A recent post from Marina Sofia at Finding Time to Write has got me thinking about connectedness. Her post (which I highly recommend) discusses some novels in which, for different reasons, the main characters feel disconnected from others. They want connection, and in their ways, they try to find it, but they aren’t really successful.
It’s not surprising that these characters want to be connected. Humans are, by nature, social. Even true introverts need those vital, healthy, connections with others. Trust me. Many people can reach out easily enough, but others can’t, although they may wish they could. This can make for an interesting character trait in crime fiction. It can add a layer to character development, and can build tension, too.
For example, In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we are introduced to Oliver Manders, who works in finance. He’s alienated his share of people, including Hermione ‘Egg’ Lytton Gore, whom he secretly loves. He’s got a sneering, sarcastic manner and can be unpleasant. One evening, he’s invited to a cocktail party during which one of the guests, Reverend Stephen Babbington, is poisoned. Hercule Poirot is also at the party, and the host, Sir Charles Cartwright, asks him to help investigate. Poirot can see that, underneath that prickly exterior, Manders does feel somewhat ‘other’ and disconnected, but would like to connect, especially with Egg. He ends up giving the young man some good advice about the matter, and Christie hints that all will be well with him.
In Ann Cleeves’ Raven Black, Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez investigates when seventeen-year-old Catherine Ross is found strangled on New Year’s Day. As he traces her movements, Perez finds that she and a friend had decided to follow a local custom of stopping by people’s homes around midnight to wish them a good new year. They stopped by the home of Magnus Tait, who’s eccentric and quite a loner. He was very glad to welcome them, but the encounter was awkward. No-one remembers seeing Catherine after that, so naturally, suspicion falls on Tait. Even Perez, who doesn’t automatically assume Tait’s guilty, doesn’t see a lot of alternatives. Most people are only too happy to believe that Tait killed Catherine. For one thing, he’s ‘weird,’ and has no real connections to others. For another, it’s whispered all over that he was responsible for the disappearance of another girl several years earlier. Tait does want to reach out, but he finds it hard, and others don’t make it any easier. It’s certainly a struggle for Perez as he trieds to find out who killed Catherine Ross.
Belinda Bauer’s Blacklands is the story of twelve-year-old Steven Lamb. He lives in a working-class community in Exmoor with his mother Lettie, his grandmother Gloria, and his brother Davey. It’s not a particularly happy family, though. Nineteen years earlier, Steven’s uncle, Billy Porter, disappeared and was assumed killed by a man named Arnold Avery, who’d committed other such murders. Steven’s not really connected to his family, and he doesn’t have solid connections at school, although he wishes in his way that he did. He wants to put things in his family right, so he decides to find out where Uncle Billy is buried. At least then, so he reasons, his family can have some closure. Since only Arnold Avery knows what happened to Uncle Billy, Steven decides to write to him in prison and find out. Thus begins a sort of cat-and-mouse game between the two, and Steven finds himself in much deeper than he’d thought.
Vriginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer, whom we meet in The Precipice, is hardly what you’d call a ‘people person.’ She’s a former school principal who purchased a dream home for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Financial issues have meant that she’s had to give up that home and settle for the house next door, a place she calls ‘the hovel.’ Matters are made worse when Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington purchase the home Thea still considers hers. And then, to add insult to injury, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. Thea is determined to dislike the child as much as she says she dislikes Frank and Ellice. But somehow, she forms an awkward friendship with Kim. So, when she comes to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for his niece, Thea decides to take action. She informs the police, but there’s not much they can do, so she makes her own plans. Thea is a disconnected person in many ways. She has no real friends, she has contempt for most people, and she doesn’t reach out. And yet, she would like some connection. She finds that, in her way, she likes having Kim around. She learns from the people in her writing group, too, even though on the surface, she doesn’t think much of them. She’s almost caught in her own loneliness.
And then there’s social worker Simran Singh, whom we meet in Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. She’s just returned from Delhi to her home town of Jundullur, in the state of Punjab, where a horrible crime has been committed. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is suspected of poisoning thirteen members of her family and burning their house down. She hasn’t said much of anything since that night, and it’s hoped that Simran will be able to break through the girl’s silence. Simran’s reluctant to return to her home; she’s never really fit in there and has no real connection to anyone. As we learn about Simran’s history, though, we see that she would have liked to make friends and be closer to people. She wants to connect with Durga, too, and not just because she’s been called in as a consultant. She wants to help the girl. As the story goes on, that loneliness and the desire for some sort of connection play their roles in what happens.
There are plenty of regular characters, too, who are caught, in a way, between their disconnectedness and their desire to connect (right, fans of Louise Penny’s Three Pines series? Ruth Zardo, I’m looking at you). Which ones have stayed with you?
Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Laura.
8 thoughts on “Living Alone Isn’t All That it’s Cracked Up to Be*”
Thank you for the mention, I’m glad I inspired you – and I had to laugh at the mention of Ruth Zardo, one of the most infuriating characters in crime fiction! We are very quick to jump to conclusions and condemn people who seem ‘outsiders’ – The Franchise Affair too, right? A very good subject for crime fiction.
It’s my pleasure to mention your excellent blog, Marina Sofia. And you’re right about Ruth Zardo! She is infuriating, but, as you say, we often don’t know what’s underneath an ‘outsider’ exterior. That in itself makes for an interesting topic for crime fiction. And thanks for mentioning The Franchise Affair. It’s another good example of disconnected people who want a connection, despite appearances.
Interesting post, Margot, and I do agree that those misfits and outsiders can be wonderful characters in crime novels – if for no other reason to be red-herring suspects! 😀
Thanks, KBR! You have a good point that this sort of character can serve some great purposes in a crime novel – including being suspects! It’s interesting, too, I think, as character development.
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Interesting topic Margot. On the disconnected in crime fiction I thought of Nero Wolfe. I doubt that he wants to connect. He would be quite content if no one ever came to visit the brownstone.
Thanks, Bill. And you make a well-taken point about Nero Wolfe. I hadn’t thought about him in quite that way, but it makes sense. He certainly doesn’t look for connections, and would probably tell you he neither needs nor wants them.
Ruth Zardo is such a perfect example of the ‘outsider’ thing. And MarinaSofia mentions The Franchise Affair which is actually my favourite Josephine Tey, although it’s a strong field. (Funnily enough my current read is one of Nicola Upson’s Tey books, Two for Sorrow.) I know the genre is probably more horror than crime but John Connolly’s Charlie Parker is definitely one of life’s outsiders. And some detectives are too, I was thinking of Cal McGill in Mark Douglas-Home’s Sea Detective books and there’re surely loads more.
I think Ruth Zardo is a great character, Cath. I really like the way she’s drawn, although she’s hardly warm and friendly. And the timing is really interesting that you’re reading an Upson right now! I’m glad, too, that Marina Sofia mentioned The Franchise Affair. That’s a very well done book. Thanks, too – very much – for mentioning Cal McGill. He’s got all of this brilliance, and he would, I think, like to connect more than he does. He just finds it hard to do, and he’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post.