One of the great payoffs of reading well-written crime fiction is that one gets to meet some unforgettable characters. I’m not talking today about the main sleuth of a series, such as Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch or Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone. We can all think I’m sure of dozens of sleuths who’ve made a strong impression. Rather, I mean characters who for one or another reason (or perhaps several) have stayed with us. Characters become that powerful because there’s something about them that haunts us. And understanding what that something is helps in understanding what makes for a memorable crime novel. Of course the thing about such a topic is that it’s subjective. The things that make an impression on one person may not on another. So here are just my ideas of a few crime-fictional characters other than major series sleuths who’ve stayed with me for a long time.
One such character is Amy Folliat, whom we meet in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. Mrs. Folliat lives in the lodge at Nasse House, which property she and her family owned for generations. When financial problems forced her to sell the property Sir George Stubbs and his wife Hattie became the new owners. Despite the “changing of the guard,” the locals still think of Mrs. Folliat as the lady of Nasse House. There are several scenes in the novel where she interacts with them and we can see both the esteem in which they hold her and her respect for them, even those who aren’t “well-born.” She’s had a difficult life on several levels, but Mrs. Folliat has remained strong and simply doesn’t discuss her personal problems. When Sir George and Lady Hattie start to plan the annual fête that’s become a tradition at Nasse House, they decide to include a Murder Hunt, a bit like a scavenger hunt. Detective novelist Ariadne Oliver is commissioned to create the synopsis, the characters and so on for the Murder Hunt, and she travels to Nasse House to do so. It’s not long though before she begins to believe that something sinister may be going on. She asks Hercule Poirot to join her and investigate, which he agrees to do. Their worst fears are realised on the day of the fête when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who was to play the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually strangled. Poirot and Oliver work with Inspector Bland to find out who would want to kill the victim and why. Throughout the investigation Amy Folliat remains courteous, gracious and strong – even indomitable. She really does personify grace, dignity and courage and I admire her character very much for that.
Another character who’s stayed with me is Eleanor “Ellie” Smith, who features in Colin Dexter’s The Daughters of Cain. She’s a prostitute who meets Dexter’s sleuth Inspector Morse when one of her clients Felix McClure is murdered. Morse and Sergeant Lewis begin to investigate the case and start to piece together McClure’s life. He was a former don at Wolsey College, Oxford and after looking into McClure’s associations there, Morse and Lewis suspect that his former scout Ted Brooks may be the murderer. McClure had discovered that Brooks might be dealing drugs to students and was about to reveal what he knew. Not long after Brooks falls under suspicion though, he himself is found murdered. Now Morse and Lewis have to start over and see how the two cases tie together. One of the links is Ellie Smith. Although she’s a suspect in a murder case Morse finds himself attracted to her and the feeling’s mutual. And one can see why he likes her too. Ellie Smith is a tough survivor. She’s had a very difficult life with good reason to be extremely bitter, but although she’s certainly not idealistic, she has a very strong spirit. She doesn’t have much education but she’s smart and shrewd. She has a deep capacity to care too despite her hardness and her initial distrust of Morse. Morse and Lewis find out the truth about the murders of Felix McClure and Ted Brooks but then to Morse’s consternation Ellie Smith disappears. She continues to haunt Morse though and I can see why. She’s gutsy, smart and looks life right in the eyes as you might say. She’s a survivor who’s learned to be extremely good at making the best of situations.
Peter Temple’s Charlie Taub is another character who’s left a strong impression on me. Taub is a master cabinetmaker and wood craftsman who features in Temple’s Jack Irish novels. Irish, who is a sometime-attorney and private investigator, is learning cabinetry from Taub. He couldn’t have a better mentor. Taub is a perfectionist who notices details. He sees the end product in his mind and imagines what a fine piece of wood could be when it’s been treated well. In some ways he’s a harsh taskmaster. To him even the smallest job is worth being done with care. He’s not what you’d call a philosopher but he has learned a few lessons about life that he shares with Irish when they’re working. Taub’s a pragmatist who cuts through verbiage and gets right to the heart of a problem. And he doesn’t waste a lot of words doing so either. He’s also learned the soul-healing value of creating and of doing soothing work, which cabinetry can be. That’s part of why he does what he does. I admire his approach to life and I am in awe of people who can create with their hands the way that Charlie Taub can.
In Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back we are introduced to Eddie Holland. He and his wife Ada live in the small village of Granittveien with their fifteen-year-old daughter Annie and Ada’s adult daughter Sølvi. Their lives are shattered one day when Annie’s body is discovered near a local tarn. Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called in to investigate. Forensic evidence suggests that Annie wasn’t raped and knew her attacker. So Sejer and Skarre look more closely at Annie’s relationships with the other members of her family as well as her relationships with the other locals. The investigation adds to Eddie Holland’s terrible grief because he himself falls under suspicion. He’s cleared, but the loss of his daughter devastates him and it’s obvious. Eddie Holland’s character has remained with me because he’s a clear example of a loving father who has to cope without the child who matters more to him than just about anything else. His quiet dignified way of getting through this ordeal makes more of an impression than any bluster would.
And then there’s Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear, owner of The Red Pony, a bar/restaurant in rural Durant, Wyoming. He is a member of the Cheyenne Nation who’s very much connected with his people and their ways of life, although he doesn’t live on the Reservation. He’s also the best friend of Johnson’s sleuth Sheriff Walt Longmire. The two of them fought together in Vietnam and have been close friends for decades. Henry Standing Bear functions easily enough in the White world in which he moves, but he doesn’t give up any of his identity. A friend of mine once heard it described this way: “I wear my cultural identity like a coat that protects me.” I couldn’t say it better myself. Henry Standing Bear stays with me as a character in part because there are depths to him that we don’t get to know right away. He’s not superficial and he is easy to underestimate, but at the same time, he’s not one of those annoyingly enigmatic characters who don’t feel “real.” One of the things that make him real is his sense of humour. At the beginning of Death Without Company for instance, Longmire has stayed overnight at the Red Pony. A major snowstorm’s come through during the night and Longmire wakes the next morning to find that the heat’s out. Henry Standing Bear has lit a fire though so they’ll be comfortable.
“‘Do you want some coffee?’ [Standing Bear]
‘Then go and make some. I am the one who lit the fire.’”
That sense of humour also makes Henry Standing Bear a memorable character for me. So does his ability to deal with crisis situations without losing his sense of judgement.
The character who’s stayed with me the most is perhaps Catherine O’Flynn’s Kate Meaney, the focus of What Was Lost. When the novel begins in 1984, ten-year-old Kate is a blossoming detective. She’s even got her own agency Falcon Investigations. Her passion is to look for crime and she keeps copious notes on her observations. She spends a lot of time at the newly-built Green Oaks Shopping Center where there’s sure to be suspicious activity. Kate doesn’t conform to the “typical” expectations for young people but that doesn’t bother her. She’s got her own plans and dreams of a future where she can prevent and stop crime. Then her grandmother Ivy, with whom she lives, gives her terrible news. Ivy thinks that it will be best for Kate if she goes away to school. Kate has no desire to do this but since she’s only ten she hasn’t got much say. Her friend Adrian Palmer persuades her to at least sit the entrance exams and she finally agrees. He even accompanies her to the school. Then Kate disappears. Everyone blames Adrian Palmer, who claims that he’s innocent. But no trace of Kate is ever found. Twenty years later Adrian’s younger sister Lisa is working at the mall when she makes an unlikely friend Kurt, who’s a security guard at the mall. When Kurt starts to see images of a young girl on the security cameras Lisa wonders whether those images might somehow be connected to Kate Meaney. Each in a different way, Kurt and Lisa begin to explore the past and in that search we find out what really happened to Kate Meaney. What makes Kate memorable to me is her irrepressible love of life despite her not-exactly-lovely surroundings. She’s also an original thinker who’s completely unafraid to live life on her own terms. She is an unforgettable person and we see that in the void her disappearance left in the lives of almost everyone who knew her and in the healing that can’t really begin until those who knew her find out what happened to her.
I’ve only mentioned a few characters that have stayed with me and of course my choices are subjective. What are yours? Why do those characters stay with you? If you’re a writer what do you add to your characters to keep them in people’s minds?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Naked Eyes’ (There is) Always Something There to Remind Me.