One of the major appeals in any well-written novel is the set of characters. If they’re not well-drawn, they soon become boring and they lose credibility. That’s one reason for which skilled authors add some texture to their characters. In the best crime stories, even unpleasant characters have human sides too, and the author lets us see that. Those moments when we see another side of an unsympathetic character can add a layer of depth and even tension to the story.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, the Boynton family is taking a sightseeing holiday in the Middle East. Also on the tour is newly-minted psychologist Sarah King. She’s taken an interest in the family and a particular interest in one member, Raymond Boynton. But it’s nearly impossible to strike up a friendship with him as the family is under the tyrannical rule of its matriarch Mrs. Boynton. She is a mental sadist who delights in keeping her family members cowed. One morning at a Jerusalem hotel though, we get a slightly different view of Mrs. Boynton. Everyone’s getting ready to leave the hotel for an excursion to Petra and on impulse King goes directly up to Mrs. Boynton and speaks to her. At that point, she suddenly sees Mrs. Boynton for the pathetic person she is and actually has some pity for her. During the trip to Petra, Mrs. Boynton is murdered and Colonel Carbury, who’s in charge of the case, asks for input from Hercule Poirot, who’s on the same trip. Sarah King’s feeling of pity is not really the reason Mrs. Boynton is killed. But it does give us a glimpse of another side of the victim’s character.
In James Lee Burke’s A Morning For Flamingos, New Iberia, Louisiana police officer Dave Robicheaux is reluctantly persuaded to help target New Orleans crime boss Tony Cardo. Robicheaux’s friend Minos Dautrieve is a member of the Presidential Task Force on Drugs, and on the task force’s behalf, he asks Robicheaux to go undercover as a ‘dirty cop’ and get close to Cardo. Robicheaux agrees mostly because this operation will give him a chance to go after Jimmie Lee Boggs, who killed Robicheaux’s cop partner Lester Benoit. Cardo is a dangerous criminal and in many ways a very nasty person, and Burke doesn’t make light of that. But one day Robicheaux sees another side of him. He’s visiting Cardo’s home when he happens to see Cardo interact with his son Paul, who has special needs and is in a wheelchair. That gives Robicheaux a glimpse of another, much more human side of Cardo and makes it very much harder for him to continue the operation.
Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back is the story of the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn near her village of Granittveien. Oslo police inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre take charge of the investigation and begin to interview the various people in Annie’s life. One of those people is Axel Bjørk, who was previously married to Annie’s mother Ada. He’s bitter and resentful about their divorce, and he has a reputation for drinking and trouble-making. So it’s not at all out of the realm of possibility that he might have killed Annie to spite his ex-wife. He’s really not a very pleasant person in a lot of ways. But then we get to see another side of this character. He very much misses his daughter Sølvi, who lives with her mother and who is forbidden to spend any time with her father. He’s been badly hurt by the way his ex-wife has treated him too and in his conversations with Sejer, we see that although he’s a sometimes-violent, surly drunk, he’s also got a different side to his character.
We also see some humanity in the character of Count Kolya, who features in William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series. Korolev is a member of Moscow’s CID in the Stalinist days just before World War II. As he does his job he has to negotiate the very dangerous social and political landscape of the time. Angering the wrong people is both easy and often fatal, and it’s not always clear who exactly can be trusted. In the course of his work, Korolev comes into contact with Kolya, who is a leader of the Thieves, the members of Moscow’s criminal underworld. As such, Kolya is a very dangerous man. He is not in the least afraid to kill or have someone killed, and some of his methods of getting things done are far from legal. He’s tough too and he can be unpleasant. But we do see glimpses of another side of Kolya at times. In The Twelfth Department for instance, Korolev and his assistant Nadezhda Slivka have been assigned to investigate the murder of eminent scientist Boris Azarov. His work was considered top secret, so the NKVD wants the case handled very carefully, and that’s why Korolev and Slivka have been assigned to it. They’ve just begun to investigate when there’s another murder, this time of a person they considered a suspect. The Powers That Be want their theory to be the official one that Korolev reports, but he and Slivka don’t believe it’s the truth. Bit by bit, they find out what Azarov was really working on and how that could have led to his murder. Kolya also finds out what’s been going on and offers his help to Korolev. When Korolev asks him why, we get to see a really human side of a character who doesn’t always seem to have one.
In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann is assigned to travel to Thailand to retrieve a black, lead-covered box from the Andaman Sea. It’s been there since the ship on which it was stowed was sunk many years earlier. Swann’s not told what the box contains nor why his bosses want it, but he gets started on his mission. In order to get the box, he’ll need help, and Swann’s bosses want him to work with Bangkok-based crime boss ‘Tuk-Tuk’ Song. Song’s got the clout to keep other gangsters at bay, and he’s got the personnel and resources to back up Swann’s mission. What’s more, he’s powerful enough so that the Thai police are unlikely to get in the way of anything Swann might have to do. But working with him will be extremely risky. Song is a dangerous, well-connected and wealthy crime boss. And he has every reason to bear a grudge against Swann, who had no choice but to kill Song’s son Arune in another operation. Nonetheless, Song owes Swann a debt and the two begin the difficult process of working together. Swann’s authorised to offer Song a fortune in gold that was also on the ship, as well as a particular golden Buddha that was stolen from a temple. The money of course is alluring but for Song, the chance at redemption by returning the Buddha to the temple is even more irresistible. And as he reflects on the chance to die a respected citizen, we can see a more human side to him. We also see it in the relationship between Song and his mistress Sakura. Tuk-Tuk Song is a complicated person, and those ‘human’ moments make him more appealing as a character.
Angela Savage’s short story The Teardrop Tattoos tells the story of a woman who’s recently been released from prison for murder. In her dress, attitude and opinions, she’s not exactly a nice person. And she has committed murder. And yet we see a very human side of her too. Her only companion is her pit bull Sully, to whom she is devoted. When there’s a complaint made against her for having a restricted-breed pet, she is forced to give Sully up, and her reaction to that news makes her very human. So does what the reader learns about the reason she was in prison in the first place.
And then there’s Annie Hauxwell’s In Her Blood. London investigator Catherine Berlin has been gathering information on an illegal moneylending racket run by Archie Doyle. The informant who’s been helping bring Doyle down goes by the name of Juliet Bravo, but Berlin doesn’t know much about her. Then Berlin’s informant is murdered and her body found in Limehouse Basin. Berlin feels responsible for ‘Juliet’s’ death, as she put the woman at risk. So she wants to find out who’s responsible. Then disaster strikes. First, Berlin is suspended from her job for not following protocol in the case. There’s more too. Berlin is a heroin addict who’s supplied by Dr. George Lazenby under the registered addicts’ program. When she goes for her regular appointment early one evening, she finds Lazenby murdered and herself a possible suspect. She also realises that her supply of heroin is going to be cut off unless she finds a new doctor quickly. Berlin is sure these two events are probably related, so she keeps on trying to find out the truth. One of the keys to this case is Archie Doyle. He’s dangerous, corrupt and ruthless and there are several good reasons people fear him and stay out of his way. But we see a very human side to him when he learns who the dead woman really was. Doyle’s reaction gives readers a glimpse of another side of his character. The discovery of ‘Juliet Bravo’s’ identity adds an interesting plot twist too.
It can add to a plot to see those flashes of humanity in otherwise unpleasant and sometimes very dangerous characters. The more sides we see of characters, the more ‘real’ they come to be. I’ve only given a few examples here. So feel free to fill in the gaps I’ve left.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Carpenters’ Two Sides.