In general, the more realistic and well-rounded fictional characters are, the better we like them. One way authors add that layer to their characters is by having them deal with day-to-day “background noise” challenges. Those irritants can add humour or suspense to a story depending on how the author handles them. They add a running theme too and that can give a novel an extra bit of interest. We all know, for instance, what it’s like when an irritating co-worker interrupts us for the thousandth time or when we have to make endless calls to a company to find out when we’ll get delivery of something promised two weeks ago. When protagonists deal with those things, not only do we identify better with them, but we also have another reason to keep reading.
Several of Agatha Christie’s novels use this sort of plot point. For instance, in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked), Miss Marple is recovering from bronchitis, so her nephew Raymond West has arranged for a live-in nurse/companion Miss Knight to stay with Miss Marple. Miss Knight means well and as far as her job goes, she’s skilled. But she’s condescending and meddling and Miss Marple finds her just plain irritating. And yet, she knows that she herself is not really well yet; besides, she doesn’t want to hurt her nephew. So she has to find less obvious ways to get rid of Miss Knight when she needs a break. One day for example Miss Knight tells Miss Marple that she’s going to do some shopping. Miss Marple adds a long list of errands to Miss Knight’s schedule – just to get her out of the way. After Miss Knight has gone, Miss Marple takes a walk in the village and visits the new council housing that’s recently gone up. That’s when she meets Heather Badcock who lives with her husband Arthur in one of the new homes. When Heather is later murdered, Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry investigate to find out why and by whom. Miss Knight is woven throughout this novel as “background noise” and Miss Marple’s understandable irritation with her makes Miss Marple all the more human.
In Andrea Camilleri’s The Wings of the Sphinx, Inspector Montalbano and his team investigate the murder of an unidentified young woman whose body is found near a local dump. The only really distinctive feature about the victim is a tattoo near her left shoulder blade. Montalbano and his team discover that the tattoo marks the woman as a member of group of Eastern Europeans who came to Sicily to find work. As the story evolves, we find out more about the members of the group. We also find out how the young woman’s death is related to the organisation that sponsored her immigration to Italy and with the company that may have employed her. Throughout this novel Montalbano has to deal with the “background noise” of a fuel shortage. The Vigatà questura hasn’t been allotted enough fuel to keep a contingent of police-issue cars on the road, so if the officers are going to go anywhere they have to use their own transportation. It’s not an earth-shattering problem and it doesn’t have much to do with solving the mystery. But it adds “background noise” and as we see how Montalbano deals with it, it serves as an effective way to show Montalbano’s character.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest starts a new job as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) in Gunshot Road. On her first day on the job, she’s given a uniform, but the problem is that it’s much, much larger than she is.
“I slipped into the khaki cop shirt they’d given me, folded up the bloke-length sleeves and unrolled the pants. Kept unrolling. I held them up: my predecessor must have been Serena Willians. The belt was going to buckle over my sternum. And wide? I could have stashed a bullock in there.”
So she does the only thing she can. She uses the uniform top as a dress. Her concerns about the uniform are soon pushed aside when she and her team are called to Green Swamp Well, where former prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins has been murdered, apparently as the result of a drunken quarrel. Tempest doesn’t think that’s what happened though, and she begins to investigate. Her interesting choice of uniform comes in and out throughout the beginning of the novel as a solid little piece of “background noise.”
Elizabeth Spann Craig frequently uses “background noise” and running themes in her novels. For example, in Quilt or Innocence, we meet Beatrice Coleman, who’s just retired from Atlanta to the small town of Dappled Hills, North Carolina. She’s looking forward to her retirement and to being closer to her daughter Piper, who’s a local teacher. The hub of social life for many of Dappled Hills’ residents is a group of local quilting guilds. So before she knows it, Beatrice has joined the Village Quilters. One of the other members of the group is her next-door neighbour Meadow Downey. Meadow and her husband Ramsay are owned by Boris, a friendly Great Dane/Newfoundland mix. Meadow swears he’s part corgi, too, although that part of his mix is hard to see. Boris may be friendly but he is also large, clumsy, and larcenous. He’s also good at getting free of his lead and going wherever he wants – which is usually to Beatrice’s home. Beatrice soon gets mixed in a murder case when one of the other quilters Miss Judith is found murdered one night. There are several suspects too since just about everyone had a reason to dislike her. One of the most obvious suspects is fellow quilter Posy Beck, who owns a quilting supply store and who rented the property from Judith. Judith was about to raise the rent out of Posy’s financial reach and her death means that Posy can stay in business. But Posy swears she’s innocent and Beatrice believes her. So she starts asking questions. Then she herself starts getting threatening notes. Soon she finds that several members of the guild are keeping secrets that they don’t want anyone to know. Throughout the novel, Boris pays several visits to Beatrice, always leaving a mess behind and frequently eating food not intended for him. He’s very effective “background noise” as Beatrice tries to figure out who the murderer is.
In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck is “promoted” to head up a newly created “Department Q” which is devoted to investigating “cases of special interest.” Even at his best Mørck is difficult to work with, and that’s been even more the case since an on-the-job shooting incident that left one colleague dead, another paralysed and Mørck badly injured. One of the first cases that Mørck and his new assistant Hafez al-Assad take on if the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard, whom everyone thinks drowned as the result of a ferry accident. But little pieces of evidence suggest that she may not have drowned and in fact, may still be alive. So Mørck and Assad re-open the investigation to find out what really happened. In the meantime, Mørck’s new appointment officially means that he will need the title of police superintendent. And that means he’ll have to take a management course. Mørck has no intention of doing that, since he doesn’t see how it’ll make him a better cop, nor does he want to do what he sees as wasting time. But his boss insists on it, and throughout the novel, we see the topic of that irritating management course come up more than once.
And then there’s Ǻsa Larsson’s Until thy Wrath be Past, which features Kiruna prosecutor Rebecca Martinsson. Martinsson does just about all of the area’s government prosecution, so she frequently gets caught up in a lot of paperwork. It’s not her favourite thing though as we see throughout this novel. When the body of seventeen-year-old Wilma Persson is discovered one spring, Martinsson works with Inspector Anna-Maria Mella and her team to find out what happened to Persson and her boyfriend Simon Kyrö, who disappeared at the same time. Leads come up unexpectedly and more than once Martinsson is interrupted when she knows she should be catching up on her paperwork. But she’s more interested in finding out what happened to the two young people than she is in paperwork, so sometimes the work piles up. In the end, Martinsson and Mella, together with Mella’s team, find out that Persson’s and Kyrö’s deaths are related to deeply-hidden village connections to World War II resistance, war profiteering and the Nazis. Throughout the novel we can feel the “background noise” of Martinsson’s “desk duties” as she unravels the threads of the case.
“Background noise” has to be handled carefully so that it doesn’t take over a plot or become too clichéd. But when it is done well, “background noise” can add to a character and can make a story just a little richer and more interesting.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Luka Bloom’s Background Noise.