Never Mind, I’ll Be Around*

Staying AroundAn interesting review from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about how we invest ourselves in fictional characters. The review itself isn’t precisely about that, but one of the (well-taken) points that FictionFan makes has to do with learning about things before they’ve actually happened. You’ll most definitely want to visit FictionFan’s great blog and see for yourself why it’s a must-have on your blog roll.

Right. Investing ourselves in fictional characters. If you know a fictional character is going to die, does that affect the way you think about that character, and how invested you are in the plot? Are you willing to stay around? It’s tricky to invite readers along for the ride, so to speak, if they already know a key piece of information such as, ‘X is going to be the (first) victim.’ When the author makes that choice, there need to be other aspects of the novel that keep the reader engaged and absorbed and wanting to know more.

Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress begins at the trial of Elinor Carlisle. She’s been charged with the poisoning murder of Mary Gerrard. So we know right from the start that Mary is at least one victim in that novel. Then, the novel ‘flashes back’ to the beginning of the series of events that led up to this trial. We learn that Mary is the daughter of the lodgekeeper at Hunterbury, the home of the Welman family. Elinor’s aunt, wealthy Laura Welman, has taken a real interest in Mary and paid to have her educated. In fact, Elinor receives an anyonymous note warning her that Mary may be playing on the old lady’s feelings in order to benefit from her will. Elinor isn’t greedy, but she is very accustomed to a comfortable life. So she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy’ Welman travel to Hunterbury to visit Aunt Laura and, if they’re being honest, to see how much truth there is to the note. They renew their acquaintance with Mary during their visit, and to Elinor’s chagrin, Roddy is soon besotted with her. In fact, Elinor and Roddy end their engagement. Then, Aunt Laura dies. Shortly afterwards, Mary is killed. There’s ample evidence against Elinor, but local GP Dr. Peter Lord wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. In this novel, we don’t learn anything about Mary until after we know she is going to die. The suspense lies in what the outcome of the trial will be, and whether Elinor is or is not really guilty.

We know from the first sentence of Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone that the members of the Coverdale family will be killed. We are even told who the killer is. It’s not until after learning this that we find out that George and Jacqueline Coverdale are well-off, well-educated people who are looking to hire a new housekeeper. Without doing much background research (quite different to today’s searches), they hire Eunice Parchman. She begins her duties and all seems to go well enough at first. But Eunice is hiding a secret – something she is desperate that the family not discover. When one of the family members accidentally finds out what Eunice is hiding, this spells disaster for everyone. In the end, it costs the lives of George, Jacqueline, George’s daughter Melinda and Jacqueline’s son Giles. In this novel, the suspense is built, and the reader is invited to stay around, as we learn about Eunice’s background, and as the Coverdale family gets unwittingly closer and closer to their fate.

In L.R. Wright’s The Suspect, we are told right from the beginning of the story that eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke is the murder victim. We know who the killer is too; he is eighty-year-old George Wilcox. One might ask the question, then: if we know Burke is the victim, why get invested? Why follow along? In this novel, Wright invites the reader to become invested by slowly revealing those two characters’ histories. As RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg and his team investigate, we learn bit by bit how the two elderly men know each other and what their relationship has been like. It’s that history that has ultimately led to the killing, and since Wright reveals it layer by layer, the reader is invited to get more and more engaged as the story goes on.

Liza Marklund’s The Bomber also informs the reader, right from the start, who is going to be killed. In that story, Stockholm is slated to host the Olympic Games and, as you can imagine, a lot’s at stake with the upcoming competition. So it’s an especially terrible shock when a bomb goes off in Olympic Village. It’s an even greater shock when the body of civic leader Christine Furhage is pulled from the wreckage. Terrorism is suspected at first, especially since the victim was instrumental in bringing the Olympics to Stockholm. Soon, though, other possibilities arise. Journalist Annika Bengtzon and her team follow the case and investigate to find out who killed Christine Furhage, and why. In this novel, we know from the beginning who the victim will be. But Marklund reveals her character and history more slowly, inviting the reader to stay around and become invested in her (or choose to dislike her) as the story goes on.

David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight is the story of the murder of brothel owner Ruby Devine. It’s the mid-1970s in Perth, and Superintendent Frank Swann has returned to town after some years away. He’s come back because he was friends with the victim although they were on opposite sides of the law. And it’s not long before he begins to suspect that the crime was the work of a corrupt group of police officers known as ‘the purple circle.’ It’s going to be hard to prove, though. For one thing, the ‘purple circle’ has a bad reputation for making life truly awful for anyone who gets in their way. For another, there’s an unwritten code that police protect each other. Swann has already called for a Royal Commission hearing on corruption in the ‘purple circle’ so as it is, he’s a ‘dead man walking.’ But he persists and in the end, he does find out who killed the victim and why. We know from the first page of the story that Ruby Devine is the victim. But as Swann talks to her friends, her partner and her business associates, we get a more complete picture of what she was like. And that invites readers to care about her (or choose to dislike her).

And then there’s T.J. Cooke’s Defending Elton. Elton Spears is a young man with mental problems who’s had more than one brush with the law. So when evidence connects him to the murder of Sarena Gunasekera, everyone thinks he’s the murderer. But solicitor Jim Harwood has worked with Spears before and knows the young man. So he takes Spears’ case and works with barrister Harry Douglas to defend him at trial. In this story, we know from very early on – before we know anything about her – that Sarena Gunasekera is killed. So on the surface, it might seem that it would be difficult to become invested in her and care why she was murdered, much less stay around for the rest of the story. But Cooke invites the reader to do that by making her character just enigmatic enough to be interesting, and by revealing aspects of that character a little at a time.

So, does knowing a character is going to be a victim make one less invested in that character? It can. When that information isn’t well-managed, it can amount to spoiling the story. But if it’s handled effectively, authors can do several things to encourage readers to stay around and remain interested, even in characters they know are not long for this world.

Thanks, FictionFan, for the inspiration!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The North’s Any Days Fine.


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wiilson, L.R. Wright, Liza Marklund, Ruth Rendell, T.J. Cooke

12 responses to “Never Mind, I’ll Be Around*

  1. Very interesting Margot – in lots of suspense thrillers we often start at the end and flash back so the fun is knowing how you get to that place. In whodunits, the old-fashioned kind, you can so often guess who the victim will be (i.e. somebody rich and nasty) that i suppose it shouldn’t matter – what you end up asking yourself is why the author chose to signpost this anyway? And that is what has to be worthwhile!

    • Sergio – You have a very well-taken point. Many thrillers do use that technique don’t they of starting at the end. Then, as you say, readers are taken back to the beginning to find out how it all began. It’s true too that you can often guess who the victim is going to be in a traditional whodunit. Sometimes authors do that to leave clues; sometimes they do that to misdirect (away from the second murder perhaps). Sometimes there are other reasons. But yes, there has to be an interesting ‘let me carry on with this story’ sort of a reason for a reader to keep on even with those ‘signposts.’

  2. Wow, very interesting post. Actually I’m very affected knowing a character will die. Five Little Pigs by AC is a good example for me. In the first chapter we learn two characters are going to die. One from poison and one as a result of a guilty verdict. In chapter one it doesn’t bother me so much because I’m not too invested in the characters. As we go through the novel, however, we start to care for both characters and we know that both will die in the end. It’s a hard read. Also, it’s a book I never forgot and it’s become one of my favorites.

    • Clarissa – Thanks for the kind words. You make an interesting point too about Five Little Pigs. I think it probably does make a difference that we know two of the characters die, right from the start. Certainly it’s easy to feel for the one who suffers from the guilty verdict. One can’t help but wonder, too, what would have happened to those people had both lived….

  3. Interesting, Margot – and thanks for the link and kind words! 🙂

    I suspect I do feel differently about it in a crime novel, but I think overall I prefer it when the story is told in ‘real-time’ so to speak, rather than in flashback – though of course that can work well in lots of cases. If it’s flashback, as you point out, it tends to become the ‘why’ that is the important feature. But on the other hand I do prefer the type of murder that takes place part way through the book so we have time to get to care about the potential victim, rather than right at the beginning before we know them – though that too varies depending on the way the author handles it. In the example I mentioned in my post, my objection to the reveal was that we were in a state of suspense to know whether two characters would marry, and the giveaway told us not only the answer to that but that one character would soon die – it took away all suspense and made the outcome of the marriage question seem irrelevant. But I feel this was just a poorly handled incident – in general, I think it can work even if the reader knows someone will die…

    A bit of a waffly answer, which I think sums up as I agree – it all depends on how the author handles it whether it works well or not…

    • It’s a pleasure to plug your excellent blog, FictionFan 🙂 . You make two really important points here I think. One is that genre may play a role in the way readers feel about reveals. I hadn’t thought about that when I was preparing this post, but it makes a lot of sense. You’re also right about suspense, in my opinion. If a reveal takes away the suspense in a novel, it’s not really tempting to finish the story. But if the author creates suspense in some other way, or places the reveal effectively, so that it doesn’t take away from the suspense, that’s different.
      That’s an interesting question too about getting to know characters a bit before we find out which one’s going to be the victim. Agatha Chrstie did that in several (not all) of her stories. I think that does tend to add a level of engagement, especially if there’s more than one plausible victim. That said though, the body-at-the-beginning can be a solid ‘hook.’ All this I suppose to say that yes, it really does depend on the author’s purpose and on the author’s skill at keeping readers turning/swiping/clicking pages.

  4. Margot: P.D. James opens The Private Patient with:

    “On November the twenty-first, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death.”

    And away the reader goes ………….

    • Bill – That’s just the sort of thing I had in mind with this post. We know right away that Rhoda will be killed, but readers are invited along anyway to find out how, why and by whom. And we learn about the sort of person Rhoda is too. James sets it up so that although we know Rhoda isn’t long for this world, we still care about what’s going to happen.

  5. An excellent post again Margot. Even though A Judgement In Stone is one of my favourite Rendell books if asked I would prefer to read a story told in real time but it does depend whether the author manages to spin a good tale around the why aspect of the crime which I think requires far more skill.

    • Thank you, Cleo. I agree with you about the ‘whydunit’ aspect of a crime. That’s not really easy at all to pull off is it? Rendell does it brilliantly, but it really takes a deft hand.

  6. Malice Aforethought by Francis Iles begins “It was not until several weeks after he decided to murder his wife that Dr. Bickleigh took any active steps in the matter.” That’s the whole nature of the book though, I think there’s no danger of people worrying about this aspect. Meanwhile, I recently read a very clever book that went to the opposite extreme – in Death has a Past by Anita Boutell, the author manages to hide who the victim is till the very last moment – maybe a future topic for you?

    • Moira – That’s such a perfect example of exactly what I had in mind with this post. Thanks. And you’ve given me some good ‘food for thought’ too about books where you don’t find out until the end (or close to it) who’s going to be the victim. Intriguing…

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