You’re Coming Into View*

Crime fiction has changed in many ways as it has evolved. One of them is arguably an increased focus on the sleuth as a fully developed character. Most modern readers like to know something about the sleuth. So long as it doesn’t detract from the main plot, there’s often an interest in the sleuth’s personality, home life, and so on. In fact, the sleuth’s personal life can be a really effective source of story arcs (in series) and sub-plots.

Of course, there are always exceptions to any trend, but a look at crime fiction before the Golden Age suggests that sleuths weren’t really fully-developed characters with spouses, home lives, or a real backstory. For instance, Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone features the theft of a valuable diamond, an untimely death, and the search for the truth about the gem. The main emphasis is on the various members of the ‘blueblood’ family involved in the mysteries, and on some of their staff. There is a detective, Sergeant Cuff, who investigates the case. But we don’t really learn anything about him. He’s simply the police detective who’s assigned to the case.

The same is true of Scotland Yard’s Inspector Burnley, whom we meet in Freeman Wills Crofts’ The Cask. Burnley is called in to investigate when the body of a woman is discovered in a cask that was supposed to contain a shipment of wine. The shipment came from Paris, so Burnley travels there, and works with M. Lefarge of the Sûreté, who happens to be a friend of his. Together, the two men trace the woman’s identity, and investigate the people who might have had a reason to want to kill her. It’s a complex puzzle, and the focus is on that, rather than on the sleuths. We don’t learn much at all about Burnley’s home life (or Lefarge’s for the matter of that). Readers are privy to Burnley’s thought process as he makes sense of the various clues, but there’s very little else about him in the novel.

With the coming of the Golden Age, some authors started to share more about their sleuths, so that they’re a bit more fleshed out. Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are married, have children, and so on. There are story arcs about their children, and several domestic scenes in the books, too. Christie fans also know some things about Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, too. Several of the stories featuring those sleuths include domestic scenes, some backstory, and personal characteristics.

We could certainly say the same for Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Readers learn about Wolfe’s many eccentricities, tastes and habits, as well as some of his history. And  many of the stories take place at least partly in Wolfe’s New York brownstone, so we get to ‘visit’ his home. There are other ways, too, in which Stout fleshes out Wolfe’s character, so that we get to know him as a person.

There are, of course, many other Golden Age writers – I couldn’t even begin to list them all here! – whose sleuths are more fleshed out. Some of them (I’m thinking of Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh, for instance) included story arcs that concerned  their sleuths’ personal lives. Others chose to keep the emphasis more on the mystery than on the sleuth. Even so, we arguably see the development of the sleuth as a person as the Golden Age goes on.

And that trend seems to have continued. Fans of more modern sleuths often know quite a lot about those characters. If you’re a fan of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire, you could probably tell me a lot about his personality, his backstory, and so on. If you’re a fan of Attica Locke’s Darren Matthews, you could probably do the same. And those are just two examples. All you need do is think about the contemporary fictional sleuths you like the best, and I’d guess you could probably jot down a fairly well-developed character study. One reason why is likely that modern authors are putting more emphasis on their sleuths’ personalities. That’s true for authors such as Cathy Ace, who write traditional-style mysteries, as well as authors such as Nicci French, who write other sorts of crime fiction.

If this is a trend, is it a good one? That’s a bit harder to say. Some readers prefer not to know a lot about their sleuths. To them, putting that much emphasis on sleuths takes away from the mystery – the main plot – itself. There are also many readers who don’t care for the trope of the damaged detective who can’t function and can’t maintain a relationship. Certainly there are plenty of fleshed-out, fully developed sleuths who don’t fall into that category. But sleuths who do have become much more common in recent decades, when there’s a lot more emphasis on the sleuth’s life in crime fiction.

There are certainly authors and fictional sleuths who aren’t consistent with this trend. I’m sure you could offer examples. But it is interesting to see how crime stories have changed over time as the emphasis in them has changed to include the sleuth. Do you see this as a trend? What do you think of it? If you’re a writer, where is your emphasis?

Thanks to FictionFan, at FictionFan’s Book Reviews for the interesting post that got me thinking about this!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Air Formation’s Into View.

8 thoughts on “You’re Coming Into View*

  1. I definitely like to know more about characters than just the crime they’re investigating. Maybe the trend isn’t so much a trend as an evolution of writing? Characters becoming more human and living lives outside of the crime … as a writer that’s sometimes tricky, you don’t want to slow down the pace too much so it becomes a balancing act. In saying that though, having characters with lives also increases the stakes!

    I very much enjoyed the glimpses into Patricia Stanley’s life in ‘A Matter of Motive’. She became a real person due to those little slices of real life.

    If it brings the character to life and makes the reader care more … isn’t it a good thing?


    1. I think it is a good thing, Cat. When the reader cares about the characters, it’s a more engaging story. And it’s hard to care about characters if you don’t really know them. As you say, it is a bit tricky. Slow down the pace too much and you have a bored reader and you’ve taken away from the main plot. I really like the way you’ve balanced that, both with Ellie Iverson and Ronnie Tracy. It’s great getting to know who they are as people, and it adds to the richness of the story.

      You make a really interesting point, too, that it might be better to call this an evolution in writing. As the crime novel has evolved and changed, it makes sense that the way we write it would, too. Sharing the lives of the main characters is quite possibly part of that evolution.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I agree with Cat. I think writers are evolving. Readers want to follow “real” characters through their quests. Isn’t that the best? These “people” become real to us, and I love that. One of the best compliments I’ve ever gotten was: “Sage and Niko are my best friends.” I could have kissed that woman!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that feeling, too, Sue! There’s nothing better than when other people see our characters as real people – just as they are to us when they’re telling us their stories. And you make a well-taken point about how crime writing is evolving, and how the genre is evolving. Readers want to know about the characters, just as though they were real. They want to follow their stories, and that means balancing an engaging plot with fleshed-out characters.

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  3. Thanks for the link, Margot! I fall into the category of not too much information, please. As you gave your examples, I realised even more that it’s the intrusion of the detective’s life that makes me vastly prefer the Golden Age mysteries to later crime fiction – obviously there are exceptions at both ends, but I’m generalising. Even by the time of, say, PD James, I quickly got fed up of hearing about all about Dalgliesh’s poetry-writing angst, and before that Alleyn’s love affair with Troy and Wimsey and his languishing over Harriet all seemed to me simply to drag the books out and take away the focus on the mystery. Poirot, Miss Marple and Nero Wolfe are about perfect for me as detectives – they have enough personality and characteristics for me to feel I know them, but they don’t exactly have “lives” that get in the way of the story. I often wonder (without evidence) if the upsurge in popularity of vintage crime and cosies over the last few years is readers’ reaction to the angst-filled misery-fest crime novels of today, complete with their addicted, crooked, violent or otherwise broken detectives…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s always my pleasure to mention your excellent blog, FictionFan! I know what you mean, too, about too much attention being given to the sleuth’s personal life. Everyone’s got a different definition of ‘too much,’ of course, but I think most people do get their fill of angst, self-destructiveness, and so on in a detective. And even if the sleuth is functional and even well-adjusted, there is such a thing as too much attention on personal-life issues. It’s a tricky balance. You make such an interesting point, too, about the increased interest in GA novels and stories. It’d be really interesting to see if that’s linked to readers’ feelings about present-day fictional sleuths. I can certainly see the connection. Must think about that!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I’m probably the last person to comment on GA mysteries and characters and tropes. I do like investigators where we know something about them as a person. Maybe that is part of the reason why I don’t read so many GA books, that personal detail isn’t there perhaps? I don’t know if GA crime fiction seems to focus more on the middle/upper classes and I’m less interested in them than the working classes, outsiders and down and outs.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make an interesting point, Col. As a rule (but there are certainly exceptions), GA crime fiction doesn’t focus quite as much on the detective’s personal life and background, and if that interests you as a reader, I can see why you’re less drawn to GA novels. The same’s true, really for the novel’s focus (upper class v working class/down and outers). If the book’s focus isn’t of that much interest to you, I can see how you’d gravitate towards more modern crime fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

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