Friday, April 1, 2011

Just Another New Kid in Town*

Do you remember your first day on the job in your present position? Even experienced people are likely to have an adjustment period when they start in a new job or with new people. There are nearly always new skills to learn, new work relationships to develop, and a new boss. That’s enough to make just about anyone nervous. And when one’s a sleuth, there’s the added challenge of trying to solve cases while at the same time proving oneself as “the new kid on the block.” That sub-plot – the “new kid” adjusting to the job – can add an interesting layer to a novel, and make a character more real. We can all identify with what it’s like to start a job and get used to a new work environment.

Grace Springer finds out what it’s like to be “the new kid” in Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons. She’s the new games mistress at Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school with an international reputation. Springer does little to endear herself to her new colleagues. In fact, she tells her colleagues that she hopes no-one has a secret, because she will find it out. The students don’t like her much either. In fact, one of the students says,

“Miss Springer is awful. She does gym and P.T. She’s got ginger hair and smells when she’s hot.”

Late one night, Grace Springer is shot in the school’s brand-new Sports Pavilion. The police are beginning to investigate the case when there’s a kidnapping. And then another murder. Then Julia Upjohn, a student at Meadowbank, visits Hercule Poirot, who’s acquainted with a friend of her mother’s, and tells him about what’s been going on at the school. It turns out that Grace Springer was murdered because she found out something she wasn’t supposed to know, and that her death is connected with international intrigue and a valuable cache of jewels.

Lord Peter Wimsey is “the new kid in town” in Dorothy Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise. He’s taken a job as a copywriter at the ultra-respectable Pym’s Publicty, Ltd. at the request of Pym’s management. They’ve asked Wimsey to investigate the death of copywriter Victor Dean, who died suddenly from what was supposed at the time to be an accidental fall down a flight of stairs. But Dean left behind a half-finished letter in which he accused someone in the company of illegal activities. Wimsey goes undercover at the agency as Dean’s replacement to get to the bottom of the mystery. He discovers that the agency’s advertisements are being used to set up meetings between local drug dealers and a dangerous drugs gang. Dean found out who in the company has been the “go-between” and was blackmailing that person; hence, his murder. One of the interesting sub-plots in this novel is Wimsey’s process of “fitting in.” He “earns points” by creating a highly successful ad campaign. He earns even more by turning out to be a talented cricketer.

In Peter Robinson’s Gallows View, it’s DI Alan Banks who’s the “new kid in town.” He and his family have recently moved from London to the Yorkshire town of Eastvale, and are trying to fit in. Banks is in charge, so at one level, his team treats him with respect. But at another, he has to prove himself. He gets his chance when a voyeur begins to make life miserable for several local women. His team is also investigating a series of break-ins. And then there’s a murder. Now, Banks and his team have to work together to find out who’s behind these events. Throughout the novel, Banks’ being new to the area adds an interesting layer of tension to the story as he and his family adjust to their new home.

Tony Hillerman’s Bernadette Manuelito is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police. But in The Sinister Pig, she takes a job with the U.S. Border Patrol, where she’s now the “new kid in town.” She’s assigned to patrol part of the Animas Mountains in southern New Mexico. During one of her routine patrols, Manuelito notices some suspicious activity at the Tuttle Exotic Game Ranch and photographs it. When Manuelito informs her bosses of what she’s discovered, they tell her about a “special arrangement” they have with the workers at the ranch. According to that arrangement, ranch personnel help patrol the border in that area, and in return for the extra help, the Border Patrol does not patrol the ranch. Since she’s “new in town,” Manuelito doesn’t want to “make waves” at first, so she accepts what her bosses tell her. But then, when Manuelito discovers that some dangerous criminal elements have a photograph of her and that she may be in danger, she tells her former boss, Navajo Tribal Officer Jim Chee, what she’s discovered. He and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn work with Manuelito to find out what’s going on at the ranch.

FBI profiler Sophie Anderson is the “new kid in town” in P.D. Martin’s Body Count. She’s moved from her native Australia to Quantico, Virginia to be a part of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit. Anderson’s specialty is “getting into the heads” of serial killers. She wants to “fit in” with her new team, and she’s helped quite a bit by her friend and colleague Samantha “Sam” Wright. When Anderson and her team are put on the case of the “D.C. Slasher, she begins to have troubling dreams – psychic visions really – that give clues to the killer. She confides in her friend and begins the work of trying to understand her visions and use them. And then Sam Wright disappears. Now, Anderson has the harness her visions and try to stop the killer if she can before her friend becomes the next victim. In this novel, Anderson’s being “the new kid in town” isn’t the most important part of the plot, but it does play an interesting role in the way in which she relates to her team-mates.

The same is true in Martin’s Fan Mail. In that novel, Anderson has decided to take an FBI field position and moves to Los Angeles. Once again she’s “the new kid in town,” and is trying to build working relationships with her new team-mates. Then, a bizarre series of killings occurs. First, best-selling novelist Loretta Black is murdered in an eerie imitation of the murder in her latest release. Then another novelist is murdered. And another disappears. Anderson has to work with her FBI team-mates and with the L.A.P.D., whose patch she doesn’t want to trample, to solve the murders. Again, the fact that Anderson is “the new kid” isn’t the main point of the novel, but it’s an interesting sub-plot.

Donna Leon’s About Face introduces us to Commissaria Claudia Griffoni. She’s only been at the Venice Questura for six months, and is still trying to fit in and make sense of the people and the politics of her new assignment. She’s also only recently been promoted to the rank of Commissaria, so she’s having to get accustomed to her new duties as well. She and Commissario Guido Brunetiti work together with Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello to find out the truth about some allegedly illegal trucking practices in the area and two deaths that are likely connected to those practices. Since she is “the new kid in town,” Griffoni isn’t quite used yet to the way things work at the questura, but she’s a skilled professional and she quickly learns to hold her own.

Starting a new job and getting used to new people and new duties can be nerve-wracking. It can also add an interesting sub-plot to a novel, and that sub-plot can add a “human” layer to a character. Which are your favourite “new kids in town?”

*NOTE: The title of this blog is a line from the Eagles’ New Kid in Town.


  1. YES, I remember my first day as a teacher in Thisted quite clearly. A year later one of my students told me that on that first day he thought I was sour and nervous - but later they began to like me :D

    Miss Stringer is an excellent example of the unpopular teacher so small wonder she did not survive a crime novel.

  2. Dorte - Of course your students learned to like you! How could they not? :-). I remember my very first day teaching, too - I was not much older than some of my students were...

    Interesting point about Miss Springer. I wonder if Christie drew her as an unpopular character to make her a more plausible victim.

  3. Wow, that's a great subject. I loved the interaction between Havers and Lynley when Havers first joined the team. The testing and the pushing and pulling between the two warmed them in the hearts of the readers.

  4. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I agree that Havers' adjustment to working with Lynley makes for a very interesting sub-plot in A Great Deliverance. Her efforts to do her new job and prove herself add some "spice" to that novel.

  5. Great post, Margot! Being a fish out of water is a great way to for the main character to see things that others don't. But a new job is so stressful in itself. In reality I'd never notice any mysterious goings-on; I'd be too busy trying not to sink.

  6. Bobbi - Thank you :-). I think that's what makes it so interesting when a sleuth is "the new kid in town." There's that stress of getting used to a new job, new colleagues, and so on, and the stress of solving a crime. I'm not sure I'd be able to handle it, either...

  7. I can see the conflict that could cause. Make a friend for ever. Make an enemy forever. My first day I disappeared. Did a lot of walking around and hiding from my boss. It took me a few days to settle in and feel comfortable.

  8. Stephen - You put that quite well: it is easy to make a friend or an enemy forever when one's still fumbling one's way around as "the new kid." I don't blame you, either, for steering clear of your boss at first. I think for most of, it takes some time to settle in...

  9. We've definitely all been new at some point. How the new sleuth deals with being "the new kid" allows a writer to give real looks at the character. It's a good way to show, not tell. Over the course of the book, maybe the character's approach to being "the new kid" changes in the face of adversity, twists in the case, etc. I wonder if writers of established characters start writing a new character just to recapture that feeling of writing about someone who's new to the whole sleuthing scene.

  10. Tom - Oh, that is an interesting question! I wouldn't be surprised if that's part of the reason that writers of long-standing series integrate new characters. And there are so many examples of that, too - far too many for me to list here. You're onto something, I think.

    You've also got a well-taken point that when the sleuth is "the new kid," the author can show (not tell) the reader some interesting things about that sleuth. How does s/he go about meeting new people? How important is it to the sleuth to prove her or himself? Lots of other questions, too, can be answered, and that really does give insight into the character.

  11. Being the 'new kid' does add a new layer to the story. Sometimes the sleuth's new co-workers may not want to take them serious when they see the situation through new eyes. I've added P.D. Martin's books to my 'wish list' as they sound intriguing. Interesting post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Mason - Thank you :-). You make a well-taken point here. It certainly can make for a very interesting sub-plot when the sleuth's new colleagues don't want to take her or him seriously. It can be quite realistic, too. Sometimes, new co-workers aren't sure how to react to "the new kid," and showing their reactions can add a dose of authenticity to a novel.

  13. When am I going to have time to catch up on all these great novels...and to read just one Donna Leon mystery, which I suppose will hook me into reading the series? Your blog posts make me want to give up writing and all other activities and just move into the library.

  14. Pat - Why, thank you :-). I really do think you'd like the Commissario Brunetti series. Among so many other things to like about the novels, there's a great Venice setting (including maps) and I really like some of the characters very much. But I know exactly what you mean about trying to get all that reading done. There's no way that I could possibly read all of the books I want to read...