An interesting blog post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about characters who may seem (or actually be) scatty or even deluded, but who are nonetheless shrewd and observant in their ways. In crime fiction, the sleuth does well to pay attention to them; they sometimes have quite a lot of useful information. And although I’m not going to go into it here (it’s really the stuff of another post), there are plenty of sleuths who adopt a scatty exterior to put people off their guards.
Agatha Christie used that sort of ‘deceptively deluded’ character in several of her stories. For instance, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths. One is the death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie. When his family gathers for the funeral and the reading of the will, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that he was murdered. At first everyone hushes her up. Even she brushes off what she said. But privately everyone begins to wonder. That’s because although Cora has the reputation for being scatty, she also has a knack of saying things that have more than a grain of truth to them. Everyone’s fears seem justified when Cora herself is murdered the next day. One of the suspects in both cases is Cora’s (and Richard’s) niece Rosamund Shane. She and her husband Michael are in the acting profession and are desperate for money to take an option on a play, among other things. Rosamund is on the surface very much like her aunt. She isn’t delusional but she certainly is scatty. And yet, she also has the same shrewdness. She makes a few remarks throughout the novel that in the end prove to be quite penetrating.
In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee investigates the murder of Los Angeles Navajo Albert Gorman. He’s recently relocated to the Reservation, but shortly after his arrival, he disappears and is later found dead. At the same time, Chee is asked to find a missing girl Margaret Billy Sosi, who has disappeared from the residential school she attends. Chee thinks the cases might be related since Gorman and Sosi are distant kin. He’s right, too. The trail leads Chee to the outskirts of Los Angeles, where he meets Bentwoman, who is related to both Gorman and Sosi. Bentwoman is very old, not in good health and doesn’t seem to think clearly. Yet she is able to offer Chee some very useful information. And since the Navajo culture has great respect for the elderly, Chee listens.
Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring is the story of the murder of Reed Gallagher. He was head of the School of Journalism at the university where Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn teaches. He was also married to someone Kilbourn knows, so she gets involved in the investigation of his death. One of the people who may have information about why and by whom Gallagher was killed is journalism student Kellee Savage. She’s had her own mental/emotional issues and isn’t really reliable. And yet she has very useful knowledge about Gallagher’s murder. It makes Kilbourn more human as a character that at first she doesn’t listen very closely to what Kellee says. Later she regrets the decision not to pay close attention when she first talked to Kellee. Still, she uses the information to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
In Andrew Nette’s Ghost Money, Madeleine Avery hires Australian ex-cop Max Quinlan to find her brother Charles, who seems to have disappeared from his last known address in Bangkok. Quinlan takes the case and begins his search in Bangkok. When he gets to Avery’s apartment, he finds the body of Avery’s business partner Robert Lee. He also finds indications that Avery has gone to Cambodia, so that’s where Quinlan heads next. When he gets there, he meets journalist’s assistant Heng Sarin, who proves invaluable as a team-mate. The two of them follow Avery’s trail from Phnom Penh to the northern part of Cambodia. Avery had supposedly known of a cache of gold hidden in that part of the country, and it doesn’t take much intuition to guess why he would have headed there. It also doesn’t take much brilliance to figure out that some very nasty people who also wanted that gold went after him. The pieces of the puzzle fall together in northern Cambodia, where Quinlan and Sarin find themselves in a very rural village. Not many people take much notice of the villagers. They’re considered inconsequential in the light of the larger forces that have power in the country. But Quinlan and Sarin get to know them a bit. They especially get to know the village leader. He’s an elderly man whom the authorities and Avery’s ‘business associates’ have brushed off. But he’s much sharper than it seems, and he gives Quinlan and Sarin very helpful information and assistance.
There are also some series ‘regulars’ who are quite a lot more intelligent and resourceful than it may seem on the surface. For instance, Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar novels features law professor Tamar, who gets involved in solving murder cases with former student Timothy Shepherd and some of his fellow attorneys. One of those attorneys is Julia Larwood. On the one hand, she’s impulsive, quite scatty and not at all well-ordered in her personal life. That’s partly how she ends up accused of murder in Thus Was Adonis Murdered. And it’s how she gets arrested in The Sirens Sang of Murder. But at the same time, she’s an expert on the Finance Act. She’s also no mental slouch and somehow manages to get out of difficult situations in creative ways.
And then there’s Elly Griffiths’ Michael Malone, better known as Cathbad. Griffiths’ novels feature forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who first met Cathbad on a dig. Since then he’s become a regular part of her life and a friend. On one level, Cathbad is a Druid and is almost ethereal in his approach to life. Some people might even think he’s delusional. Certainly he’s an unusual and original thinker and that can lead people to underestimate him. But Galloway has learned not to do that. Cathbad has a great deal of wisdom. He also knows the area very well and has a shrewd ability to judge character. Underneath that gentle-if-oddball exterior, Cathbad is very intelligent and resourceful. He’s also a very interesting character.
And that’s the thing about characters who seem to be scatty and even delusional. Like the candy in the ‘photo, they seem soft and chewy on the outside, but they have real substance on the inside. When they’re well-drawn, they’re interesting and they can add some real leaven to the ‘cast’ of a story. I’ve only had space here to mention a few. Which ones do you like best?
Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now folks, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favour and go visit Clothes in Books. It’s a superb resource for all kinds of interesting insights into fashion and popular culture in literature.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s Waiting in Vain.