Crime fiction confronts us with our own prejudices. And one of those prejudices has to do with what we consider attractive. Of course people’s definitions of what’s attractive vary, and each culture has its own view of what ‘counts’ as ‘beautiful.’ But just about everyone is drawn to the physically appealing rather than to people who are considered unattractive. That’s why it can be very refreshing when a major character (in crime fiction, that’s usually the sleuth) is not what people think of as physically attractive. That takes writing skill.
Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley, for instance, is hardly what one would call beautiful. In The Mystery of Butcher’s Shop, she is described as
‘A small, shriveled, bird-like woman who might have been thirty-five and who might have been ninety, clad in a blue and sulphur jumper like the plumage of a macaw…’
Her clothes are notoriously unattractive and she’s sometimes described as having saurian features or a reptilian smile. She is not what most people would find physically appealing, but she is a brilliant detective. She’s a psychoanalyst who has a thorough understanding of motivation and personality. And in this novel, that helps her to find out who murdered local squire Rupert Sedleigh and how his body ended up in a local butcher shop. Interestingly enough, Mrs. Bradley was portrayed by the emphatically not saurian Diana Rigg in a television series and it’s very interesting to see that Mrs. Bradley’s (lack of) taste in clothes and her unattractive appearance were given an overhaul for that series.
Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin doesn’t fare too badly as far as appearance goes but his boss Nero Wolfe could hardly trade on his looks. Wolfe fans will know that he weighs a seventh of a ton. That’s heavy by just about anyone’s standards. Archie later says that Wolfe weighs
‘…between 310 and 390…’
And although Wolfe isn’t depicted as hideous-looking, he doesn’t win clients over with his handsomeness. Still, when Wolfe is on the case, it’s easy to forget (even when Goodwin mentions it) that he’s much heavier than most people consider attractive. In Fer de Lance, for instance, he and Goodwin solve the unusual murder of Peter Barstow, president of Holland University. They first learn of this case when Maria Maffei visits Wolfe and asks for him to help find her brother Carlo, who has disappeared. When Carlo Maffei is found dead, it comes out that he had designed the special golf club that was used to kill Barstow. So now Goodwin and Wolfe have to find out who paid Maffei to create this design and killed him before he could reveal what he knew. In this novel and in other novels in this series, clients don’t come to Wolfe because of his appearance; they come to him because he’s very good it what he does. Wolfe may not be physically attractive but we really do forget that when he’s on the case.
Most people probably wouldn’t call Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope ‘a looker.’ She’s somewhat overweight, has eczema, and although she keeps clean, she doesn’t exactly take a lot of pains with her appearance. Stanhope is aware of the fact that she’s not conventionally beautiful, and sometimes that makes her self-conscious, as in Silent Voices. That novel begins with Stanhope going for a swim at the local gym/spa. She specifically chooses early morning for her doctor-prescribed workout because she’d rather not be there at the same time as the club’s usual habitués, young women who are tanned, thin and have beautiful faces. During this trip Stanhope makes a horrifying discovery. When she goes to the steam room after her swim, she finds the body of social worker Jenny Lister. Once she’s on this case, it’s easy to forget that Stanhope is not what you’d think of as ‘pretty’ at all. Instead, she’s intuitive, thoughtful, determined and a very good detective.
Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel isn’t exactly magazine-cover material either, physically speaking. In A Pinch of Snuff, for instance, Hill says that Dalziel’s face is
‘…as heavy and ugly as a slag heap.’
What’s more, Dalziel’s overweight and makes no effort to behave in what most people would call a socially acceptable way. But he is a sound human being with real intuition. What’s more, he’s loyal, ethical and a very good detective. Although he’s often called, ‘the Fat Man,’ his appearance really doesn’t matter in terms of his ability to solve cases. In this novel for instance, he and Inspector Pascoe investigate the Calliope Kinema Club, which has a reputation for showing extreme and sometime violent pornography. It’s all legal though, or it least it seems so until Pascoe’s dentist suspects that one of the actresses has been actually hurt or worse. When Pascoe looks into it though, the actress seems to be fine. Still, Pascoe isn’t quite satisfied. Then the club’s owner Gilbert Haggard is murdered, and the club is wrecked. Now Dalziel and Pascoe have to find out what was really going on there that would lead to murder.
And then there’s Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes. He’s a standup comic who survived a terrible car accident that claimed the life of his fiancée Lauren Dempsey. In Killer Routine, he’s just getting back into the ‘standup life’ as co-owner of The Last Laff, a Northern Virginia comedy club. Then, Lauren’s sister Heather disappears one night just before she’s supposed to go onstage at the club. Hayes is worried about Heather so he starts asking questions and before he knows it, he’s up against Heather’s difficult parents, dangerous ex-boyfriend and several other people in her life who don’t seem to want her to be found. Hayes has a scarred face and a withered left hand because of the accident, so most people who meet him wouldn’t exactly call him gorgeous. Hayes knows this and it sometimes makes him self-conscious. But it doesn’t take away from his ability to find out what happened to Heather Dempsey. And as the story goes on, it’s easy to forget that Hayes isn’t conventionally good-looking.
All too often, media images tell us what we’re supposed to find attractive and what physical qualities we’re supposed to admire. And all too often, that means the marginalisation of those who don’t fit those images. I’m glad that crime fiction doesn’t fall into that trap and I respect authors who have the skill to create strong and sympathetic characters who aren’t conventionally attractive.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Janis Ian’s At Seventeen.