Something About You, Baby, Really Knocks Me Off My Feet*

Mysterious SleuthIn general, crime fiction fans want their sleuths to be believable. Otherwise it’s very difficult to ‘buy’ a storyline or the protagonist and that of course is practically guaranteed to pull a reader out of a novel. But it can also be interesting if a sleuth is just a little enigmatic, or has at least some air of mystery. It’s hard to draw a character like that without sacrificing credibility and humanity. But a touch of mystery can make a sleuth a very interesting character and keep readers wanting to know more.

One of the classic examples of this kind of character is GK Chesterton’s Father Paul Brown. On the one hand, there are certainly things that make him a very real, credible character. He eats, he drinks and he sleeps as we all do. In many ways, he is a completely real person. On the other hand, there is something enigmatic about him. We don’t really know much about his background, and he has a way that’s hard to put in words of finding out the truth about cases. He certainly pays attention to facts and evidence. But he understands people at a different sort of level.

One of Agatha Christie’s recurring characters is Mr. Harley Quin. We don’t really know where he comes from or much about his background. His usual explanation for being in a given place at a given time is that he is ‘just passing through.’ There’s a real air of mystery about him, but at the same time, he is real enough. He eats, he drinks, he talks as other people do and so on. In Christie’s short story The Harlequin Tea Set for instance, he just happens to be passing by a village where Mr. Satterthwaite (another Christie ‘regular’) has stopped for tea. Satterthwaite is on his way to visit an old friend and when he encounters Quin, he tells him about the family. It turns out that Quin’s input is very useful when Satterthwaite’s friend suddenly dies.

Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg has a bit of mystery about him too. In some ways he’s quite down-to-earth. He’s originally from the Pyrenees, and as the series goes on, we learn a bit about his background, which is real enough. He eats, drinks, sleeps, and so on. But in some ways, there is a little something different about him. He doesn’t solve cases in exactly the way other police officers do. It’s not that he ignores evidence (which he doesn’t), but he gets a certain sense from people that guides him as much as anything else does. As we learn in The Chalk Circle Man, he sometimes wishes he didn’t think that way, but as he puts it:


‘What I’m telling you about is something that I can’t help. In fact, it gives me enormous trouble in my life. If only I could be wrong about someone once in a while, about whether he was an upright citizen or not, or sad, or intelligent, or untruthful, or troubled, or indifferent, or dangerous, or timid…’


Over time, Adamsberg’s colleagues get used to his ability to sense things about people. They see that although he doesn’t go about cases in the way they do (and some of them are quite pointed about that), he gets to the truth.

That’s also the case with Anne Zouroudi’s Hermes Diaktoros. In many ways, he’s quite a real person. He smokes, eats, drinks, has likes and dislikes, and those things make him credible. But at the same time, he’s a little mysterious too. We don’t really know much about where he comes from or his background. We’re not even really sure how he gets involved in cases. He generally says he ‘comes from Athens’ to investigate, but he isn’t specific about whom he works for or why he takes an interest in a given case. Here’s what he says about it in The Messenger of Athens:


‘As for who I am, I’ve made no claims. So choose for yourself. Perhaps I am a mere philanthropist. Or maybe I am a man of means who simply enjoys meddling in the lives of the less fortunate. Perhaps the Police Authority employs me to combat corruption in our remote police forces. Maybe I am all those things. Or none. Maybe I was sent here by a higher authority still.’


That said, though, Diaktoros is a very real person who solves cases by gathering information, talking to witnesses and so on. He doesn’t solve cases magically.

Neither does Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. On the one hand, she is quite real. We know her history (she’s the daughter of costermonger Frankie Dobbs) and we know how she comes to open her own detective agency. Like everyone else she goes about her daily life and she’s very much a real person. And yet there is something about her that is a little mysterious. That’s also true of her mentor Maurice Blanche. Blanche is a psychologist and doctor, but he’s got wide-ranging interests, and he seems to have a real intuition about people. You couldn’t call it being psychic, and (in my opinion anyway) that makes his intuition all the more interesting. We don’t know very much about his personal background or life either. He’s taught Maisie a lot of what he knows about ‘reading’ people, about using one’s intuition and about sensing things. And she has learned well. That aspect of her makes her just enigmatic enough to be interesting without making her hard to ‘buy’ as a character.

Sleuths who have that certain air of mystery about them can add a lot to a series, especially as we get to know them bit by bit. That bit of mystery can make the reader all the more interested in the sleuth. At the same time, it has to be balanced with credibility. Sleuths one can’t imagine actually existing can pull the reader out of the story. What do you think? Do you like your sleuths to be a little enigmatic, or do you prefer them to be completely straightforward?



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Journey’s La Do Da.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anne Zouroudi, Fred Vargas, G.K. Chesterton, Jacqueline Winspear

27 responses to “Something About You, Baby, Really Knocks Me Off My Feet*

  1. Part of the mystery of a mystery is the mysterious sleuth. If the author reveals too much too soon, then the sleuth has a rather shelf life–i.e., the sleuth will never work out for a series of stories of novels. Consider, for just one example, Erlendur in Arnaldur Indridason’s series of Icelandic mysteries. Readers learn only a little with each installment of the series. You name any successful sleuth in a successful series, and I bet my axiom holds true.

    • That’s a very well-taken point, and a brilliant example to illustrate it. There is a lot more interest, especially in a series, if a sleuth has a bit of mystery about her or him. Bit by bit, over time, as we learn more, we’re drawn into the series and keep wanting to know more. And yes, Erlendur is a terrific instance of this.

  2. Oops! Make that “rather short shelf life.” And make that “stories or novels.” Forgive the unforgiveable typos. Why I keep making so many mistakes is a mystery to me.

  3. I’ve read and enjoyed the Fr Brown stories over many years, and have read some favourites many times, but it anyone had asked me what his first name was I would have been stumped! So thanks for the information, and I guess that proves your point about his being an enigma. And also reminds me of Inspector Morse, who manages to keep his first name secret until very late on in the series… another man of mystery.

    • Moira – True indeed about Morse. We learn bits and pieces of his story as the series goes on. But we really don’t get to know him deeply as we do some other protagonists. And yet, he is quite real. He’s not so enigmatic that we can’t see him as believable.A great example of what I had in mind with this post.

  4. Hey, Clothes in Books, as a fan of Colin Dexter’s Morse novels and stories, I have been endeavoring for years to figure out Morse’s first name. Perhaps it is not as well hidden as I have been led to believe.

  5. Four out of five favourites of mine in one post – that’s a record, even for you, Margot! Or perhaps I just like my detectives a little mysterious. Sherlock Holmes, of course, is a little more than mysterious with his extraordinary logic. Buddhist cop Sonchai Jitplecheep also has a rather unusual and often enigmatic approach to crime-solving, despite his noirish urban surroundings.
    In certain crime series, however, it does feel like the author is trying to build too much of a back story (and only reveal it gradually). It feels a little forced when it is done for the sake of having a series.

    • Marina Sofia – I’m so glad I chose detectives you enjoy. 🙂 You have a well-taken point too. It does feel contrived when the author wraps the sleuth in mystery just for its own sake. It’s much more effective when it falls out naturally I think. And you’ve given a great example in the Sonchai Jitplecheep series. In fact I’m quite glad you mentioned him. Not only does it fill in a gap I left, but it’s also a reminder to me that I’ve meant to put one of those novels in the spotlight and haven’t (yet). I must do that. Soon.

  6. Margot, here’s an example I suspect is unknown to most of my fellow visitors here. Sax Rohmer, most famous for his “Fu Manchu” novels, also created an odd character named Moris Klaw, “The Dream Detective,” published in 1920. By sleeping at the site of a murder or other serious crime, he supposedly picks up psychic hints. As the narrator of one story, “The Case of the Headless Mummies” (I mean, REALLY!) explains it: “his peculiar power – assiduously cultivated by a course of obscure study – of recovering from the atmosphere, the ether, call it what you will, the thought-forms – the ideas thrown out by the scheming mind of the criminal he sought for – enabled him to succeed where any ordinary investigator must inevitably have failed.”

    Got that? Good; maybe you can explain it to me! In practical terms, you get Moris Klaw making comments such as “I shall sleep in the museum until I reproduce the thoughts of the dead man in my mind.” Okay. It’s all supposed to give a pseudo-scientific basis for what are, in the end, really colorful and unusual stories.

    Moris Klaw is an antiques dealer by trade, and the parrot in his store (of course!) announces visitors by squawking “Moris Klaw! Moris Klaw! The devil’s come for you!”

    Ain’t it wonderful what you can find in classic literature… 😉

    • Les – Oh, what a fascinating character! I know the Fu Manchu series of course, but not the Klaw novels. I’m very glad you mentioned them. You have a terrific way of completing my posts by adding those lesser-known classic examples. And you’re right; it really is pretty amazing what you find when you look through classic crime fiction.
      As to the explanation. I can say I think I get it, and it’s interesting how his dreams open him up to what I guess one could call ‘vibes’ from others. I know that’s not a precise way of putting it but that’s what it seems like to me. And it reminds me vaguely of other stories I’ve read where dreams give the sleuth a sense of a crime. Maybe I’ll do another post on dreams in crime fiction at some point. It’s a really interesting topic.

  7. lesblatt, remember that the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries saw a lot of popular interest in spiritualists and mesmerism. Consider A. C. Doyle’s interests in this regard. And–though I cannot remember specific names–I remember reading about a number of spiritualists traveling around the U.S. in the early 20th c., making plenty of money off of gullible audiences.

    • That’s absolutely correct, and there’s no question that Rohmer was taking advantage of that popular interest. There are a lot of other early detectives from that period as well who were involved with what we now call paranormal – Carnacki the “ghost detective,” for example. It was also another way for authors to make their own characters stand out in a crowded field.

  8. Margot: I am with Moira. I could not have told you Father Brown had a first name. The good father has a natural modesty and reserve. I expect people confide in him as they sense he will keep secure their information.

    I love Maisie as a character. She has one of the great signs for a private detective – “Psychologist and Investigator”. Who could not be intrigued?

    • Bill – I like that sign, too. It’s true, it’s intriguing and it’s accurate. And Maisie is a terrific character. Interesting point about Fr. Brown, too. He does make people comfortable confiding in him and a lot of that is because he is easy to talk to and reserved. And that works all to the good in getting people to trust him.

  9. Ah yes, touch of mystery never hurt a detective’s liveability (one just thinks of the literally anonymous heroes created by Pronzini and Deighton for instance) – though I think it is great that you point out that one of the advantages of a series of books is the option to slowly peel back the layers even if you don;t quite give anything away.

    • Sergio – Oh, yes! Pronzini’s Nameless series! I should have mentioned that. So glad you did. And of course Deighton’s done a very similar thing. Interesting isn’t it how not having name adds to a character’s mystery right away. And I do like it when we learn bits and pieces about a character over the length of a series, even if it’s not every detail.

  10. ‘liveability’? OK, that was meant to be ‘likeability’ …

  11. Col

    I can dimly recall reading the Father Brown stories in my teenage years. I think I enjoyed the TV series more around about the same time I think.

    • Col – I think when a series is adapted for TV, people generally end up liking either the original stories or the adapted version better. I seldom find that people like them equally.

  12. Richard Jury comes to mind as a detective who has a layer of mystery. I can remember when I learned that he wrote poetry; it was surprising and yet it fit his character to a tee. In other detectives I think that powers of observation and concentration are their primary crime solving techniques. They simply see what most of us overlook. As I read a mystery, my own concentration and observation of details increase, and I’ve found that actually spills over into my “real” life.

    • Barbara – That’s really interesting! When I wrote this post I hadn’t thought about the way our own view of life and perception can change as a result of what we read. But it’s certainly true. And you’re right; July does have just a little touch of mystery about him. It makes him more appealing actually (well, at least to me).

  13. kathy d.

    I’m fine with all types of sleuths — brilliant eccentrics, as Sherlock Holmes and Nero Wolfe, Adamsberg, witty, smart curmudgeons as Monbalbano or straight arrows with happy family lives, as Commissario Brunetti or Irene Huss and those in-between. Variety is the spice of crime fiction so I think we need different personalities.
    I can live without the sadistic detectives/cops or unreliable narrator-investigators. I want to know the sleuth is pursuing the case and will find the solution, no matter their personal idiosyncracies, and I want to know that scientific deduction, evidence and investigation are used to get there.
    Even Adamsberg with his sensing of clues or suspects, still uses scientific evidence and asks questions and finds clues to solve murders. With all of the Medieval folklore in the backdrop of The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, the detective team gets clues and finds the suspect through real investigating — although we readers have fun along the way.

    • Kathy – I agree completely. There’s room for all sorts of sleuths in crime fiction, whether they’re a little enigmatic or not. And you’re right; it’s best if a case is solved when the sleuth uses evidence, interviews, and other information to solve cases. I think it makes a sleuth (and a story) more believable.

  14. Margot, the detective I find mysterious is Charlie Chan. On one hand he is just a detective, but still he seems to hold back a lot of himself. Or maybe because he is exotic. He seems to make decisions based on intuition a lot. And he is always traveling away from Hawaii to work. I have only read two of the novels, but watched tons of the movies. So I am not sure which I am getting this from.

    • Tracy – Now, that’s really interesting. I hadn’t specifically had Charlie Chan in mind when I planned this post, but you’re right; he is a little mysterious in his way.

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