Characters are a critical part of any well-written crime fiction novel. In fact, lots of crime fiction fans are as interested in the characters as they are in the mystery or investigation at the core of the story. Because of that, it’s important for authors to create fleshed-out characters with whom readers can identify. But that doesn’t mean that all of the characters have to be pleasant or even very nice people. Characters who are grouchy, or annoying, or otherwise unpleasant can add interesting layers to a story (Thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig for the inspiration ). It adds to the realism, too, of a novel if there are characters who are simply not nice people. I’m not talking about malevolent people or truly horrible individuals – just really annoying people. After all, we’ve all encountered people who were rude, “prickly,” or just simply rubbed us up the wrong way. When that happens to major characters in novels, we can identify with their reactions.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide), Hercule Poirot travels to the village of Warmsley Vale to look into the murder of a recently-arrived stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden. Arden’s death is related to the recent tragic death of wealthy Gordon Cloade, and the inheritance fight that’s arisen between Cloade’s young widow Rosaleen and the other members of the Cloade family, who were always promised Cloade’s fortune. Cloade never made a new will after he married, so his entire estate passes to his widow, and his relations, who’d come to depend on his money, are now left financially stranded. While he’s in Warmsley Vale, Poirot stays at the inn where Arden was killed. There he meets fellow guest Mrs. Leadbetter, who’s made an annual trip to the inn for many years. Here’s just a bit of his encounter with her:
“‘This Lounge,’ she said, ‘is Reserved for Persons staying in the Hotel.’
‘I am staying in the hotel,’ replied Hercule Poirot.
The old lady meditated for a moment or two before returning to the attack. Then she said accusingly:
‘You’re a foreigner.’
‘Yes,’ replied Hercule Poirot.
‘In my opinion,’ said the old lady, ‘you should all Go Back.’
‘Go back where?’ inquired Poirot.
‘To where you came from,’ said the old lady firmly.
She added as a kind of rider, sotto voce, ‘Foreigners!’ and snorted.”
Mrs. Leadbetter goes on to complain about the hotel, about changing times, and about quite a lot more. The hotel manager later tells Poirot that Mrs. Leadbetter is “frightfully rude” sometimes. But she serves a purpose. There are rude people, so it makes sense that Poirot would meet one. Also, Mrs. Leadbetter’s tirade includes some important information that helps lead Poirot to the solution of the mystery.
In Colin Dexter’s The Jewel That Was Ours, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the theft of The Wolvercote Tongue, part of a very valuable Anglo-Saxon belt buckle that was to have been displayed with the rest of the buckle at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. The day after the theft, museum curator Thedore Kemp is murdered, and Morse and Lewis take on that case as well since Morse is convinced it’s related to the theft. In the course of the investigation, they meet Kemp’s widow Marion Kemp. She’s been left physically disabled as the result of a car accident and that in itself has left her bitter. She’s superficially courteous at first but Morse and Lewis soon find her cold, sarcastic and not in the least bit inclined to help them in their investigation. Marion Kemp’s disability makes it extremely unlikely that she killed her husband, so she’s not as viable a suspect as some other characters are, but Morse thinks she may know more about her husband’s death than she says. Her standoff with Morse makes for an interesting sub-plot in this novel.
Alan Wagner is a Sydney journalist whom we meet in Lindy Cameron’s Redback. He’s attending the Pacific Tourism and Enviro-Trade Conference on the Pacific Island of Laui when he and his fellow conferees are taken hostage by a group of rebels. A crack Australian team of retrieval specialists called Redback is called in to rescue the hostages and soon finds that this incident is related to several other incidences of terror in other places in the world. Before long the Redback team discovers that a shadowy group of terrorists is using a video game to recruit members and give instructions and that that group is behind the recent terrorism. Redback faces off against the terror group in a global “game of chess.” Throughout the novel, Alan Wagner proves himself to be egocentric, self-involved and highly annoying. In fact, he’s so annoying that Dr. Jan Rossi, a fellow conferee, keeps her will strong after being taken hostage by nursing a strong desire to get even with Wagner for making her life miserable. Wagner isn’t sadistic or malevolent; he’s just thoroughly maddening. His character is believable, though, and readers can imagine lots of real-life people just like him.
Sometimes, crime fiction series include crotchety, annoying or even infuriating “regular” characters who serve as foils for the sleuths, or who add interesting complications to their lives. For instance, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti is saddled with a thoroughly infuriating boss. Vice Questore Guiseppe Patta is a self-important, politically-minded opportunist. His reputation and that of the questura are more important to him than finding out the truth about the crimes that come under his jurisdiction. When a crime is high-profile, he urges a quick, correct solution but if the victim is not important, or if powerful people do not want a crime investigated, then the investigation isn’t important to Patta. In his more honest moments, Brunetti also admits to himself that he also dislikes Patta because Patta is an “outsider” – a Sicilian rather than a Venetian.
In Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, we meet Joyce Barnhardt. She’s been making Plum’s life miserable since the two were girls. In fact, Plum’s marriage to attorney Dickie Orr ended because Plum caught him with Joyce Barnhardt. Although she’s not truly evil, Barnhardt is catty, self-absorbed, plaintive and malicious. As the series goes on, Barnhardt does some part-time work for the bail bond company for which Plum works as a bounty hunter and she’s as annoying to work with as she is personally.
And then there’s Hannes, ex-husband of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s sleuth, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. He’s a busy ER surgeon whose own needs and plans are much more important to him than those of his children or his ex-wife. He’s not a malevolent abusive person, but he’s opinionated, self-absorbed and unsympathetic to the inconveniences he causes. He tends to blame Thóra for any problems they have in co-ordinating child care, and when she can’t change her schedule to suit his needs, he holds it against her. Although Hannes isn’t really central to the mysteries Thóra investigates or the plots of the novels, his character adds an interesting layer of complication to Thóra’s life.
Those are just a few of the many annoying and irritating characters we run up against in crime fiction. And that makes sense, too. After all, crime fiction is about real life. Real life sometimes includes people who really irritate us. But what do you think? Which are your favourite annoying characters? If you’re a writer, do you include annoying and irritating characters in your stories?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s My Life.