Some characters in crime fiction are interesting because they’re somewhat enigmatic. They don’t say very much, but what they do say is usually important. They rarely talk about themselves or their backgrounds, but their presence is an important part of a novel. Sometimes, too, they have very strong personalities that we sense right away. Even though they may not talk very much, they matter and the very fact that they’re somewhat (or sometimes very) enigmatic makes them all the more interesting.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner hires Amy Leatheran to look after his wife Louise. The Leidners are at a dig site not far from Hassanieh, in Iraq, and lately, Louise Leidner has been having fears and telling people that she sees and hears odd and frightening things. Leatheran, who’s a nurse, is hired to do what she can to allay Louise Leidner’s fears and help her feel safer. When Leatheran gets to the house where the dig party is living, she meets the rest of the members of the expedition team. Among them is David Emmott, a young archaeologist who has been attached to the team for two years. He doesn’t have very much to say, but even from the beginning of the novel, he has a certain strength of character. At first, everyone suspects that Louise Leidner may be imagining the voices she hears and the things she sees. But one afternoon, her fears are all too well-founded when she iis bludgeoned in her room. Emmott is one of the first on the scene and Leatheran, from whose point of view the story is told, is impressed with his ability to cope in an emergency. Hercule Poirot is traveling in the area and he helps the police find out who murdered Louise Leidner and why. Throughout the novel, we never learn a lot about Emmott, but we feel his personality all through the story.
That’s also true of Hannu Rauhala, a Finnish police detective who works with Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss and her team. Rauhala says very little about himself, and none of the team knows him very well. He’s not rude or abrasive, but he does keep people at a distance. He doesn’t talk very much, but he gets things done. In Night Rounds, for instance, Huss and the team, under the supervision of Sven Andersson, are investigating the murders of two nurses at Löwander Hospital, a private facility with some secrets in its past. The more the team looks into this case, the clearer it is that the hospital itself is the key to the mystery. Throughout the novel, Rauhala manages to find out all sorts of information about the case from well-placed sources:
“Hannu was able to flush out things no one else could find. Whether all his methods were legal, she [Huss] couldn’t say. At times she wished she knew, but at other times she suspected that it was better not to know.”
Rauhala adds a great deal of insight to the case without saying very much. He’s enigmatic and we don’t learn a lot about him but he is a force to be reckoned with in this series.
So is Joe Pike, Robert Crais’ gun shop-owning former soldier who partners with private investigator Elvis Cole. Pike is not much of a one for words, as Karen Nelson finds out in Lullaby Town. In that novel, famous director Peter Alan Nelson hires Cole to find his missing wife Karen and their son. Cole isn’t eager for the case at first, since many times, when people disappear it’s because they do not want to be found. But he’s finally persuaded and begins the search. He finds Karen Nelson living in a quiet Connecticut town and keeping a secret. She seems to have gotten mixed up with some very nasty Mob people and Cole’s finding her could get them both in very big trouble. Cole calls Pike to tell him what’s going on and Pike makes the trip to Connecticut and Karen Nelson’s home:
“Pike nodded once, then stood and walked into the kitchen. Karen said ‘Excuse me, the bathroom isn’t that way.’
Pike went through the door without looking back.
I said, ‘He isn’t looking for the bath. He’s looking for how someone might get into your home, or get out, and for where they might hide while they are within it.’
She blinked at me.
‘It’s one of his more colorful habits.’”
Pike may not have a lot to say, but he is without a doubt a powerful force. In more recent Crais novels we’ve learned more about him, and that’s part of what makes those novels interesting.
Another character who’s not voluble but is nonetheless strong is Donna Leon’s Contessa Donatella Falier. She is the mother-in-law of Commissario Guido Brunetti, and a genuine “blueblood.” We learn bits and pieces about Contessa Falier, but she certainly doesn’t hold forth about herself. And yet, we can feel that she is a strong force. Certainly she knows everyone who “matters” in Venice, and that in itself makes her interesting. For instance, in About Face, it’s she who orchestrates a dinner party during which Brunetti meets Maurizio Cataldo and Franca Marinello. Contessa Falier has planned this meeting because she wants Brunetti to get to know Marinello, whose history she happens to know. And it turns out that that history is key to the solution of a mystery that involves shady business deals, illegal toxic waste transportation and outlaw trucking. Although she doesn’t do it obviously, Donatella Falier has a way of making her presence felt and her wishes known. She’s a fascinating character who plays a role in more than one of Leon’s novels.
And then there’s Diane Jacobsen, an investigator for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations whom we meet in Simon Beckett’s Whispers of the Dead. She and her partner Dan Gardner get involved in set of bizarre murders beginning with a decomposing corpse found near a cabin not far from Tennessee’s Anthropological Research Laboratory. When there’s another murder, and then another, it’s clear that this is the work of an unusual killer. Jacobsen and Gardner get help from forensic anthropologist David Hunter, who’s taking some time to do some research at the lab. The novel is told from Hunter’s point of view and because of that, we never get to learn much about Jacobsen. She is extremely skilled and it’s obvious throughout the novel that she has a past she doesn’t want to discuss. But she is a strong character who is vital in solving the crimes. In one almost-amusing moment, we do find out one thing about her that adds an interesting twist to the story. But overall, she’s one of those enigmatic characters who lend a lot to a story without saying a lot, really.
The same is true of Dan, a hunting guide whom we meet in Paddy Richardson’s Hunting Blind. He makes his living by taking people out into the bush and guiding hunting trips, and he’s very good at what he does. He’s a widower with a young daughter who one frightening night comes very close to being abducted. He’s an extremely strong character without being overly chatty, and when Stephanie Anderson meets him, she feels that strength. Anderson is a fledgling psychiatrist who has a terrible wound in her own past; her four-year-old sister Gemma was abducted years earlier and never found. Now Anderson wants some resolution to the case. A story that she heard from a patient suggests that Gemma’s abductor may still be alive and has abducted other girls. So Anderson has decided to follow the leads she can find. In the course of her journey she meets Dan, who persuades her to go on a hunting trip although she’s never fired a gun in her life. It’s on that hunting trip that Stephanie Anderson feels the kind of strength of personality that Dan has, although he’s not overly talkative. And it’s that strength in part that gives her the courage she needs to finish the task of finding the person who ruined her family’s life.
There are lots of other quiet and enigmatic but nonetheless strong characters in crime fiction, and they can really add leaven to a story. Which ones do you especially like?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Modern Woman.