Can’t Work You Out*

Most readers want their characters to be three-dimensional, and that means neither all good nor all bad. That said, there are some fictional characters who are enigmatic enough that we don’t know quite where to place them on the spectrum. Characters like that can be a challenge, because we want to know whether to find them sympathetic. On the other hand, they can also build the suspense in a story as we learn more about them.

In Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, for instance, we are introduced to Jane Wilkinson, a famous American actress. One night, she approaches Hercule Poirot and asks him for help. She wants to divorce her husband, Lord Edgware, so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. Poirot is reluctant; this isn’t the sort of case he usually takes. But she persuades him to at least speak to the duke. When Poirot and Hastings visit the duke, he tells them that he has no objection to a divorce. That night, he is murdered. Jane Wilkinson is the most likely suspect; she had even threatened his life during her conversation with Poirot. But she claims that she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time of the murder. What’s more, she seems unlikely to have been able to plan a murder. She can’t even tell the difference between AM and PM, and her conversation is quite shallow. Is she a murderer? Is she just a thoroughly self-absorbed, rather stupid woman? Part of the suspense in this novel comes from answering the question of just who Jane Wilkinson really is.

In a way, Vera Caspary’s Laura addresses the same sort of question. In the novel, the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is discovered in her apartment. New York police detective Lieutenant Mark McPherson is assigned to the case and begins to ask questions. It’s not long before two main suspects come to the fore. One is the victim’s fiancé Shelby Carpenter. Laura had recently postponed their wedding, so it could be that they’d had a falling-out. The other main suspect is Laura’s former lover Waldo Lydecker. She’d planned to have dinner with him, but she cancelled her plans at the last minute. There could easily be a motive hidden somewhere in their past together. As McPherson looks into the case, he begins to be obsessed with Laura, and falls in love with her memory. Then comes a shock: the dead woman in the apartment is not Laura Hunt. In fact, Laura herself returns from a short trip she’d taken, and verifies that she had allowed a friend named Diane Redfern to use her apartment while she was away. Now, Laura joins the list of suspects, and that raises some questions. Just who is she? Is she an independent woman who wants to live her own life? Is she a killer? Is she a femme fatale? The tension grows as we find out more about her and the other characters.

Eric Ambler’s A Coffin For Dimitrios (AKA The Mask of Dimitrios) begins as mystery novelist Charles Latimer travels from his native England to Istanbul for a change of scene, and for his health. There, he hears the story of notorious criminal Dimitrious Makropoulos, whose body has been pulled from the Bosporus. Latimer is curious about Makropoulos, and wants to know what led him to do the things he did (including murder). So, he decides to follow the dead man’s trail backwards, as it were, to find out more about him. As he goes along, he meets some of the people who knew Makropoulos, and he finds out about some of the crimes the man committed. He learns, too, about Makropoulos’ past. Along the way, he meets an enigmatic man named Mr. Peters. One the one hand, Peters knew Makropoulos, and might have been involved in some of his crimes. He could even be the murderer. On the other hand, Latimer has no evidence. Besides, Peters is helpful with information, and seems interested in having Latimer achieve his goal. So, who, really, is Mr. Peters? That question adds an interesting layer to the story.

The focus of Reginald Hill’s Deadheads is Patrick Aldermann, a seemingly innocent, ‘normal’ businessman with a successful marriage, healthy children, and a rose garden of which he is inordinately fond. He seems to lead what many people might call a charmed life, and that’s the problem. Anyone who might stand between him and success somehow ends up dead, and that gets the attention of the police. Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe don’t find very much to connect Aldermann with the deaths. And yet, he seems to benefit from them. Is it just coincidence? Is he a multiple murderer? And if so, how does he manage it? These questions about who Aldermann really is add suspense to the novel.

And then there’s Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion, the first of her series featuring Anna Travis. In this novel, Travis has recently been promoted to Detective Sergeant (DS), and has joined the Murder Squad, Queen Street. She’s just getting settled in when the squad gets a new case. Seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been murdered. As it turns out, her death resembles six older cases the team is working on, so they take a special interest. As the case goes along, there seems to be one main suspect: up-and-coming TV actor Alan Daniels. He might be their culprit, and there’s evidence to suggest that he is. On the other hand, he might be the beloved, gracious TV star he seems to be. That’s what he claims, and he could be telling the truth. After all, there’s no real motive to connect him to the victims. He’s enigmatic enough that it’s difficult for Travis to tell exactly who he is, and that’s one of the main plot threads,

It isn’t always easy to know whether a character is on the ‘side of the angels’ or not. Characters like that don’t make a detective’s job any easier, but they can be very interesting. And they can add solid layers to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Dallas Crane.



6 thoughts on “Can’t Work You Out*

    1. I really like your choices, Neeru! Snape is definitely an enigmatic character; you often don’t know at all which side he’s on, so to speak. And you make an interesting point about both Rebecca and Rachel. As we peel away the layers of their characters, we learn more about them, but I wonder if we ever truly get to know them, and it’s hard to pin them down, if that makes sense.


  1. Patrick Aldermann is a great example of this kind of character! I swayed back and forward in my opinion of him throughout the book. And I agree with Neeru – Snape is another one whom it’s hard to pin down.


    1. I think you’re right, FictionFan – Snape isn’t at all easy to ‘box in.’ But I think that’s part of his appeal as a character. And as for ALdermann, that’s a good part of what keeps the reader’s attention in that novel: who is he really? Hill did such a good job of letting the layers unfold without playing coy, if that makes sense.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Most definitely, Col! He’s a great example of a character who’s hard to pin down. Sometimes I don’t even think he knows whether he’s on the side of the angels or now.


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