Don’t Have Any Need to Prove Nothin’ to No One*

Life on One's Own TermsThere are people (I’ll bet you know some, yourself) who live life absolutely on their own terms. It’s not that they don’t care about others, such as friends and loved ones. Very often they do. What they don’t care about is ‘what everyone else will think!’  They don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, and they live as they see fit, without trying to self-consciously fit in.

That independence of character can make a person all the more interesting, and can add depths to a fictional character, too. Of course, as with most things, creating this sort of character requires a tricky balance. Independence of thought is one thing; too much eccentricity or thoughtlessness can be quite another. But there are some characters out there in crime fiction who seem to strike that balance. Here are just a few; I know you will think of many others.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not at all bound by what people might think of his lifestyle. He keeps unusual hours, has a very unconventional approach to housekeeping (the tobacco in the slipper being just one example), and doesn’t exactly play by the conventional rules when it comes to catching criminals, either. He doesn’t particularly worry about what anyone thinks of his lifestyle, either, and makes no apologies for it. To be fair, in A Study in Scarlet, he does warn Dr. Watson about the way he is when they begin to share rooms:

‘‘I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?’
‘By no means.’ [Watson]
‘Let me see — what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.’’

But he isn’t very much attached to what Watson thinks of him – not in the ‘aiming to please’ sort of a way that new roommates sometimes have.

Although he lives a more conventional lifestyle than Holmes does, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t very much bound by what people think of him, either. And some of Christie’s other characters are like that, too. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect, and she certainly had motive. He was having an obvious affair with Elsa Greer, even going so far as to have Elsa in his home while he did a painting of her. Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and died a year later in prison. Her daughter thinks she was innocent, though, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. To do so, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder; one of those people is Elsa, now Lady Dittisham. We learn about her that she was not at all worried about what people would think of her. On one level, she wanted to be ‘respectably married.’ But she dressed as she wished, she lived life completely on her own terms, and still doesn’t much care what people think of her. In fact, when Poirot asks her what her husband’s opinion would be of her involvement in the investigation, she says,

‘‘Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?’’

And she really doesn’t.

Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he doesn’t care very much what people (clients, the police, or even his own employees) think of him. He has his own very rigid schedule that suits him, and he sees people when he agrees to do so. He lives life on his own terms, and it doesn’t matter in the least bit to him that he is unconventional. Rather than try to fit into a world where people go out to offices, travel, interact in public and so on, he’s created a world that suits him. He has a world class chef, so that he only need eat elsewhere when he wants to do that. He has an elevator in his home, so that he doesn’t need to use the stairs. And he relies on Archie Goodwin and his other employees to do the ‘leg work’ for him and bring witnesses and suspects to him. Of course, if you’re a fan of this series, you’ll know that Goodwin has his own way of manipulating situations and getting his boss to do things. But Wolfe lives his life as he sees fit, with no apologies to anyone.

Another character who makes no apologies to anyone is Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer. She’s a former school principal who has bought some land in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s even had a dream home built there. Then, bad luck and poor financial decisions mean that she has to give up that home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and they soon move in, much to her chagrin. She has nothing but contempt for these ‘invaders,’ and doesn’t much care if they like her. The only person there whom she finds even bearable is Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with the couple. So when Thea begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she gets concerned. The police aren’t going to do anything about it; so, rather than worry about what anyone will think of it all, Thea makes her own plans.

Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins is another crime-fictional character who lives life on her own terms. She is a friend, secret love interest, and muse to Gentill’s protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. At the time that this series takes place – the 1930’s – there are things that young ladies do and do not do, but Edna doesn’t worry overmuch about that. She feels no need to prove herself to anyone. She is a sculptor who creates what she wants to create. She’s also a sometimes-model, who isn’t afraid of the social sanctions for posing in the nude. She does some acting, too. She lives the life she wants to live, on her own terms.

And then there’s Sheldon Horowitz, whom we meet in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. He’s moved from his native New York to Norway, to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. In one plot thread of this novel, Horowitz rescues a young boy whose mother has just been murdered. The two go on the run, and Horowitz does his best to protect the boy from some very nasty people. His thinking is unconventional, and he really doesn’t care much about that. He’s not worried about what a man of his age ‘should’ be doing, either. And that makes him all the more interesting.

That’s the thing about characters who don’t have anything to prove (You’re absolutely right, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher!). They live life on their own terms, and that in itself can be very interesting. They can certainly add to a story, too.


ps. That’s a ‘princess’ dress over a T-shirt and a pair of sport leggings, and those shoes are mine. Yes, that’s what I call living life on one’s own terms.. 😉


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Motorcycle Song. Interestingly, this song later became All About Soul. If you’ve heard both songs, you’ll notice the similarity…


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Derek B. Miller, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Sulari Gentill, Virigina Duigan

41 responses to “Don’t Have Any Need to Prove Nothin’ to No One*

  1. One of my favorite characters who fits that mold, Margot, would be Gladys Mitchell’s wonderful Mrs. Bradley. A psychiatrist quite used to working with police, her appearance is unique – “reptilian,” according to Mitchell, her dress unconventional and frequently off-putting, with a screeching laugh. She also has her own moral code and lives by it, even when that means murder. She’s a wonderful character indeed and completely uncaring about how others may view her.

    • Oh, I couldn’t agree more, Les! I’m very glad you mentioned Mrs. Bradley, too, since I didn’t have the space to do so. I actually thought about it, but since I didn’t, I’m happy that you filled in that gap. She certainly does live life on her own terms, and really doesn’t care very much what others think of her, her lifestyle, or her methods.

  2. I admire people who live life on their on terms. They are so brave!

  3. I loved Norwegian by Night. A brilliant book because of Sheldon. I also love you photo Margot! 🙂

    • Thanks, Rebecca 🙂 – I was rather proud of that, too, ‘though I say it myself. And I couldn’t agree more about Sheldon Horowitz. Isn’t he a great character? He has such a unique way of looking at the world, and makes no apologies for it. He’s just a fabulous creation, in my opinion.

  4. I’m nominating Andy Dalziel from Reginald Pascoe’s books – now there’s a man who does things his own way.

  5. tracybham

    Mostly I enjoy people who don’t care about the opinion of others, although sometimes Sherlock in movies or TV shows annoys me with that attitude. But it is definitely a trait I admire. I have only read the one book by Sulari Gentill, mainly because they are only available as e-books. But I would like to read more of them. And I have got to get to Norwegian by Night soon.

    • Oh, I hope you’ll get the chance to read more of Sulari Gentill’s series, Tracy. I think it’s really quite well done. And Norwegian By Night is another excellent novel, in my opinion. I know all about big TBRs, but when you do get a chance, I hope you’ll enjoy that one.

  6. I like this kind of character, too, though as you say it can be tricky to get the balance right. Especially when the character is a police detective rather than a PI – if they go too far down the independent route it can lack credibility. My favourites of this type have already been mentioned, Holmes, Wolfe and Dalziel – and Dalziel does toe the line just enough to keep within the bounds of credibility while letting people know that he doesn’t really give a hoot what his superiors think…

    • You’re right, FictionFan, that it makes a difference whether a character is a police detective or a PI (or an amateur). Police do have to follow policy for the most part, so they can’t go too far in living on their own terms. Dalziel manages it, and you have to like him for that. Or at least I do. 🙂

  7. Another name to throw into the mix here, Margot: Sir Henry Merrivale, the star of John Dickson Carr’s mysteries written as Carter Dickson. He’s H.M., the Old Man, a government type (and senior intelligence official) who doesn’t care at all what others may think of him. His behavior is generally outrageous – remember the time he caused a riot in the New York City subway system (in A Graveyard to Let? Or ran around in a toga because somebody was painting his portrait as a Roman general? Or took singing lessons from a long-suffering Italian vocal coach? Or when he told the story of how he and his wife tied a stuffed police uniform to every chimney in Scotland Yard? The fact that he’s brilliant and able to solve absolutely impossible crimes explains – perhaps – why he gets away with it!

  8. Miss Edna Higgins may care little what others think of her, but I’m very gratified to find her in this company. Thank you Margot.

  9. Kathy D.

    Only this column could put Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, Phrynne Fisher, Thea Farmer and Sheldon Horowitz in the same category! Independent thinkers and doers, yes. Nonconformists — some more than others.
    Phrynne Fisher is definitely a wonderfully liberated woman; she also has money which allows her to flout convention. For a woman living in the 1920s, she does what she wants to do and is a terrific character. (The TV series is a lot of fun.)
    I would say that one of my top favorite female detectives, V.I. Warshawski, also is quite independent and doesn’t care what people think, except one or two close friends — but she endangers herself anyway, even if they worry.
    She’s in her 50s now, never married, no children (has dogs), does what she wants to, says what she thinks, gets into fights, doesn’t usually call police, etc.
    Jayne Keeney is also pretty independent and does what she wants to in Thailand, in Angela Savage’s books.

    • Thanks for the shout out to Jayne, Kathy 🙂

    • I agree completely, Kathy, about Phryne Fisher. In the books and the TV show, she does, indeed, live on her own terms, with no apologies to anyone for it. And you’re absolutely right about Jayne Keeney, too. She certainly has people who matter to her, and she does have a sense of responsibility to her partner. But she lives the life she wants to live, and makes no apologies for the way she lives it.

  10. Good to see Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins on this list, Margot. She’s a wonderful, non-conformist character.

  11. Col

    I kind of thought about Robert Crais and Joe Pike, but I maybe need to read more about him.

  12. I love snarky characters. But you’re right; there’s a balance the author must strike or they come out sounding rude. Karin Slaughter has an excellent character who lives on her own terms, Lena, a detective on the squad who always seems to dance on the edge of the law. Love her!

    • You put that really well, Sue. Characters who come off as rude aren’t going to engage the reader for any length of time, especially as protagonists. And thanks for mentioning Karin Slaughter’s work; At some point in time, I ought to put one of her books in the spotlight.

  13. Margot, I can only think of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer but then most pulp detectives would be like that, I think.

    • You have a well-taken point, Prashant. Mike Hammer certainly doesn’t make apologies for the way he lives, and he goes through life on his own terms. But, as you say, his way of thinking is similar to a lot of pulp-fictional detectives. Perhaps that’s a common trait among them…

  14. The older I get the less I am willing to spend time trying to please others. It isn’t that I don’t care what others think – I do – but I simply don’t have time to try and convince others of the reasons why I do what I do. So I’m willing to be considered an oddball, an eccentric, or even crazy. Being authentic is the most important trait a human can aspire to in my opinion. And because of that I love characters like Holmes. I might not always like him but I completely respect his sense of how life needs to be lived. I love DS Barbara Havers in Elizabeth George’s stories. She isn’t quite there at being herself but she is on the path!

    • and you have it in spades yourself, Margot. Authentic self I mean. Love that picture.

    • I feel the same way as I get older, too, Jan. Like you, it’s not that I don’t care about others, or the impact that my choices will have on them. And I try to learn from others, too. But the older I get, the more important it is to me to be authentic. It’s really an essential part of being a complete human, I think. And I like your suggestion of Barbara Havers, too. She’s certainly making progress towards really being true to herself instead of trying to live up to others’ expectations for her, and I like that about her.

  15. Kathy D.

    I agree about aging and caring less about what others think, but presenting our authentic selves. This doesn’t mean we just do or say what we want to without a filter or thinking things through.
    But it means we show who we are and say who we are with integrity.
    Your outfit shows a sense of personal freedom. I admire this trait.
    Some friends won’t hide their gray or white hair or wear make-up. Others do other things. Some people quit tedious jobs, change careers or take up hobbies in a serious way.

    • You put that very well, Kathy. It’s really a matter of living with a sense of personal integrity. And people show it in different ways. Oh, and the outfit? That’s my granddaughter in the ‘photo. She does have quite a sense of personal freedom.

  16. Kathy D.

    Way to go! Your granddaughter knows how to dress up. Wonderful.
    Yes, personal integrity, principles and being who we are matters. And I think this increases with aging. After all, if not now, when?
    When those beautiful people were killed in Charleston, S.C., over the summer, I didn’t know what to do. I put a sign on my front door in my apartment building saying, “Stand with the people of Charleston.” It’s still there. Maybe only 6-10 people have seen it, but it matters to me.
    The graying hair, not wearing make-up and wearing the orange T-shirt which is a library fundraiser are secondary.

    • I think it’s wonderful, too, Kathy. I hope she’ll always have that sense of being true to herself. And I couldn’t agree more about living life on one’s own terms even more as one gets older. As you say, if not now, when? And I think it’s quite possible to care about friends and loved ones, and consider the consequences of one’s choices for others, without losing that sense of personal integrity.

  17. Keishon

    ‘To thine own self be true’ <<<—That has always been my motto in life. Funny, but I can't think of any characters off the top besides Holmes. Still, I find those characters inspiring. Great post Margot, as usual.

  18. I nominate Toby Peters, a rumpled, prosperity-challenged, barely competent private detective whose lifestyle is seat-of-the-pants even by the standards of private eyes.

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