Riddles Are Abound Tonight*

Ongoing MysteriesMost well-written crime novels give answers to the main questions in a plot. If it’s a whodunit, then usually the criminal is revealed, even if that person isn’t brought to justice. If it’s a whydunit or a howdunit, we learn the answers to those questions as well. That’s part of creating a good reading experience for the reader.

And yet, there are some questions that go unanswered through most, if not all, of a series. It’s not always easy to dodge those questions and still have an engaging series, but some authors manage it. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll have others to suggest.

One of Agatha Christie’s sleuths (and, so it is said, one of the characters she liked best) is Mr. Harley Quin. He usually works with another Christie character, Mr. Satterthwaite. Satterthwaite is a socialite who is often on the ‘also present’ lists when parties and other social events are written up in newspapers. So he has all sorts of encounters with members of the ‘upper crust.’ People tend to trust him and talk to him, which is often how he gets involved in mysteries. The real mystery, though, is Mr. Quin, who always seems to appear at key points in a story, and then disappear just as unexpectedly. We really know almost nothing about him; in fact, you could debate the question of whether he actually exists. But he certainly has conversations with Satterthwaite. He is a sort of catalyst for his friend, and frequently points him in the right investigative direction. Yet, we never see Mr. Quin interact with others. He’s an intriguing and very enigmatic character whom we never really get to know; still, the mysteries in which he gets involved are solved.

For quite some time, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels presented readers with an ongoing riddle: Morse’s given name. At more than one point, when people ask his given name, Morse says that it’s Inspector. It’s not until the twelfth novel (of thirteen), Death is Now My Neighbour, that Morse’s full name is revealed. For many readers, not knowing Morse’s given name adds to the mystery around him. At the same time, it doesn’t take away from the plots of the different novels. And, since we know Morse’s surname, it was easy enough for Dexter to negotiate the details of writing the stories smoothly.

It’s not so easy to do that when the main character is not given a name at all. Yet, that’s what Bill Pronzini decided to do with his sleuth. Beginning with The Snatch, Pronzini has written more than forty novels featuring the San Francisco detective that most of us think of as Nameless. In fact, ‘though fans now know his name (it’s revealed in Savages, in case you’re interested), I’d guess a lot of people still refer to him as Nameless; I know I do. And, interestingly enough, it took Pronzini more than thirty novels to give readers what you’d think would be a vital piece of information about his sleuth. In part, of course, Pronzini’s been able to do that because of the stories’ focus on the mysteries at hand. But it’s also taken some skillful writing. The novels are written in the first person, from Nameless’ point of view, and that’s made it a bit easier to avoid giving away the name. But there are also some sections written from other characters’ perspectives. And that’s where Pronzini’s writing talent has come in. Most Pronzini fans I know don’t mind not being given the name of the main character for so long. Pronzini has, if you will, written his way around that question very successfully.

Sarah Caudwell created a four-novel series featuring a group of young London lawyers: Timothy Shepherd, Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip, Desmond Ragwort, and Julia Larwood. Acting as a sort of mentor to these budding attorneys is Shepherd’s Oxford mentor, law professor Hilary Tamar. Each novel features at least one murder and the mystery surrounding it. The cases are solved, and the murderer revealed. But one mystery that is never solved is Hilary Tamar’s sex. Caudwell wrote these novels in first person, from Tamar’s perspective. So in that sense, it was a fairly straightforward matter not to reveal whether Tamar is male or female. But that doesn’t prevent every potential awkwardness in writing. Still, Caudwell managed to keep her writing style smooth, and the focus on the mysteries. So fans will tell you that not knowing Tamar’s sex doesn’t take away from the stories.

And then there’s Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa series, which takes place mostly in the Copacabana section of Rio de Janeiro. Espinosa isn’t what you’d call overly mysterious. The stories are told in part from his point of view, so we learn a bit about his personal life (he’s a divorced father who has very little contact with his children). We know that he’s a book lover with quite a collection and with dreams of owning a bookshop. He’s an essentially good guy who has to operate in an often-corrupt system. But what we never learn about him is his given name. It’s hinted at in A Window in Copacabana, when he has a conversation with a woman he’s trying to protect from a murderer:

 

‘‘When I want to talk to you, I’ll use the name Benedito. Don’t answer calls from anybody else. Remember: I’ll never use the name Espinosa. I’ll only be Benedito.’
‘Is that your first name?’
‘Almost.’’

 

Still, it’s not revealed. Since Gracia-Roza does use Espinosa’s surname, it’s a straightforward matter to tell these stories without any ‘clunkiness.’ But it’s still a bit of a riddle.

What do you think about all of this? Do you find it annoying, for instance, not to know a sleuth’s name (or part of it?). Do you notice those little mysteries within the mysteries you read? If you’re a writer, do you include those sorts of riddles?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Sausage.

37 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Bill Pronzini, Colin Dexter, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Sarah Caudwell

37 responses to “Riddles Are Abound Tonight*

  1. Tim

    Morse is a great example. Thesis: the more mysterious the sleuth, the more interesting the story/novel. Your several examples are at the tip of the iceberg. I hope your legions of visitors will add more from the rest of the iceberg. Then I can add more gems to my must-read list. Now, though, I just might revisit Morse and do a few crossword puzzles along the way, all the time wishing Dexter had continued the series and not knowing why he stopped.

    • You have an interesting point, Tim, about the sleuth having a bit of mystery. For many readers, a bit of mystery can add to the sleuth’s appeal. And Morse certainly does have an air of mystery about him.

  2. Reblogged this on e. michael helms and commented:
    Once again Mystery Writer/Author/Teacher Margot Kinberg shares her wealth of knowledge. Enjoy mystery/thriller/crime/suspense? Follow her blog!

  3. You continue to amaze and impress me with your wealth of knowledge. Wish I would’ve had an instructor like you years ago to pick your brain. 🙂

  4. Very interesting post. The Sarah Caudwell example is very well chosen. Personally I find the mystery about Hilary Tamar’s gender truly fascinating and also, rather strangely, very satisfactory.

    • Thank you, Martin. I know exactly what you mean about the mystery of Hilary Tamar’s gender. There is something about that mystery that serves the series, I think. And it’s just plain interesting, isn’t it?

  5. Interesting! I didn’t mind with Morse not knowing his first name, but I suspect not having any name at all in the Pronzini books might have irritated me, not least because nameless characters become difficult to deal with in reviews! I still have the first of the Sarah Cauldwell books on the never-ending TBR, but it occurs to me that might be an irritation in reviewing too, though intriguing in reading. Of course, that all perhaps proves that the authors are more skilled at dealing with such things than some of us reviewers are…

    • You have a point there, FictionFan, about the skill it takes to write, say, characters that you don’t name, or whose gender isn’t identified. I honestly didn’t have a problem with Caudwell’s decision not to let readers know Tamar’s gender. Since the books are in first person, the prose isn’t clumsy, if that makes sense. Writing about the series, is, I admit, a bit trickier, though. And as to Pronizni? I just went with ‘Nameless’ and ‘he,’when I did my spotlight on The Snatch. I guessed that it might be the best way to write about the book without being strangled in clunky prose or giving away information that’s not in that book. I don’t think I’d create a character without a name, though…

  6. Col

    I’ve read a dozen or so Nameless books and the lack of a name doesn’t bother me in the slightest, I don’t even notice how Pronzini avoids the matter. Garcia-Roza’s is another series I’ve been meaning to read.

    Off-topic, it always kind of bothered me as a kid, never seeing Charlie revealed, after the Angels solved a mystery. Always nearly, but never quite…

    • Now, that’s another interesting mystery, isn’t it, Col? Who, exactly, is Charlie?

      I do recommend the Garcia-Roza series when you get the chance for it. I think it’s quite well-done. And as to Nameless, I think Pronzini makes it look easy…

  7. I never realized there were so many series that held mysteries within a mystery. I don’t think not knowing a character’s name would bother my reading. Great post, Margot.

    • Thank you, Mason. I honestly think that it takes real talent to be able to tell a story and keep readers engaged without giving the name of the protagonist. It happens, though, and I respect authors who do it well.

  8. Margot, I’m intrigued by Bill Pronzini’s Nameless series, which I definitely plan to read this year. It’s such a memorable character name and to be able to keep readers engaged in the series for so long, is really something.

    • I think it is, too, Prashant. I do recommend the series. Nameless is a really interesting character; and, among other things, I like the way he evolves as the series goes on.

  9. tracybham

    Wow, Margot, I have read two of the Inspector Espinosa books, and I never even noticed that his first name is not revealed (or I forgot). Very interesting. And a very good series.

    Of course, Len Deighton’s protagonist in his first spy series is nameless, although it is often called the Harry Palmer series because the character in the movies has that name.

    • You’re quite right about that Len Deighton series, Tracy; thanks for filling in that gap. And it is interesting that people have wanted to give that character a name, so they’ve used ‘Harry Palmer.’ Perhaps it’s one of those tendencies we have: we want to call people by some sort of name.

  10. I definitely would be annoyed if the author never revealed the sleuth’s name.

  11. Wow. I’ve never heard of an author not naming their protagonist. Now you’ve got me curious about Bill Pronzini. He must be talented to pull that off. Now I need to look into Snatch to quell my curiosity.

    • I recommend Snatch, Sue, as well as the other Nameless novels. I think Pronzini does a fine job with the PI context in them, and they have a solid ‘feel’ of San Francisco. If you try the series, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

  12. Margot – Thanks for this post. Your point about an author maintaining an air of secrecy around his or her sleuth is a good one. It may be why I never found Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer all that interesting. After I, THE JURY, what more was there to know about him? But wait, I might say the same about Holmes after A STUDY IN SCARLET. Hmmmm … I may have to think about this some more.

    • Thanks, Elgin. You make an interesting point about both Hammer and Holmes. A certain amount of mystery can, perhaps, add to a sleuth’s appeal. But I also think it takes more than that to make a sleuth a really compelling, interesting character.

  13. kathyd

    I think all of these plot devices, like not naming the detective at all or giving him/her (usually a him) only a last name add to the mystery. It’s never bothered me that Espinosa’s first name hasn’t been revealed. He’s just known as Espinosa, fine with me.
    When I read Sherlock Holmes books, I noticed an air of mystery about him and about Dr. Watson, too. He was always Dr. Watson.
    I wonder if there are any books with nameless women detectives or use of only a last name. Can’t think of any.
    However, for Donna Leon fans, there is a lot of mystery around Elettra Zorzi. Who is she? What is her background? Her family? Is she hacking systems everywhere or is it really done by her friend?
    And as far as Hilary Tamar’s gender, does it matter?

    • You’re right, Kathy, about Elettra Zorzi. We really don’t know a lot about her, and there’s actually something appealing about that. It makes her intriguing. And you ask an interesting question about Hilary Tamar. Whether Tamar is male or female doesn’t matter at all; what is interesting is the way in which Caudwell writes, so as not to reveal that information.

  14. kathy d

    Yes. And in modern life, especially with young people leading the way, gender matters less and less. What matters is the person, their character, personality, ethics, opinions.
    And now with young people in the LGBTQ movement, gender identity is fluid. It’s hard for older folks to understand it, but it is happening nevertheless.

  15. Great and satisfying examples Margot – I was particularly glad to see the Hilary mystery there…

    • I thought you’d appreciate that example, Moira. I think Caudwell did such a good job of telling those stories without giving away Hilary Tamar’s sex, but also without being clumsy or obvious about it.

  16. I like this analysis of mysteries – it is a different bent. Good on you for ENDEAVORING to do so [and succeeding]. 🙂

    Ever watch PBS mysteries? Did you see the few PRE-Inspector Morse mysteries, i.e., the man before he became the Inspector? It was a nice compilation of how he became, a bit of a drunk, of his passion for classical music etc.

    And what was the name of this series, you may ask? (I say that in jest, I’m sure you’ve seen it…)

    ENDEAVOUR.

    🙂

    I know Inspector Morse’s name.

    Good essay, Margot!

  17. SteveHL

    I have only read a couple of Gillian Roberts’ Amanda Pepper series, so this may have changed as the series went on, but Pepper’s significant other, C. K. Mackenzie, not only doesn’t use a first name, he even refuses to tell it to her.

    Pepper should heed the words of Woody Allen:

    Should I marry W? Not if she won’t tell me the rest of the letters in her name.

  18. Pingback: Writing Links…6/13/16 – Where Worlds Collide

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