Most 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.