Are you handy with tools? Some people are, and it can be a real asset. These are people who can build things, fix things, and do other household chores. Not everyone’s particularly good with tools, but people who are can save a lot of money by doing things themselves. I’m not much of a ‘fix it’ person myself, although there are a few jobs I can handle. But I admire people who are.
There are people like that in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, they build and fix things as part of their work. Other characters do so because they’re good at those things and enjoy it. Either way, being able to build and fix things can make for an interesting layer of character development.
In Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, for example, we are introduced to local GP, Dr. James Sheppard. He lives with his sister Caroline in the village of King’s Abbot, where not much happens. Not much, that is, until Sheppard’s friend Roger Ackroyd is stabbed one night. The most obvious suspect is the victim’s stepson, Captain Ralph Paton. Not only was Paton in dire need of money (and had actually quarreled with his stepfather about it), but there is also physical evidence against him. It doesn’t help matters that he went missing right after the murder, and he hasn’t been seen since. Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to King’s Abbot, and he is persuaded to investigate. Sheppard lives next door to Poirot, and was a friend of Ackroyd’s, so he gets involved in the investigation. The story is told from his point of view, so we learn some things about him. One of them is that he enjoys fixing things, especially mechanical things. He even has his own workroom, where he disappears when he wants some peace and quiet. It’s an interesting layer to his character.
Phoebe Atwood Taylor wrote a New England-based series featuring Asa ‘Asey’ Mayo. He’s a cook, handyman, and assistant to Bill Porter. Mayo starts getting involved in mysteries in The Cape Cod Murder when his boss is arrested for murdering an author named Dale Sanborn. Mayo doesn’t really believe that Porter is guilty, so with hep from a Porter family friend, Prudence Whitsby, he starts asking questions, and slowly gets to the truth about the matter. Mayo is a very down-to-earth, practical person. He can make and fix a number of things, and he’s had a wide variety of different life experiences. So, he’s usually able to come up with a way to solve a problem. At the same time, he’s a bit of a philosopher, although he doesn’t wax eloquent when he speaks. He’s an interesting character with a unique perspective on life.
So is Alexander McCall Smith’s Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He is the owner of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, near Gaborone. He is also married to McCall Smith’s main protagonist, Mma Precious Ramotswe. He is very good at fixing almost anything mechanical, including his wife’s tiny white van. He’s also generous with his time when anything at the local orphanage needs to be repaired. On the one hand, he’s not particularly educated. On the other, he is practical, smart, and in his way, shrewd. He values integrity and hard work, and he tries to instill those qualities in his apprentices. Fans of the series will know that he’s not always entirely successful at that…
You wouldn’t necessarily think that fixing and building would be skills a PI would hone. But Peter Temple’s Jack Irish does. He’s a Melbourne-based lawyer (well, sometimes he does legal work) who’s good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He can be ‘rough and tumble’ if needed, and he’s been in more than his share of dangerous situations. He finds a sense of peace when he’s working with his hands, so he works part time at a local cabinetry shop owned by Charlie Taub. Irish considers Taub a sort of mentor, and he’s learned a great deal about building and repairing high-quality furniture from Taub. It’s a more contemplative side of his character that adds to the total picture. Beyond that, he’s established a sort of friendship with Taub. Neither says much about it, but both value their relationship.
There are even some series that feature protagonists who are good at using tools, building, and repairing. For example, there’s Jennie Bentley’s Do-It-Yourself Mysteries, featuring New York-based home renovator Avery Baker. And there’s Sarah A. Hoyt‘s (as Elise Hyatt) Daring Finds mysteries, which feature furniture refinisher Candyce ‘Dyce’ Dare. And there’s Sarah Graves’ Home Repair is Homicide series. That series ‘stars’ ‘fixer-upper’ Jacobia ‘Jake’ Tiptree, who traded in a high-powered New York City life for life in quiet Eastport, Maine. There, she bought a run-down old house with the idea of remodeling it. But it’s not long before she starts getting drawn into cases of murder.
It’s useful to know how to use some tools and do some home projects and building/repair chores. And some people really seem to have a particular skill and taste for it. If you’re that sort of person, I admire it. Certainly, ‘handy’ people make interesting crime-fictional characters. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ry Cooder’s Simple Tools.