Saturday, March 12, 2011

Long-Haired Freaky People Need Not Apply*

Every culture has its own “rules” for dressing, behaving and even speaking. Those rules aren’t always taught, but we learn them very early in life. When someone breaks those cultural “rules” by not conforming to them, that person’s considered weird or strange. Sometimes non-conformists are even considered dangerous, whether or not they actually are. That’s the power of cultural “rules.” Non-conformists are often fascinating characters in crime fiction simply because they see the world differently and have a different perspective on it. Besides, they’re often very colourful and interesting in and of themselves, and they can add an extra layer of interest to a novel.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), we meet Julia and Isabel Tripp. They’re spiritualists, vegetarians and firm believers in mysticism, and they’ve gotten their friend Wilhelmina “Minnie” Lawson interested in the “spirit world.” Minnie Lawson’s employer Miss Emily Arundell doesn’t think much of spiritualism but she doesn’t see any harm in it either. Besides, Miss Arundell’s got other things on her mind. She’s a wealthy woman with financially-desperate relations. One night, Miss Arundell has a fall down the stairs of her home and is nearly killed. Everyone thinks it’s an accident, but Miss Arundell suspects otherwise. So she writes a letter to Hercule Poirot asking him to investigate. Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Miss Arundell’s home in the village of Market Basing, but by the time they get there it’s too late; Miss Arundell has died of what’s suspected to be liver failure. Poirot believes she was murdered, though, and he and Hastings look into the matter. Throughout the novel, the Misses Tripp add a touch of fascinating colour to the story because of their unusual personalities and lifestyles. They and Miss Lawton also provide an important clue to Poirot when they describe a séance they had shortly before Miss Arundell’s death.

In Christie’s Third Girl, Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who thinks she may have committed a murder. She leaves without giving her name, though, and Poirot doesn’t see how he can help. Then, with help from detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, Poirot discovers that the woman is Norma Restarick and that since her visit to Poirot, she seems to have disappeared. As he and Oliver search for Norma, they meet Norma’s boyfriend David Baker, who is very much a non-conformist. Baker wears his hair long, dresses, as Poirot puts it, “not unlike a VanDyke portrait,” and has such a colourful appearance that Oliver refers to him as The Peacock. Baker is also a non-conformist in other ways, especially for the time during which the novel was written. That’s part of what draws Norma to him. Interestingly enough, because David is a non-conformist, he comes under suspicion when Norma disappears. Later, when Ariadne Oliver has an unusual encounter with him, he comes under even more suspicion. It’s not until Baker becomes a victim himself that we begin to see how he fits into the larger scheme of things.

In Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, Queen takes a home in one of the suburbs of Hollywood so he can get some peace and quiet for writing. His writing is interrupted by Lauren Hill, whose father Leander has recently died of a heart attack. Lauren’s convinced, though, that her father’s death was deliberately brought on by a mysterious person who’d been sending warning letters and “gifts.” Queen is persuaded to begin investigating when Lauren Hill tells him that her father’s business partner Roger Priam has also been receiving eerie “gifts.” So Queen begins to look into the lives of both men. That’s how he meets Priam’s stepson Crowe “Mac” MacGowan. Mac is very much a non-conformist. He lives in a tree house on the Priam property, dresses in loincloths when he has to and nothing at all when he can get away with it, and believes that society is on the brink of destruction. In fact, he claims that his whole lifestyle is really in preparation for life after The Bomb that he is convinced will destroy life as we know it. In the end, though, Mac does provide Queen with some useful information he needs to solve the mystery.

There are several non-conformists in Shona MacLean’s The Redemption of Alexander Seaton. That novel takes place in 17th Century Scotland, a very different time and place to today’s world. Marion Arbuthnott is the daughter of the local apothecary. She’s also in love with her father’s assistant Patrick Davidson. When Davidson dies of what turns out to be poisoning, many people begin to think that Marion Arbuthnott may know more than she’s saying about the death. She knows an unusual amount about plants and herbs, goes off by herself and in other ways does not behave “normally.” Rumours about her begin to spread even more when she disappears and then is later found dead. Then, it’s discovered that she’d been spending time visiting an old woman known as the Wise Woman of Darkwater. Rumours have been going round for quite a while that the Wise Woman is engaged in witchcraft. So now, the story begins to spread that Marion Arbuthnott, too, was a witch. The fact that she has not conformed to what society expects of her has tragic consequences in this case. In the end, though, grammar school undermaster Alexander Seaton (himself somewhat of a non-conformist) gets to the bottom of both Marion Arbuthnott’s death and that of Patrick Davidson.

Harry Beam, a “regular” in M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, is also not much of a conformist. He’s a team member in the detective agency she owns. Harry prefers motorcycle leathers to more conventional clothes, has a shaved head and can seem intimidating. He’s also technologically extremely savvy and is very helpful to his boss.

And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, one of the main characters in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. She works as a research assistant with Mikael Blomqvist, publisher of Millennium magazine. When Blomqvist loses a libel suit in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he finds himself in need of money if he wants to continue publishing Millennium. So he accepts a commission from wealthy industrialist Henrik Vanger to find out the truth behind the disappearance of Vanger’s great-niece Harriet Vanger. Salander has the technical skills and the intelligence to be of great help during the investigation. She’s also a flagrant non-conformist. Multiply-tattooed and pierced, she’s a skilled kickboxer with no fear at all of what society will think of her. Although Salander’s refusal to conform puts her at grave risk, it also frees her, in a sense. She has no fear of “upsetting the apple cart,” and that helps her find answers.

These are only a few of the non-conformists that “spice up” crime fiction. Who are your favourites?

On Another Note…

My very sincere thanks to Clarissa Draper for passing along this Stylish Blogger Award. I truly appreciate it and I’m honoured – wow!

This award asks me to tell you seven things about myself. So in keeping with today’s post, I’ve decided to share seven things about me that may not exactly conform – at least not to popular culture ;-)

  1. I’m not in the least interested in celebrities, be they in movies, music, television or any other sphere. I really don’t follow their doings and don’t feel I’m missing out. OK, maybe Billy Joel, but that’s it.
  2. I like snow. Not that I don’t have my limits, but I like snow very much.
  3. If forced to choose between having TV or Internet, I’d give up television easily. But don’t come anywhere near my Ethernet cable!
  4. I home-schooled my daughter through high school. Not for religious reasons, but because our local high schools left far too much to be desired. So we enrolled her in a charter school with a major home school component. Looking back, I’m glad I did.
  5. I think best and work most productively at insanely early hours of the morning.
  6. When I travel, I avoid popular tourist stops. I much prefer to strike out on my own and explore.
  7. When I was a university student, I lived for a time in an off-campus dormitory that was – literally – located on the property of a junk yard. Really.

I know this award gets passed on, but if I did that, I’d be conforming ;-). I’d rather you celebrate what is unique about you and keep the award for yourself if you wish to. Tell ‘em Margot gave it to you.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Five Man Electrical Band's Signs.


  1. That's so cool! Living in a junkyard, huh? Well, I'm home-schooling my son, not for religious reasons but because I think it's a better education. I think more and more parents are starting to do this.

    One of my favorite Agatha Christie novels is The Moving Finger. In that book, a girl named Megan doesn't conform to her age (for various reasons) but I love how her relationship with Jerry Burton causes her to rethink her attitude towards life and style.

  2. I like FBI Special Agent Pendergast from Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. He is an unorthodox guy when necessary to deal with events where science and supernatural collide.

  3. I didn't know you're home schooling, too. I give you a lot of credit; it's not easy, is it? And you've got a point about the number of parents who are beginning to be interested in home-schooling.

    You know, the time I spent living in that junkyard-dorm was one of the best times of my life. We had a real community there. In fact...I ended up marrying one of the other denizens of that dorm, and we're still married.

    And thanks for reminding me of The Moving Finger. It is a really good example of a non-conformist. You're quite right that Megan does not conform to what her age group does and yes, that relationship with Jerry Burton is key. Glad you brought that up :-).

  4. Stephen - Oh, good point! Pendergast is definitely a non-conformist. And as you say, he has to be that way. He deals with some very unorthodox stuff.

  5. Very cool digs for a college furniture! LOL...

    I go crazy when I don't have internet. I could go without tv too. Give me a book and a laptop.

    Have a great weekend!

  6. Sharon - Oh, that's funny! Free furniture :-). I like it! And I'm with you. I don't need TV, but I do feel addicted to the Internet. Wonder what that says about me.. ;-). And books - yeah, lots of books, too :-).

    Enjoy the weekend, yourself!

  7. Next winter you can have all our snow. After the last three years I have had enough of it. I will personally wrap it up and have it delivered by Fed-Ex whatever the cost:)

  8. I'm in complete agreement with you about TV vs internet - about the only reason I own a TV is to watch my DVDs on - I rarely watch any live programming anymore, and like you I could care less about celebrities.

    One of my favourite non-conformists in crime fiction is Barbara Havers from the Elizabeth George series - I liked that she's not beautiful, doesn't dress in the latest fashion etc - but she's smart and dogged and gets the job done.

  9. Annie - LOL! Oh, that is funny! And you know, I would actually really enjoy a package like that from FedEx. But I can certainly see how one could have one's fill of it.

    Bernadette - Oh, I agree with you about Barbara Havers. She gets the job done and she's smart. But she certainly doesn't conform to the way others dress or act or speak (in fact, her mouth gets her into trouble). And as you say, she's not a beauty. I like her.

    And I know what you mean about TV, too. If I weren't married, the only time it would be on would be on would be to watch DVDs...

  10. Margot, congratulations on the award so well deserved. Love learning more about you.

    I was like Stephen, I thought of Agent Pendergast. He definitely have his own way of doing things. Another I thought of (that's not book related) was the character of Abby on NCIS. To me she really fits this profile.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - Thank you :-). That's awfully kind of you. And yes, Abby from NCIS certainly is a non-conformist. She plays by her own rules and doesn't look or dress "typically" if there is such a thing. And yet, she is a very highly-respected member of the team and brilliant.

    And I'm glad Stephen mentioned Agent Pendergast, too. A very good example of a non-conformist :-).

  12. Abby on NCIS is one of my favorite TV characters too. As for books, I'm thinking of Garth, an eccentric character in Star Gazing by Linda Gillard, who turns out to have a big heart. Garth is a Goth so you can imagine how strangely he dresses and does his hair. However, he turns out to be proof that you can't judge a book by its cover.

  13. Barbara - Thanks so much for mentioning Linda Gillard. I have to confess I'm not familiar with that book, although I've heard good things about it. Garth sounds like exactly the kind of person I meant :-). And I like your terminology - not judging a book by its cover.

  14. Congratulations on your very well-deserved award! It was fun to get to know you a bit bitter, and you can just come and share our snow any time we have some to share! I´d send you a box if only... (no, I can see the last little hills have actually melted now).

    My favourite freaky character is Lisbeth Salander. I also like butler Lipton, and I have added two sisters to my new manuscript, Lotus and Poppy Laxton. The poor girls must have had a hippy mother, and they are doing their best to live up to those names ;D.

  15. Dorte - Thank you :-). That's the problem with snow, isn't it? It melts....Ah, well.

    And I like the character of Lipton very much. He's an unusual sort of guy and I think you've made him fascinating. And I look forward to "meeting" Lotus and Poppy, too. Already I'm intrigued :-).

  16. Adrian Oliver herself. Her hairdos, her quirks, She. A non-confirmist if I ever saw one.
    In fact, few, if any, detectives are confirmists. To be successful, they need to be able to think out of the box, and if they have that ability, they tend not to place too much emphasis on social mores.

    And while I am firmly in the school camp (simply becuase I do not have the patience to homeschool), given the amount of time I am now spending with my kids, I may as well be homeschooling. But, when you find out that your kid is three years behind in Maths, because the teachers are just not able to teach him, you have no option but to start tutoring at home.

  17. Rayna - Please forgive me for not responding to you before this *blush*. I am sorry. And you're so right, too, about Ariadne Oliver. She is most definitely not a conformist, is she? You make a well-taken point about sleuths in general, too. Thinking out of the box does tend to make a person a non-conformist, but one needs to think that way to solve crimes...

    I admire you for putting your children first and making sure they get what they need. That includes tutoring when the teachers cannot teach. That was, in part, the reason we decided to homeschool. There are a lot of advantages to going to school in a more typical way, but when the schools do not meet one's child's needs, one's got to step in.