How You Gonna See Me Now*

ViewsoftheSleuthThere are several ways in which authors can help readers get to know their sleuths’ personalities. One of them is by manipulating point of view. Some crime novels are narrated by someone who isn’t the sleuth. That strategy allows for a really interesting perspective on the sleuth. We see the sleuth through another pair of eyes and that can be quite revealing, depending on who the narrator is. Other crime novels are told from the sleuth’s point of view, either in the first or the third person. This choice gives the reader real insight into the sleuth’s personality and way of thinking.

Both ways of telling a story have their advantages and disadvantages. And for the crime writer, both ways allow for the kind of misdirection, unreliable narration and so on that can make for a thoroughly engaging mystery. Let me just give a very few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

One of the best known examples of narrators other than the sleuth comes from Arthur Conan Doyle. His stories are by and large told from the point of view of Dr. Watson, whom Sherlock Holmes refers to as ‘my biographer.’ That choice allowed Conan Doyle to easily share an ‘outsider’s’ impression of Holmes’ physical appearance, as when Watson first meets Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. It also allowed Conan Doyle to keep the reader guessing, since Holmes often doesn’t reveal his deductions until nearly the end of the story. Conan created an interesting narrator in Watson, too. Watson is an intelligent and educated man and that’s the way he thinks. So in some ways his perceptions of the cases he and Holmes investigate are quite accurate. So are his perceptions of Holmes, whose faults he details honestly. But at the same time, he doesn’t deduce in the same way that Holmes does, so the choice of Watson as narrator allows for misdirection.

Interestingly enough, we see a very similar pattern in stories that feature Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Some stories are told from the point of view of Poirot’s friend Captain Arthur Hastings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told from the point of view of a village physician Dr. James Shepphard. And Murder in Mesopotamia is told from the point of view of a professional nurse Amy Leatheran. In those cases, we see Poirot from the outside.  Although we are often privy to the same information Poirot gets, we don’t really see the cases from his point of view until the end. This strategy allowed Christie to do a masterful job of misdirection. Hastings, for instance, is reasonably intelligent. He thinks the way a lot of us might. In fact, as Poirot puts it in Lord Edgware Dies,

 

‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’

 

Using other perspectives also allowed Christie to give readers a more or less candid look at her sleuth. After all, we’re none of us truly objective about ourselves, and Poirot is no different when it comes to that.  We see his brilliance as a detective, but we also see the eccentric, sometimes very unusual way in which he goes about solving cases. And we see his faults and flaws.

Rex Stout made the same choice – an ‘outside’ narrator – for his Nero Wolfe stories. Fans will know that these stories are told by Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin. Technically speaking, Goodwin is Wolfe’s employee. But although he won’t really admit it, Wolfe needs Goodwin as much as Goodwin depends on Wolfe. And that’s what makes Goodwin’s perspective on Wolfe so interesting. He is absolutely candid about his boss’ many quirks and faults. Through Goodwin’s eyes we see that as brilliant as Wolfe is (and he is!) he is also very much a human being. And that honesty comes partly from Goodwin’s knowledge that he’s a fine detective in his own right. It also comes from Goodwin’s savvy, wise-cracking sort of personality. At the same time though, Goodwin does respect Wolfe’s ability as a sleuth. And in stories such as Champagne For One, he depends greatly on that ability. It’s a very interesting way to show what Wolfe is like.

Of course, there are also many series and novels that are narrated from the sleuth’s point of view. Those too can give the reader real insights into the sleuth’s personality and character. And when they’re done well, they can provide plenty of misdirection and surprises. For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s PI series is narrated from the point of view of his sleuth Russell Quant. Quant is based in Saskatoon, although he does travel quite a lot in the course of his work. We learn a great deal about Quant through the way that he thinks, the choices he makes and the way he approaches cases. And as he interacts with other characters, we learn how they treat him and what they say to him; that too gives us insight into his character. That’s also one of Bidulka’s strategies for providing suspense and misdirection. Quant is human. Therefore he’s wrong sometimes. He has weaknesses, biases and immaturity as we all do. So although the reader knows what Quant knows, that certainly doesn’t mean that the reader knows everything about a case too early in the story.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels are, for the most part, told in the third person. But they are told from Bosch’s point of view. As we follow his thought patterns and see the way he treats others and vice versa, we get real insight into the kind of person he is. We know his rationales for doing things, and we how developments in his cases and in his personal life affect him. This all gives us a solid perspective on his character. Connelly also uses Bosch’s point of view to add tension and to misdirect the reader. Bosch is a good cop and a dogged one, but he’s not perfect. He’s wrong sometimes, he’s distracted sometimes, and he can’t be everywhere at once. So even though we know what Bosch knows, there’s still plenty of opportunity for surprise and suspense.

Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series is also told from the points of view of her sleuths Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. This allows Griffiths to give readers deep insight into what these characters are like. And that’s just what also provides Griffiths with tools for building suspense, for adding misdirection and other plot twists, and for creating story arcs. Galloway and Nelson are human and therefore, fallible. And even though there are two of them, meaning a broader perspective on a given case, this doesn’t mean they know everything. So there’s still plenty of opportunity for twists and turns in the series.

There are just a very few examples of the way authors show what sleuths are like. Do you have a preference when it comes to point of view? If you’re a writer, how did you choose the point of view your stories take?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alice Cooper, Bernie Taupin and Dick Wagner.

32 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elly Griffiths, Michael Connelly, Rex Stout

32 responses to “How You Gonna See Me Now*

  1. Another really interesting post. I don’t know whether I have a preference one way or another but often having the narration by someone other than the sleuth makes me feel a little more involved when trying to spot the clues – I do love the Poirot quote as I’m a big fan of Captain Hasting’s normal mind!

    • Cleo – Thanks for the kind words. I like Hastings’ normal mind, too. He contributes a lot to those stories, and I like it that Poirot knows how valuable he is. It’s interesting that being ‘on the outside’ helps you feel more connected to a story; it’s a way for the author to invite the reader to match wits. When you ‘get in the head’ of the sleuth, it can still be involving, but in that case, perhaps it’s more of a personal connection to the sleuth rather than a focus on the clues.

  2. Couldn’t agree more Margot, the POV can really a fascinating layer – equally, when Doyle has Holmes narrate two stories himself in which Watson does not appear, it really alters the feeling.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Sergio. There is a really different sense about those stories isn’t there? Among many other things Watson brings to the canon is his perspective. When it’s missing, it makes for a different sort of story.

  3. I love the slightly-unreliable-narrator voice added by a commentator or observer: it can really add to the interest and humour of a book. I hadn’t thought of (my favourites) Ruth and Harry that way before, but what a good example.

    • Moira – Thanks – I love that pair myself. Aren’t they great? And you have a very well-taken point about the way a slightly-unreliable narrator can add to a story. There’s a different perspective, a different tone and yes, sometimes humour too. And certainly the opportunity for all sorts of suspense and twists.

  4. Hadn’t really thought about it that way before, but I think I prefer the ‘outsider’ point of view too. Like Cleo I like to try to work out what’s going on and if I’m inside the sleuth’s head then either I know too much or I end up feeling the sleuth is keeping things from me unfairly! So I’d rather be with Watson than Holmes, I think…though it’s a bit different if it’s a ‘procedural’ type novel rather than a ‘mystery’…interesting!

    • FictionFan – You know, you bring up a really interesting point. What is the effect of type of novel on whether we want to see the sleuth from the inside or the outside. I think it probably does matter. Of course readers don’t want to feel cheated, which one does if the sleuth knows something and one’s ‘inside the sleuth’s head’and doesn’t know that something. And a lot of procedural novels are like that, where we know what the sleuth’s thinking. Hmmmm….that’s definitely worth, well, thinking about – thanks. I like this extra dimension.

  5. I’m liking the close third person more and more for both reading and writing. When I’m working on a new project, though, the character seems to lead the way. Some sleuths insist on first person. :D

    • Pat – Oh, those pesky characters! They always decide for themselves, don’t they? I like the third person myself for writing. And it is nice to get outside the sleuth, so to speak, to show her or his character.

  6. Madam Kinberg:

    I regret that I must take exception to your inference that my character is revealed by the observations of Captain Hastings. While an admiral man I cannot agree that he can provide a reader with an accurate depiction of myself. Surely yourself as a reflective academic would agree that only you know what is within your mind. While Hastings may provide information it is only I, Hercule Poirot, who can reveal how my little grey cells work upon a case. Those who watch detectives cannot provide the same insight into the mind that the investigator can give to a reader. Lastly, I am puzzled by your references to eccentricity, flaws and faults in myself. I have always taken pride in my manners, appearance, intellectual rigor and objectivity.

    Regards.

    Hercule Poirot

    • Dear M. Poirot:
      You are quite right that no-one but the sleuth can really give insight into how the sleuth’s mind really works. Even Hastings has admitted that he doesn’t always know the way you think. And Chief Inspector Japp has said you have a ‘tortuous mind.’ The truth, as we both know, is quite different, but that just goes to show that ‘outsiders’ really do not know how a sleuth thinks. Of course, you generally do not reveal your thinking process until late in the story, so we readers must rely upon people such as Hastings to try to make sense of what you are thinking and doing. You have even said that that’s your preference – to keep your theories and deductions to yourself until the end. Without your sharing them, we have little recourse but to rely on Hastings’ views. I wonder what the stories of your cases would be like if you told them all.

      With Best Wishes,

      Margot Kinberg

  7. Col

    I don’t think I pay too much attention to this really when reading. However the story is served up by the author, I get on with it. I suppose I only notice it if the context seems wrong.

    • Col – I think there are a lot of aspects of a story like that – aspects that we don’t notice unless something isn’t working. If a writer has chosen one or another way of letting us ‘meet’ the sleuth, and it’s working, that means it’s also seamless and not distracting from the story. And that’s a very good thing.

  8. I like both perspectives, unless it is obviously forced and therefore sounds wrong. However, on occasion you come across a book that breaks all of the rules. I am currently reading ‘I Am Pilgrim’ by Terry Hayes and although it is predominantly in first person in the sleuth/spy’s head, we also find out implausible amounts of detail, thoughts and feelings from the other characters, including the arch-villain, with occasional comments from the main character: ‘If I’d known that at the time… he was lucky, because if he had taken the wrong door…’ It’s strange omniscience and sometimes grates just a little, but if you suspend disbelief and just go with the flow, it works because the story is gripping.

    • Marina Sofia – That’s an important point. Whichever perspective an author chooses, it needs to serve the story. And it’s interesting you’d mention I am Pilgrim. There are some stories like that that seem to break all of the rules, or at least violate all of the conventions of a story. And yet, they work beautifully. The story draws the reader in and the plot and characters are well-drawn enough that the ‘rule-breaking’ really works.

  9. I wouldn’t say I have a preference either way. It depends more on the story as to who I like the POV from. When well written the all seem to work for me. Margot, now you’ll have me thinking of this each time I start a new book. :)

    • Mason – You have a good point. It really does depend doesn’t it on the sort of story it is. Sometimes ‘getting in the sleuth’s’ head works very well. Sometimes being an outside observer does. It is an interesting way of looking at stories I think.

  10. Margot – For an offbeat POV, I recall reading somewhere about a mystery from the Golden Age, or perhaps early 50s, whatever, in which the story unfolds completely through letters written by the protagonist, or maybe it was the murderer? I don’t remember the title. Does it ring a bell? If not, never mind … :-)
    As for more conventional POVs, and though I’m biased, for me no one has done first person better than Chandler and Marlowe.
    Off-topic (a little) : when I read the title, I thought the post would be about sleuths who wore glasses, and it brought to mind the hokey scene in the bookstore in The Big Sleep where Bogart dons glasses and pretends to be an effete collector.

    • Bryan – I know I’ve read a couple of short stories that are told in that form. One of them for instance is Bill Pronzini and Barry Malzberg’s Problems Solved. That one’s told from the point of view of the protagonist, and I think it’s terrific.
       
      I agree that Chandler did an outstanding job of using first person with his Marlowe character. I really don’t think the stories would’ve been the same if they’d been told in third person, from an observer’s point of view.
       
      And thanks for reminding me of that scene in The Big Sleep. I ought to do a post about specs in crime fiction sometime…

  11. Great post, Margot. I find this subject fascinating. How the author tells the story and conveys the protagonist’s character is so interesting. Also how I react to it.

    • Tracy – Thanks. I think you raise a really important point. It’s not just a question of the way the author presents the story and introduces the protagonist(s). It’s also the way readers react to it. Each of us reacts a little differently to stories, and what works brilliantly for some readers may not for others.

  12. I am with Tracy in finding the subject absolutely fascinating. The narrative voice plays such an important role in the novel. In Agatha Christie, it is not always Hastings who chronicles Poirot’s progress through the book. I remember a certain Dr. Sheppard.

    • Neeru – Yes, indeed, James Sheppard narrates The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and to real effect. You’re quite right too that the narrator’s voice can play a significant role in the way the reader views the story and the sleuth.

  13. kathy d.

    I don’t really have a preference, but if the writer tells the story from the first person point of view, it has to be realistic and well-done. The only thing I don’t like is a woman in peril story in first person if the character is being abused. I can live without that.
    Also, I’m not a fan of the untrustworthy narrator. I one is reading along merrily and suddenly, the narrator is guilty of a horrible crime, it turns me off. I want to trust the person who is telling the story, and not watch him/her then go downhill. Ugh.
    We readers are such fussy folks, really. It’s amazing writers put up with us.

    • Kathy – I think you have lots of company when it comes to wanting the narrator to be trustworthy. No-one’s perfect, so most people don’t mind it if the narrator is wrong about something, is biased, doesn’t know something and so on. But it is harder to ‘buy’ a narrator who’s untrustworthy. I’ve read a few books where it works really well, but that’s the exception. In general that’s very hard to pull off.
       
      And I know what you mean about the ‘woman in peril’ kind of novel (of which I’m not a great fan in any case). I don’t like first-person descriptions of abuse and so on. I think the writer can convey the danger without that.

  14. kathy d.

    Yes to your points. Agree.

  15. aaron

    Margot, thank you for another fascinating blog post. For what it’s worth, I infinitely prefer the third person narrator in both my reading and writing. The first person is incredibly limiting, although it is an honest reflection of the subjectivity of all characters and narratives. Of course, the first person also allows a closer identification of the reader and the character narrating the story.

    But there are also some brilliant examples of using multiple POVs in a single novel. One of the best Canadian novels of recent years is The Tiger’s Claw by Shauna Singh Baldwin, and she alternates between first-person diary entries and third-person narrative, in the same vein of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook and Dickens’ Bleak House. And, of course, Wilkie Collins used multiple first-person eyewitness accounts in his two great crime/ sensation novels (in a sense like the 18th-century epistolary novels), which inspired crime novels like My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk. So, POV doesn’t necessarily have to be a single, monolithic construct.

    As to the point about unreliable narrators, I actually like untrustworthy first person narrators. It has the potential to make the story more complex and more interesting; humans are, after all, incredibly biased, contradictory, and slippery. But still, when deciding what to read, I generally opt for the third-person novel because they allow greater scope for the story, and, in my biased opinion, are more cinematic.

    • Aaron – Thanks for the kind words. I prefer the third person too for my writing. To me it’s much more flexible and still allows for the writer to share what an individual character is thinking or feeling. As you say, first person lets the reader into a character’s mind, and that has its benefits too.
       
      You make a well-taken point too about the use of multiple POVs. That can work brilliantly and you’ve given some terrific examples of it. For that to work well, I think the story itself has to move fairly seamlessly but those authors make that happen.
       
      As for the untrustworthy narrator, there’s definitely something to be said for the way untrustworthiness can add to a character’s complexity. And especially for psychological novels, it can add some terrific twists to the plot. I think it’s harder to pull off successfully, but when it works, it can work well. But as you say, third person offers a lot of benefits for the writer.

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