And He’s Stealing the Scene*

Scene StealersMost crime fiction novels have a protagonist or protagonists who are the ‘stars’ of the story or series. The other characters are, hopefully, well-developed, but they don’t have top billing, as the saying goes. And yet, there are some secondary characters who can steal scenes very effectively. They have a way of calling attention to themselves, whether it’s because of a strong personality, an interesting background, or a way of serving as a foil to the protagonist. They can certainly add to a story, and if they’re well drawn, they can do so without taking away from the protagonist’s role.

For example, the protagonist in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit is Anne Bedingfield. After her professor father dies, Anne is left alone in the world without a lot of money. But she does have a sense of adventure. One day, she witnesses a terrible accident in which a man falls (or is pushed) from a train platform to the tracks below. She happens to notice a piece of paper that fell out of his pocket, and later, gets her hands on it. The message on the paper seems cryptic until she works out that it’s a reference to the upcoming sailing of the HMS Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. On impulse, Anne books passage on the ship, and ends up getting mixed up in a case of international intrigue, stolen jewels and murder. One of the other passengers on the ship is Suzanne Blair, a wealthy woman a little older than Anne is herself. Suzanne is independent and knows exactly what she wants. She gets it, too. She becomes Anne’s friend, but is really quite a strong character in her own right. And she is most helpful in getting Anne out of trouble.

In Reginald Hill’s An Advancement of Learning, Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe investigate when a body is discovered at Holm Coultram College. Renovations are being made at the school, and part of the work involves digging up a statue and moving it to another place on campus. That’s when the body of the college’s former president, Alison Girling, is found. It was assumed she’d died as a result of an avalanche during a skiing trip, so everyone is shocked to find her body so close to home. And it turns out that several people at the school might have had a good reason to want the victim dead. One of the characters we meet in this novel is Franny Roote, who leads a revolutionary student activist group called the Student Union. He’s not what you’d call a nice person. And his fellow activists do their best to disrupt the normal goings-on of life at the campus. And yet, he does have a certain magnetism, and he’s a very interesting (i.e. not one-dimensional) character. As fans of this series know, he makes return appearances, too, in later books (Dialogues of the Dead and Death’s Jest-Book come to my mind). He may be a major thorn in, especially, Peter Pascoe’s side. But Franny Roote can steal a scene.

The setting for most of Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is the small, rural Québec town of Three Pines. One of the people who lives in that town is poet Ruth Zardo. She is brilliant and observant, but her wit is caustic and she doesn’t really let people close to her. There are a few characters with whom she has what you might call a friendship. At least, she has a sort of back-and-forth/give-and-take repartee with them. But she keeps a very close guard on herself, keeping others away with her prickliness. And yet, she knows a lot about what goes on in town, and she herself is more complex than it seems. She really shares her soul in her poetry more than in any other way. In A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold), Ruth wins the Governor-General’s Award for her work, and her name begins to get around more than it has. So she launches her newest book of poems at a Montréal bookshop, and several of Three Pines’ residents go to the event. On the one hand, the book launch doesn’t draw crowds. On the other, we see that despite her manner, Ruth is important to the people of Three Pines.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins series mostly features Rawlins, a PI living in post-World War II Los Angeles. He’s originally from Louisiana, and still knows people from that time in his life. One of those people is his friend Raymond ‘Mouse’ Alexander. Mouse is a complex and interesting character. On one level, he’s dangerous. He has a hair-trigger temper and few boundaries. On the other, he is brave and loyal to Easy. In Little Green, for instance, we learn that he rescued Easy from certain death after a car accident. Mouse tells a compelling story, too. In one scene (also from Little Green) we learn how he survived being shot in the back. In that scene, Easy is recovering from his near-death experience as Mouse tells his story, and even in that short space, we can see how Mouse is able to steal that scene. And in the novel, it’s Mouse who asks Easy to help locate a missing young man named Evander, who seems to have disappeared after getting mixed up with some hippies (the story takes place in the late 1960s). Mouse may be violent at times, but he is also fascinating.

In Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, we are introduced to Vigàta Inspector Salvo Montalbano. In that novel, he and his team are looking into the sudden death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. One of the ‘people of interest’ in this investigation is Luparello’s political rival, Angelo Cardemone. In fact, there’s evidence that his son Giacomino was near the scene on the night Luparello died. That’s how Montalbano meets Giacomino’s wife, Ingrid Sjostrom. Originally from Sweden, she’s a race car driver who lives life exactly as she wants. She’s very much her own person, and that adds ‘spicy’ to her character. She and Montalbano become friends, and she can be very helpful. She can steal scenes, too. For instance, in this novel, she and Montalbano test one of his theories about Luperallo’s death. The test involves having Ingrid drive her car down a certain difficult path. She’s quite in control of that scene.

And then there’s Count Kolya, whom we first meet in William Ryan’s historical (late 1930s) novel The Holy Thief. Kolya is Chief Authority of the Moscow Thieves, and as such, lives life on the wrong side of the law. But he has his own code, and he is a complex character. As the series goes on, we learn bits about Kolya, and we see that there are depths to him. What’s interesting about this is that the series actually features Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev. He, too is an interesting character, and the well-drawn protagonist of the series. But when Kolya is ‘on screen,’ he is compelling. And he has a habit of popping up unexpectedly. Korolev finds him an unlikely but sometimes very helpful ally.

It all just goes to show that a character doesn’t have to be the protagonist to steal a scene (or more). Which scene-stealing characters have stayed with you?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ellis Paul’s River.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Walter Mosley, William Ryan

33 responses to “And He’s Stealing the Scene*

  1. M Byerly

    This is a bit off topic, but I’ve found an email list that sends notices of cheap and free ebooks. It’s called Early Bird Books. Mystery is one of the genres I signed up for, and, so far, the books have been backlist of major writers and classics of the early days of mystery.

    Unlike the other lists like Bookbub, the books, with the exception of the free, out-of-copyright, books are from major publishers, not self-published authors.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. My favourite character in the Wallander series is forensic pathologist Nyberg. I’m a sucker for a man with a dark sense of humour!

  3. I sincerely believe you hold the distinct honor of having read every worthy crime novel on the market and then some. I love tapping your brain. You make me think.

  4. Dr. Watson and Captain Hastings are always, because of their foggy fumbling and baffled bumbling, upstage their sleuth partners (who would be nothing without their faithful fumblers and bumblers).

    • You make a very interesting point, Tim. Both Watson and Hastings have their own appeal of course. And, they show their sleuth partners’ foibles and faults, which is also really useful. So yes, they certainly can upstage.

  5. Captain Hasting for me, every time. 😀

  6. Oh yes although you featured my favourite Franny Roote who does steal the show a little! I was also a big fan of Mullet in R.D.Wingfield’s Inspector Frost book who was endlessly trying to get rid of Frost which meant he took the role of the villain!

    • You know, I haven’t thought of Wingfield and Frost in a while, Cleo. I’m very glad you filled in that gap. And I’m glad you reminded me of those great novels. And I like Franny Roote a lot, too.

  7. The first character that comes to mind is Lena Adams in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series. She’s rough around the edges. When we’re first introduced to her, her twin sister has been murdered, a sister who was gay. Because Lena didn’t agree with her sister’s sexuality, they were estranged. So she struggles to find peace. In later books, she’s being physically and emotionally abused by a boyfriend (totally uncharacteristic for Lena, but believable). As I read the series I found myself looking forward to Lena’s scenes. She so well-rounded and real, with a snarky personality (my favorite).

    • Oh, that’s an interesting example, Sue. What I like about it is that Lena is a character who evolves over time. When a character is like that – well-rounded and developing – it’s not hard to see how you’d look forward to her scenes. And the snarky wit helps 🙂

  8. A.M. Pietroschek

    I have no interesting title to offer, as I was focused on your article. I think the main problem is what people expect from a protagonist. A protagonist must not be the hero at all, as ‘Game of Thrones TV Series’, alike George R.R. Martin’s books of it, kills most of them for taking what they had not fully earned in life.

    And on classics, like Agatha Christie: Limitations due Time and Money may have kept her from writing books with all her characters as protagonists, as many of them were nice persons and fiercely loyal citizens giving example to a society which still knew self-preservation instead of consume-rush.

    As this is not what you asked for, feel free to delete it. Still I meant it in a constructive way: Overcoming an outdated mindset or definition might all that is really needed. Goodbye.

    • I think you’ve made some really interesting points, and added a really interesting perspective, A.M, for which thanks. People do have expectations the protagonist – the hero if you will – and I think that affects the way they see those characters. And you could very well be right about Agatha Christie. Although she wrote for fifty years, she created so many memorable characters that it would be impossible for her to write books that featured all of them.

      There’s even a possible argument that it can improve a novel when one has a protagonist as well as other strong characters. It’s got to be done deftly, but it certainly can add texture to a story.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        Thank you.

      • A.M. Pietroschek

        I finally remembered the TV Series Castle IS a good example. Former sidekicks Brian & Esposito (two detectives), just like Alexis Castle (daughter of the protagonist) growing their roles beyond that, even getting episodes evolving more around them than the main plot. So the concept I mentioned can work out nice, and in crime fiction! 😉 Goodbye!

        • It certainly can, A.M., and thanks for adding in that example. Not only is it a very clear example of what I had in mind with this post, but also, it shows that it can work not just in books, but also on TV and in films.

  9. Col

    I like Joe Pike in the Robert Crais’s Elvis Cole books, in a lot of the early ones his part can be under-stated but you know he’s around. I’ve not read the later ones where he’s billed as the main character.

    • You’re right about Pike, Col. He may not always say a lot, but you definitely feel his presence. Perhaps it’s just me, but I like it better when Elvis Col takes the lead. The later novels – where Pike does – aren’t quite as appealing to me. But again, that’s just one person’s opinion.

  10. Margot, often, a protagonist doesn’t live up to my expectations. Enter secondary characters who do. DA Hamilton Burger in the Perry Mason novels comes to mind. He was one of the reasons I enjoyed the books.

    • Now, that’s a very well-taken point, Prashant. Sometimes a main character isn’t what you’d have wanted, but those secondary characters fill in the gap. And Burger is an interesting person.

  11. Going back in time a little, I love Colin Watson’s ‘Flaxborough Chronicles’ starring Inspector Purbright. But the bits I especially love are when his boss, Chief Constable Chubb, makes an appearance. He’s so hilariously snobbish, totally unable to consider that people in his ‘class’ could possibly be criminals. A great character – always steals the scene for me. And I must say so does the cherubic faced and less than cherubic minded Sergeant Love…

    • I’ve always heard that I ought to try those books, FictionFan. I confess I’ve not (yet) gotten to it, so I’m glad you reminded me. And I can just imagine the impact when Chubb is ‘on stage.’ Just your description made me chuckle.

  12. Wyoming author Cindy Keen Reynders wrote a couple of cozies that had an elderly relative, an aunt I think, who kept stealing the show. She was a brassy ex-burlesque star with flair.

    • Oh, that sounds great, Pat! And it reminded me just a bit of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum novels, because of Grandma Mazur. What a great scene-stealing character. Don’t tell me that older people can’t steal the show!

  13. mudpuddle

    i’ve very rarely, or never seen catherine aird mentioned, but to me, detective sloan and constable crosby are about the most interesting and humorous pair(well, aside from nero and archie) i’ve ever run into(the latter two words a pun, if you’ve read the books). tx for the interesting subject!

  14. I love the Elly Griffiths books, I love Ruth Galloway, and I love her policeman friend Harry Nelson. But the character Cathbad – with his New Age habits, his strange intuitions and his druid cloak – has to be the best extra character of them all. His friendship with the other two is wonderfully well done, and he is very very funny….

  15. Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are peripherally mentioned above… but they would be my example. Nero Wolfe is the genius and the star, but Archie is the one who holds it all together. (And I love Hastings too, I really miss him when he is not in a Poirot novel.)

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