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.
12 thoughts on “I Misjudged You*”
I think we all have masks we use to disguise ourselves. Shyness and insecurity can sometimes be interpreted as unfriendly. I’ve not yet tried anything by Vargas yet. I hope to one day, so thanks for the reminder.
I suspect you’re probably right, Col, that we all wear some sort of disguise like that. There’s a lot to risk otherwise, especially, as you say, if one’s shy or insecure. As for Vargas, I do recommend her work. I’ve found it best to completely let go of all my expectations when I read one of her books. If you do that, though, I’ve found them to be very good experiences.
When I saw the title of your post, it made me think of a new writer I’ve just discovered. I had some preconceived notions about the person, notions that were shot down. Lesson learned. And maybe a great plot twist for a future story.
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It sounds as though that writer did a really effective job of walking you up the proverbial garden path, Kathy. That takes skill! And, yes, having a person defy one’s expectations can make for a very good plot twist.
Hmm… I wonder who that is?
One of my favourite elements in crime fiction Margot – some of the writers are so clever at misleading us (and the other characters!) this way, which makes for very satisfying reading!
It does, indeed, doesn’t it, KBR? I like that element, too, because it draws me in. It invites the reader to engage in the story, and to me, that’s a good thing!
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I think we can misjudge a great number of things like whether we would like a certain genre or not. I enjoy a story where the author has me thinking one way about a character and little by little I discover the character is nothing like I had them pictured, especially if they turn out to be a good character. Great post, Margot.
Thanks, Mason. I know exactly what you mean about the author with the talent to have you thinking one way about a character and then have to change your thinking. That takes skill, and I admire it. You make an interesting point, too, about genre. We really do have preconceived notions about what a particular genre will be like…and then we try it and find out we were missing some things. It’s part of what makes reading so interesting.
Thanks for an interesting post. In a subtler display of “image making” most American legal fiction lawyers such as John Grisham will have their trial lawyers appear in court in modest styled and priced suits. They consider juries are more likely to relate to lawyers who are not where expensive suits. I long for the writer whose jury sees the dressing down as condescending father than being an average person. In courts following English tradition lawyers wear waistcoats, gowns, wingtip collar shirts and tabs. Some nations add wigs. Beyond tradition the formal wear eliminates comparisons between what the lawyers are wearing as all are dressed alike.
That’s really interesting about lawyers’ choices of dress, Bill. And I know exactly what you mean about a jury seeing a lawyer’s ‘dressing down’ as condescending. In some cases, I’m sure it is; certainly it’s calculated. And it’s funny about the gowns, wigs, and so on. They do help focus on the lawyer’s work rather than on what the lawyer is wearing. In a way that reminds me of school uniforms. In part, they’re designed for the same purpose. The whole idea is to put everyone an an equal footing.