If Not For You*

Strong Secondary CharactersMany crime novels feature one or perhaps two main protagonists. The stories focus on those people, and in high quality novels, they’re well developed and interesting. But sometimes, one of the secondary characters is at least as interesting – maybe even more so. Sometimes it’s because that character has an air of mystery about her or him. Sometimes it’s because of that character’s strong or unusual kind of personality. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Either way, those secondary characters may not have leading roles, but they still stand out in the memory. Here are just a few examples; I’m quite certain you can think of more than I could anyway.

One such character, Mr. Robinson, appears in several Christie stories, including Cat Among the Pigeons (in which Hercule Poirot ‘stars’), Postern of Fate (A Tommy and Tuppence Beresford Novel) and Passenger to Frankfurt (a standalone). We never learn a great deal about Mr. Robinson, and that adds to the mystery of his character. We do know that he’s financier who counts among his friends people in high and sensitive government positions. He also does business with all sorts of international clients as well. We know nearly nothing about his background, nor do we know exactly where he lives. He’s quite honest about his interest in the adventures he’s involved in: money. But at the same time, he’s not a cruelly greedy person. Here is how he describes himself and his fellow financiers in Cat Among the Pigeons,

‘It is a very old trade… And a lucrative one…We work in with one another and remember this: we keep faith. Our profits are large, but we are honest.’

Mr. Robinson might or might not be a good choice for a ‘lead’ character, but he adds an interesting layer to Christie’s work as a secondary one.

We could say the same thing of Eleanor Wish, who appears in several of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. When we meet her in The Black Echo, she’s an FBI agent works with Bosch on a complicated case involving a major carefully-planned bank robbery, the murder of Vietnam veteran, and a group of Vietnamese families who live in Orange County (south of Los Angeles). Wish leaves the FBI and takes up a new career as a professional poker player. She’s still helpful to Bosch in some of his cases (see Trunk Music), and the two develop a relationship. Eventually they marry. The marriage doesn’t last, but they have a daughter Madeleine ‘Maddie’ together. And there are suggestions that Bosch never really stops loving Wish. She is an interesting person with a bit of a mysterious background. She’s also very much her own person with her own way of thinking. Like Mr. Robinson, Eleanor Wish might or might not have been successful as the ‘lead’ character in a novel or series, but as a secondary character, she adds much to the Bosch novels.

Elly Griffiths’ series features Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at North Norfolk University. It also features DCI Harry Nelson, who benefits greatly from Galloway’s help on his cases. They are the two protagonists, and both are very interesting characters. But one of the most interesting characters in this series doesn’t really get ‘top billing.’ He is Michael Malone, who goes by his Druid name of Cathbad. He and Galloway met years ago on a dig, and have now become friends. We don’t know an awful lot about Cathbad’s past, and that adds a bit of mystery to his character. But he’s interesting for more reasons than that. Cathbad is an unconventional person, even eccentric. But he is extremely knowledgeable about ancient customs in Romano-Britain, and he’s well versed in even older lore. He has a different way of looking at life to the way a lot of other people do, but that doesn’t really bother him. He is loyal to his friends (including Galloway), and he’s quite good with her young daughter Kate. He adds a layer of interest to this series.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon former cop-turned-PI who encounters all sorts of interesting people in his cases. He’s the protagonist of the series, and is a well-developed character in his own right. But some of the secondary characters who figure in the series are at least as engaging. For example, as the series begins, Quant’s neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith. She’s had all sorts of experiences, including plenty with drugs, alcohol and more than one wild party. Now she’s settled into a quieter life, and seems to be content with that. She’s got plenty of money, and as the series evolves we get to learn just a few things about her. But she is still somewhat of a mystery. She pops up in unexpected places and seems to know the most unexpected people. And although he’s curious at times, Quant never really does find out a great deal about her. What he does know though is that she’s a plain-spoken, loyal and supportive friend. She’s the kind of friend who likes Quant enough to tell him the truth, whether or not he wants to hear it. And she proves to be helpful to him in more than one of his cases.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series takes place mostly in Bangkok and features Rafferty, who is an ex-pat American and a travel writer by trade. But he has also proven himself rather good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s also well-enough versed in Bangkok life that he can be very helpful to English-speaking foreigners who visit. He is the protagonist of the series, but he’s by no means the only strong and interesting character in it. His wife Rose is also compelling. Rose is a former bar girl who originally came from one of Thailand’s more remote villages. She has since left the bar life and now owns her own apartment cleaning company staffed by other former bar girls and prostitutes who want to leave that life. Rose is a deeper character than it may sometimes seem on the surface. She is Thai, so she sees life from that cultural point of view. In her way, she is also spiritual, and that adds to the richness of her character. Rose may not be the central character of this series, but she contributes a great deal to it.

That’s also true of attorney Zack Shreve, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn (later Shreve). Joanne is the main character in this series; she’s a political scientist and academic who’s also the proud mother of three grown children and one teenager. Joanne first meets Zack in The Last Good Day, when one of his firm’s law partners dies in what looks like a suicide. The two begin a relationship and as the series progresses, they fall in love and marry. Zack proves to be a very strong character although he’s not really the main protagonist. He’s got a distinctive personality and brings his own background and viewpoint to the series. What’s more, since he’s an attorney, he also brings professional expertise (and several plot points!) to the novels.

Strong secondary characters like these can be a bit tricky to write. After all, they’re not protagonists, and perhaps they wouldn’t do well in series of their own (‘though some might). But they do add much to a series, and many readers follow them almost as avidly as they do the protagonists. Which strong secondary characters do you like best?



*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan

30 responses to “If Not For You*

  1. This is so true for me Margot. I have found often that it’s the sidekick that I prefer, like Hawk in the Spenser series or Mouse in the Easy Rawlins book, mainly because they don’t seem to have the same ethical constraints that bind the rest of us. But sometimes it can be the one-off subsidiary characters, like Sarah Jaffe in Prisoner’s Base or Harry in The Big Sleep, who are often even more sympathetic than the heroes!

    • Sergio – Oh, those are great characters too. I like both ‘Mouse’ and ‘Hawk,’ and although I hadn’t thought about it when I was preparing this post, it may very well have something to do with their different (fewer?) limits. They ‘go there,’ as the saying goes. I agree with you, too; there are those one-off characters who spice up a novel, too, and they engage the reader perhaps even more than the sleuth does.

  2. A classic example would be Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes adventures

  3. I just finished reading L.C. Hayden’s When the Past Haunts You, so it’s Dallas police detective Mike Hoover who is fresh in my mind. Harry Bronson, the protagonist, is a retired police detective (with a little help from his bosses), but he still manages to draw his old partner into an investigation in Pennsylvania, far from home. Mike could easily grow into his own series.

    • Pat – I’ll admit I haven’t read that one yet, but Mike Hoover sounds like exactly the kind of secondary-but-strong character I had in mind when I wrote this post. Thanks for sharing.

  4. kathy d.

    Lotte Hershel, M.D. is a favorite character in Sara Paretsky’s books featuring V.I. Warshawski. So is Mr. Contreras and so are Mitch and Peppy, although adorable I don’t think could carry a series. They don’t investigate or talk. They are dogs, thankfully.
    Guido Brunetti’s colleague and friend is Vianello, a likeable character, who I don’t think could carry a series, but if his character were developed more, maybe so.
    Now Paola Falier, Brunetti’s spouse, hmmm. Maybe she could carry a few books. She is the focus of one book in the series. She’s interesting, someone with strong opinions, and is a professor who loves Henry James’ writing. She also delivers powerful one-liners to her spouse. I think she could be a main character in a few books. She has a lot to say.
    The ensemble cast in Fred Vargas’ series contains some strong secondary characters: Danglard, the genius and Retancourt, a strong woman. I don’t think any could carry a book, as Adamsberg is the focus.
    Now Arnaldur Indridason did have two secondary characters carry books other than Erlendur: Elinborg in Outrage and a male cop in Black Skies. Both worked very well, especially Outrage in my view. So this worked.
    So, it really depends on how the secondary characters are portrayed and what the author does with them.

    • Kathy – Those are all really effective examples of secondary characters who add much to a series. Perhaps they wouldn’t all work well as the ‘stars’ of their own series, but they’re terrific characters nonetheless, and readers look forward to them. As you say, it does depend on the way the author handles the character.

  5. Elly Pascoe, of course, from the Dalziel and Pascoe novels – she did ‘star’ once or twice, but in general she was a little in the background, but crucial to the tone of the books. And I always enjoyed Mrs Bantry’s appearances in the Miss Marple books – I thought she was a fine representation of that terribly upper-middle-class wife of the Empire that has to a large degree died out now.

    I’ll also nominate Maeve Kerrigan’s mother from Jane Casey’s books – we never meet her, but her telephone conversations with Maeve and, even more so, the messages she leaves on the answer-phone give the books an air of realism, and serve to give a lot of grounding to Maeve’s own character.

    • FictionaFan – Oh, yes, Ellie Soper is a great character. And so is Dolly Bantry. Interesting they live a few decades apart, and are so totally different. And yet at the same time, they both add a lot to their respective series. And so does Maeve Kerrigan’s mother. I think her presence in the novels (or at least the suggestion of it) adds some depth to Maeve’s character.

  6. In Ian Rankin’s novels, DS Siobhan Clarke has become much more than mere foil to DI John Rebus, emerging as a significant character, often with her own cases to solve.

  7. What a great post. Sometimes, the secondary characters are more interesting than the protagonists, aren’t they?
    While I really like the DI Alan Banks in the Peter Robinson novels, I think Annie Cabot might have made an interesting protagonist too. Her character is well developed, and some of the books would be differently interesting when told from her PoV. Jenny Fuller is another character from the series that I would love to read more about.
    Ditto the Shetland series. Jimmy Perez is a great character, but so is Fran Hunter in her own way.

    • Natasha – Thank you. And I agree about both Annie Cabot and Fran Hunter. They’re both interesting characters in their own right, with their own bacstories and so on. Certainly they add to the series.

  8. What great examples of strong secondary characters – it seems as readers we are all intrigued by those we don’t know quite so much about! I also like Mma Ramotswe’s husband of Speedy Motors Garage (her assistant Grace is practically a main character, so I’m not including her). I also think Signorina Elettra from Donna Leon’s books (in addition to Paola, as someone mentioned earlier) is highly-skilled, very diplomatic and a really intriguing character in her own right. I would love to hear her point of view in one of the novels.

    • Marina Sofia – Oh, I would too. Signorina Elettra is a fascinating character I think. She adds so much to the series, and yet as you say, we don’t know quite as much about her, so she’s also a bit enigmatic. And I really am fond of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni too. He’s a strong and well-developed character and I like that about him. He’s interesting too, because we don’t know quite as much about him as we do some of the other characters.

  9. My nomination is Marta Hallard from Josephine Tey’s Inspector Grant books. She’s a famous West End actress, and platonic friend – they seem to have a walker/wingman relationship. She can always tell Grant the important theatre gossip, and she kicks off The Daughter of Time by bringing him a collection of portrait postcards. Her character is well-developed in her brief appearances: I love a moment where she has brought a massive bouquet for Grant, and his cleaning woman appears at the same time with a tiny bunch of flowers, and she handles the matter beautifully and with perfect tact and kindness.
    Glad you included Cathbad – I love him. When he first appeared I thought he was going to be a satirical picture of a stock character, but he has developed so well over the books, a really well-rounded person.

    • Moira – Oh, that’s a fine choice! I’m glad you mentioned Hailard; that was a definite gap that I left. She’s a nicely rounded-out character, and quite interesting in her own right. And she’s really helpful to Grant, as you say. Interestingly, although she’s solidly developed, we don’t quite know everything about her. And that adds to her appeal too.
      And as to Cathbad, I think he’s a very well-done character. He’s unique without being ‘over the top,’ and he has indeed developed nicely as the series has evolved.

  10. I always enjoy Melrose Plant a bit more than Jury. πŸ™‚

  11. Gail Bowen

    Thanks for including Zack Shreve. The fifteenth Joanne Kilbourn will be published in March and I wouldn’t have made it this far without Zack. As you say, he brings expertise and plot possibilities to the series, but he also allows Joanne to show a side of herself that hasn’t been in evidence in the earlier books. As well, Zack is really fun to write and I love his relationship with Joanne and her family. Gail Bowen

    • Gail – Thanks so much for your visit and for your insights. Zack really is a fascinating character, and I like the energy and dynamism he brings to the series. I can well imagine that he’s fun to write. I like the way that he brings out different aspects of Joanne’s character too. It’s effective in terms of the story, but it’s also really believable. Real-life people are affected by their partners and spouses; sides of them emerge that you wouldn’t otherwise see. Looking forward (very much!) to seeing what happens next in this series.

  12. Well, Margot, there are always the Nero Wolfe books with all the regular secondary characters who make these books so re-readable: Wolfe’s chef and “major-domo” Fritz Brenner; the orchid tender, Theodore Horstmann; the add-on investigators, Saul Panzer, Orrie Cather and Fred Durkin; Inspector Cramer… And let’s not forget the three Wolfe novels with an “arch-villain,” Arnold Zeck!

    • Les – No doubt about it; the secondary characters, from Brenner to the investigators to Cramer and the rest, all add to Stout’s series. Wolfe may be the ‘star,’ but he certainly doesn’t go it alone!

  13. kathy d.

    Nero Wolfe couldn’t detect without Archie Goodwin, though. Every time Wolfe fires Archie or Archie quits, he comes back or is talked into returning. The repartee between those two make the books zing.
    I also vote for a book focused on Elettra Zorzi. I don’t think she could carry a series, but one or two books — yes. She is a very mysterious person, with a “friend” who can access governmental financial records and more.
    Mysterious, charming, beautifully dressed, discreet, secretive really, incredibly smart and talented. Yes, I’d like to see a book about her.
    And with Ruth Galloway’s books, I don’t think Harry Nelson could carry a book. What makes for a lot of interest in the series is the point of view of both Ruth and Harry, how different they are yet both are crazy about their daughter, Kate.
    And as for Cathbad, while quite a character, I don’t think he could carry a series. He’s a “character actor” in the books, a big plus, bug not enough for his own book, in my opinion.

    • Kathy – You’ve got a well-taken point. I think the Wolfe series is much, much better for those other characters, and if Wolfe were real, he wouldn’t be able to detect without them. As for Elttra Zorzi, I’d love to see more of her in the series. She has quite a lot of personality and background there to explore. As you say, perhaps not a whole series, but ‘starring’ in a book or two? Quite possibly. Cathbad is perhaps different on that score. He’s certainly an interesting and well-developed character. But a series on his own? Perhaps not so much.

  14. I do like continuing secondary characters. Of course the Nero Wolfe series, already mentioned, is my favorite. The Peter Grant series (Rivers of London) by Ben Aaronovich has many continuing characters (DCI Nightingale, Leslie and more) who are a lot of fun.

    • Tracy – I think one of the real strengths of the Wolfe series is the set of secondary characters who are strong and who contribute much to the novels. Even if they wouldn’t be able to keep a series going by themselves, they certainly leaven the Wolfe novels. And thanks for mentioning the Aaronovich series too – one I really need to get to know better.

  15. Col

    I like Crais and his Cole and Pike creation. I’ve only got up to about 5 in the series and Pike has been underplayed so far – a tad enigmatic. I think we get to know him better as the series develops.
    I enjoy Connelly’s Bosch books and class myself a fan, but I never really warmed to Wish – though that may have been the author’s intention.

    • Col – Interesting point about Eleanor Wish. I think I like her better than you do, but even so, I can see where she’d be harder to warm to than other characters. And as for Pike, I think he’s very interesting. There are a few novels where he ‘takes the lead’ in the investigation and we get to know him even better. Some people prefer the cases where Cole plays the lead role, and some where Pike does.

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