Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Call Me a Joker, Call Me a Fool*

Labels and categories are a really important part of the way we think and organise information. And that makes a lot of sense. We’re bombarded with so much stimulus from everywhere that if we didn’t sort what we learn into categories, and put labels on those categories, we wouldn’t be able to remember much. For a similar reason, we use labels for people, too (wealthy, poor, flight attendant, doctor, etc.). And that makes some sense, too. The trouble with labels for people, though, is that people are complex. A person may, for instance, be a pilot. But she may also be a tennis player. A person may be an engineer, but he may also be an environmentalist. And yet, we use labels for people and make assumptions based on them. Those labels can be dangerous, but they can also be very useful, at least in crime fiction. Sleuths and murderers alike use labels and people’s assumptions about them.

For example, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot sometimes makes very good use of the way people label him. He’s most emphatically not English. In fact, when it suits him, he acts much more “foreign” than he really is. So when many people meet him, they label him based on their assumptions about foreigners. Some label him a mountebank, others simply an insignificant person who couldn’t possibly understand what’s going on. Poirot uses those labels to his advantage in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal). In that novel, he is asked to look into the death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. At first, everyone thought Abernethie died of natural causes. But when the family gathers after the funeral, Abernethie’s sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. Poirot looks into the lives of the other members of the family and for the most part, deliberately cultivates the image of the foreigner that’s a parody of himself. That allows him to overhear some important conversations and get some vital clues to the murder. Interestingly enough, in this novel, the murderer also “hides” behind a label and a cultivated image.

Christie’s Miss Marple also takes advantage of the way people label her. She carefully cultivates the image of the harmless elderly lady; it makes people less intimidated around her and often allows her to find out information she wouldn’t otherwise find out. Of course, sometimes that label of “elderly lady” works against her and her friends. For instance, in 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is taking a train to visit her friend Miss Marple after some pre-Christmas shopping in London. While she’s en route, Mrs. McGillicuddy witnesses a murder on another train that’s going in the same direction. At first, no-one believes that there even was a murder. In part it’s because there hasn’t been a body discovered. But mostly it’s because Mrs. McGillicuddy is an elderly woman who, it’s assumed, was either dreaming or is subject to “fancies.” Mrs. McGillicuddy is most emphatically not a fanciful woman, so Miss Marple believes her right away. But it takes some clever planning and the help of a “spy” to prove to the police that there was a murder.

Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax also benefits from the labels people give her because she’s an elderly woman. Most people take a look at her and think, “retired suburban woman who’s fond of gardening.” They then make assumptions based on that labelling. But the reality is that Emily Pollifax is a CIA agent who was recruited in part because she doesn’t “look like a spy.” It’s actually really interesting to see how people react to her when they the see the grey hair and harmless-looking appearance, only to discover that she’s a spy.

We also see the effects of a label when people run up against Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel. Dalziel is a working-class Yorkshireman who doesn’t have a lot of formal education. Because of his background and his somewhat boorish habits, lots of people are quick to dismiss Dalziel as a thick-headed yokel. But the fact is, he’s highly intelligent and an astute observer. He’s often ahead of his sergeant, the more-educated Peter Pascoe, and people make light of him at their own peril.

And then there’s Flavia de Luce, who features in Alan Bradley’s novels. She’s a precocious child who loves chemistry – especially poisons – and she’s both intelligent and observant. But in the 1950’s village of Bishop’s Lacey, people see this eleven-year-old sleuth and immediately think, “child.” In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie for instance, Flavia discovers a dead man in the family’s cucumber patch one morning. This is the same man who had a quarrel with Flavia’s father the day before, so it’s not long before Colonel de Luce is arrested for the murder. Flavia is sure her father isn’t guilty, though, and determines to clear his name and find the real killer. In some ways, the label “child” makes things a bit difficult for Flavia since it restricts her. But in other ways, she’s freed up to investigate. Most people don’t give her much special notice, so Flavia takes advantage by listening in on conversations and poking around in places where an adult might be regarded with suspicion. In the end, and with the help of some friends, Flavia finds out the truth about the dead man.

Lindy Cameron’s Redback features Bryn Gideon, who commands a special team of retrieval specialists. Their particular skill is getting people out of danger when they’re trapped in “trouble spots.” When we first meet Gideon and the team, they’re rescuing a group of conferees who’ve been captured by rebels on the Pacific island of Laui. The team is successful at rescuing everyone and the former hostages are grateful. But some of them are shocked to find that the commander of this crack team is a woman. Although this novel doesn’t particularly preach feminism, it’s interesting to see how the different characters react to a commander of a team of retrieval specialists who doesn’t fit the image of what that kind of person “should” be. To the rest of the members of the Redback team, Gideon is their commander; she’s also a mate. The fact that she doesn’t “fit the label” of commander doesn’t matter. But to the outside world it comes as a surprise at times.

Of course, it’s not just sleuths who are affected by the labels people give them. Murderers sometimes “hide” behind those labels. I’m sure that you could think of lots of novels where the murderer turns out to be someone that no-one suspected because of a label she or he has. I’ll just mention one example. In Martha Grimes’ The Anodyne Necklace, Chief Inspector Richard Jury is called in when a human bone is found in the village of Littlebourne. Jury and his friend Melrose Plant discover that the bone belongs to Cora Binn, who’d come to the village for a job interview and was killed before she ever got to it. Eventually, the two sleuths connect her death with a brutal attack on another villager and with a theft at the home of a third. The killer turns out to be someone whose label has served as a good cover.

What’s your view? Have you ever been misled by a label you gave to a character? If you’re a writer, how do you use labels and the assumptions that go with them?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Go to Extremes.


  1. I have been misled and I think that the author meant to mislead the reader. I don't mind. I think it makes for a good story. Do I try to mislead? I'm not sure I do. I think naturally we are given labels by what we do for a job or hobby and sometimes when we portray our characters differently, the reader can feel misled.

  2. Clarissa - Now that's a very well-taken point. If we create characters that are too different from the labels people give them, this could mislead the reader. Does that cheat the reader? If it's not done well, perhaps... But as you say, if a reader gives a character a certain label for whatever reason and that label turns out to be wrong, that can make for a really interesting story and a compelling character.

  3. I don't tend to use labels on people to mislead, but I do like to have characters who might be labeled one thing to surprise people. Part of that is because I like to be non PC (-:

  4. Vanda - I like your strategy :-). People do have conceptions of what people out to be like based on a label. When the character with that label surprises the reader, that's engaging and it invites people to question their assumptions. I like it!

  5. As I started reading your post the character that came to mind most immediately was Peter Wimsey who is so often taken by those who don't know him as nothing more than an upperclass amateur. I don't think the reader is ever meant to take him that way, but it is often a useful plot device.

  6. Annie - I think that's quite true. Wimsey really is taken sometimes for a rich amateur with no real talent and too much time on his hands. So criminals don't always take him as a credible threat. And in Strong Poison, we see that when Harriet Vane is so doubtful that Wimsey can clear her name. Well-taken point.

  7. Despite their best intentions, many people judge by first impressions - which can be a fun adventure to write!

  8. Elspeth - You put that quite well! It can be interesting and fun to see how people's first impressions guide what they say and do. And it can make for very interesting plot twists!!!

  9. I just finished LOVE YOU MORE by Lisa Gardner and it would definitely under in this category. The main suspect has been labels but in the end, her label is completely different.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Thanks for mentioning Love You More. I am looking forward to your review of it :-). I admit I haven't read it yet, but from what I know of it, it certainly does sound like a good example of the point I'm making here.