Four That Want to Own Me, Two That Want to Stone Me*
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.