When many people think of important characters in crime fiction, they think about the victim, the sleuth and the criminal. And it’d be hard to have a well-written crime fiction novel, especially one involving a murder, without a victim, a sleuth and a murderer. But in well-written crime fiction novels, whether they’re standalones or parts of series, other characters can also make a real impression on the reader. Some characters are so strong, or so important to the plot or in some other way so memorable that they keep a novel going. You could say that they help to “add power to” a novel or series. Of course, we all have our favourite examples of characters like that, who add such texture and interest to a story that we remember them clearly. There’s no way that one blog post from one person’s perspective could do justice to them all. But let me if I may share a few of those characters who’ve “powered up” some crime fiction novels for me, and then hopefully you’ll share some of your favourites.
Among the characters who “power” Agatha Christie’s novels is her fictional detective novelist Ariadne Oliver. Oliver may be scatty at times, but she has a keen sense of human nature and is a much better judge of character than people often realise. She’s said to have been Christie’s way of poking fun at herself, so through Oliver, we learn a bit about the ins and outs of writing detective fiction, often in a humourous way. For instance, in Cards on the Table (the novel in which she makes her debut), Oliver works with Hercule Poirot, Colonel Race and Superintendent Battle to solve the stabbing murder of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. In the course of the investigation, Oliver meets a fan who says how wonderful it must be to be able to think of plot ideas. Here’s Oliver’s response:
”’I can always think of things,’ said Mrs. Oliver happily. ‘What is so tiring is writing them down. I always think I’ve finished, and then when I count up I find I’ve only written thirty thousand words instead of sixty thousand, and so then I have to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. It’s all very boring.’”
Oliver has several idiosyncrasies; for instance, she’s addicted to apples and she’s constantly experimenting with her hair. She’s got some strong opinions, too. She’s convinced that the next Head of Scotland Yard should be female and has no patience with a lot of reflection in the course of a case. And yet, she’s not foolhardy. She’s an interesting character with enough wisdom and shrewdness to keep from becoming ridiculous, and certainly adds to the series.
Ngaio Marsh’s Agatha Troy is another character who gives power to a series. She’s the wife of Marsh’s sleuth Chief Inspector Roderick “Rory” Alleyn, but she’s by no means an appendage to her husband. And that’s what’s so appealing about her. Troy is a very intelligent and talented sculptor and painter; her work is well-received and she has a career in her own right. As a matter of fact, in several novels (Tied Up in Tinsel and A Clutch of Constables are only two examples), Alleyn gets drawn into an investigation because of Troy’s work. She’s also, though, a loving wife and mother who enjoys her family (not that they have no disagreements, of course). In an age where it was less common to find a professional woman who also had a strong sense of family, Marsh tackles some of those issues (‘though not always directly) in Troy’s character. She’s witty, interesting, and shows keen insight. She certainly adds a “charge” to this series.
And then there’s Frank Sam Nakai, whom we get to know in Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn series. He is the maternal uncle of Hillerman’s sleuth Jim Chee, and in the Navajo culture to which they both belong, that’s a very important role indeed. Chee frequently looks to Nakai for wisdom and respects his uncle’s superior knowledge not just of people but of the area in which they live. More than that, Nakai is a yata’ali, a Navajo singer/healer, and in the first few Chee novels, he’s teaching his nephew to be a yata’ali, too. Nakai doesn’t play a major role in the novels – not, for instance, as major a role as Agatha Troy plays in the Ngaio Marsh Alleyn series. But he is a strong, steady presence. In a subtle way, he’s got a lot of influence over Chee, and an interesting personality. Nakai’s way of “powering” this series is understated, but it’s there.
In Dick Francis’ Sid Halley series, we meet Halley’s ex-father-in-law Charles Roland, Rear Admiral, Navy, retired. Roland is wealthy and also has a lot of social power, so you might think that when his daughter Jenny and former jockey Halley divorce, Roland would want nothing to do with Halley. But Roland isn’t that simple a character (which is part of what makes him interesting), nor is he that shallow. He recognises in Halley both talent and resilience – more than Halley sees in himself. So in Odds Against, the first of the Halley novels, Roland asks Halley to investigate Howard Kraye, whom Roland suspects of trying to take over his racetrack. At the time, Halley is down and out. His marriage is over, his jockey career was ended by a racetrack accident, and although he’s taken a job with private detective agency Hunt, Radnor and Associates, he’s far from happy. There’s no real reason for Roland to hire Halley, and several reasons for him not to do so. But he does and in the end, Hally gets to the truth about Kraye’s plans. Roland can be surprisingly compassionate although he’s not demonstrative. He’s intelligent, practical, and Halley always seems to be learning something new about him. Readers, too. That’s part of the way Roland “powers” this series.
The character of Hazel Flinders “powers up” Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest novels. She is a member of the Moonlight Downs Aborigine encampment and the daughter of its former leader. She’s also Emily Tempest’s best friend. And that’s what she really contributes to these novels. She’s loyal to Tempest, cares about her and sees the best in her. Through her eyes, we get a different perspective on Tempest. We also get to learn both women’s backstories and we see a different side of each as they interact. What’s more, Hazel Flinders is a rich character in her own right. While she treasures Tempest’s friendship (and the feeling is mutual), Flinders has her own life within the community, and she’s got her own very strong opinions. Her good sense, wisdom and loyalty to Tempest add layers to this series and help to “power” it.
Jussi Adler-Olsen has introduced readers to another interesting character who “powers up” his Carl Mørck series: Mørck’s assistant Hafez al-Assad. The two meet in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) when Mørck is “demoted” to becoming head of Department Q, a police department devoted to cases of “special interest.” In reality, Mørck’s been given a small basement office and no work to do as a way to get him out of the way of the rest of the Copenhagen police force. He’s not easy to get along with as it is, and that’s gotten worse since an incident in which he was gravely wounded and two of his colleagues killed. Mørck “works the system” and Assad is assigned to work with him. Although Mørck is the “main” sleuth, and the series takes his perspective, Assad is a very interesting character in his own right. He’s got a somewhat enigmatic Middle Eastern background, and has somehow managed to acquire a surprising number of skills useful in detection. He’s a devout Muslim and family man, and is one of the few people who really seem to work well with Mørck. He also is no mean sleuth in his own right. He “powers” this series because he’s interesting, because we learn things about him bit by bit, and because we see a different side of Mørck through him.
Those are just a few of the characters in crime fiction who “power” its novels. And did you notice that only one (Assad) is a sleuth? The rest aren’t “main” sleuths or even official “partner” sleuths. And yet, their personalities, their interactions with the main characters and their backstories add rich layers to the stories and work to add “power” to them. So now it’s your turn. Which characters do you find so interesting that they “power” novels and series even if they’re not sleuths?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Steve Miller Band song.