No matter how content we are with ourselves, we all know that we’re works in progress. So there’s always something we can do better. Some people make New Year’s resolutions to motivate themselves, and others do different things. But in some way most of us try to do better at handling at least something in our lives. It’s not always easy though and most of us have occasional slips as we try. But that process and those slips make us human. They also make us interesting. That’s why that side of a character can add a lot to a novel. Of course that’s true of any genre, but since this is a crime-fictional blog let me show you what I mean with a quick look at crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train for instance, we meet Derek Kettering. He’s not exactly a model human being. He’s unwise and wasteful with money and he’s been cheating on his wife Ruth. Kettering justifies what he does by telling himself that Ruth isn’t exactly a perfect wife either. Everything changes though when Kettering meets Katherine Grey. She is a former paid companion whose employer has just died, leaving her a very large fortune. Katherine decides to use some of her inheritance to travel to Nice on the famous Blue Train. That’s how she gets caught up in a case of murder when Ruth Kettering, who’s on the same train, is killed. Ruth’s father Rufus Van Aldin hires Hercule Poirot to investigate the murder and Poirot begins to ask questions. Derek Kettering is the most obvious suspect. Besides his motives, he was seen on the train and can’t account for his time. Meeting Katherine and being involved in the murder investigation force Derek to re-think everything. I don’t think it’s giving away spoilers to say that he decides to change.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn is a political scientist and an academic. She is also a loving mother to Mieka, Peter, Angus and Taylor. And therein lies a personal challenge for Kilbourn. She has the same desire that any loving parent has to protect her children and to see them succeed in life. But as they get older, Kilbourn’s children do what any healthy child does: they start to make their own choices in life, some of which are not choices that Kilbourn would make. In The Wandering Souls Murders for instance, Peter’s former girlfriend Christy Sinclair comes back into the family’s life. Kilbourn has never thought that Christy was good for her son but at the same time, she doesn’t want alienate Peter. So she’s forced to walk a very thin line as she welcomes Christy back into the family circle, especially when Christy happily announces that she and Peter are back together as a couple. Then it all becomes moot when Christy dies in what seems like a tragic canoeing accident. Her death turns out to be not at all accidental and Kilbourn discovers that it’s related to a series of other killings. Although Kilbourn does slip at times, she really does try hard to let her children work out their own lives while still being available as a caring mom. And that’s not easy. Trust me.
Deon Meyer’s Martin Lemmer is a professional bodyguard whom we first meet in Blood Safari. Lemmer has a dysfunctional background and that’s contributed to a deep well of anger. He knows all too well how easy it is to let that anger overtake one; in fact, Lemmer has served time in prison for murder because of that anger. So he fights a regular battle as you might say to keep his temper under control. He faces quite a challenge when Emma le Roux hires him to accompany her from Cape Town to the Lowveld to find out the truth about her brother Jacobus’ disappearance. For years it was thought that Jacobus le Roux was killed in a battle with poachers. But Emma saw a man who looks exactly like her brother while she was watching a news story on television. So she decides to find out whether her brother might still be alive. There are several very nasty people who don’t want the truth about Jacob le Roux to come out, and some of them have quite a lot of clout. So Emma and her bodyguard face all sorts of terrible danger as they search for answers. Through it all Lemmer constantly has to guard against allowing his rage to spill over and that adds a layer of tension to this novel.
M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin has her own ongoing struggles. One of them is dealing with her ex-husband James Lacey. Through the course of the novels, we watch as she and Lacey fall in love, marry and then divorce. Not that Lacey has no redeeming qualities, but he isn’t faithful and he isn’t exactly known for his honesty. Agatha is hardly perfect herself, but she does try to make it work with Lacey. She has a great deal of feeling for him and it’s the one weak spot she constantly tries to shore up – and doesn’t. In several novels (Love, Lies and Liquor is one and so is Agatha Raisin and Kissing Christmas Goodbye), she is determined to let go of her feelings for Lacey after their divorce. In fact, she’d agree with you that she’s well rid of him. But keeping that resolution is harder than making it is…
Domingo Villar’s Leo Caldas is a police inspector in Vigo, in the Spanish province of Galicia. He is devoted to his work and makes his job a high priority. At the same time he’s resolved to spend more time with his father. The two don’t have a lot in common but they care about each other and they do respect each other. In Death on a Galician Shore for instance, Caldas investigates the death of local fisherman Justo Castelo, whose body is found washed ashore near the small town of Panxón. At first it’s thought that Castelo committed suicide, but little pieces of evidence suggest otherwise so Caldas and his assistant Rafael Estevez dig deeper into the case. It turns out to be more complicated and time-consuming than either thought it would be. In the meantime, Caldas’ Uncle Alberto has had to go into hospital and of course, Caldas would like to spend time with him as well as with his father. More than once in this novel Caldas resolves to call his father or meet him for a meal. He also resolves to visit his uncle. Sometimes he follows through on his commitment to spend more time with his father and uncle. Sometimes he doesn’t. His resolution to work harder at those relationships adds an interesting side to his character.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest knows that she has a tendency to speak her mind before really thinking things through. She has a habit of taking rash, even reckless decisions too. She herself admits that she goes too far at times. For instance, in Gunshot Road she takes on a difficult and very dangerous case when the body of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins is discovered in his shack at Green Swamp Well. Tempest doesn’t believe the official explanation that Ozolins was killed as the result of a drunken quarrel and does her own investigation. On one hand, it turns out that she is quite right about Ozolins’ murder. On the other, she goes off recklessly on her own. Her choices lead her to the truth, but she pays a very heavy price for it. Part of what makes Tempest’s character interesting is that she knows she should be more prudent and more than once she resolves to do so. But she doesn’t always succeed.
And that’s the thing about people. As I say, we’re works in progress. We resolve to do things better and we do try. At times we succeed and at times, well, we don’t. And that adds to our richness. It also adds to the depth of fictional characters.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Animals’ I’m Going to Change the World.