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?