I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

Outside the BoxOne of the things that can make a fictional sleuth or protagonist interesting and memorable is an unusual way of thinking. I’m not talking here about simple creativity of thinking although of course that can be an appealing trait. I’m really talking about a mindset that sees the world in a different way. Like anything else in a crime fiction novel, an unusual way of thinking can be overdone and so pull the reader out of the story. When that happens the sleuth is less believable. But when it’s done well, having a sleuth or other protagonist who looks at the world in a very unusual way can add richness to a story and can make for a very memorable character.

For instance, Arthur Upfield’s Queensland police inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is half Aborigine/half White. His way of looking at the world and his cases is unusual in part because of his cultural background. On the one hand, Bony is well aware of the European way of looking at life. He is a police detective, so he knows police procedure and he understands that way of thinking. At the same time, he is well versed in ‘the book of the bush.’ He thinks in terms of what the signs of the bush and nature tell him, and often gets very useful information from what he sees in nature when he investigates.  For instance, in The Bone is Pointed, Bony investigates the five-month old disappearance of Jeff Anderson, who was working Karwir Station, a ranch near Green Swamp Well, when he disappeared. One morning, Anderson went out to ride the fences on the ranch; only his horse returned. At first, everyone thought the horse (who was known for being difficult) threw him, but there is no sign of his body. No-one misses Anderson very much as he’s both sadistic and mean-tempered. But Sergeant Blake, who investigated the disappearance, now believes that Anderson either was murdered or deliberately went into hiding. Bony is assigned to investigate the man’s disappearance and begins to look into the case. He uses a very unusual but effective combination of his knowledge of the bush and the people who live there and his knowledge of police procedure and working with European-Australians to find out what really happened to Jeff Anderson.

Peter Høeg’s Smilla Jaspersen also has a very unusual way of thinking about the world. She is half-Inuit/half-White and was brought up on Greenland. So by the standards of most people in Copenhagen where she now lives, she doesn’t look at the world in the usual way. She is also a scientist who has learned to think about the world like a scientist does. And in Smilla’s Sense of Snow (AKA Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow), she uses her unusual way of thinking to solve the mystery of the death of Isaiah Christiansen. Isaiah is a young boy, also a Greenlander by birth, who lives in the same building where Jaspersen does. When he dies after a fall from the snow-covered roof of the building, everyone puts it down to a tragic accident. But Jaspersen thinks otherwise. First, Isaiah was extremely at home in the snow and wouldn’t have made the kinds of mistakes that can end up in a tragic fall. What’s more, certain aspects of the snow and the marks in it suggest to Jespersen that the boy’s death was more than just a fall. So she begins to investigate. The answers lead Jaspersen back to Greenland and an excavation there where Isaiah’s father died. Throughout this novel, we see Jaspersen’s unusual way of thinking, at the same time both scientific and informed by her cultural background. She understands snow, ice and glaciers in a very traditional, culturally-contextual and deep way; she has a real feeling for them. At the same time she understands them from a scientific point of view and those two ways of thinking give her a very unusual perspective. They also point her in the right direction in solving this mystery.

We see a very unusual way of thinking in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher Boone is a fifteen-year-old boy with autism. He’s high-enough functioning to communicate and to do quite a lot for himself. But he doesn’t think like ‘the rest of us’ do. When he discovers that his neighbour’s dog has been killed, he decides to be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and find out who was responsible. The novel is written from Christopher’s point of view and that gives us a glimpse into how a person with his form and level of autism might see the world. It’s an interesting perspective and although Christopher is not skilled socially, we see that he is highly accurate at remembering details. His unique skills are part of what leads him to the answers he’s looking for – and to a truth about himself that he never knew.

There’s also the unique perspective of Dr. Jennifer White, whom we meet in Alice LaPlante’s Turn of Mind. White is a skilled Chicago orthopaedic surgeon who specialises in hand reconstruction. She has also been diagnosed with dementia. As the novel begins, White is still able to function fairly well although she has had to retire from active work. Her daughter Fiona and son Mark have arranged for her to have a live-in caregiver Magdalena. One night, White’s neighbour Amanda O’Toole is murdered and Detective Luton is assigned to the case. Forensic tests show that O’Toole was mutilated in a way that points to a murderer with highly developed medical skill, so Luton begins to wonder whether White might be guilty. But the evidence isn’t completely convincing, so Luton isn’t sure White is the murderer. White’s advancing dementia means she has progressively fewer lucid times and even if she did think the way ‘the rest of us do,’ Luton knows she wouldn’t be likely to admit to the murder if she is guilty. So Luton has to use all of her abilities to get to the truth about Amanda O’Toole’s murder. It turns out that the O’Toole and White families have a long history together and that this murder has everything to do with their pasts. Since this novel is told from Jennifer White’s perspective, we get to see the case unfold through the eyes of someone who thinks in a very unusual way.

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost introduces us to ten-year-old Kate Meaney, who has a unique way of looking at the world. As the novel begins, Kate dreams of being a detective, and has already started her own detective agency Falcon Investigations. Her partner is Mickey the Monkey, a stuffed monkey who travels everywhere in Kate’s backpack. Kate’s favourite occupation is looking for suspicious characters and activity and there are few better places to do that than the newly-opened Green Oaks Shopping Center. Kate doesn’t have a lot of friends, and she doesn’t think the way other people do, but that doesn’t bother her. She’s perfectly content to live the way she’s living. But her grandmother Ivy, who is her caregiver, thinks Kate would be better served by going away to school. So she arranges for Kate to sit the entrance exams at the exclusive Redspoon School. Kate is finally persuaded to go when her friend twenty-two-year-old Adrian Palmer agrees to go with her to the school. The two board the bus together but Kate never returns. No trace of her is found, and everyone blames Palmer for her disappearance. In fact, his life is made so difficult that he leaves town. Twenty years later his sister Lisa is the assistant manager at Your Music, a store in Green Oaks. Her job is to put it mildly uninspiring and she’s in a dead-end relationship. But life changes for her when she meets Kurt, a security guard at the mall. Kurt’s been seeing strange things on his security cameras: a vision of a young girl with backpack that has a monkey sticking out of it. Lisa is reminded of Kate, whom she met a few times, and each in a different way, Lisa and Kurt explore the past as we learn what really happened to Kate. Throughout this novel we see that Kate thinks in a way that’s unlike just about anyone else. That aspect of her personality makes her perhaps the most alive person in the novel, even twenty years after she’s disappeared.

More recently, Belinda Bauer’s Rubbernecker introduces us to Patrick Fort, a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. Fort’s father was struck by a car and killed when Fort was young and it’s partly for that reason that Fort is fascinated by what makes people die. He enrols at university in Cardiff to study anatomy mostly because of his fascination with the causes of death. Part of this novel is told from Fort’s perspective as he and his peers study a cadaver. Patrick notices some things about the cadaver that don’t tally with the official reports and that makes him curious about this death. Bit by bit we learn through Patrick’s very unusual way of looking at the world what happened to the dead man. Another thread of this story which is later tied in with Patrick’s experience is told from the perspective of Sam Galen, who’s in a coma in a neurological unit but hasn’t lost his ability to think. As he slowly re-unites with the world, we learn what happened to him and what life is like in that unit.  We get another perspective on the same unit from Tracy Evans, who is a nurse there. I confess I haven’t yet read this novel, but it was such a good example of a protagonist (in this case Patrick Fort) with a unique way of looking at the world that I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

Sarah Ward at Crimepieces has done a terrific review of Rubbernecker. Her review is what got me thinking about protagonists who don’t think like ‘the rest of the world’ so thanks, Sarah, for the inspiration. Folks, Sarah’s excellent blog is well worth a spot on your blog roll if you’re not already following it.

Characters with unique ways of thinking have to be drawn deftly or the story risks contrivance and melodrama, to say nothing of the risks to believability. But when such a character is done well, having an unusual way of looking at the world can add depth to a novel and set it apart from others.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Avril Lavigne’s Anything but Ordinary.


Filed under Alice LaPlante, Arthur Upfield, Belinda Bauer, Catherine O'Flynn, Mark Haddon, Peter Høeg

16 responses to “I’d Rather be Anything but Ordinary Please*

  1. Margot – thanks ever so much for the kind words about my blog. And as ever a fascinating post by you. I had forgotten all about ‘The Curious Incident…’ but there are some parallels between ‘Rubbernecker’ and the Mark Haddon book.

    I love Fred Vargas and her detective Adamsberg has a very unusual way of looking at the world. I’m reading her latest book ‘The Ghost Riders of Ordebec’ at the moment and I’m struck by how differently he sees the world from the rest of us. He makes connections and observations that seem obtuse but illuminate the whole investigation. Vargas really is one of my favourite writers.

    • Sarah – Oh, it’s my pleasure to mention your blog – and thanks for your own kind words. And about Vargas? I couldn’t agree more. Adamsberg has a unique way of looking at the world and so do many of his team-mates. And I’m especially glad you mentioned Vargas because it’s a good reminder to put one of her Adamsberg novels in the spotlight.
      I’m more keen now than ever to really read Rubbernecker since you say there are some parallels between Patrick Fort and Christopher Boone. I must move that to the top of my TBR.

  2. Must admit, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is probably the standout example for me (I haven’t read RUBBERNECKER though, thanks for the great link) – there is in many of these examples a sort of anthropological fascination is trying to understand a different way of thinking which can be tough on the reader and I do really admire Haddon’s success in this regard. I suppose you could argue that work set in the distant past can exert a similar kind of pull in describing events which we can recognise but barely understand. Fascinating Margot, thanks.

    • Sergio – Thank you – and you’re right that when it’s not done deftly, understanding a different way of thinking can be challenging. After all, the reader is asked to suspend her or his own way of thinking to ‘get into the mind’ of another kind of person. But as you say, Haddon does this extremely well. And I do hope you’ll get the chance to read Rubberneck. I know it’s at the top of my TBR and I like other work of Bauer’s that I’ve read.
      As to work that takes place in the distant past, that’s a really interesting way of looking at this issue of protagonists who think in completely different ways. I’ve read a few novels like that and I can certainly see your point. Thanks for adding that dimension.

  3. Great topic for a post, Margot, and I’m intrigued by some of the descriptions. As you know, I’m a fan of Upfield and his mysteries featuring Bony. “The Bone Is Pointed” is indeed one of the best, and it really brings out the conflict between the two sides of Bony’s nature – a conflict which puts him in grave danger in that book. Thanks for pointing it out!

    • Les – Thanks for the kind words. Bony really is an interesting character and it just helps matters greatly that Upfield also tells good stories. The Bone is Pointed is believed to be his finest but even if one doesn’t agree with that, it really does show as you say the different sides of Bony’s unique way of looking at the world.

  4. I think that’s what makes reading so interesting. We can see the world not only through writer’s eyes but the resulting research into our character’s backgrounds, thoughts, and beliefs. Great post.

    • Clarissa – Thank you. And I agree with you too that it’s so fascinating to see what the world is like from a completely different perspective. And I hadn’t even thought about the research aspect, but you’re right about it. Creating characters like that helps the writer stretch, too.

  5. Margot: Armin Wiebe, in Murder in Gutenthal, creates Neil Bergen as his sleuth. Bergen lives on a farm with his mother near Gutenthal in the southern Manitoba heartland of Mennonite Germans. His strong Mennonite faith informs all his actions.

    I just finished To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. In Scout Finch, who ages from 6 to 9 during the book, there is a voice unique in my experience. I plan to post a review of the book next week.

    • Bill – You’ve given two really interesting example of sleuths with unique ways of looking at the world. A lot of people don’t think of To Kill a Mockingbird as crime fiction but rather, as literature. It’s both though, really, and I look forward to your review of it.
      I grew up not far from a Mennonite community in Pennsylvania, so I know what you mean about the way that faith informs the way people live and think. Thanks for mentioning Murder in Gutenthal; it sounds interesting.

  6. In relation to your fascinating post, Ms. Kinberg, I have always wondered how much of a writer there is in a lead character. I’d assume that the descriptions and habits of protagonists are autobiographical, a sort of mirror-image of the writer, reflecting his or her foibles, eccentricities, dreams, aspirations, life’s experiences… The “cultural background” of a writer, I think, reflects in his or her characters in a big way.

    • Prashant – I think that the author’s personality is reflected in what she or he writes. It’s not always reflected in the main character, but it is woven through the story. And since we are all different, you could certainly say that authors have unique ways of looking at the world. You really raise an interesting point here.

  7. Pulling it all off is the tough part. Great examples here of authors who did!

  8. kathy d.

    I’ve read Smilla’s Sense of Snow and What Was Lost. This post reminds me to read Turn of Mind, which I’ve had on my TBR list for quite awhile. Perhaps I should read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. I think Rubbernecker is not my cup of tea, not the coma part.
    I agree on loving Fred Vargas’ books and whatever point of view is presented by Commissaire Adamsberg. There have been interesting blog discussions about Adamsberg’s point of view in An Uncertain Place, whether or not he’s espousing unscientific opinions about his investigation and its discoveries. Or posing provocative questions to the reader?

    • Kathy – Adamsberg is definitely an interesting character. His viewpoints certainly aren’t conventional at all, but that’s part of what I like about him. He really does see the world differently. So does Smilla Jaspersen. And I am very glad I read Turn of Mind. It’s not an easy book to read at all, but what a fascinating perspective, and it raises the interesting question of how you interview/interact with someone with dementia.

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