In general, crime fiction fans want their sleuths to be believable. Otherwise it’s very difficult to ‘buy’ a storyline or the protagonist and that of course is practically guaranteed to pull a reader out of a novel. But it can also be interesting if a sleuth is just a little enigmatic, or has at least some air of mystery. It’s hard to draw a character like that without sacrificing credibility and humanity. But a touch of mystery can make a sleuth a very interesting character and keep readers wanting to know more.
One of the classic examples of this kind of character is GK Chesterton’s Father Paul Brown. On the one hand, there are certainly things that make him a very real, credible character. He eats, he drinks and he sleeps as we all do. In many ways, he is a completely real person. On the other hand, there is something enigmatic about him. We don’t really know much about his background, and he has a way that’s hard to put in words of finding out the truth about cases. He certainly pays attention to facts and evidence. But he understands people at a different sort of level.
One of Agatha Christie’s recurring characters is Mr. Harley Quin. We don’t really know where he comes from or much about his background. His usual explanation for being in a given place at a given time is that he is ‘just passing through.’ There’s a real air of mystery about him, but at the same time, he is real enough. He eats, he drinks, he talks as other people do and so on. In Christie’s short story The Harlequin Tea Set for instance, he just happens to be passing by a village where Mr. Satterthwaite (another Christie ‘regular’) has stopped for tea. Satterthwaite is on his way to visit an old friend and when he encounters Quin, he tells him about the family. It turns out that Quin’s input is very useful when Satterthwaite’s friend suddenly dies.
Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg has a bit of mystery about him too. In some ways he’s quite down-to-earth. He’s originally from the Pyrenees, and as the series goes on, we learn a bit about his background, which is real enough. He eats, drinks, sleeps, and so on. But in some ways, there is a little something different about him. He doesn’t solve cases in exactly the way other police officers do. It’s not that he ignores evidence (which he doesn’t), but he gets a certain sense from people that guides him as much as anything else does. As we learn in The Chalk Circle Man, he sometimes wishes he didn’t think that way, but as he puts it:
‘What I’m telling you about is something that I can’t help. In fact, it gives me enormous trouble in my life. If only I could be wrong about someone once in a while, about whether he was an upright citizen or not, or sad, or intelligent, or untruthful, or troubled, or indifferent, or dangerous, or timid…’
Over time, Adamsberg’s colleagues get used to his ability to sense things about people. They see that although he doesn’t go about cases in the way they do (and some of them are quite pointed about that), he gets to the truth.
That’s also the case with Anne Zouroudi’s Hermes Diaktoros. In many ways, he’s quite a real person. He smokes, eats, drinks, has likes and dislikes, and those things make him credible. But at the same time, he’s a little mysterious too. We don’t really know much about where he comes from or his background. We’re not even really sure how he gets involved in cases. He generally says he ‘comes from Athens’ to investigate, but he isn’t specific about whom he works for or why he takes an interest in a given case. Here’s what he says about it in The Messenger of Athens:
‘As for who I am, I’ve made no claims. So choose for yourself. Perhaps I am a mere philanthropist. Or maybe I am a man of means who simply enjoys meddling in the lives of the less fortunate. Perhaps the Police Authority employs me to combat corruption in our remote police forces. Maybe I am all those things. Or none. Maybe I was sent here by a higher authority still.’
That said, though, Diaktoros is a very real person who solves cases by gathering information, talking to witnesses and so on. He doesn’t solve cases magically.
Neither does Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. On the one hand, she is quite real. We know her history (she’s the daughter of costermonger Frankie Dobbs) and we know how she comes to open her own detective agency. Like everyone else she goes about her daily life and she’s very much a real person. And yet there is something about her that is a little mysterious. That’s also true of her mentor Maurice Blanche. Blanche is a psychologist and doctor, but he’s got wide-ranging interests, and he seems to have a real intuition about people. You couldn’t call it being psychic, and (in my opinion anyway) that makes his intuition all the more interesting. We don’t know very much about his personal background or life either. He’s taught Maisie a lot of what he knows about ‘reading’ people, about using one’s intuition and about sensing things. And she has learned well. That aspect of her makes her just enigmatic enough to be interesting without making her hard to ‘buy’ as a character.
Sleuths who have that certain air of mystery about them can add a lot to a series, especially as we get to know them bit by bit. That bit of mystery can make the reader all the more interested in the sleuth. At the same time, it has to be balanced with credibility. Sleuths one can’t imagine actually existing can pull the reader out of the story. What do you think? Do you like your sleuths to be a little enigmatic, or do you prefer them to be completely straightforward?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s La Do Da.