She’s Ahead of Her Time*

Anachronistic CharactersIn any good novel, whether or not it’s a crime fiction novel, a big part of what draws the reader in (or doesn’t) is the set of characters. Characters tend to be most believable if they fit in as you might put it with their place and time. But sometimes it can add some interest to a novel if a character is anachronistic,  whether it’s seeming to come from an earlier place and time, or being ahead of her or his time. There are people like that in real life, and anachronistic characters can lend an interesting perspective to a story too.

In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect) for instance, we meet Meredith Blake. He, his brother Philip, and three other people are on hand one terrible day when famous painter Amyas Crale suddenly dies of what turns out to be coniine poisoning. The most obvious suspect is Crale’s wife Caroline, who knows that he’s having an affair with another woman, and who has been heard to threaten him. In fact, she is arrested, tried and convicted. But sixteen years later, her daughter Carla Lemarchant asks Poirot to clear Caroline Crale’s name. Carla is certain that her mother wasn’t guilty and wants proof of that. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and interviews the five people who were present on the day of the murder. He also gets written accounts from each one of the days up to and including the murder. One of those people is Meredith Blake, who is in many ways more of a Romantic or Victorian character than a modern one. We see that in what he says about Caroline Crale:


‘‘Caroline-I had always-well, I had always been very fond of Caroline. There was a time when-when I hoped to marry her. But that was soon nipped in the bud. Still, I remained, if I may say so, devoted to-to her service.’
Poirot nodded thoughtfully. That slightly old-fashioned phrase expressed, he felt, the man before him very typically. Meredith Blake was the kind of man who would devote himself readily to a romantic and honourable devotion. He would serve his lady faithfully and without hope of reward. Yes, it was all very much in character.’  


We also see it in Blake’s distaste for raking up the matter again and discussing unpleasantness like murder.

We see a more disturbing side of anachronistic characters in Barbara Vine’s (AKA Ruth Rendell) The Minotaur. Swedish nurse Kerstin Kvist is hired by the Cosway family to look after thirty-nine-year-old John Cosway, who is said to be schizophrenic. She accepts the position and moves into the Cosways’ home Lydstep Old Hall. Right from the start, she is struck by the fact that the Cosways seem to live and behave as though they were in the Victorian Era. In some ways, there’s been a disconnect between their lifestyle and modern life. What’s more, Kvist soon sees that her patient is kept heavily medicated by order of his mother, the family matriarch. Kvist comes to believe that that much medication is detrimental to her patient so, without telling anyone, she begins withholding it. Her choice has terrible consequences and leads to real tragedy, and throughout the novel, it’s interesting to see how that connection to the Victorian Era plays out in the family.

Kerry Greenwood’s Melbourne-based Corinna Chapman series features several interesting characters, including the anachronistic Professor Dionysus ‘Dion’ Monk. Monk is one of several people who live in Insula, the large Romanesque building where Chapman has her bakery. Monk is a brilliant former educator who is extremely well-versed in the Greek and Roman Classics. He’s certainly aware of and interested in modern life and what’s going on around him, but in some ways, he inhabits a different time and place. You can see it in his speech patterns and in the way he treats others. Here, for instance, is a bit of a scene between him and Chapman (taken from Earthly Delights). He’s had a leg injury so hasn’t been able to get around much, and Chapman brings him some bread from her bakery:


‘‘Corinna! Sweet nymph!’ he declaimed. ‘Seconds before I expired of ennui. How people can watch television for hours I cannot imagine…
‘I was watching the oddest thing,’ he said. ‘A woman’s program. Her name was…Oprah, I believe. The things that people were saying! It was most indelicate.’
I resolved never to tell Dionysius Monk about Jerry Springer or Jenny Jones.
‘I’ve got bread and you’ve got breakfast,’ I said. ‘Tea?’
‘If you please,’ he said hungrily…
‘Panem et circenses,’ he said. ‘Bread and circuses. I think I would rather have the bread than the circus. And perhaps you could move that table closer so that I can get to my Aristophanes? It’s been beckoning to me for hours, poor thing.’


Professor Dion may be anachronistic, but he is brilliant and often has useful information that helps Chapman.

Of course, there are also anachronistic characters who are far ahead of their times. One of the most famous of these is Irene Adler, whom we meet in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia. She is an actress who was involved in a relationship with the king of Bohemia. The affair ended but Irene still has a photograph of them together. The king is about to be married, and doesn’t want the photograph to surface and create a scandal. So he hires Holmes to get it back. Holmes agrees and much to his surprise finds his work cut out for him as the saying goes. Irene Adler is a very forward-thinking person who manages to best Holmes at his own game. In many ways, she speaks and behaves as women of her time and place do. But she is ahead of her time in the way she takes control of the situation, the way she views life and the way she goes about dealing with Holmes.

In Ariana Franklin’s Mistress of the Art of Death, we are introduced to Adelia Aguilar, a doctor who lives and works in 12th Century England. She travels from Naples’ University of Salerno to England at the request of King Henry II. The king is faced with a case of the murder of a child, and popular opinion is that somehow, the Jews were responsible. But they represent a lucrative source of income to the king, so he doesn’t want a backlash against them. His hope is that the discovery of the real killer will prevent that. In the England of this time, it was illegal and fatally dangerous for a woman to have anything to do with the medical profession, so Aguilar has to be very careful as she investigates. But she is a skilled doctor – a ‘mistress of the art of death’ – and she’s able to find out who the killer is. Although Aguilar is a product of her times, she has a very modern outlook on medicine (i.e. using science rather than superstition to deal with the medical) and of course, on the roles women should play.

It’s always a risk when an author integrates an anachronistic character. After all, it’s hard to create a credible character who doesn’t reflect her or his own time and place, at least to an extent. But there are anachronistic people in real life, and in crime fiction, they can add some interesting leaven to a story.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ariana Franklin, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Kerry Greenwood, Ruth Rendell

26 responses to “She’s Ahead of Her Time*

  1. Speaking of anachronistic characters, Margot, I am reminded of Elizabeth Daly’s wonderful “Murders in Volume 2.” Biblio expert Henry Gamadge is confronted with a century-old mystery – and an amazing story: A century ago, a young woman, sitting in an arbor in the backyard of a New York City brownstone, disappeared, without a trace, carrying a volume of Byron’s poems. A hundred years later, a young woman apparently reappears in that same arbor, carrying what appears to be the identical missing volume of Byron. She is apparently the same woman who disappeared a century earlier. Is that possible? Is it really the same woman, having taken some strange detour through the fourth dimension? Or is there something much more sinister happening?

    Daly has a great deal of fun with this one, and many of Gamadge’s clues as to the true nature of what is happening depend on his observations of, and about, that young woman who may or may not have disappeared a century ago and reappeared exactly 100 years later – and, of course, that book of Byron’s poems.

    • Les – Oh, that is such a good example of anachronistic character. And of course, with Gamadge’s background, he has exactly the expertise to get to the bottom of who the girl really is and why that book showed up. Thanks for sharing this. Folks, do read it. Seriously.

  2. Well, Margot I certainly seem to find it increasingly easy not to think about the present as I get older! In Raymond Chandler’s PLAYBACK, his last completed Marlowe novel, and his least, the highlight is a long dialogue between the PI and an elderly gentleman who lives in the past – it is wonderfully done and for a few pages elevates a rather sad epilogue to Chandler’s great career –

    • Sergio – I couldn’t agree more that this is Chandler’s weakest work. But I’m so glad you reminded me of it. I confess I’d forgotten about that scene and it really does depict an anachronistic character. Some excellent pages of writing as you say.

  3. Fascinating topic Margot! There are quite a few series out now with women investigators in historical settings, from Victorian times through to Second World War: I enjoy many of them very much, but can’t help thinking those women are a bit anachronistic! And the way they manage their lives – I’m not sure it would all have been so easy for them. But I still like the books, and think – well, better to be positive and show how it might have been, even it it’s not strictly authentic.

    • Moira – Thank you – glad you enjoyed the post. And you’re right, many of those women investigators find it easier to live their lives in fiction than they probably would have in real life. That said, though, I do find that new trend really interesting. And even if those sleuths are a little anachronistic, it seems to work. They’re not so far off the mark as to be completely unbelievable. And it is nice to imagine what it might have been like if the character were real.

  4. kathy d.

    I prefer the books with women protagonists who are ahead of their time, trailblazers, “early” feminists, i.e., Adelia Aguilar, the woman doctor in Felicity Young’s series, others who forged ahead, refuting superstitution, myths, rumors, in favor of science and reason.

    • Kathy – They do make great protagonists, don’t they? They’re interesting, intelligent and capable. As long as they’re also believable, I’m happy. And Adelia Aguilar is.

  5. Thank you for this piece! I love the earlier writers and characters you mentioned and now I have Ariana Franklin to look forward to. And I’m going to look out for Adelia Aguilar too (thank you kathy d)!

    • Ovidia – I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. Ariana Franklin was a terrific author who left us far too soon. Her sleuth, Adelia Aguilar, is a very well-drawn character. I hope you’ll enjoy reading that series.

  6. Back with Ms Christie and The Moving Finger, I always enjoyed the anachronistic Miss Barton and her half admiring, half fearful attitude towards these two modern young people who have rented her home.

  7. Although I think it’s only based on Colin Dexter’s writing, the Masterpiece Mystery series now about Endeavour, the early years of Morse, shows a young man clearly ahead of his time. Have you watched it?

    • Pat – I have to confess I’ve not watched that yet, although I’ve heard quite good things about it. And certainly Endeavour Morse is ahead of his time in that series. Thanks for reminding me I should check that series out.

  8. Margot: I sometimes struggle with sleuths who seem too far ahead of their time. I enjoyed reading the adventures of Adelia Aguilar though at times I felt a 21st Century woman had been dropped into the 12th Century. The choice to bear a child out of wedlock for a woman of her position was improbable. I do not think Franklin went too far but she stretched Aguilar’s credibility.

    I prefer sleuths who are leading the way in their time. Maisie Dobbs is ahead of her time as a consulting psychologist and detective. While few women of the 1930’s had such positions there were professional women 80 years ago. Maisie is a fine example of those women.

    • Bill – That’s an interesting and well-taken point. There’s a fine line between a sleuth who leads the way and a sleuth who pushes credibility too far. Everyone draws that line a little differently too I think. And I’m glad you mentioned Maisie Dobbs here. In some ways she certainly is ahead of her time. She is indeed a good example of a character who is credible in terms of what she does and how she lives, but is also an innovator.

  9. Col

    I have Five Little Pigs to look forward, but the one I’m anticipating the most is the Linda Murder book from Persson. Sarah has mentioned how out of synch and odious Backstrom is as a person and with regards to his team, the case may almost get solved in spite of him.
    I’m not sure that level of conflict or strife in a workplace is healthy but it is fun to read about.

    • Col – Oh, I hope you’ll like Linda…. And you make a well-taken point about team leaders who are out of synch. It does critically affect everyone doesn’t it? I’ll be interested to see what you think of the novel.

  10. Hi Margot, A fascinating topic and great post. A recent example I can think of is Cynthia Morris’s Chasing Sylvia Beach, a mystery, of a sort, in which bibliophile heroine Lily Heller is mysteriously transported from 2012 to 1937, and thus is literally ahead of her time, and ergo her attitudes as well, which are found to be very progressive by the standards of the time.

    • Bryan – Thanks for the kind words. Thanks, too, for sharing Chasing Sylvia Beach. I have to confess I’ve not read it yet, but it sounds like a great example of the manipulation of time to create anachronism in characters.

  11. Another series/character this brings to mind is Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series (along the same lines as the Maisie Dobb’s series). In both of those series, I had a hard time suspending disbelief because the female character’s behavior (and freedom to do what she wanted) was unusual for the time. Bess Crawford is a nurse during World War I and worked on the front lines, but when she starts investigating crimes, I have a hard time imagining that she is allowed to do this… .as a young woman in that society. Even so, the author (or the author team) does a good job of portraying the times…

    • Tracy – Oh, that’s another really interesting choice. The ‘Charles Todd’ team is quite good at evoking the time and place I think. And I like the Bess Crawford character even though I can see why she stretches your disbelief. In this case (at least for me), the authors are talented enough to encourage me to overlook that…

  12. Interesting post, Margot. In AC’s ‘Halloween Party’ the little girl Miranga Butler seems both out of this world and from a different era. It’s a lovely book I think.

    • Sarah – Thank you. And I agree with you about Miranda Butler. She’s a bit ‘otherworldly,’ but at the same time, she is human enough that you could believe she exists. And yes, there’s something anachronistic about her too. A fascinating little girl.

  13. Really enjoyed reading this. Five Little Pigs is one of my favourites by Agatha Christie and I’ve also seen a play version of it called Go Back for Murder. I think Agatha writes anachronistic characters very well and they often make appearances in her work.

    • Oh, I have to admit I hadn’t heard of that theatre version of Five Little Pigs. I hope it was good. I agree that Christie writes some very interesting anachronistic characters. I like what they add to her work.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s