“Youth is strong, youth is powerful…And one thing more – youth is vulnerable.”
It’s that combination of strength, energy and vulnerability that can make young, up-and-coming characters so interesting in crime fiction. They can add a spark of life and poignancy.
For instance, in Christie’s The Secret Adversary, we meet Thomas “Tommy” Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley. They’re young, energetic people who decide, and without a lot of planning and preparation, to hire themselves out as adventurers. It’s a bold and daring move, but they’ve got the energy and vitality. Neither of them is stupid or gullible but they don’t have any idea of what they’re taking on. Soon enough they find out when they get drawn into the search for a secret treaty that was supposed to have been destroyed when the Lusitania was sunk. The Beresfords get mixed up in international espionage and a case of murder as they try to find out what happened to the treaty. They also get themselves into much more danger than they could have imagined.
In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, we meet Margaret Billy Sosi, a sixteen-year-old Navajo teen who attends a boarding school. She’s alarmed when she receives a postcard from her grandfather that contains a cryptic warning. With all of the energy and vitality of youth, she leaves the boarding school and goes in search of her grandfather, only to find out that he’s dead. She then sets off to find out what happened to him. In the meantime she’s been discovered missing. So Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police is assigned to find her. At the time, he’s on another case – the murder of Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. But as Gorman and Sosi are kin, Chee thinks the cases may be connected. And so they are. Chee finds Sosi and does his best to keep her safe, but she disappears again. In the end, he does track her down, and he finds out who killed Gorman as well as who killed Sosi’s grandfather. Throughout this novel, we see how strong and vital a person Sosi is; at the same time, we also see how vulnerable she is.
Carolyn Graham’s Sergeant Gavin Troy is also young and energetic, especially in the earlier novels in her series featuring Inspector Tom Barnaby. Troy likes to get on with investigations, although he doesn’t hurtle blindly ahead. He’s not at all what you’d call violent, or even bullying. But he doesn’t yet have his boss’ sense of restraint. He’s handsome and flirtatious, too, and in some ways very much full of himself, so to speak. He’s got vigour, “spark” and life. And yet, he’s also vulnerable. He sees all too clearly that he’s got a lot to learn about being a good detective, and he’s keenly aware of it when he makes “rookie mistakes.” For instance, in A Place of Safety, he, Barnaby and their team are investigating the disappearance of Carlotta Ryan, a troubled teenager who’s been staying with the local curate and his wife. One of the only witnesses to her disappearance is Charlie Leathers, who doesn’t exactly have a stellar reputation. When Leathers himself is garroted, it’s clear that a lot more is going on here than it seems on the surface. At one point, Barnaby and his team are having a conference about the cases. Barnaby makes an open-ended suggestion about the case.
“Troy liked this idea of open-ended dialogue, if only so that someone else could make a fool of themselves for a change by finishing it.”
Troy tries the same technique himself a moment later, only to fail miserably. It’s a funny look at how youthful characters can combine eagerness and energy with vulnerability.
We see the same combination in Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. She’s been recently appointed to the Sûreté du Québec, and is pleased with her accomplishment. She sees herself on “the fast track” and is certain she knows what to do. When she’s teamed up with Inspector Armand Gamache and his team, Nichol is convinced that she’s ready to be a full-fledged detective. She’s certainly not in the least interested in any advice Gamache has to offer. In fact, she’s annoyingly smug and arrogant, despite Gamache’s best efforts to teach her. Nichol is energetic and quick to follow up on her own ideas. She’s also very, very vulnerable. She isn’t accepted by the team, and isn’t wise enough to know that her own arrogance is a big reason for that. She blames her lack of competence on Gamache and the others instead of being open to learning. In fact, as Penny tells us in Bury Your Dead,
“She was the agent no one wanted. The agent who couldn’t be fired because she wasn’t quite incompetent or insubordinate enough. But she sure played around the cliff.”
Nichol is hardly a friendly, likeable character. But we can see her combination of eagerness and vitality with vulnerability and anxiety.
Much more likeable is that same combination in Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest. Tempest is an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) who grew up in the Moonlight Downs camp. After a long absence, she returns to Moonlight Downs in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs). Shortly after her return, tragedy strikes when her friend and the leader of the Moonlight Downs community Lincoln Flinders is murdered. The most obvious suspect is local sorcerer Blakie Japananga, who had a bitter argument with Flinders and who has since disappeared. But Tempest isn’t sure that this murder is that simple, so she starts to ask questions. In Gunshot Road, she asks questions again when prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins is murdered and John “Wireless” Petherbridge becomes the obvious suspect. In both cases, Tempest takes initiative and goes off on her own quest for the answers. She’s young, strong and energetic. She knows she’s not perfect, but she’s certain she’s on to the truth. At the same time, Tempest is vulnerable. She gets herself into a great deal of danger and she even admits that she’s not sure she knows what she’s doing. She sometimes rushes into things, and let’s not mention the damage to her official car. That mix of youth, vigour, energy and liveliness with vulnerability and lack of wisdom add to her appeal as a character.
There are other up-and-coming characters, too, who have that same combination. They can add real “spark” and interest to a novel. Which are your favourites?
ps Oh, the ‘photos? The one on the left is my daughter when she was about three – sure that she could “do it all.” The one on the right is her daughter, now nearly eight months old and just as sure of herself :-).
Oh, and that sleeping bag is imprinted with characters from The Lion King. You can click the ‘photo to enlarge it and see what I mean.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Elton John and Tim Rice’s I Just Can’t Wait to be King.