Meet Me Outside the Box*

Some of the most interesting fictional characters are those who test limits. I don’t necessarily mean that they’re thrill seekers or that they live unsafe lives. Rather, they don’t see themselves as bound by convention or tradition. They live their lives on their own terms, and sometimes that raises eyebrows. It makes those characters interesting, though.

For example, consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. In the Victorian Era in which he lives, men are expected to marry, settle into a profession, and live according to the lifestyles of their classes. Not so Holmes. He never does marry, although fans will tell you he’s never forgotten the woman, Irene Adler (a woman who herself lives on her own terms). Holmes is, for the times, very modern thinking about detection, too. Unlike other detectives, he relies on science and deductive reasoning. His approach to solving cases is unconventional, but that doesn’t bother him. He lives exactly the way he wishes to live, takes the cases that interest him, and doesn’t bother much with social convention. That includes the way he keeps his things. In other words, he lives on his own terms.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), we are introduced to Elsa Greer. She’s been raised with money, but it’s ‘new money,’ and that keeps her outside of the ‘best’ circles. She doesn’t care, though. She wears trousers at a time when most women don’t. She goes after what she wants, and that includes famous painter Amyas Crale, who is married. That doesn’t really stop Elsa, though. She sees no problem with Amyas divorcing his wife, Caroline, and then marrying her. Her starkly modern opinions do not sit well with everyone, especially not Cecilia Williams, whom the Crales have hired as governess to Caroline’s half-sister. Elsa doesn’t care about that, either. Still, it makes for an extremely tense atmosphere when Elsa comes to stay at the Crale home so that Amyas can paint her portrait. One afternoon, Amyas is poisoned. All of the evidence points to Caroline Crale, who is arrested, charged and convicted in connection with the murder. She dies in prison a year later, but her daughter Carla never stops believing in her innocence. Sixteen years later, she engages Hercule Poirot to find out the truth about her father’s death. One of the people Poirot interviews is Elsa, and it’s interesting to see how she views the world.

Gladys Mitchell’s Beatrice Bradley also breaks convention. She’s highly educated at a time when few women are. She’s very independent and outspoken, too. She doesn’t have a husband or much of a domestic bent and isn’t really interested in that sort of life. She chooses to live her life on her own terms. She’s also very curious and can’t help prying (and that’s really the word) into matters when there’s a crime to be solved. Mrs. Bradley can be acerbic, and she has little patience. But she’s certainly not constrained by ‘rules’ about how ‘ladies should behave.’ Her character isn’t always sympathetic, but she’s definitely a force to be reckoned with when it comes to solving mysteries.

Giorgio Scerbanenco’s Duca Lamberti is a doctor who serves as a protagonist in A Private Venus. Lamberti is skilled as a doctor, but he doesn’t always think conventionally. In fact, that’s what got him in trouble with the law. He isn’t opposed to euthanasia in certain circumstances, and in one case of his, that was really the best choice, at least as Lamberti saw it. For that, he got a prison sentence, and as the book begins, he’s recently been released. He’s at a sort of crossroads when he meets an engineer named Pietro Auseri. Auseri is worried about his son, Davide, who has been drinking heavily. Although Davide has been in and out of rehabilitation places, he still hasn’t stopped drinking, and now Auseri feels desperate. He hires Lamberti to work with Davide to get him to change his ways, and Lamberti agrees, although he’s not sure what he can do. Still, he meets Davide and they get to work. He takes a very unconventional approach to helping his patient, but soon enough, Davide comes to trust Lamberti enough to tell him the truth. It seems that, a year earlier, Davide had met a young woman and struck up a friendship with her. When she begged to stay with him, he refused, even after she threatened suicide. Later, when he found out she’d died, Davide blamed himself. Now he feels guilty for her death, but Lamberti doesn’t see it that way. He decides that the best way to help his client is to find out what really happened to the young woman. Lamberti lives life on his own terms, and in this case, that turns out to be a good thing.

Another character who very much lives life on her own terms is Kerry Greenwood’s  Phryne Fisher. She’s a Melbourne-based ‘lady detective’ who lives exactly the way she wants to live. She isn’t married, although she’s had more than one lover, and she’s not much for cooking or other domestic things. She’s a ‘blueblood,’ but she has plenty of friends and acquaintances who aren’t. She chafes a bit under the constraints of the time, and she isn’t afraid to flout ‘the rules’ when it serves her purpose.

There are plenty of other crime-fictional characters who don’t live conventionally, and who think differently. There’s a bit of a risk of those characters becoming caricatures, but if they’re done well, those characters can add much to a crime story. Which ones have stayed with you?

ps. The ‘photo is a list of reasons my granddaughter likes paper clips. Ms. Twelve does not confine herself to conventional thinking!


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from George ‘Boy George’ O’Dowd’s Outside the Box.