In 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.