Some people don’t conform to the way ‘the rest of us’ live. They live sometimes ‘on the fringes,’ and their lifestyles are eccentric – even strange. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re dangerous, but people sometimes say things about them (e.g., ‘You know Old Man Warner? I heard he….’). Characters like this can be really interesting in crime fiction. They can add to a story’s sense of place and local culture. And, they can make for interesting witnesses/suspects.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, Hercule Poirot visits the village of Woodleigh Common at the request of his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver. She was visiting a friend there when a murder occurred. A young girl, Joyce Reynolds, was killed not long after boasting that she had seen a murder. The killing happened at a local Hallowe’en party, so Poirot speaks to the people who were there. One of them is a cleaning lady/charwoman named Mrs. Goodbody. She played the part of a witch at the party, and she told fortunes for the party guests. She’s a little eccentric (and a bit of a gossip), and there are people in town who think she actually is a witch. Poirot takes what she says seriously, and he learns some important information about the town’s past from her.
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is about the Blackwoods, a family of very eccentric people who live on the fringes of a small New England Town. The narrator is eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine ‘Merricat’ Blackwood, who lives in an isolated house with her sister, Constance, and her Uncle Julian. The town shuns the family because six years earlier, three other members of the family died of what turned out to be poison and the town is convinced that one of the remaining Blackwoods is responsible. And as we get to know the Blackwoods, we see how eccentric they are. Still, they leave the people of the town alone, and vice versa. Then, a cousin comes to visit, and that intrusion from the outside changes everything. Things start to spiral out of control, and the end result is tragedy. It’s an interesting case of a narrator who’s ‘on the fringes.’
Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel takes place in the small Dutch town of Zwinderen. Inspector Piet Van der Valk has been sent there to investigate a series of troubling events. Someone’s been sending out vicious anonymous letters attaclomg several citizens. And in a small town like this, everyone knows everyone, and reputation matters a lot. It matters so much, in fact, that two people have committed suicide, and one has had a severe mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to make much headway, since almost no-one will talk to them. So, Van der Valk goes in under the guise of a government inspector, to find out who is responsible for the letters. One of the people he interviews is M. Besançon, a French Jew who survived the Holocaust, ended up in the Netherlands, and now just wants to be left in peace. He’s eccentric, and many of the people in town don’t like or trust him. In fact, there’s talk that he could be the person who sent the letters. As Van der Valk gets to know M. Besançon, we learn a little more about him, and we see a little more of what he’s really like.
Julia Keller’s Bitter River takes place in rural Ackers Gap, West Virginia. There, Belfra ‘Bell’ Elkins is a country prosecutor who often works with the local sheriff, Nick Fogelsong. The two have a difficult case on their hands when the body of sixteen-year-old Lucinda Trimble is found in a car at the bottom of Bitter River. It’s a small town, so everyone knew the victim, and her death has shaken the whole town. Elkins and Fogelsong interview everyone who might know anything, beginning with the girl’s mother, Madeline ‘Maddie’ Trimble. Maddie’s a bit strange, and there’s talk among some people that she engages in witchcraft. She’s not a churchgoer, and she isn’t a very social person, so it’s not surprising that stories about her have spread around. She knows it, too, and has no time for idle gossip. In fact, she’s resentful. And it’s interesting to see how Elkins peels back the layers of her mistrust to get her to tell what she knows.
And then there’s Alan Carter’s Marlborough Man, which introduces Sergeant Nick Chester. He and his family were relocated from the UK to the Marlborough area of New Zealand’s South Island after an undercover operation went wrong. They’re not sure when, or if, they’re going to be able to return, so they’re trying to make a life in their new home. Chester’s works with the local police, and soon gets drawn into a disturbing case of young boys being abducted and later found dead. In the course of the investigation, he and his team encounter Patrick Smith. Smith is originally from Australia, but he fled to New Zealand because of his criminal past. He’s a bit of a misfit, living alone and trying to keep his past secret. When his past catches up with him, he becomes an easy target for those who think he might be responsible for the murders. Now, Chester has to decide if Smith is guilty or if he needs to be protected from those who think he is.
There are other characters, too, who are ‘on the fringe,’ and don’t live the way others do. Sometimes that makes them targets when a murder’s been committed. At the very least, it can make them interesting as characters, and can add to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Day Wave’s We Try But We Don’t Fit In.
12 thoughts on “We Don’t Fit In*”
I feel that the trope of such fringe/ eccentric characters – who always have some, knowingly or unknowingly, vital information regarding the murder – is now a trifle overdone.
There are plenty of characters like that in the genre, Neeru. I’m not surprised that you feel it’s a bit overdone.
I like it that your posts remind of series I want to start reading (the Bella Elkins series) and series I need to continue reading (the Van der Valk series). The first Van der Valk book was so good, I really need to get back to the series.
I’m glad you enjoy the posts, Tracy. And I agree about the Van der Valk series; it’s really well-written. I ought to dive back in myself. And I do recommend the Bell Elkins series. It has a real sense of place and local culture, and some interesting characters. There’s a real feel for rural West Virginia in the books.
Excellent as always, Margot. Not fitting in can be an excellent trope in crime fiction as long as the author doesn’t overdo it. Like most common tropes, it can backfire and become cliche if we’re not careful.
Thanks, Sue. And I think you’re 100% right. If we go too far depicting a character as not fitting in, that can put readers right off. A little more subtlety usually works a lot better.
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There are a few that spring to mind that are kind of on the fringes of society but not totally off the grid. Travis McGee from John D Macdonald and Andrew Vachss’ sort of PI character Burke. I’m sure I’ll remember more appropriate examples later, probably when I’ve just hit send!
Glad you mentioned McGee, Col. In a way, he does rather sit ‘on the fringes,’ and that makes him all the more interesting, from my point of view.
“I’m sure I’ll remember more appropriate examples later, probably when I’ve just hit send!” LOL!
Thanks Col needed that.
I know what you mean, Neeru!
Interesting examples Margot. Melissa Copeland, in Downfall by Robert Rotenberg is a corporate lawyer whose mental health issues, partly caused by her demanding professional life, send her into a spiral down to homelessness on the streets of Toronto. A fierce advocate for her fellow homeless she is a compelling character.
Thanks, Bill. And thanks for mentioning Downfall. I like Rotenberg’s work, and that link between mental health issues and homelessness is, sadly, all too real. I remember your fine review of Downfall, and I appreciate the reminder of it.