I think most of us try, most of the time, to get along with other people. But if you’ve ever been subjected to really shoddy customer service, gotten the ‘one (or two) finger wave’ from a complete stranger for no reason, or been ambushed by multiple telemarketing calls, then you probably have those days where you wonder why you bother. Those are the times when we can identify with people who are misanthropic. Now, I’m not saying it’s a good thing to dislike other people, but sometimes that attitude is at least understandable.
Misanthropic characters can add to a novel too. As I say, we’ve all had those negative experiences, so we can identify with at least a little of the misanthrope’s bitterness about other humans. And misanthropic characters sometimes have a certain dry, sarcastic sense of humour that can be appealing. Creating that kind of character can be tricky though. Misanthropes aren’t generally very pleasant people. If they don’t have any redeeming qualities it’s hard to get readers to care what happens to them. But well-drawn misanthropes can also be really interesting characters.
In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) we meet Luther Crackenthorpe, a misanthropic patriarch who lives with his daughter Emma at Rutherford Hall. Crackenthorpe doesn’t care much for other people; in fact, he’s fairly bitter. When his sons Harry, Alfred and Cedric gather at the family home for Christmas, we can see that he even has contempt for his own children. The Crackenthorpe family gets drawn into a case of murder when Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a woman being strangled on a train. She tries to raise the alarm but no-one believes her because there is no dead body on the train and no-one has reported a missing person who matches the woman’s description. Miss Marple believes her friend though and deduces that the body must have been thrown from the train and ended up on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. She arranges matters so that her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow is hired as the Crackenthorpe’s housekeeper, her hope being that Lucy will do some sleuthing. Lucy does indeed discover the body and soon the police are involved. Then there’s a case of poisoning. And another murder. Luther Crackenthorpe wants as little to do with the investigation as possible and it’s interesting to see his response as the investigation continues. He isn’t a nice character (although he’s not evil) but he is interesting and sometimes darkly humourous.
Marek Krawjewski’s Police Counsellor Eberhard Mock is another misanthropic character whom we first encounter in Death in Breslau, which takes place beginning in 1933. In that novel, he’s assigned to investigate the murders of Marietta von der Malten and her governess Françoise Debroux, whose brutally murdered bodies are found in a railroad car. Around the bodies the police discover scorpions, and a cryptic message is written in blood on the wall of the car. Mock follows the clues, which seem to lead to Isador Friedländer, an importer and an expert in arachnids such as scorpions. When he is arrested for the crime, the Nazi authorities who are gaining increasing power are only too happy about it since Friedländer is Jewish. Mock is promoted and the matter seems settled. Then, Friedländer dies, officially a suicide. Mock receives a cryptic note and a clue that suggests to him that Friedländer’s death was not what it seems and that the killer is still free. Now, Mock has to navigate a very dangerous political landscape as he searches for the murderer. Mock is not a nice person. He’s sarcastic, has a sense of humour most people would find offensive, and he doesn’t care much for other people. But he is a good detective and a determined one. Oh, and he plays chess very well.
Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series begins with Quilt or Innocence. In that novel, Beatrice Coleman has recently retired from her work in an Atlanta art gallery and moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. There she’s hoping for a relaxing retirement. Shortly after her move, Beatrice discovers that social life in Dappled Hills revolves around quilting guilds, so to be polite she joins the Village Quilters. When one of its members is murdered, Beatrice starts asking questions. She soon begins to receive threatening notes and at one point, she’s even attacked. In the end though, she finds out who the killer is. In a sub-plot of this novel, Beatrice tries to learn quilting and at first, she’s not very good at it. In fact, she’s so bad at it that she decides to give up. But one of the other quilters Miss Sissy shows her how to do the job. And that’s not at all like Miss Sissy. She is rude, outspoken and contemptuous of most people. In fact in one scene, she nearly runs Beatrice down with her car (accidentally) and unleashes her fury at Beatrice for getting in the way. But she is interesting, and she is a master quilter – truly gifted at it.
In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) we are introduced to Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. He is just returning to work after recovering from a line-of-fire injury in which one of his colleagues was murdered and another left with paralysis. Even before the incident Mørck was not exactly brimming with the proverbial milk of human kindness. But this incident has left him more bitter than ever. In fact, he makes himself so difficult to work with that he is ‘promoted’ to a newly-formed department, Department Q. That department has been hastily formed to investigate cases ‘of special interest.’ Mørck is soon granted a cleaner/assistant Hafez al-Assad, who calls Mørck’s attention to the five-year-old case of Merete Lynggaard, a promising politician who went missing. In spite of himself Mørck gets interested and takes another look at the case. He and Assad find clues that Lynggaard may still be alive, and they begin a search for her. Mørck is not at all friendly. He’s brusque, rude and sarcastic. He really doesn’t enjoy the company of other people at all and has contempt for most of his colleagues. But he is interesting and he is a skilled detective. What’s more, he has the kind of wit that makes it hard to keep from snickering, even if you do think he’s being rude.
And then there’s Thea Farmer, a retired school principal who tries to make a life for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea has had her dream home built and is looking forward to sharing it with her dog Teddy, but some poor financial decision-making has left her with no option but to sell her perfect home. She moves into the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel,’ and wants nothing more than to be left alone. To Thea’s chagrin, ‘her’ house is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, who soon move in. Thea doesn’t like people very much to begin with, and the thought of these people (she calls them ‘the invaders’) moving in just makes things worse. Then of all things, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim joins the family. What’s worse, Kim tries to make friends with Thea, not really seeming to understand that Thea wants nothing to do with her. Little by grudging little though, Thea gets to know Kim a bit. She even learns to like her in her own way, and sees promise in her writing. That’s part of why she gets very upset when she begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Thea doesn’t have the kind of direct evidence that the police need to act on the matter, so she decides to take action herself. Thea is prickly, she can be self-righteous and she has her moments of outright rudeness. As the story evolves, we also learn that she may have some dark secrets in her past. But she is an interesting character. She is intelligent, independent and takes her own life decisions. She may be sarcastic and it’s obvious she doesn’t think much of people, but her wit is sometimes quite funny.
It’s not easy to create misanthropes because there’s a big risk of making them so objectionable that the reader is pulled out of the story. But if they’re drawn well, they can also be interesting, even funny, and can add leaven to a story. Which are your favourite misanthropes? If you’re a writer, do you like creating people like that?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thedor Seuss Geisel (yes, he wrote the lyrics) and Albert Hague’s You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.