Many crime novels are told from the point of view of the sleuth. The sleuth may or may not be a professional (i.e. police or PI), but in either case, we see the story unfolding from that vantage point.
But there are also plenty of crime stories where the protagonist, or at least the narrator, isn’t a sleuth at all. I’m not talking here of those stories where you find out what a serial killer is thinking as the novel goes on, or where the story alternates between the sleuth’s perspective and the murderer’s. Rather, I mean stories where the protagonist or narrator is a different person entirely – sometimes even a criminal.
For instance, John D. MacDonald’s short story Homicidal Hiccup takes place in the small town of Baker City, where Johnny Howard and his gang run everything. Then, Walter Maybree moves to town and buys the local drugstore. He wants to run a clean business without having to pay protection or sell drugs to his teen customers. After a time, several other local business owners join forces with Maybree and help to guard his store. Now Howard faces a big problem. If he allows Maybree to get away with this defiance, he’ll lose respect. And that will likely mean he’ll lose his stranglehold on the crime business in the area. So he desperately wants to get rid of Maybree. He and his girlfriend Bonny Gerlacher devise a plan to do just that. She’ll go into the store posing as a high school student. Then, at just the right moment, she’ll use a drink straw to shoot poison at Maybree. But, as the narrator tells us, things don’t work out the way they plan. In this case, the narrator, ‘though never named, is apparently part of the crime network – someone who’s in on the rivalry and politics of the criminal underground.
Robert Pollock’s Loophole: Or, How to Rob a Bank gives readers an inside look at the plans for a major bank heist. Mike Daniels is a professional thief who, with his teammates, decides to pull off the robbery of a lifetime from London’s City Savings Deposit bank. The bank is well constructed and well guarded, so it’s not going to be easy. In fact, the team will need expert help. This they get from Stephen Booker, an out-of-work architect who’s become desperate for a source of income. Booker is driving a night cab when he meets Daniels for the first time, and before too long, Daniels convinces him to join forces with the thieves. The group puts together a foolproof plan, and at first everything goes smoothly. Then a sudden storm comes up unexpectedly and changes everything for the robbers. This novel is told in the third person, but not from the point of view of the police or of bank officials. Rather, it’s told from the viewpoints of Daniels and Booker. This choice allows the reader to see the intricacies of planning such a robbery. It also gives the reader a fuller and even somewhat sympathetic picture of a professional thief’s life.
In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we are introduced to retired school principal Thea Farmer. Her original plan was to have a dream home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, but poor financial decisions have meant that she’s had to give up that perfect home. She’s been forced to settle for the house next door, a house she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, she soon learns that her dream home has been bought and that new people will be moving in. They are Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and right from the beginning, Thea doesn’t like them. In fact, she calls them ‘the invaders.’ When Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim moves in with the couple, Thea is prepared to dislike her heartily as well, but slowly she finds herself developing a kind of bond with the girl. That’s especially true when she discovers that Kim is a very promising young writer. Then Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Since no actual harm has come to the child, the police aren’t inclined to do anything about it, so Thea works out her own plan for dealing wth the situation. Thea isn’t a professional sleuth; she’s really not a sleuth at all. But we see the events of the story through her eyes, and that gives an interesting perspective on Frank, Ellice and Kim, as well as a fascinating look at how Thea sees herself.
Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow Underworld trilogy (The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, How a Gunman Says Goodbye, and The Sudden Arrival of Violence) features a different kind of protagonist also. Callum MacLean is a hitman who works for Glasgow crime bosses. He looks at his profession the way most people look at theirs. It’s what he does for a living and he takes pride in doing it well. In fact, although he walks a very thin line at times, given the volatile nature of the underworld, he manages to stay alive and even succeed. His reputation is a good one. The stories are told partly from his point of view, and partly from the points of view of others involved in the underworld. While Mackay doesn’t gloss over what MacLean does, nor what the Glasgow underworld is like, he still shows these people as humans.
And then there’s Wendy James’ The Lost Girls. This novel tells the story of the 1978 death of fourteen-year-old Angela Buchanan. At first the police suspect that someone in her family may have killed her, as is so often the case. But then, not very long afterwards, another young girl Kelly McIvor is also found dead. Like Angela’s body, Kelly’s is found with a scarf around her neck and head. Now it looks as though a multiple murderer (the press dubs the killer the Sydney Strangler) is at work. Neither murder is solved, and since there are no similar murders after them, the press and therefore the public gradually lose interest. And that’s just fine by Jane Tait, Angela’s cousin. She and her brother Mick and their parents have had to live with the aftermath of Angela’s death, and for her, it’s just as well people don’t really ask her about it any more. That is, until journalist Erin Fury decides to make a documentary about the effect of murders on the family left behind. Reluctantly, and mostly because her daughter Jess wants her to, Jane decides to talk to Erin. Through her eyes, as well as those of some other family members, we learn the truth about what really happened to Angela and to Kelly. None of these people is an official investigator, and it’s hard to say that any of them is a protagonist for whom we’re supposed to cheer. That choice allows James to slowly reveal what happened and what went on behind the news stories and police reports of the day.
And that’s what makes such protagonists/narrators interesting. They can show readers what a case is like from a very different perspective. And it’s an innovative approach to telling a crime story. Which stories like this have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Temptation.