When many people think of crime fiction plots, they think of whodunits, where solving the mystery is the main focus of the book. But modern crime fiction fans like strong and well-developed characters, too. And there are some characters who are so strong that even other characters don’t feel neutral about them. These characters are either loved or hated, and they can add much to a novel. They can keep the reader’s interest, and their personalities can even be an important part of a plot.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She is the wife of famous archaeologist Eric Leidner, and has accompanied him and his dig team to a site a few hours from Baghdad. It seems no-one is really neutral about her. For some characters, such as the nurse who’s hired to look after her,
‘You couldn’t help admiring her and wanting to do things for her.’
But not everyone feels that way. One’s been humiliated, another hates her out of spite, and so on. Everyone seems to feel strongly one way or the other. So, when she is murdered one afternoon, it’s not hard to imagine a motive. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to visit the excavation house to investigate. He soon finds no lack of suspects. I see you, fans of Hickory Dickory Dock…
Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice is the story of Thea Farmer, a former secondary school principal who’s decided to build the perfect home in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. A few bad financial decisions and some bad luck combine to force Thea to sell her dream home, and she has to settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To add to that, she soon learns that Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington (she calls them ‘the invaders’) have bought the house she still thinks of as hers. Right from the start she dislikes them, and she thinks it’s only going to get worse when Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with them. To her surprise, she and Kim begin to form an awkward sort of friendship. In Kim, Thea sees real writing promise; she even takes Kim to one of the creative writing sessions she attends. So, when she comes to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim, Thea gets upset. She tries to get the police involved, but there’s not much they can do without more evidence. So, Thea decides to settle the matter in her own way. Thea is a very strong character. She alienates people easily, and she’s not much of a ‘people person’ anyway. At the same time, she’s smart, witty, and has her share of people who like her. She is an interesting person, and it’s not hard to see how a person would feel strongly about her.
Paul Doiran’s Massacre Pond introduces Betty Morse, a wealthy environmentalist who’s bought up a great deal of land in Maine that she wants to use as a preserve. She has a strong personality, and is completely unafraid to say what she means. But it’s not just her personality that divides people’s opinion of her. It’s also her politics. Animal rights activists and environmentalists are fully in support of what she’s trying to do. They want to preserve Maine’s natural beauty and wildlife, and they like her forceful approach to doing so. On other hand, there are plenty of people who depend on the animals and the land for their livelihood. Hunters, guides, fishers, and those in rural poverty are afraid that creating that preserve will deprive them of a living. Developers and those in the tourism industry also oppose Morse; they want the land available for their ambitions. Game warden Mike Bowditch gets involved with Morse when someone finds ten dead moose on Morse’s property. Tempers on both sides flare as Bowditch begins to look into who might have killed the animals. There’s little evidence, though, and Bowditch hasn’t gotten very far when there’s a murder. This changes everything, and now Bowditch has to work quickly if he and the police are to prevent another killing.
There are, of course, plenty of sleuths who have strong personalities, too. One of them is Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley. She is strong-willed, and has a way of making people do what she wants, even though she doesn’t have the force of law behind her. She can be critical, too, and doesn’t mind prying. The police sometimes resent what they see as her ‘meddling,’ and she does rub people up the wrong way, as the saying goes. She says exactly what she thinks, too. At the same time, she’s a brilliant sleuth, and she has a streak of compassion. People do confide in her and come to trust her judgement. She can be witty as well. So it’s not hard to see why other characters (and readers) like her very much.
The same might be said of Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. As fans know, he can be profane, offensive, and impatient. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and he has no problem being harsh and even insulting to those who work with him. He’s ruffled more than a few feathers, and there are people who can’t stand him. At the same time, his team is loyal to him because he is loyal to them, he respects what they do, and he has a way of standing up for them. He’s very good at what he does, too. It’s little wonder that, for many readers, he’s a very memorable character.
And that’s the thing about divisive characters. They often have strong and memorable personalities. People don’t tend to feel neutral about them because they also often have a real presence which either draws people to them or puts them off. Which have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Take it Easy.
12 thoughts on “Four That Want to Own Me, Two That Want to Stone Me*”
You’re absolutely right, Margot – a strong character makes for much interest and also makes a book stand out, essential with so many on the market. I find John Dickson Carr, in his various disguises, is good at memorable types. And once Sayers got going with Wimsey he developed much more; she was good with Harriet Vane, too!
I totally agree with you, KBR, about Harriet Vane. She became a much stronger character as the series went on. She spoke out more, and she had more of an assertive role in the plots. You have a point, too, about Carr (honestly, not something I’d associated with him at first, but I see it now you mention it). To me, at any rate, that’s one nice thing about a series. If it’s done well, the characters do grow strong.
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Andy Dalziel, oh he used to drive me crazy – on TV 🙂
That’s what I mean, June. He’s that sort of character…
He sure enough is 🙂
I’m with June, Dalziel used to drive me crazy when the series was on TV. And yet… I watched it avidly! I forget the name of the actor who played him now, but he did it with a great deal of relish!
My brain is frazzled with Christmas preps and visitors who arrived today so I’m struggling to think at all at the moment and no strong characters are coming to me. I think maybe Ruth Galloway has a very strong presence and personality though.
Merry Christmas to you, Margot, if you celebrate it and I look forward to more of your posts and videos in 2023.
I thought that Dalziel and Pascoe was very well done and well cast, too, Cath. And, yes, the character of Dalziel can be annoying and more, but he’s such a good, strong character. You know you won’t forget him.
You have a well-taken point, too, about Ruth Galloway. There are people who are devoted to her and those who…aren’t, but she’s definitely her own person. Her character is strong and well developed, too.
Thanks for the good wishes, Cath. Merry Christmas to you and your family, and I wish you all the best now and for 2023!
I haven’t read any of the Mrs Bradley books yet, though one of them is on my vintage crime challenge for next year. But I watched the old TV adaptations of them some years ago, starring one of my favourite actresses Diana Rigg, and despite that I didn’t take to her character at all. I’m intrigued to see if I like her better in the books…
You know, FictionFan, that’s the interesting thing about Mrs. Bradley. Whether we’re talking about the TV adaptation (I loved Diana Rigg in that role) or the books, people tend to really like her…or really not. I’ll be interested in what you think of her character if/when you get to read one of the books.
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That is the way it is in real life, there are people that can inspire loyalty in some and strongly irritate others. So it is good to see those types of people in crime fiction also. Andy Dalziel is an extreme example of that. I found Pascoe’s wife to be an example of this too. A very admirable person, with strong views, but she could rub people the wrong way. Including me at times.
You have a good point, Tracy. There are people like that in real life, so it makes sense that they’ be there in fiction, too. That’s a really interesting point, too, about Ellie. She definitely has a strong personality, and, as you say, she has a lot of admirable qualities. But at the same time, she can be off-putting, and there are people who don’t like her. Perhaps that’s part of makes her memorable.