There are several ways in which authors can help readers get to know their sleuths’ personalities. One of them is by manipulating point of view. Some crime novels are narrated by someone who isn’t the sleuth. That strategy allows for a really interesting perspective on the sleuth. We see the sleuth through another pair of eyes and that can be quite revealing, depending on who the narrator is. Other crime novels are told from the sleuth’s point of view, either in the first or the third person. This choice gives the reader real insight into the sleuth’s personality and way of thinking.
Both ways of telling a story have their advantages and disadvantages. And for the crime writer, both ways allow for the kind of misdirection, unreliable narration and so on that can make for a thoroughly engaging mystery. Let me just give a very few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.
One of the best known examples of narrators other than the sleuth comes from Arthur Conan Doyle. His stories are by and large told from the point of view of Dr. Watson, whom Sherlock Holmes refers to as ‘my biographer.’ That choice allowed Conan Doyle to easily share an ‘outsider’s’ impression of Holmes’ physical appearance, as when Watson first meets Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. It also allowed Conan Doyle to keep the reader guessing, since Holmes often doesn’t reveal his deductions until nearly the end of the story. Conan created an interesting narrator in Watson, too. Watson is an intelligent and educated man and that’s the way he thinks. So in some ways his perceptions of the cases he and Holmes investigate are quite accurate. So are his perceptions of Holmes, whose faults he details honestly. But at the same time, he doesn’t deduce in the same way that Holmes does, so the choice of Watson as narrator allows for misdirection.
Interestingly enough, we see a very similar pattern in stories that feature Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Some stories are told from the point of view of Poirot’s friend Captain Arthur Hastings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told from the point of view of a village physician Dr. James Shepphard. And Murder in Mesopotamia is told from the point of view of a professional nurse Amy Leatheran. In those cases, we see Poirot from the outside. Although we are often privy to the same information Poirot gets, we don’t really see the cases from his point of view until the end. This strategy allowed Christie to do a masterful job of misdirection. Hastings, for instance, is reasonably intelligent. He thinks the way a lot of us might. In fact, as Poirot puts it in Lord Edgware Dies,
‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’
Using other perspectives also allowed Christie to give readers a more or less candid look at her sleuth. After all, we’re none of us truly objective about ourselves, and Poirot is no different when it comes to that. We see his brilliance as a detective, but we also see the eccentric, sometimes very unusual way in which he goes about solving cases. And we see his faults and flaws.
Rex Stout made the same choice – an ‘outside’ narrator – for his Nero Wolfe stories. Fans will know that these stories are told by Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin. Technically speaking, Goodwin is Wolfe’s employee. But although he won’t really admit it, Wolfe needs Goodwin as much as Goodwin depends on Wolfe. And that’s what makes Goodwin’s perspective on Wolfe so interesting. He is absolutely candid about his boss’ many quirks and faults. Through Goodwin’s eyes we see that as brilliant as Wolfe is (and he is!) he is also very much a human being. And that honesty comes partly from Goodwin’s knowledge that he’s a fine detective in his own right. It also comes from Goodwin’s savvy, wise-cracking sort of personality. At the same time though, Goodwin does respect Wolfe’s ability as a sleuth. And in stories such as Champagne For One, he depends greatly on that ability. It’s a very interesting way to show what Wolfe is like.
Of course, there are also many series and novels that are narrated from the sleuth’s point of view. Those too can give the reader real insights into the sleuth’s personality and character. And when they’re done well, they can provide plenty of misdirection and surprises. For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s PI series is narrated from the point of view of his sleuth Russell Quant. Quant is based in Saskatoon, although he does travel quite a lot in the course of his work. We learn a great deal about Quant through the way that he thinks, the choices he makes and the way he approaches cases. And as he interacts with other characters, we learn how they treat him and what they say to him; that too gives us insight into his character. That’s also one of Bidulka’s strategies for providing suspense and misdirection. Quant is human. Therefore he’s wrong sometimes. He has weaknesses, biases and immaturity as we all do. So although the reader knows what Quant knows, that certainly doesn’t mean that the reader knows everything about a case too early in the story.
Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels are, for the most part, told in the third person. But they are told from Bosch’s point of view. As we follow his thought patterns and see the way he treats others and vice versa, we get real insight into the kind of person he is. We know his rationales for doing things, and we how developments in his cases and in his personal life affect him. This all gives us a solid perspective on his character. Connelly also uses Bosch’s point of view to add tension and to misdirect the reader. Bosch is a good cop and a dogged one, but he’s not perfect. He’s wrong sometimes, he’s distracted sometimes, and he can’t be everywhere at once. So even though we know what Bosch knows, there’s still plenty of opportunity for surprise and suspense.
Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series is also told from the points of view of her sleuths Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. This allows Griffiths to give readers deep insight into what these characters are like. And that’s just what also provides Griffiths with tools for building suspense, for adding misdirection and other plot twists, and for creating story arcs. Galloway and Nelson are human and therefore, fallible. And even though there are two of them, meaning a broader perspective on a given case, this doesn’t mean they know everything. So there’s still plenty of opportunity for twists and turns in the series.
There are just a very few examples of the way authors show what sleuths are like. Do you have a preference when it comes to point of view? If you’re a writer, how did you choose the point of view your stories take?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alice Cooper, Bernie Taupin and Dick Wagner.