We usually think of fictional sleuths as brave, and very often they are. But well-drawn sleuths are also quite human. And that means that they have moments, as we all do, of feeling, well, not at all confident. For some people, speaking in public brings on that ‘I’m a complete idiot’ feeling. For others, it’s dressing in a certain way when they’re accustomed to dressing another way. There are other things too of course that make people feel that kind of anxiety. It happens to all of us, and it’s no different for sleuths.
As Agatha Christie fans will know, her Captain Arthur Hastings is not one to call a lot of attention to himself. He’s got a strong sense of what counts as ‘the proper thing to do’ and doesn’t like behaving in any other way. But every once in a while, his work with Hercule Poirot means that he has to do things that completely go against the grain for him. And that makes him feel ridiculous. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Poirot and Hastings investigate the suspicious death of wealthy Miss Emily Arundell. She has several family members who are desperate for their share of her fortune. To add to that, she changed her will shortly before her death so as to leave practically everything to her companion Wilhelmina Lawson. So there is no shortage of suspects in this case. At one point, Poirot and Hastings visit the victim’s niece Theresa Arundell, who has more than one motive for murder. Poirot is sure that Theresa and her brother are not telling everything they know, so after he and Hastings leave, Poirot wants to sneak back and eavesdrop. Hastings of course is horrified at the thought, but has no choice except to go along. He certainly feels idiotic and embarrassed about it though.
In Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn, we are introduced to mystery novelist Martin Canning. His literary agent has persuaded him to participate in an author panel during the Edinburgh Arts Festival, so he’s in town for that event. During his trip, he witnesses an accident between a Honda and a Toyota. The two drivers get into a serious argument that ends with Toyota driver Paul Bradley coming close to being killed. Canning throws his computer case at the Honda driver just in time to prevent that happening, and ends up getting drawn into a case of multiple murder for his trouble. Canning is by nature a shy, introverted sort of person as many writers are. He’s not comfortable in public and certainly not when he feels ‘on display.’ His saving Paul Bradley happens almost by instinct; so at first, he doesn’t think much about it. Far worse in his mind is the upcoming literary event at which he’ll actually have to interact with readers face to face. If you’re that sort of author – the introverted sort – you’ll know how idiotic that makes Canning feel.
Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran is a journalist who’s not afraid of talking to people. In fact, he’s quite good at putting people at their ease. He’s by no means cowardly by nature. But in The Cat Who Went Into the Closet, he faces a very difficult challenge: serving as Santa Claus in the town Christmas parade. In ways, it’s even harder for him than solving two murders. In one plot thread of this novel, local department store owner Larry Lanspeak is slated to play that role; but when an injury sidelines him, someone else has to step in. At first, Qwill outright refuses. But he’s finally talked into it, and reluctantly takes part in the parade. When it’s over, he finds out he’s also scheduled for a stint with the local children, so they can pose for pictures and tell ‘Santa’ what they want for Christmas. It’s not one of his more confident days…
Barry Maitland’s The Marx Sisters introduces DCI David Brock and DS Kathy Kolla. The two are paired up to investigate what looks at first like a suicide. Meredith Winterbottom lives with her two sisters in a house in London’s Jerusalem Lane. When a large development company wants to buy out the lane for a new project, several residents sell. But Meredith and her sisters refuse. Shortly after that she is found dead. It looks very much like a suicide, but Kolla isn’t sure. So with the ‘green light’ from Brock, she begins to ask questions. At one point, she and Brock have a serious falling-out. Brock knows that although Kolla’s not perfect, their dispute is mostly his fault. So he decides to make amends. He stops by her home with some ‘peace offerings’ and an apology, but at first she’s not having any of it. He certainly feels less than confident standing outside her door with gifts, trying to convince her to open the door and let him in. It’s a very human moment.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Amuse Bouche, successful businessman Harold Chavell hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find his missing fiancé Tom Osborn. The two had planned to marry and then take a honeymoon trip to France, but Osborn disappeared, taking his copy of their itinerary with him. Quant takes the case and ends up going to France, following the itinerary himself, and trying to find out where Osborn is. Then he gets a note indicating that Osborn doesn’t want to be found. That’s when Chavell asks Quant to return to Saskatchewan. Not long afterwards, Osborn’s body is discovered in a lake near a home he and Chavell owned. Chavell of course becomes a suspect in the murder, and asks Quant to keep working for him to clear his name. At one point, Quant and a friend attend a party hosted by Quant’s friend and mentor Anthony Gatt and his partner Jared Lowe. Quant’s fond of both men, but there’s one problem with this party: his outfit. Gatt (who is in the upmarket men’s clothing business) has sent Quant a very trendy, very different sort of outfit, and Quant feels ridiculous wearing it. But, having little choice, he wears it anyway. And as it turns out, he gets some important information at that party.
And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Half Child. Jim Delbeck hires Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney to investigate the death of his daughter Maryanne. The official police report is that she committed suicide by jumping from the roof of the building where she lived. But Delbeck is sure his daughter wasn’t suicidal. Keeney travels to Pattaya to look into the case. There, she goes under cover at New Life Children’s Centre, where Maryanne volunteered, to find out as much as she can. And it turns out that there’s more going on at the orphanage than it seems. In the meantime, Keeney is getting accustomed to having a new business partner, Rajiv Patel. He is also her love interest, and that too takes getting used to, as the saying goes. They have their difficult moments, but they do care about each other. Towards the end of the novel, Patel does something very surprising that must have made him feel a little ridiculous. Still, speaking strictly for myself, I think the scene is beautifully done.
So the next time you’re asked to speak in public, or are talked into wearing that outfit to a party, or are picked to wear a silly costume for a parade, remember: you’re not alone. Lots of the best fictional sleuths have been there…
*NOTE: The title of this song is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone.