As this is posted, it would have been Andy Warhol’s 94th birthday. It would also have been Lucille Ball’s 111th Birthday. You might not think of these two people as having a lot in common. But they were both unconventional people whose different ways of looking at the world changed, respectively, art and acting and perhaps a lot more. Whether or not you’re a fan of Warhol’s artwork or Ball’s comic (and sometimes drama) style, it’s hard to deny their impact.
There are plenty of fictional unconventional people, too, and they can add some real interest to a crime novel. It can be tricky to create characters like that, as there needs to be a balance between ‘different’ and ‘zany/annoying.’ When they’re done well, though, unconventional characters can add leaven to a story.
In Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver (not thoroughly conventional herself!) visits her friend Judith Butler, who lives in the commuter town of Woodleigh Common. Mrs. Oliver is present one afternoon during preparations for a Hallowe’en party later that evening. While she’s there, she hears one of the young people, Joyce Reynolds, boast about having seen a murder. During the party, Joyce herself is murdered. Mrs. Oliver is sure the two incidents are related and asks Hercule Poirot to visit Woodleigh Common and investigate. One of the people he talks to and gets to know is Judith Butler’s twelve-year-old daughter Miranda. Miranda’s not like other girls her age. She’s not particularly interested in boys, and she doesn’t care much for pop culture. At the same time, she’s not what used to be called a tomboy. She likes watching squirrels, she can be surprisingly philosophical, and she’s very intelligent without being a ‘know-all.’ She’s got an interesting perspective, and Poirot thinks she’s a most unusual child. Her character adds to the story.
Gladys Mitchell’s Beatrice Bradley is also rather unconventional, especially for the times (the first Mrs. Bradley novel was published 1929). Mrs. Bradley’s had three husbands, all of whom have died (no, she’s not a ‘black widow’). She’s currently not married. Unlike most other female detectives of the time, she’s got a professional career. She’s a fully licensed doctor and a psychologist. She consults with the Home Office at times, and even when she’s not on a Home Office case, she makes use of her professional knowledge to solve mysteries. She’s not at all conventionally beautiful, and her dress is sometimes quite unusual. She’s brilliant, but she doesn’t always go at a case in conventional ways. She makes no effort to win people over; yet, she has a way of getting people to do what she wants. She’s not to everyone’s liking, but she is an unusual character.
Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg is a Paris police detective. Even by himself he’s somewhat unconventional. He spends as much time in coffee shops as he does at the office, and he solves cases in an almost philosophical way, although he’s not what you’d call an intellectual. Fans of this series know that he also surrounds himself with equally unconventional people. Lieutenant Violette Retancourt is more comfortable with animals than she is with people. On the surface, she is short-spoken and her co-workers are almost afraid of her. But she’s observant, quick on the uptake, and assertive when she needs to be. Commandant Adrien Dangalard is a step-by-step methodical detective who dresses ‘like an English dandy’ and drinks quite a lot of white wine, even during the day at work. Computer expert Helene Froissy is obsessed with snacks and keeps food everywhere. They’re a motley group of misfits, but they are a formidable team, and they have ways of solving cases that likely couldn’t be solved with conventional approaches or ‘typical’ ways of seeing the world.
One of Elly Griffiths’ series features forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. One of her colleagues (who becomes a friend as the series goes on) is Michael Malone. A Druid, he’s taken the name Cathbad, and lives a very unconventional life. Cathbad is fascinated by spiritual experiences, and sometimes has visions. He makes sometimes eerily accurate predictions, too, although he’s not really a psychic. He’s got a strong sense of the aura of a place as well, and knows a lot of history, including ancient history. He’s not completely removed from the everyday world, but a lot of people think he sees beyond it. He does unusual things, but he’s not really a ‘comic relief’ character, either. He’s a loyal, trustworthy friend to Ruth and her daughter, Kate, and provides important perspectives on the cases Ruth works.
There’s also Harry Bingham’s Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths, a Welsh police officer based in Cardiff. Fiona has mental health issues that cause her to see the world a little differently. As a teen, she battled severe mental illness, and although she’s now able to function in the everyday world, she still struggles at times. For instance, she’s not good at social interactions, and doesn’t connect with dating, office chat, and so on. Still, Fiona has a unique perspective on her job and on the world that allow her to make real contributions to the cases she investigates. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but she has a particular way of seeing things that gives her a different, and very helpful – way of approaching her job.
There are other unconventional characters in crime fiction, of course. I don’t mean characters with personal quirks (like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes); I mean characters who truly see the world differently. When they’re done well, they can give the reader a look at a fascinating way of thinking.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Michael Nesmith’s Different Drum, made famous by the Stone Poneys (yes, fronted by Linda Ronstadt).