Good sleuths and savvy crime fiction fans know that it’s a big mistake to make assumptions based on their first impressions. After all, we all know that criminals can seem the most innocent of people, and that sometimes, the most unlikely characters can turn out to be very good people. And yet, knowing that intellectually doesn’t mean those first impressions have no impact. Even the most seasoned sleuth and the best-read crime fiction fan make assumptions based on clothes, dress, attitude, and so on. When that happens, it can make a character more real; after all, we all get the wrong impression at times. It’s also an interesting way for the author to show readers what a character is like; as the sleuth (or another character) learns the truth about a character, so do readers.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey, who’s been a paid companion for the past ten years in the village of St. Mary Mead. When her employer dies, Katherine inherits the bulk of her considerable fortune and decides to do some traveling. She takes the famous Blue Train to Nice and on the way, gets involved in a case of murder and theft when fellow passenger Ruth Kettering is strangled on the second night of the journey. Hercule Poirot is traveling on the same train and works with the police to find out who the murderer is. In the course of the investigation, Katherine Grey meets several of the people in the victim’s life. In fact, two of them find themselves very much attracted to her. What’s interesting about this is that as we learn about these two people and follow the course of their relationships with Katherine, we learn that first impressions can be deceiving.
James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos features Tony Cardo, a notorious New Orleans crime boss. Former DEA agent Minos Dautrieve has been assigned to the Presidential Task Force on Drugs and it’s his goal to take Cardo down. He asks for help in this task from his friend Dave Robicheaux, who’s with the New Iberia, Louisiana police force. Robicheaux is reluctant to get involved, but Dautrieve offers Robicheaux a “deal sweetener.” Helping to take down Cardo will get Robicheaux closer to taking down Jimmie Lee Boggs, who shot and killed Robicheaux’s partner Lester Benoit. So Robicheaux agrees to go undercover and get as close to Cardo as he can. And that ends up creating a big dilemma for Robicheaux. The first impression he gets of Cardo is that he’s a nasty thug. But the better he gets to know him, the more he realises that Cardo is not a horrible person. He’s a loving father, and he and Robicheaux have more in common than Robicheaux knew at first. And yet, Robicheaux has agreed to this undercover operation. What’s more, Robicheaux wants to get Boggs. This dilemma makes for a very interesting and suspenseful undercurrent in this novel.
Walter Mosley’s A Red Death features a similar kind of first impression that turns out to be wrong. In that novel, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is faced with a serious tax problem. He earned quite a lot of money for doing “a favour for a friend” and never paid taxes on that money. Rawlins gets a letter from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) threatening him with jail if he doesn’t pay everything he owes, something Rawlins can’t do. Just as he’s resigning himself to going to jail, Rawlins gets a way out. FBI Agent Darryl Craxton is investigating former Polish Resistance fighter Chaim Wenzler as a Communist. In the 1950’s Los Angeles of this novel, that’s a serious allegation. Craxton offers Rawlins tax amnesty in exchange for getting close to Wenzler. Rawlins agrees, mostly because he doesn’t have much choice. And at first, he’s not particularly conflicted about it. But then he begins to get to know Wenzler and realises that Wenzler’s not the enemy, despite his political beliefs. He’s not trying to bring down the government or change the political system. He’s trying to do some charitable work, recover from his World War II experiences, and simply be left alone. In fact, slowly Wenzler and Rawlins become friends as they see that they have quite a lot in common. This makes Rawlins’ job all the harder, especially after someone frames Rawlins for two murders. Now he has to stay alive as well as clear his name and do what he agreed to do. It makes for a fascinating sub-plot in this novel.
In Patricia Stoltey’s The Prairie Grass Murders, Florida judge and former FBI agent Sylvia Thorn gets an upsetting call from her brother Willie Grisseljon. He’s been on a visit to the family’s hometown in Illinois and has made a disturbing discovery. He found the body of a man half-buried near the family home. When he tried to alert an officer, he ended up taken off as a vagrant and committed to a psychiatric ward “for his own safety.” Now he can’t convince anyone of what he saw, and he’s been locked up. Thorn immediately goes to Illinois and uses her authority and influence to get her brother freed. They’re just about to leave town when Willie insists on going back to check whether the body is still there. It isn’t, and the ground around the area has been recently ploughed up. Soon it turns out that the dead man may be a local businessman who went missing. As Sylvia and Willie dig a little deeper, they find a nest of corruption and greed. What creates a very interesting thread of suspense in the story is that that corruption has touched someone Sylvia thought she could trust – but couldn’t. Her impression is very, very wrong in this case.
When Inspector Thomas “Tommy” Lynley and Sergeant Barbara Havers meet in Elizabeth George’s A Great Deliverance, each of them makes a bad impression on the other. To Lynley, Havers is a prickly, frumpy, difficult person who was demoted to constable status for good reason. And here’s Havers’ impression of Lynley:
“Was there anyone in all of New Scotland Yard whom she hated more than she hated Lynley? He was a miraculous combination of every single thing that she thoroughly despised: educated at Eton, a first in history at Oxford, a public school voice and a bloody family tree that had its roots somewhere just this side of the Battle of Hastings.”
Despite the very negative first impressions each makes, they do learn to work together and gradually they come to appreciate each other’s skills.
And then there’s Måns Wenngren, whom we first meet in Åsa Larsson’s Sun Storm (AKA The Savage Altar). He’s a senior Stockholm attorney who admittedly doesn’t have much of a life outside his work. He’s got the reputation of being somewhat of a “slave-driver” and not a particularly friendly and approachable person. So when one of the junior attorneys, Rebecka Martinsson, needs to request leave to travel to her home in Kiruna, she’s not sure what kind of reception she’ll get. It doesn’t help matters that she doesn’t believe Wenngren thinks much of her. At their first real encounter at a holiday party, neither made a very good impression on the other and she’s aware that Wenngren has always thought her a shade disrespectful and unwilling to abide by company policy. But this is an urgent request; one of Martinsson’s former friends has been accused of murder and has begged her to return to help. Despite their misgivings about each other, Martinsson and Wenngren work out a plan for Martinsson to continue with her work while she’s away. As time goes by, Wenngren and Martinsson get to know each other better and they’re able revise those first impressions they had. In time, they begin a relationship. But what’s especially effective about Larsson’s treatment of this relationship is that it’s done subtly; there’s no “boy-meets-girl-boy-hates-girl-but-they-realise-they-love-each-other-and-hop-into-bed.” Rather, they gradually get to know each other and trust each other.
First impressions can be very powerful. And it takes a wise sleuth and an open-minded crime fiction fan to revise those assumptions. But that process (both on the sleuth’s part and on that of the reader) can also add a lot to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Get it Right the First Time.