Those of Us With Ravaged Faces, Lacking in the Social Graces*

Attractiveness and UnattractivenessCrime 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.


Filed under Alan Orloff, Ann Cleeves, Gladys Mitchell, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout

38 responses to “Those of Us With Ravaged Faces, Lacking in the Social Graces*

  1. Oh, no, Dalziel is certainly no picture! And, even though Hercule Poirot is very proud of his moustache, he may not set many ladies’ hearts on fire…
    The most unconventional-looking of sleuths I have recently read about is Elise Andrioli (in Brigitte Aubert’s ‘Death from the Woods’) a blind and mute paraplegic (after a terrorist attack), who nevertheless shows the patience, fortitude and wit to discover a horrific crime and unmask the criminal.

    • Marina Sofia – You know, you have a well-taken point about Poirot. Always meticulous in his appearance, he nevertheless knows very well that he’s not a ‘handsome hunk.’ In fact, he’s surprisingly modest about his physical appeal (except for his moustache).
      Thanks for mentioning Death From the Woods. I’ve only just heard of that one recently, and it sounds interesting. It’s good to know that you enjoyed it. I’ll have to look that one up.

  2. Petra

    Margot – I share your opinions on the lack of physical attractiveness of a lot of detectives in mystery novels. In my opinion it often corresponds with a certain asexuality of the described protagonists – see Carr’s Fell and Merrivale, Taylor’s Witherall and Mayo, van Dine’s ascetic Gentleman Detective Philo Vance, Eberhart’s Sarah Kane and of course the novels with so called “spinster”-detectives. In the classic novels attractiveness is often transferred to the actors of the romantic subplot. In the modern novels the detectives may have a sexual life, but they are more “real life” persons, especially then the author allows them to get older as in Connelly’s Bosch and Block’s Scudder.

    • Petra – That’s an interesting point. We have hints in some cases (e.g. Hill’s Dalziel) of some romantic history, but certainly we don’t see a partner. As you say, many modern novels include the sleuth who has a regular partner, or at least a love life but many of the Golden Age and classic sleuths don’t. There are of course exceptions such as Sayers’ Wimsey, but you do have a well-taken point.

  3. Perhaps because of the intellectual allure of the armchair detective, as a reader and as a character, it has been possible to have truly larger than life characters in this genre to a greater degree than in other – to which all one can say is – good! It makes characters more varied and potentially more grounded in reality if they are presented, to coin a phrase, warts and all – having said that, I’m not big on grotesque characters in fiction, whether titanic heroes or Caspar Gutman-style villains as they can stray too far from reality too of course. Thanks for the food for thought Margot, as always.

    • Sergio – My view exactly! When characters are presented as real (which doesn’t always include physically attractive) we can believe them much more easily. And yes, the variety of protagonists only adds to the genre. But as you say, that same credibility that we get from having sleuths who wouldn’t be considered attractive can be sacrificed if they are, as you say grotesque. That can be a tricky balance, and I’m glad you brought that point up.

  4. When I started reading your (as always exccellent) piece, I immediately thought of Inspector Dalziel – and there’s also his Sergeant, whose name I can’t recall at this moment, who is famously ugly too. I remember reading the first Vera Stanhope book and thinking Ann Cleeves had achieved a tour de force in her first introduction of Vera… (slight spoiler!) – a rather weird baglady turns up at the funeral, and I was genuinely surprised when she turns out to be the investigating officer…

    • Moira – Thanks for the kind words. I like that scene at the funeral too in that first Stanhope novel. Such a nice touch and I admit, I was surprised. I’m glad too that you brought up Sergeant Wield. Reginald Hill did a great job of developing his character. And yes, Wield is not exactly Mr. Handsome is he?

  5. Agatha Raisin in the MC Beaton series has beady little eyes and makes a habit of being rude to people. She’s a retired PR professional. Very funny.

    • Jean – Oh, I like Agatha Raisin too. As you say, she’s not at all a ‘beauty queen’ and that makes her all the more appealing as a character. And no…she’s not exactly diplomatic is she?

  6. Skywatcher

    John Le Carre’s superspy, George Smiley, was intended as a response to the handsome secret agents such as James Bond. Smiley is small and plump with thinning hair and thick glasses. He spends a lot of money on clothes that don’t fit him, and is so shy and diffident that people tend to underestimate him. Even his private life is a disaster, with a wife who is regularly unfaithful to him. However, at his job he is unsurpassed. Since most people aren’t size zero models or handsome hunks, it is fun to see an apparently normal guy turn out to be the smartest guy in the room.

    • Skywatcher – That, to me, is one of the real appeals to me of characters who are not exactly attractive. They remind us that looks aren’t everything. And in Smiley’s case, it’s almost an advantage to be not the most handsome hunk in the room. He’s more free to go about doing what he does, if I can put it that way. I think he’s a great example of the kind of character whose worth we see when we stop looking at appearances.

  7. There are so many examples, Margot – I’m delighted you picked two of my favorites, Nero Wolfe and Mrs. Bradley. Don’t forget Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers, whom Palmer referred to as “that meddlesome old battleaxe.” And Petra noted, correctly, both of John Dickson Carr’s most popular detectives, Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, were both extremely stout – and H. M. was bald and crotchety as well. And you can go back to Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft too, who was described as “Heavily built and massive, there was a suggestion of uncouth physical inertia in the figure, but above this unwieldy frame there was perched a head so masterful in its brow, so alert in its steel-gray, deep-set eyes, so firm in its lips, and so subtle in its play of expression, that after the first glance one forgot the gross body and remembered only the dominant mind.” If you can’t have the physical attributes…go for the mind… 😉

    • Les – Oh, yes! Mycroft Holmes! He’s an interesting character for several reasons, not the least of which is his phlegmatic lifestyle and his appearance. But as you remind us, he is brilliant – a much faster thinker in his way than his brother is. That’s what I like about Fell and Merrivale too. They think brilliantly and it doesn’t matter in the least, once the story gets going, that they would never likely grace the cover of a fashion magazine. The same thing is true of Hildegard Withers (I must spotlight one of those stories sometime – thanks for mentioning her). In all of these cases, the sleuth is not exactly prepossessing physically – sometimes downright unattractive – but behind that is a really brilliant mind.

  8. I have Alan’s standup comedy series on my list to read…will I ever get caught up with my reading?

    I like characters who are unusual in appearance in some way. Sometimes older characters like Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover and Mike Befeler’s Paul Jacobsen are seen as less attractive because of their posture and sagging skin or wrinkles, but I think that adds charm (if when they’re cranky or forgetful).

    • Pat – Oh, I hope you’ll get the chance to read the Last Laff mysteries. I think they’re good stories. And you’re right about characters like Myrtle Clover and Paul Jacobsen. Part of their attraction is in the fact that they’re unusual. Perhaps they’re seen as less attractive but they are appealing sleuths and I like the wisdom they’ve acquired.

  9. Margot: I agree with Sergio and yourself that some authors veer too far moving from the beautiful to the grotesque. Very few authors are willing to have average sleuths which describes most of us. As I read your post I though of G.K. Chesterton’s sleuth, Father Brown. He uses his ordinariness to great effect.

    • Bill – I like your example of Father Brown. As you say, he is ordinary-looking and I think people find him less threatening than they would otherwise. And yes, he uses that to very good effect.

  10. None of the sleuths you name are known to me, but when you got me thinking (as you always do), I realized that I can’t think of too many detectives who ARE physically attractive. They are either non-nonsense (like Alan Banks), or described as being overweight (like John Rebus). Some cozy mysteries do have women who are attractive to men, but they are all believable- if they are thin it is because they work out, or they have a great sense of clothes- none that I can think of is an “on your face” beauty.
    Maybe writers of detective fiction don’t want to make their babies so good looking, they aren’t taken seriously?

    Interestingly too, as you mention, when adapted into TV serials or movies, the detectives suddenly become very attractive.

    • Natasha – I think you have a very interesting point. If a sleuth is too naturally attractive, that can strain credibility. And as you say, it can also mean they aren’t taken seriously. There are a few good-looking sleuths, such as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. But you’re right; in the mean, they are normal-looking people. I think that fact helps readers identify more with them actually.
      And I’ve always thought it interesting to see how characters are brought to life on film. I think it’s much harder to faithfully bring to life an ordinary-looking (or even unattractive) character than a very attractive one. That’s why I always thought that David Suchet as Poirot and Joan Hickson as Miss Marple were such good choices. They didn’t transform their characters in to young, gorgeous characters who are nothing like their creator intended.

      • Petra

        Margot – The latest wonderful example how especially Hollywood fails while transforming book characters in to “young, gorgeous characters who are nothing like their creator intended” is the movie “Reacher”, in which Tom Cruise plays the character of Jack Reacher from the novels by Lee Child. In the books you have a mountain of a man und in the movie you have a hill or a hummock. It reminds me of the movie “The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain” – only in reverse.

        • Petra – Oh, I couldn’t possibly agree with you more about the choice of Tom Cruise to play Jack Reacher. They are nothing alike physically. Part of what makes Reacher distinctive is his appearance. There was no need to change that for the film in my opinion.

  11. The hunchback Matthew Shardlake in C J Samson’s books is interesting as his deformity is a source of great grief to him, and the women he loves marries someone else. But there is also something compelling about his character, a forcefulness which must be attractive by itself.

    • Sarah – Oh, that’s a good point. What Shardlake lacks in terms of conventional attractiveness, he certainly makes up for in terms of strength of personality. And I like that about his character.

  12. A(nother) fascinating topic Margot. I think it would be easier in some ways to be an unattractive sleuth – super attractive people can be very intimidating – I can’t imagine confessing murder to Richard Gere or George Clooney (I’d be too busy swooning).

    I’ve never read any mrs Bradley mysteries but I have seen the TV show – which makes me wonder how on earth they picked Diana Rigg for the title role – she is nothing like your description!

    • Bernadette – Thank you. I think you have a really well-taken point too about the way most people would feel about ordinary-looking or unattractive sleuths. I couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable enough around Clooney or Antonio Banderas to to tell the truth about where I was at a given time as they tried to put a case together. Who can concentrate??
      And no, Diana Rigg is nothing like the Mrs. Bradley of the novels. She does have a similar compelling presence but that’s where the resemblance ends. Much as I like Diana Rigg – and I do – as an actor, I think it might have been more realistic to pick someone else. Oh, well – TV!

  13. I can definitely think of more great fictional detectives who are ordinary looking than those who are good-looking (in fact, the only good-looking detective I can think off the top of my head, is Inspector Lynley. And Barbara isn’t attractive (his side-kick). Interesting discussion and food for thought!

    • Elizabeth – Thanks! And I think you’re right. There really are many more ordinary-looking fictional sleuths than there very good-looking ones. You’re right about Lynley and there are a few others. But it’s not all that common. I think that looking ordinary actually can actually adds to a sleuth’s character. It’s easier to identify with him or her.

  14. I bet none of these would be played by unattractive people on TV or in movies though. Perhaps Nero is portrayed as overweight but no one would be homely.

    • Patti – That’s the thing about film and TV adaptations. The ones I’ve seen feature actors that aren’t nearly as homely-looking as some of the actual fictional characters. I suppose I understand that from the point of view of visual appeal. Still…

  15. Sometimes, the most unattractive characters make the most interesting. We wouldn’t put up with Nero Woolf solving mysteries from his armchair if he wasn’t that big.

    • Clarissa – Now, that’s a very interesting point. Part of a character’s uniqueness comes from her or his appearance. And I think you’re right; Stout would have been hard-pressed to reasonably explain why Nero Wolfe solves crimes the way he does if Wolfe were slim and in shape.

  16. kathy d.

    Interesting that Mrs. Bradley was brought up. I was going to say that on TV she is played by the always-charming and lovely Diana Rigg.
    I think a lot of the PBS/BBC characters are attractive, just not glamorous Hollywood movie star types. Michael Kitchen who plays Inspector Foyle is a nice-looking guy. Kenneth Brannaugh is fine as Wallender. Rufus Sewell as Aurelio Zen and Michele Riondini who plays the young Montalbano: Be still my heart! I think Sharon Small (I think) who plays Barbara Haver is fine.
    Even Maury Chavkin who played Nero Wolfe was always very well-dressed, although the yellow shirts and pajamas could go (ugh) and well-groomed and presented himself well, even at 1/7 of a ton.
    I haven’t seen it yet, but the actor who plays Phrynne Fisher of Australia is quite glamorous.
    I really wonder who’d play Erlendur, Elinborg, Harry Hole, Jack Irish, Commissaire Adamsberg (he’s slovenly, yet a genius), Jane Keeney, V.I. Warshawsky, Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, Guido Brunetti, Ruth Galloway, etc. I can’t wait.

    • Kathy – You make some interesting points bout the actors who play various characters. Some of them (and you’ve made me also think of John Thaw as Morse) truly embody/embodied the qualities their creators intended for the characters. And that’s true even if they aren’t exactly as homely as the characters are supposed to be. For instance, I like Warren Clarke as Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel. To me, the personality resemblance is really important. As you say for instance, Maury Chaykin portrayed Nero Wolfe very effectively even though he wasn’t as heavy and bulky as Wolfe is. There are lots of other examples too.
      I think when it comes to choosing actors to portray characters who aren’t exactly good-looking, film and TV people have to decide how to balance the natural inclination to show attractive people on film with the reality of the way these characters were intended by their creators to look.

  17. What I like about them all is the fact that they are all well drawn and we can get a real image of them regardless of their beauty or otherwise. They feel real because there are few of us who are naturally beautiful.

    • Rebecca – You’ve got a well-taken point. It’s easier to relate to sleuths when they feel real and the reality for most people is that we’re not exceptionally beautiful. And yes, the sleuth who’s really well-drawn draws us in regardless of looks.

  18. kathy d.

    The whole thing about beauty and who’s attractive is rather absurd. In this country, it’s determined much by Hollywood, the TV industry, the media, the sellers of glamor and fashion magazines and the like. It’s often detrimental, especially to women who end up feeling guilty if they eat more than lettuce leaves for lunch, and who have plastic surgery for normal aging lines.
    Often the plastic surgery is so bad that women’s faces look terrible and fake.
    Let people age, get wrinkles, gain some weight, i.e., be normal. I’m for detectives on TV and in movies who are regular people.
    Of course, I swoon over Nathaniel Parker who plays Inspector Lynley, Michele Riondini, the young Montalbano and Rufus Sewell, i.e., Aurelio Zen. But I love to watch Foyle’s War with Michael Kitchen and many other detective shows. I liked The Killing, but no one on that show was glamorous, which was a relief. One could concentrate on the plot and the character development.
    No one ever disliked Nero Wolfe or Perry Mason as Ironside or various actors who played Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes. It’s their minds and powers of deduction we’re interested in, and which get us to watch them.

    • Kathy – You said it far better than I ever could. We don’t become fans of fictional sleuths because of their looks. We become fans because they are skilled, because of their personalities, because of their senses of humour, or something else like that. Looks are so much less important in terms of who makes a good sleuth. But I will grant you Nathaniel Parker. 😉
      It really is amazing how lucrative the ‘make me look young and gorgeous’ industry is. And sometimes it’s dangerous or worse. There are some really risky treatments out there, and I have to wonder at it all. The worst thing I think is the message it sends to young people: If you don’t look like this, you’re worthless. How sad…

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