Boy, You’ll Be My Foil*

foilsOne interesting way to show what a character is like is by using a foil. Fictional foils contrast with other characters, so their personalities are more sharply defined. As with anything in crime fiction, foils have to be handled carefully. Otherwise, they can become too cartoonish. But when they’re well-crafted characters in their own right, foils can bring out other characters, and can add a layer of interest to a story. There are plenty of examples of foils in crime fiction; here are just a few.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), we are introduced to the Lee family. Family patriarch Simeon Lee decides that he wants his relatives to gather at the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. No-one in the family wants to make the trip; Lee is a malicious, unpleasant old man who takes pleasure in others’ discomfort. But no-one dares to refuse the invitation. On Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his private room. Hercule Poirot is staying nearby, and works with the police to find out who the killer is. In this novel, there’s an interesting contrast between two of Simeon Lee’s sons: Alfred and Harry. Alfred’s always been ‘the good son,’ who went into the family business (which he never wanted to do), and who has stayed at the family home to help care for his father. Harry is the wild adventurer, who’s been all over the world, and in trouble more than once. Where Alfred is more reserved and cautious, Harry is extroverted, and he can be witty. Their father knows all too well that Alfred and Harry’s differences will likely lead to conflict; that’s a big part of the reason he invited Harry. And it’s interesting to see how these two serve as foils for each other. You’re absolutely right, fans of Five Little Pigs. There’s an interesting contrast between brothers there, too.

Fans of Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series will know that there are plenty of foils there. To take the most obvious example, we can look at the characters of Superintendent Andy Dalziel and Sergeant (later, Inspector) Peter Pascoe. Where Pascoe is educated, intellectual, and in some ways, highbrow, his boss is the opposite. Dalziel is a brilliant detective, but he doesn’t have a university background or gentrified tastes. They have other differences, too, and Hill used those differences to make them foils for each other. What’s interesting is that Pascoe’s wife, Ellie, also serves as a foil. In her political and social views, she often differs with Dalziel. She resents what she sees as his way of commandeering her husband, too. Part of what makes these characters work as foils is that all of them are well-developed and ‘fleshed out.’ They see one another’s positive traits, too, so their interactions are rich and complex.

Geraldine Evans’ DI Joe Rafferty and DS Dafyd Llewellyn are also police partners who serve as foils for each other. Rafferty has Irish, working-class roots. He’s outgoing, and sometimes tends to jump to conclusions (although he usually isn’t overly rash).  Rafferty sometimes gets drawn into his family’s drama, too. On the other hand, Llewellyn is more intellectual and long-headed, as the saying goes. He’s quiet, and his personal life isn’t complicated in the way that his boss’ is. They’re both smart detectives, and bring complementary strengths to their investigation. And that’s arguably why they make successful foils for each other. They highlight one another’s personalities, and respect each other despite their differences.

And, of course, I don’t think it would be possible to discuss foils in crime fiction without mentioning Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin. As fans know, they are, in many ways, a study in contrasts. Wolfe has a rigid routine and a taste for luxury, and can be both arrogant and temperamental. But he is a brilliant detective, and he has a compassionate side in his way. By contrast, Goodwin is energetic, pragmatic and down-to-earth. He does quite a lot of the ‘legwork’ for his boss, and is an accomplished detective in his own right. He sometimes gets himself into trouble by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or by wisecracking when that isn’t the safest choice to make. But he is at heart a person of integrity. Wolfe and Goodwin often spar. But they do respect each other, and their skills are complementary. Again, that’s part of what makes them good foils for each other.

If you think about it, foils really don’t have to be characters. Other sorts of contrasts can work, too. For instance, in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, we are introduced to Mary Yellan. As the story begins, she’s on her way from her home village of Helford to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss at their establishment, Jamaica Inn. Mary’s mother has recently died, and Mary’s fulfilling a last promise to her by going to her relatives. Du Maurier presents Helford as a start contrast – a foil – for Jamaica Inn:

‘How remote now and perhaps hidden for ever were the shining waters of Helford, the green hills and the sloping valleys, the white cluster of cottages at the water’s edge. It was a gentle rain that fell at Helford…

This was a lashing, pitiless rain that stung the coach, and it soaked into a hard and barren ground.’  

The contrast between the two places becomes even more pronounced when Mary arrives at Jamaica Inn. It’s eerie, dilapidated, and lonely. It’s out by itself on the moor, and certainly not the welcoming, friendly place that Helford is. And the differences add to the sense of place in the novel, and the sense of foreboding. And if you’ve read the novel, you know just how dangerous and creepy Jamaica Inn turns out to be.

That’s really one of the most important purposes of foils. They serve to highlight aspects of a place or a character, because they provide contrasts with other characters and places. And that can be an effective to show what a character or a place is like without a lot of verbiage. Which fictional foils have you liked best?


ps. The ‘photo is of Jim Hutton (L) and John Hillerman (R), who had the roles, respectively, of Ellery Queen and private investigator/radio host Simon Brimmer in the 1975-76 series. Brimmer sees Queen as a rival, and often serves as his foil in this series, and Hillerman played the role quite well, I think.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Driving With Andy’s Sugar, Sugar.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Geraldine Evans, Reginald Hill, Rex Stout

34 responses to “Boy, You’ll Be My Foil*

  1. Love the photo you used – great choices and I adore that show as a kid.

    • Thanks, Sergio. And wasn’t that a great show? I loved it, too.

      • I do like the theme of your post as the idea of not just a sidekick but a foil does really add the dynamic and in the show I thought it worked a treat – apparently they used Brimmer less and less because it meant they had to come up with two solutions each week, one nearly right but wrong for Brimmer and of course the correct one for Ellery!

        • I didn’t know that about the writers, Sergio – thanks for telling me. But it makes sense. Each solution needs to be credible (even Brimmer’s), which means a motive, opportunity and the like. That takes work. But the result really was an excellent dynamic, wasn’t it? And Hillerman handled that role quite well. So did Hutton, of course.

        • Mike Doran

          Everything I’ve ever read about the Queen series indicates that Simon Brimmer was never intended to be a week-in-week-out character; he worked better as an occasional foil for Ellery, perhaps four or five shows in a season.
          In addition to John Hillerman as Brimmer, Ellery had another designated foil: Frank “Front Page” Flannigan, the demon newshawk played by Ken Swofford.
          As with Brimmer, Flannigan would be best used on an occasional basis – no more than maybe five times in a season.

          Years afterward, Levinson & Link, and their showrunners like Peter Fischer, used a similar “rule of five” on Murder She Wrote: no more than five episodes set in Cabot Cove in any given season.
          Later on, when Jessica Fletcher took a teaching position in New York City, the “rule of five” went there too.

        • That’s very interesting background about Murder She Wrote, Mike. I remember when that show moved, more or less, from Cabot Cove to New York, and you’re right; there were a limited number of episodes that took place there. Really interesting!

          You’re right about Frank ‘FF’ Flannigan, too. I liked his character very much precisely because he was the right sort of foil for Queen. Knowledgeable and intelligent enough not to be ridiculous. But at the same time, of course, he didn’t get to the solution before Queen did. There was something appealing about him.

        • I think you are right there – Levinson and Link did say that they belatedly realised how hard it was to use Brimmer because he had to have a solution that was almost right (Flanagan was always more obviously wrong) – but they definitely applied all these learned lessons for MURDER, SHE WROTE.

        • Thanks for the input, Sergio. Really interesting!

  2. A.M. Pietroschek

    I appreciate the reminders about how much I have to relearn on being an author. Though your article was certainly about much more than just this side-effect.

  3. Plus, juxtaposing is fun to use in our own writing. Just sayin’. Can’t think of any examples besides the ones you used. Great post as always, Margot.

  4. Interesting post Margot. I had not heard this term used before so thanks for enlightening me. I think Christie uses a lot of foils in her books and you’ve given us some great exanples there!

  5. I like your analysis of the foil – it’s well said. I had to laugh when you pointed out that Hillerman played that Simon Brimmer role in Ellery Queen. When I saw Hillerman’s face my first thought was MAGNUM and Higgins who was perhaps Thomas Magnum’s foil! I don’t know. I loved that Ellery Queen series… 🙂

    • He did play his role well in Magnum, PI, that’s true. And I thought that Ellery Queen series was nicely done. I wish it had continued for more than one year.

      • Oh yeah. I liked how Ellery talked to the audience, us, inviting us to solve the puzzle. Have you seen a recent British “cop”/mystery show set in the “Jamaican Islands” (I’m putting Jamaica in quotes, because I am not sure exactly where the location is, just some exotic spot, most likely Atlantic Ocean!) — It’s called DEATH IN PARADISE. It’s approx. an hour long. A British copper comes to the Island to lead the Police squad. There is a murder, or problem , to be solved. I like it because the plot is simple, inviting the watcher to solve the mystery! Less headache, but still the intrigue. Me Likey!

  6. Margot: I thought of Assad as a foil for Carl Mørck in the Department Q series by Jussi Adler-Olsen. I found Assad made Mørck a stronger more credible character.

    • I agree with you, Bill. And that really is an excellent example of what I had in mind with this post, so thank you. Assad acts as a very effective foil, doesn’t he? And he does help make Mørck’s character that much more defined and, as you say, credible.

  7. Thank you Margot I was unsure what ‘foil’ meant in this context but I’ve learned something new – my favourite of your examples is Dalziel and Pascoe (of course)

    • They do serve so well as foils, don’t they, Cleo? I really like the way they complement each other. At the same time, Hill did it without making either character look cartoonish. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  8. What a great post. I’ve only recently heard the term foil so it’s interesting to see it pop up as a topic here right now. I liked how you showed the use of place as foil as well. So many things to learn as a writer – and to remember!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Rebecca. I’m glad you found the post interesting. And I find that there’s so much I need to learn as a writer. Every time I think I have something down, there’s something new I need to learn…

  9. Interesting to learn the meaning of foil as it relates here. I have to agree with Bill in that I thought of Assad as a foil for Carl Mørck in the Department Q series, especially since there is a bit of mystery about Assad’s background. Great post, Margot.

    • Thanks, Mason. And I’m so glad you and Bill mentioned Assad. He really is an excellent foil for Mørck, and that makes their interactions all the more credible. You’re right, too, that Assad has a somewhat mysterious past. I think that adds to his character.

  10. I understand, and have used, the term foil in this context, but it’s very hard to explain or describe or define it isn’t it? But you know it when you see it. My example would be from one of my favourite series: Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway books. Harry and Cathbad have formed a most unlikely but fruitful friendship after unpromising beginnings. They couldn’t be more different, and yet….

    • It is a bit hard to describe or define, Moira. But as you say, you know it when you see it. And I like your example of Cathbad and Harry. They are quite different. In that sense, they highlight each other’s characters. And yet, as you say, they have a partnership. I find that interesting, and it shows skill on Griffiths’ part.

  11. tracybham

    I am not much good with examples, Margot, but I loved the ones you mentioned here. Especially Hillerman / Brimmer from the Ellery Queen TV series.

    • Wasn’t that a great relationship, Tracy? I always liked it that Brimmer wasn’t a total fool It made him more believable as a foil, and a more interesting character.

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