Don’t Talk to Me as if You Think I’m Dumb*

Candy Bar and Characters Who Only Seem ScattyAn 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Nette, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Sarah Caudwell, Tony Hillerman

33 responses to “Don’t Talk to Me as if You Think I’m Dumb*

  1. Fab topic, Margot! On television, Columbo is my favorite scatter-brained (at least, seemingly so) detective. “Just one more thing…”

    • Kathy – Thanks; glad you enjoyed this. And Columbo is such a wonderful character isn’t he? He is so very good at being scatty but at the same time very, very shrewd and intelligent. Peter Falk is much missed.

  2. Marianne Wheelaghan

    A great post, as always. Enough said 🙂

  3. Great stuff Margot – I know it doesn’t quite fit in but I was reminded of the protagonist of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me in which he hides his intelligence (and psychopathic tendencies) under a veneer of ‘good old boy’ mannerisms, though perhaps not quite as successfully as he thinks he does …

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. And I think Lou Ford is a fascinating character. He does doe a solid job at first of using the ‘nice but dull good ol’ boy’ persona to hide what he really is. I think Thompson adds real suspense too as that layer slowly peels off.

  4. AdS

    Thanks for the tip on Clothes in Books … following!

  5. Ariadne Oliver is my favourite scatter-brain. she’s one of these people who quite often spots the important thing without realising why it’s important. I think Poirot could see beneath the dizziness though and found her quite helpful on occasion.

    • FictionFan – Oh, I love Ariadne Oliver too! I’d have mentioned her in the post, but I suppose I see her as a sleuth more than a ‘non-sleuth’ character. But she’s a perfect example of the kind of person that I had in mind when I put that post together. Thanks for filling in that gap. You’re right too that Poirot sees through her scatty surface; he refers to her as …a very shrewd judge of character and she is.

  6. Thanks for the kind words Margot! and a fascinating look at this topic. In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s book Mercy, I love the relationship between Carl and the mysterious Assad – who is a cheery, unskilled immigrant, apparently not able to do much at all. But is he as vague as he seems? The relationship was intriguing and enjoyable.

    • Moira – It’s my pleasure to plug your excellent blog. And I like Assad too. As you say, on the surface of it he’s a friendly-but-harmless, vague character. But he’s a lot more than that, and Carl Mørck comes to see just a little beneath Assad’s surface as time goes on.

  7. I’m currently reading Christie’s novel The Hollow, and she features just such a character in this story! So far it’s very good and I have yet to figure out “whodunit”.

    • Donna – I’m very glad you’re enjoying The Hollow. I know the character you mean – good example! I hope you’ll continue to enjoy it and I’ll be interested to know if you work out who the killer is before Poirot does.

  8. Margot: In the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear her assistant, Billy Beale, is a little man easy to overlook but a shrewd observer.

    One of the most famous characters to be disregarded at your peril is Saul Panzer in the Nero Wolfe books. The detective with the big nose can blend into any cityscape and follow anyone.

    • Bill – I like Billy Beale too. As you say, he misses nothing although he’s easy enough to discount. What I also like about him is his loyalty to Maisie. They have a really interesting relationship.
      And as for Saul Panzer, no, I wouldn’t want to have him on my trail. He’d be able to track everything I did. As you say, nobody pays attention to him if he doesn’t want to be seen. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  9. I am popping over now. Looking forward to reading it after this wonderful piece. 🙂

  10. I seem to remember one of the main characters in Georgette Heyer’s ‘Death in the Stocks’, the gushing and apparently brainless Violet Williams, is a good deal less brainless than she appears.

  11. K.B. got there first about Columbo, whose rumpled, eccentric persona obscures a brilliant detective mind. “There’s just this one thing that bothers me.”

    • Bryan – That’s one of the things I’ve always liked about Columbo’s character.He’s deceptively ‘folksy’ and rumpled, but as you say, he’s also a brilliant detective who misses nothing.

  12. No examples, Margot, but you have again suggested lots of books I want to read.

  13. As you mention, it’s particularly interesting when these types of characters are the so-called “unreliable witnesses.” No one trusts their insights…and then they tend to hold the key to the murderer! Because they’re discounted, it’s fun to plant clues with them.

    • Elizabeth – It is fun and can really add to the plot when someone people tend to discount actually has vital information. It’s tricky to create those characters because they have to be believable and they have to have credible reasons for having important information or insights. But when it’s done well it can add to a story.

  14. I love Cathbad as a character. He is one of my favourites in crime fiction. And this is an interesting post. I found absent minded people can be actually quite perceptive.

    • Sarah – They can indeed. And I really like Cathbad as well. He’s such a distinctive character with very much his own personality and way of looking at the world.

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