Friday, February 25, 2011

The Regular Crowd Shuffles In*

One of the strongest appeals of any crime fiction series is the cast of “regular” characters. When they’re well-drawn characters, we look forward to reading about them as we would to hearing about how our friends are doing. And it’s realistic, too, to have a cast of “regular” characters who work with the detective. As I’ve often said on this blog, detectives almost never solve crimes on their own. Not in real life and not in realistic crime fiction. That said, though, having too many “regulars” can be confusing. Even if the author is doing an effective job of drawing the characters so that they’re memorable, it can still take away from a series to have too big of a crowd, so to speak.

In fact, some authors don’t use many “regulars” in their series at all. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels feature Poirot of course. Several of them also feature Captain Arthur Hastings. A few other “regulars” are Inspector James “Jimmy” Japp of Scotland Yard and Christie’s fictional detective author Ariadne Oliver. There’s also Mr. Goby, the somewhat enigmatic purveyor of information who never looks directly at the person he’s speaking with, and Mr. Satterthwaite, who mixes among the “best” circles and seems to know everyone. There are one or two other “occasional” characters, too. But what’s interesting about the way these characters are used in the Poirot novels is that Christie doesn’t use more than a few of them at a time. They all have distinct personalities, too, so it’s not hard to keep track of them.

Things are a bit different in Christie’s Miss Marple novels. Miss Marple lives in the village of St. Mary Mead, so as you would expect, there’s an interesting cast of “regulars” who live there and whom we meet in more than one novel. For instance, there’s the vicar Leonard Clement and his wife Griselda, whom we first meet in The Murder at the Vicarage, when Miss Marple helps Inspector Slack find out who shot Colonel Protheroe in the vicar’s own kitchen. Then there’s Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly. They’re the owners of Gossington Hall, where the body of Ruby Keene is discovered in The Body in the Library. There’s also Cherry Baker, who serves as Miss Marple’s live-in companion/assistant in later novels. There are more “regular” characters in this series, but that makes some sense. Several of these novels take place in and around St. Mary Mead, so it’s logical that we’d see more “regulars” than we do in the Poirot novels, since Poirot tends to travel more.

Colin Dexter created a very effective series without using a great number of “regular” characters. There are, of course, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis. There’s also Superintendent Strange, whom we meet in several novels and has the thankless task of supervising Morse ;-). Mostly, though, we meet different characters in each of the Morse novels. And that makes some sense, too. Many people think of the Morse novels as police procedurals and you could certainly say they are. But they aren’t the sort of police procedurals that focus on the daily ins and outs and comings and goings of a police precinct or constabulary. Rather, they focus on one team’s investigation.

That’s not the case for Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti novels. Brunetti is the focus of those novels, as is Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello. It’s their investigations that get the attention. And yet, there is also quite a group of “regulars” whom we also get to know. For instance, there’s Vice-Questore Patta, Brunetti’s boss and “thorn in the side.” And there’s Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi. And of course, there’s Brunetti’s family. His wife, Paola Falier and his children Chiara and Raffi are important characters in just about all of the novels. Then there are a few more minor characters such as Alvise, who’s famous for his incompetence, and the medical examiner Dr. Ettore Rizzardi. Despite the number of “regulars,” though, it’s not a problem (or perhaps that’s just my opinion) to keep them sorted out. One of the things that helps is that many of these “regulars” have roles in enough of the novels so that it’s possible to get to know them rather well.

Although the series is quite different in several ways, Andrea Camilleri’s Commissario Salvo Montalbano series has in common with Leon’s that there’s a cast of “regular” characters that goes far beyond just Montalbano. For one thing, there’s his assistant and nemesis Mimì Augello. There’s also Sergeant Catarella, an eccentric character whose way of speaking is welcome comic relief. Montalbano’s lover, Livia Burlando is another “regular” whom we get to know as the series goes on. There are other “regulars,” too. But as with Leon’s novels, the characters in these novels are distinct enough that it’s not a problem to keep track of them.

That’s also true of the “regulars” in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Apart from Mma. Precious Ramotswe, who is the main character in this series, there is quite a cast of other characters. For example, there’s her assistant/associate detective Mma. Grace Makutsi. There’s her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, who owns Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, and there are his two assistants. There are also Mma. Ramotswe’s two adopted children Motholeli and Puso. Mma. Sylvia Potowkane, who runs a local orphanage, is also a “regular,” and there are several others. Again, although there are quite a number of “regular” characters in this series, it’s fairly easy (although this may be only my opinion) to keep them straight. McCall Smith has given each a distinct personality. And in the setting in which these novels take place, it’s easy to see how there would be a larger number of “regulars.”

That’s also true in police procedural series like Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series, or Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series. In those series, there’s a large number of “regular” characters because the series follow several police officers and their families. That makes sense. In real life, police precincts handle many cases at once, and lots of police detectives are “on the job.” Following so many characters isn’t for everyone, but at least in both of these cases, readers of the series can keep the characters straight.

Everyone’s different about “regular” characters, though. Some readers like a cast of them. Some prefer only a few. What’s your view? Do you find it distracting to try to keep track of several “regular” characters, or you do enjoy that aspect of a series? If you’re a writer, how do you manage including enough “regular” characters without overwhelming the reader?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man. I learned to waltz to that song…


  1. I *love* the series that feature a cast, and I especially love when the author lets us get to know some of the others outside of work, not just on the job. That's one of the best things about the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series -- it will never get old because McCall Smith keeps adding characters and fleshing them out as the series moves along.

  2. Karen - I know what you mean. When the author lets us get to know characters in more than one context, we do learn more about them and often find them more interesting. They're more well-rounded that way. And I agree; McCall Smith does such an excellent job of developing evolving characters. I also think he does the right thing by not adding too many at once. We can learn about each person better that way.

  3. Sjowall and Wahloo's Martin Beck books had a regular team [Lennart Kollberg, Gunvald Larsson, Benny Skacke, Per Mansson] who sometimes played a bigger part in the stories than Martin Beck himself.
    Hakan Nesser's Van Veeteren is also supported by a team of detectives. And John Lawton's Troy series has a cast of eccentric police, pathologists, and family to keep your attention.

  4. I love regular characters. For me, I'll pick up a series book off the self over a stand alone. I love seeing the characters evolve. Especially if the MCs seem to be forming a relationship like in Edward Martin's books or Val McDermids or Deborah Crombie.

  5. Norman - I'm so glad you mentioned both Sjöwall and Wahlöö and Nesser. You're quite right about both of them. In fact, I sometimes think that's one of the real strengths of those series. Yes, of course they're good police procedurals. But the group of "regulars" adds quite a lot. And if you think about it, neither Martin Beck nor Inspector Van Veeteren, skilled as they are, could carry those series off as brilliantly by themselves.

  6. Clarissa - I like to see that evolution of characters, too. I think the development of the "regular" characters is part of what keeps a series fresh and interesting to read. And I agree; I like what I'm seeing in terms of the major characters, both in Martin Edwards' books and in Deborah Crombie's.

  7. I love a book with 'regular' characters. It does make the sleuth more real to have people in their lives on a regular basis. The extra characters helps add another layer to the depth of the sleuth at work and away. One example that comes to mind is JD Robb's Eve Dallas character. She's a great cop, but giving her friends to interact with (even on a small scale) shows the readers another side of Eve. With friends we see the side of Eve that isn't as sure of herself as she is when she's all cop.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Mason - You really put that well. There's definitely more depth to the sleuth when we see how she or he interacts with "regulars." We do have different interactions with different people, so it certainly makes sense that sleuths would, too. And thanks for the example of the In Death series. Robb certainly does add a variety of regular characters, and as Eve Dallas interacts, we do get to know her better.