Call them holdovers, dinosaurs or fossils, there are many people who hold to “the way we’ve always done things” and don’t want to move with the times. Of course, some traditions are valuable and important. And not all changes in society are changes for the better. And that’s what can make people we’d call holdovers such interesting fictional characters. They’re not always completely unsympathetic and in fact sometimes they’re depicted in positive ways. And whether they’re depicted positively or not, the clash of “what we’ve always done” and new developments in society can add a lot of suspense and a solid underlying current of interest to a novel.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Hickory Dickory Dock (AKA Hickory Dickory Death), Hercule Poirot investigates a series of apparently meaningless thefts and other occurrences at a student hostel. One night Poirot pays a visit to the hostel and in front of many of the hostel’s residents, encourages its manager Mrs. Hubbard to have the police called in immediately. That prompts resident Celia Austin to come forward and admit that she was responsible for many of the thefts. The matter seems more or less settled until two days later when Celia Austin suddenly dies, an apparent suicide victim. But her death is soon proved to be murder and Poirot works with Inspector Sharpe to find out who would have wanted to kill her. As a part of the investigation Inspector Sharpe interviews all of the residents. Here is a bit of the conversation he has with resident Jean Tomlinson:
“‘I’m old-fashioned in my views and believe that stealing is stealing.’ [Tomlinson]
‘You believe that Celia stole those things because, frankly, she wanted to take them?’
‘Certainly I do.’
‘Plain dishonest in fact.’
‘I’m afraid so.’”
That conversation reflects a very interesting theme in this novel. Fellow resident Colin McNabb is a psychiatry student who believes in the new theory that criminals’ behaviour is linked to troubled backgrounds. In fact, Celia’s stealing interests him greatly on a professional and a personal level. Jean Tomlinson reflects the more traditional view that stealing is simply wrongdoing and that unfortunate backgrounds are just an excuse to cover up dishonest behaviour.
In Donna Leon’s Suffer the Little Children, Dr. Gustavo Pedrolli and his wife Bianca Marcolini are attacked one night and their toddler son Alfredo is taken away from them. Pedrolli is badly injured and taken to hospital. When Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello and Commissario Guido Brunetti investigate, they find that all is not as it seems on the surface. It turns out that Pedrolli and his wife may have illegally adopted their son through a child-trafficking operation. The invaders turn out to have been members of the Carabinieri, who were investigating the trafficking. Brunetti wants to find out more about this ring, so he and his colleague Elettra Zorzi pose as a couple who can’t have children and visit an infertility clinic that’s supposed to be connected with the traffickers. This process of putting the pieces of the puzzle together leads Brunetti to Gustavo Pedrolli’s father-in-law Giuliano Marcolini. Brunetti wants to talk to Marcolini about the family’s history and the story of Alfredo’s adoption. It turns out that Marcolini is the founder of the Lega Doge, a rightist, anti-immigration, very traditionalist party. Brunetti wants to make Marcolini comfortable talking to him, so he decides to give hints of being sympathetic to Marcolini’s old-fashioned views.
“…Brunetti considered who he should appear to be when he arrived. Gruff, of course; a real man who took no nonsense from women or foreigners; well, unless the foreigners were men and Europeans and could speak a civilized language like Italian, though real men spoke in dialect, didn’t they?”
This approach is just right for cultivating Marcolini’s sympathy and Brunetti’s conversation with the man reveals all of Marcolini’s old-fashioned views about life. We also learn of the contempt in which he holds his son-in-law because Pedrolli’s views of life are quite different as it turns out. I don’t think it’s spoiling the novel to say that Marcolini is an unpleasant character and his old-fashioned views contribute to that.
Y.A. Erskine’s The Brotherhood introduces readers to Tasmania state police commissioner Ron Chalmers, another holdover character whose views are similarly old-fashioned. Chalmers believes in old-style policing which doesn’t include women or university graduates. He’d rather have a police force of what he calls “real men.” He has nothing but contempt for the modern approach to dealing with criminals, either; he thinks it’s far too soft and far too reliant on illusory rehabilitation.
“They failed to see that occasionally, just occasionally, a kid comes along who needs to be locked up so society can sleep safely in their beds at night.”
What’s more, Chalmers believes that modern views of White/Aborigine relationships have made police work extremely difficult since members of the Aboriginal community are now encouraged to “play the race card” whenever one of their members commits a crime and is arrested for it. In many ways Chalmers’ views are repugnant and most of his people dislike him for them. He doesn’t believe in spending money, for instance, for state-of-the-art equipment and he’s very hard on his people. When one of Chalmers’ best men Sergeant John White is stabbed at the scene of a break-in, Chalmers is especially affected because in his view White was “a real man” and a good police officer. The only problem with this investigation is that the most likely suspect is part Aborigine, so the case is going to be political dynamite. As the case moves along, we learn that there was a lot more going on in John White’s life and in his career than it seems on the surface and throughout this novel, there’s a theme of conflicting views about what police work should and shouldn’t be.
Helene Tursten’s Sven Andersson is also in some ways a holdover. He’s the leader of Göteborg’s Violent Crimes police unit and as such, he’s had to get used to a new kind of police force. He’s had to adjust to the modern media that questions what the police do. He’s also had to get used to the presence of women in his unit. In Detective Inspector Huss, for instance, one of his team members Birgitta Moberg comes to him with the complaint that she’s being harassed by team-mate Jonny Blom. On the one hand, Andersson values Moberg; she’s a good cop and he knows it. And what Blom does crosses the line, so to speak. On the other,
“There were always problems when women were involved! It was better at the beginning of his career – in the days when female officers only did paperwork and office jobs, and there hadn’t been very many of them. Back then there were only guys in the field, which was practical. You didn’t have to take into account female over-sensitivity when it came to dirty jokes and taunts. No, having women on the force was hard.”
To Andersson’s (and Tursten’s) credit, he knows that above all he needs a cohesive unit and whether he likes it or not, that includes its female members. And he’s smart and shrewd enough to know that both Irene Huss and Birgitta Moberg are extremely capable team members. As the series moves on, Andersson slowly comes to accept the fact that society is moving along and it’s in his best interest to accept that.
And then there’s Peter Lovesey’s Peter Diamond, who thinks of himself as the last true detective. As we learn in The Last Detective: Introducing Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond, Diamond doesn’t hold much with modern detection. He believes it relies far too much on computers and other technology and not nearly enough on good old-fashioned police detection savvy. To Diamond, crimes are solved when detectives look for evidence, pay attention to what witnesses and suspects say, and do the thinking and “legwork” that it takes to connect crimes to their perpetrators. And in that novel it’s actually those skills that help Diamond solve the murder of famous actress Gerry Jackman, whose body is found in a local lake. As Diamond sees it, the DNA results and other technology used in the investigation only really serve to confirm what he already knows.
Holdovers can make for some interesting debates and conflicts in a crime fiction novel, and they can add an interesting layer to the context of a story. Whether they’re sympathetic or obnoxious characters, they show that part of society that isn’t happy at all about changing times.
ps. The ‘photo is of the fossils of two very ancient shark teeth found at a mining site.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Modern Woman.