lunch and he arrives at the murder scene just after Christow's been shot. Inspector Grange is called in to investigate and he and Poirot work together to find out who shot Christow and why. Throughout this novel, Lucy Angkatell shows herself to be a most unusual and original thinker. For example, one of the week-end houseguests is Lucy's cousin Henrietta Savernake, a talented Irish sculptor who's quite fond of cars and driving. When Henrietta arrives, Lucy says,

"Oh, there you are, Henrietta. When you've taken your car into the stables and given it a bran mash, lunch will be ready."

Henrietta herself says

"What a penetrating remark of Lucy's….I always prided myself on having completely escaped the horsey taint of my Irish forbears. When you've been brought up amongst people who talk nothing but horse, you go all superior about not caring for them. And now Lucy has just shown me that I treat my car exactly like a horse. It's quite true. I do."

Lucy Angkatell's mind moves at lightning speed and she often begins conversations in her mind so that when she speaks to people, they have to first figure out what she's talking about and then catch up. She's charming, gracious and has the gift of winning people over. She is truly, as Hercule Poirot himself says, une originale.

In Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons, Poirot investigates the shooting death of Grace Springer, games mistress at Meadowbank, an exclusive and renowned girls' school. One of the other mistresses at Meadowbank is Eileen Rich, who teaches geography and English. She's passionate about teaching and likes nothing more than to come across a truly talented student and nurture that talent. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and her pupils get swept up in her teaching. What's interesting, too, is that she's a very original thinker. For instance, when Inspector Kelsey is interviewing her shortly after the murder, Miss Rich tells him what she knows and doesn't know about the night of the murder. She goes on to say that she's had the feeling someone at Meadowbank is not who he or she seems to be, and that she's had the sense of being watched - like a cat among pigeons. When she leaves the interview, Kelsey's sergeant asks if Miss Rich is "crackers." Kelsey answers

"I don't think she's crackers. I think she's what's called a sensitive. You know, like the people who know when there's a cat in the room long before they see it. If she'd been born in an African tribe she might have been a witch doctor."

There are actually several interesting characters in this novel, but (and this is admittedly my opinion only, so feel free to disagree) Miss Rich is one of the most original thinkers in it.

Another original thinker is Reginald Hill's Franny Roote, whom we first meet when he's a student activist in An Advancement of Learning. In that novel, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate a five-year-old campus death that turns out to be a murder. They also uncover plenty of buried secrets and academic intrigue. In the course of their work, they have quite a lot to do with Roote, who's very much a leader among the students. He's charismatic, articulate and could be very, very dangerous. What's interesting is that although Dalziel and Pascoe "vet" Roote just as they do the other characters in the novel, we never learn an awful lot about him, nor about his background. He remains enigmatic. Roote makes appearances in other Hill novels as well, such as Dialogues of the Dead and Death's Jest-Book. You might say he almost becomes a nemesis for Pascoe. I don't want to give too much away, so suffice to say that Roote is a very original thinker.

Alexander McCall Smith's Mma. Grace Makutsi is also a very original thinker. In fact, that's part of her appeal from the point of view of her boss, Mma. Precious Ramotswe. Mma. Makutsi is introduced in The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency as the agency's secretary, but she quickly shows herself to be of an original turn of mind and she's very conscientious and hard-working. So it's not long before she's promoted to Assistant Detective. Later, she also manages Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, the mechanic shop owned by Mma. Ramotswe's husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. In The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Grace Makutsi shows her ability to think "outside the box." Looking for an extra source of income, Mma. Makutsi notices an unfulfilled need: typing instruction aimed specifically at men. In that culture, most men don't learn to type as a matter of course, but since keyboarding is such a valuable skill, they're missing a lot by not having that skill. Mma. Makutsi, who is not afraid to think "outside the box," persuades her alma mater, the Botswana Secretarial College, to donate ten used typewriters and she negotiates for space in a local church. Before long, Mma. Makutsi's classes are so popular that she has to turn pupils away.

Of course, there are plenty of fictional sleuths who are also original thinkers. For instance, Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Nation - and a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. He often has a very original way of going about his work. For instance, in The Dark Wind, he's preparing to go after a person he thinks is responsible for several murders. Before arming himself and leaving for the encounter, Chee prepares himself by chanting the Stalking Way, a Navajo ceremony used by hunters to put themselves in harmony with their prey. It's a truly original way to think about going after a killer, although it does make sense.

In Alan Bradley's
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, we're introduced to Flavia de Luce, another original thinker. She's an eleven-year-old budding chemist who's fascinated by poisons. When her father is accused of and charged with murder, Flavia determines to clear his name. She uses her unusual knowledge of chemistry, the help of some friends and her ability to "fade into the background" to find out who really killed the strange man who turns up dead in her family's cucumber patch. Most children might be afraid to take on such a challenge, but not Flavia. Instead she thinks

"This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life."

Flavia is far from a "typical" eleven-year-old in the way she thinks and that originality of mind also helps her solve cases.

And then there's Clara Benning, a reclusive wildlife veterinary surgeon who's much more at home among animals than she is among people. Her particular interest is reptiles, so in S.J. Bolton's Awakening, Benning's called in when several frightening occurrences involving snakes start happening in and near her village. Assistant Chief Constable Matt Hoare is officially in charge of the investigation of what's going on in the village, but Benning's unique way of thinking, and her expertise with snakes, prove vital to solving the mystery.

I've only mentioned a few of the terrific original thinkers we come across in crime fiction. Which are your favourites?


  1. I love the original thinkers! They are the characters that magnetize me as a reader and also are crucial to have something interesting happen with a plot! I like it when they show up in a novel - like Jake, an anthropologist that appears from time to time in Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan books. He's grumpy, messy, and often mysterious but he does think in a different way.
    I adore that crazy little Flavia. She's great in her second book too and her wicked love for poison makes her highly original and irrisistible.
    I have a very unusual 92 year old in my first mystery who definitely thinks in an unusual way. In my second mystery I have a nine year old girl who is fanatical about soldiering and all history about that line of work.

  2. Jan - no doubt about it; having a real original thinker adds so much interest to the plot. Original thinkers add really can draw the reader in (I like your word "magnetize").

    I admit, I haven't read a whole lot of Kathy Reichs' novels but yes, I do like Jake. His different way of looking at life is helpful, too, in solving mysteries.

    And Flavia de Luce really is delightful, I think. She's got such a unique perspective and her fondness for poison makes her offbeat and that much more original and interesting. I hope that series keeps going...

    Your characters sound quite original and interesting, too :-). I'm very much looking forward to reading your work!

  3. Inspector Morse has been one of my favourite thinkers for ages, but Flavia is a wonderful example of a brand-new protagonist. I remember that quotation and how much I enjoyed it.

  4. Dorte - Oh, yes! Inspector Morse certainly is an original thinker. He's brilliant, and he has a unique way of thinking about his cases. What I like about that, besides the fact that he's unique, is that he's sometimes wrong. He's human, and his originality sometimes takes him in the wrong direction. In the end, though, his way of thinking pays off. And I agree; Flavia is a terrific protagonist. I really am looking forward to more from her :-).

  5. I must admit I am often attracted to the original thinkers. I just read the second of Ariana Franklin's 12th Century series and was struck again by the original thinking of both Adelia Aguilar - the heroine of the story - who is definitely not confined by the thinking of the day and the country she is in - but also the 'minor hero' King Henry II - Franklin is clearly a fan of his and she highlights how forward thinking he was for his time.

  6. Bernadette - Oh, I like original thinkers, too!! I really enjoyed Mistress of the Art of Death and after your excellent review of The Serpent's Tale, I want to read that one, too. And I agree: Adelia Aguilar is a fascinating original thinker :-). You've given me a reminder that I must finish that series...

  7. Jim Chee is one of my favorite characters. I love the fact that Native American ways are used throughout the story. Chee doesn't always follow modern police thinking.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Morse is one of my favorites. Irascible, flawed, and smart and just looks at everything from a different angle. :)

  9. Mason - You're right; Chee definitely has an unusual and original way of thinking. Like you, too, I really enjoy the aspects of Navajo life and culture that run throughout this series. They add a great deal of interest.

    Elizabeth - I love Morse, too! He's such a unique, original kind of thinker, isn't he? Brilliant, but flawed enough to make him fascinating.

  10. Most crime fiction would not succeed without these sorts, would it. The plodding police man who just conducts interviews is dull. I like Cassie from Tana French's books quite a lot. She intuits a lot of information from subtle clues.

  11. Melrose Plant's Aunt Agatha! Like her or not, one has to admit the woman sees her world through some rather special glasses.

  12. Patti - You know, I hadn't thought about Cassie; you've got a very good point about her, though. She does intuit in an unusual way.

    Elspeth - Oh, yes!!! Aunt Agatha is a great example of a very original thinker. As you say, no matter what you think about her, she is unique!

  13. I agree with Jan about the Kathy Reichs Temperance Brennan books, but for me, I think Temperance is one of the most unique thinkers.

  14. Clarissa - Interesting point! Temperence Brennan is certainly an interesting thinker, too.

  15. I know only two of them, and love both of them. That remark about giving bran mash to the car, is one that comes back to me often at very unexpected times.

    Thank you for another great post, Margot.

  16. Rayna - How kind you are :-). You know, it's funny; the character of Lucy Angkatell is so interesting, not only because of the odd twists and turns her brilliant mind takes, but also because she stays with the reader. I think about her, too, even when I haven't been looking at that novel just lately.