Here’s the thing about character traits: they’re really neither good nor bad for the most part. Most of the time, it’s all about perception. For example, what some people might call stubbornness in some situations can be seen as perseverance in others. A sense of daring and willingness to take real risks may be seen as an important positive character trait during a war, but it might be perceived as recklessness in other situations. A look at just of few of the well-drawn characters in crime fiction shows a little more clearly what I mean.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is an emotionally detached person. He certainly treats his clients with courtesy and sees them as human beings. He’s even compassionate. For instance, in The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton, Holmes takes the case of a client who’s being harassed by a notorious blackmailer. His contempt for the blackmailer and his compassion for his client are such that he’s even willing to – er – bend the law a bit to stop the blackmailer. But in the main, Holmes doesn’t really form any attachments to his clients. His interest in his cases is intellectual. Holmes’ detachment might be seen in a negative light; after all, he knows a lot of people but he doesn’t have what you’d call friends (other than Watson) and he doesn’t have a special person in his life. On the other hand it’s just that detachment that allows him to focus on the evidence and make sense of a case. He doesn’t get sidetracked by the lies people tell him or by appearances. In The Adventure of the Priory School for instance, Holmes finds that detachment useful when he is hired to find ten-year-old Lord Saltire, son of the Earl of Holdnesse, who has disappeared from his exclusive school. Holmes gets past the lies certain people tell him and some manufactured evidence and is able to find out what happened to the boy.
Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple is a keen observer, as she puts it, of human nature. And in The Murder at the Vicarage, in which she makes her first appearance, that tendency towards – oh, let’s be honest, nosiness – is shown in a fairly negative light. In that novel, local magistrate Colonel Protheroe is murdered in the vicarage of St. Mary Mead. Inspector Slack is assigned to the case and at first he has no patience at all with, as he sees it, the local village gossips, including Miss Marple. But it’s that very trait of being interested in people that has given Miss Marple a wealth of knowledge and a real intuition for the way people behave. And that intuition puts her on the right track in this novel and in the other novels that feature her as well.
Arthur Upfield’s Napolean ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a half-Aborigianl/half-White Queensland police inspector. One of his character traits is a keen affinity for nature, especially the land in which he lives and works. Psychology experts might call this trait strong naturalist intelligence. And in the time in which these novels were written, Bony’s naturalist intelligence might be regarded as a negative trait, especially by Whites of the time who are already prejudiced against and suspicious of the Aborigines. But it’s precisely that trait that allows him to solve cases. One example is in The Bone is Pointed, in which he investigates the disappearance of Jeff Anderson. Anderson went out to work the Karwir ranch one morning, but only his horse returned. Now, five months later, Bony is assigned to find out what happened. Bony’s knowledge of the bush, the land and the people are crucial as he looks for the truth about Anderson. Bony also uses that knowledge in The Bushman Who Came Back when a young girl disappears after the murder of her mother. Everyone assumes that a bushman named Yorkie committed the murder and took the child because she was a witness. But Bony soon suspects the case is more complicated than that. It’s his tracking ability and his knowledge of the land that lead him to the answers.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is not particularly good at following rules and policies. Even she will admit she’s not one for ‘toeing the line.’ And since she’s an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO), that can be a problem. Any cop in a supervisory position will tell you that there are reasons for policies. They protect both cops and citizens and they ensure that crimes are investigated appropriately. So it’s no light matter that Tempest has a tendency to go her own way, and she pays the price. But it’s that very independence of spirit that leads her to answers. In Gunshot Road, for instance, her decision to investigate the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins gets her into a lot of trouble. When his body is discovered in his shack, it looks very like the tragic result of a drunken quarrel. And that’s the way her boss Bruce Cockburn wants the case to be written up. The police have their man, all the evidence seems to point in that direction and there’s no need to put scarce resources or personnel into continuing to investigate the matter. And most cops – even good cops – might agree. But Tempest sees evidence that suggests that Ozolins’ murder was more than it seems on the surface. Her willingness to break policy, disregard what her boss says and investigate alone gets her into real danger. It also solves the case, which turns out to be more complex than anyone suspected.
Michael Connelly’s LAPD cop Harry Bosch is one of the most dogged fictional sleuths there is. No matter what the case or the odds, Bosch does not give up until he gets the answers. And that quality certainly has its negative aspects. His dedication to getting the job done has cost him a marriage, among other things. He’s been suspended and demoted too, especially when he turns over proverbial rocks that the LAPD brass or other highly-connected people would rather keep in place. Because he puts solving his cases above just about anything else, he can be difficult to live with and not particularly easy to supervise. But that very same doggedness is what gets him answers. In Angels Flight for instance, Bosch gets interested in the murder of prominent lawyer Howard Elias. Elias has a track record of going up against the LAPD; in fact, just before his death, Elias was about to take his most recent case to trial. His client Michael Harris is in prison for the rape and murder of a twelve-year-old girl. Harris, though, claims that he is innocent and that his confession was coerced by police brutality. When Bosch discovers this, he sees that this case will pit him against the LAPD top brass as well as the cops where directly involved with Harris’ arrest. What’s more, this will mean that the original rape and murder will need to be re-investigated. But Bosch’s refusal to give up and his way of making his cases his top priority give him the motivation to go against the odds. And in the end, he finds out the truth about both murders.
There’s also Elizabeth Spann Craig’s retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover. Being elderly means that she doesn’t have the energy she once did. She can’t chase suspects or physically intimidate people and her age does make her vulnerable. In fact, in both Pretty is as Pretty Dies and Progressive Dinner Deadly, she ends up being in real danger because of her age. But it’s that very quality that also helps her to get answers. In the culture of the small Southern town in which she lives, the elderly are to be treated with courtesy (if at times indulgence). So suspects and witnesses can hardly refuse to speak to her. And the fact that she’s elderly means that people are less likely to feel threatened by her. So suspects and witnesses tend to let their guards down when they speak to her. Her age also allows her to use the ‘Oh, I’m just a gossipy old lady’ cover when she’s looking for clues.
So the next time people call me stubborn, I’m going to remind them that I’m simply dogged. The next time people say I should ‘go by the book’ more, I’m going to respond that I’m a creative thinker …
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive.