Sometimes life gets cold and sad. We see a lot of that in crime fiction because of course it so often deals with murder and loss and the sadness that goes with them. So every once in a while it’s good to lighten things up and refresh ourselves. One way authors of crime fiction do that is by including zany characters in their novels. Of course that’s a little risky. Too much zaniness and the character won’t be believable. But a little craziness now and again adds a refreshing dose of humour to a story and can add individuality to a character if it’s done well.
In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks for instance, special agent Colin Lamb goes to the town of Crowdean in search of a clue that may lead him to a major espionage ring. He’s passing by one of the houses in the development where he thinks the clue may lie when a young woman rushes out the front door screaming that there’s a dead man inside. Lamb does his best to help the young woman calm down. Then he goes into the house. He finds that she’s absolutely right; there’s an unidentified dead man in the living room. The owner of the house Millicent Pebmarsh claims not to know the man and the only identification he has with him is a fake business card. So Lamb and DI Richard Hardcastle begin door-to-door interviews with the families in the development. One of the first people they visit is Mrs. Hemming, who lives next door to Miss Pebmarsh and so could have seen what happened. Mrs. Hemming though was far too preoccupied with her seventeen cats to notice anything. She’s extremely eccentric, absent-minded and oblivious to just about anything not related to her cats. She does give Lamb and Hardcastle a clue though, and Poirot helps them use that clue.
Ngaio Marsh’s A Surfeit of Lampreys (AKA Death of a Peer) introduces us to a number of zany characters. In that novel, the Lamprey family makes a visit to New Zealand, where they meet Roberta Grey, who can’t help but be charmed by them. And the fact that they’re eccentric only adds to that appeal. Then, Roberta’s own parents die and she moves to London to live with an aunt. That’s when she meets the Lampreys again. Delighted to see her, the family virtually adopts her. Then tragedy strikes. The Lampreys are not good financial planners and are constantly on the brink of financial ruin. When Lord Charles Lamprey asks his wealthy brother Gabriel ‘Uncle G’ for financial help, the unpleasant Uncle G refuses. Shortly afterwards he’s murdered. Chief Inspector Roderick Alleyn investigates the murder and all of the Lampreys come under suspicion. Roberta doesn’t want any of them to be arrested and she does her best to see that that doesn’t happen. And that’s the thing about the way Marsh paints these characters. We don’t want them to be guilty either. They’re goofy and eccentric and that’s part of what makes them so sympathetic.
Carl Hiaasen has created a number of zany characters, and that’s part of what makes his work so appealing (well, at least to me). In Skinny Dip for instance, we are introduced to Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone, a marine biologist in name only who’s always looking for a new angle as the saying goes. He gets a job working for agribusiness executive Samual Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut, who needs Perrone to prove that his business is not a threat to the local Everglades environment. Perrone has developed a way to do just that by falsifying water samples, so the two enter into a business arrangement. Then Perrone’s wife Joey begins to suspect what her husband’s doing and threatens to reveal it. So on the pretense of taking her on a cruise to celebrate their anniversary, he pushes her overboard. The only problem is, Joey is a champion-level swimmer and survives. Then she decides to find out why her husband tried to kill her and take revenge in her own way. In the course of this novel we meet Medea, Chaz’ Perrone’s sometimes girlfriend. She’s a ‘new age’ reflexologist with some unusual beliefs and an eccentric way of dressing. And then there’s Broward County, Florida detective Karl Rolvaag, who investigates Joey’s disappearance and suspects her husband almost from the first. Rolvaag keeps pet pythons, much to the dismay of those who share his apartment building. There are other goofy characters too but what makes them most effective is that they have enough depth and personality to be realistic.
And then there’s Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig’s) Cherry Hayes. She works as a volunteer docent at Elvis Presley’s Memphis home Graceland, and is of course a Presley fanatic. In fact, she has a crash helmet with a picture of Presley on it. And part of what makes her zany is that she firmly believes that danger can come from anywhere and that it’s best to be prepared, so she wears her helmet everywhere. She wears somewhat flamboyant clothes and she’s outspoken. Her quirks and zaniness make her very appealing. But they don’t take away from her depth as a character. In Hickory Smoked Homicide for instance, Cherry’s good friend Lulu Taylor gets involved in a case of murder when Lulu’s daughter-in-law Sara is suspected of murdering local beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. Lulu is sure that Sara is innocent and begins to investigate the murder. Cherry, for all of her goofiness, is smart and observant as well as a loyal friend. So she helps in the investigation and in the end, she shows up just at the right moment to help Lulu at a critical moment.
Andrea Camilleri’s Sergeant Catarella is also goofy. He’s sometimes hilariously incompetent, especially when it comes to pronouncing people’s names. And he is so determined to do his job well, and so anxious to ‘get it right’ that he gets a lot of things wrong. Because of his eccentricities he drives his boss Inspector Salvo Montalbano to distraction. Montalbano especially hates it when Catarella disturbs him early in the morning – which always seems to happen. And yet, he’s not completely a mindlessly comical character. Catarella does his job, passes along messages, and so on. And one can’t help liking him for trying so very hard. As an aside, in my opinion (so please feel free to differ with me if you do), Angelo Russo is brilliantly cast as Catarella in the Montalbano television series. I recommend the series, folks.
Of course, sometimes the main sleuth is a little zany too. Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole is. He has a Mickey Mouse clock on the wall of his office and likes to wear Hawai’ian shirts. Even to formal meetings with clients. He is a sort of geeky character too. But that’s a big part of his appeal. He’s so goofy it’s cool. And Crais lets readers see beneath the surface of Cole’s character, so that we know he’s more than just a goofball who wears Disney-themed sweatshirts. He’s smart, resourceful and interesting. And zany.
So go ahead. Wear a silly paper hat. Burst into song in public. Why not? A little zaniness can do a lot to clear away some of life’s sadness.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jimmy Buffett’s Changes in Latitudes.