I’ll bet most of us have had the experience of being wrong about someone. You know, the grumpy loner next door who, it turns out, runs errands for elderly people who can’t drive. Or the pierced and tattooed teenager who seems rude on the surface, but who teaches younger children to read in an after-school program. It can be a little awkward to find out you’ve misjudged someone, but it also offers a chance to get to know someone better.
Authors sometimes make very effective use of the way people can misjudge others. It’s a convenient way to mislead readers (e.g., the caring, loyal ‘best friend’ who turns out to be the murderer). It’s also a way to add depth to a character and interest to a story. And it’s realistic if you think about it. After all, we’re all of us more than we seem on the surface.
In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist, for instance, Violet Smith brings a strange problem to Sherlock Holmes. She has been hired as a piano teacher at Chiltern Grange, and lives there during the week. On Fridays, she goes to London to visit her mother, and on Mondays, she returns to Chiltern Grange. Her trip involves a bicycle ride from the house to the train station, and that’s where the problem comes up. It seems that someone has been following her, staying just far enough away that Violet can’t see who it is. It unnerves her, and she wants Holmes to investigate. He sends Dr. Watson to the area to observe and see what he can find out. Sure enough, Watson sees Violet Smith riding her bicycle, and someone else following on another bicycle. Holmes and Watson look more deeply into the mystery, and they find out that there is, indeed, a threat to their client. But it turns out that the man on the bicycle isn’t at all the person he is judged to be.
Agatha Christie was quite skilled at leading the reader to be wrong about a character. Sometimes, that person who ‘couldn’t possibly have killed’ is the murderer. She could mislead readers about other characters, too. For instance, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), wealthy Richard Abernethie dies, and his family gathers for the funeral and the reading of the will. The will stipulates that each of Abernethie’s relatives will get an equal share of his fortune, which is good news for them all, since each one is in need of money. At the gathering, Abernethie’s sister, Cora Lansquenet blurts out that she knows Abernethie was murdered. Everyone is quick to disagree, but privately, people do start to wonder. Then, the next day, Cora herself is murdered, and it now seems that she was right. Family solicitor Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he agrees. Part of his investigation involves getting to know the various relatives. One of them is Abernethie’s niece, Rosamund Shane. Referred to as a ‘lovely dimwit,’ Rosamund is superficial, at times even vacant, and certainly not the ‘mastermind’ type. But Poirot learns that Rosamund is actually quite shrewd, and notices far more than people think. She’s got a good memory, and she’s much more aware than she lets on. In that way, she’s an interesting character.
In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Tom Barnaby investigates two murders. One of them is the death of Ava Garrett, a self-styled medium who was poisoned not long after a séance. One of the ‘people of interest’ in the killing is the victim’s lodger, nineteen-year-old Roy Priest. A product of the child welfare system, he’s tattooed, pierced, and can be very rude. It’s easy to imagine him as a real threat. But the truth is, he’s smarter and more thoughtful than most people imagine. And he quickly takes on the role of caregiver to Ava’s eight-year-old daughter, Karen. He’s quite a different person to what you might think, and more than one character misjudges him.
Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move sees science fiction writer Zack Walker and his family make the move from the city where they’ve been living to an idyllic-looking suburb called Valley Forest Estates. Walker is hoping the move will make for a safer home for his family, and better schools for his children. That’s not how it turns out, though. First, the house itself has several problems that need to be fixed. When Walker goes to the development’s sales office about it, he witnesses an argument between local environmentalist Samuel Spender and one of the development company’s executives. Later, Walker finds Spender’s body near a local creek. He ends up getting drawn into a case of greed, murder, and more, even though the one thing he craved was safety. As the story goes on, Walker gets to know some of the other residents of Valley Forest. Two of them in particular seem exactly the sort of people you wouldn’t want living nearby. But as he learns more about them, Walker finds that he’s misjudged both of them. And both turn out to be very helpful when he needs them most.
Sometimes sleuths are easy to misjudge, too (right, fans of Miss Marple?). And it’s interesting to see the differences between the impressions people have of them, and what they’re really like. As just one example, Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg works with an unusual group of colleagues. One of them is Violette Retancourt. She can be gruff – even rude – and she has little patience. When people meet her, they can be intimidated by her. Even Adamsberg knows better than to cross her. At the same time, she is a naturalist who has a special bond with animals. In fact, she’s the only one who can really interact with and relate to the ‘official office cat,’ Snowball. It’s easy to misjudge her as uncaring and unkind, but those who do know her know better.
And that’s the thing about rushing to judgement about people. It can be easy to misjudge someone, especially someone one doesn’t know well. But we all have more sides to us than people know. And it’s interesting in fiction when those other sides of characters come out.
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Parliament.