One of the more famous film characters is Benjamin Braddock, from Mike Nichols’ 1967 film, The Graduate. He’s bright, and has a university degree, but is still, in his way, naïve. He has his own way of thinking, so in some ways he’s a non-conformist. He’s also at that young-adult stage of sexual experimentation and trying to work out what path he wants to take.
There are plenty of characters like that in crime fiction. Not all of them, of course, meet up with a ‘Mrs. Robinson,’ but they’re all finding their way, and experimenting with the larger world. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s Appointment With Death, we meet Raymond Boynton. He, his sister Carol, and their brother Lennox, are all the stepchildren of the family matriarch Mrs. Boynton, She’s tyrannical, malicious, and manipulative. Raymond and Carol, in particular, are desperate to free themselves of her, but they’re far too afraid to try life on their own. Then, Mrs. Boynton takes her family on a trip through the Middle East, including a few days at Petra. During this trip, Raymond meets newly-fledged doctor Sarah King. He’s smitten with her, and the feeling is mutual. But of course, Raymond doesn’t want to risk upsetting his mother. Still, he wants to break free from his very sheltered existence and from his stepmother’s negative influence. Then one afternoon, Mrs. Boynton dies of what looks at first like heart failure. Colonel Carbury, who’s in charge of investigations in the area, isn’t satisfied, though. He asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. As it turns out, this death was not from natural causes, and Raymond becomes a suspect.
John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook introduces readers to Tad Rampole. He’s American, and a recent university graduate. He’s planned a trip abroad, and his mentor has strongly suggested that he take the opportunity to meet Dr. Gideon Fell during his travels in England. Rampole is on his way to do just that when he meets Dorothy Starberth. He’s immediately taken with her, and she seems to like him, too. When he does meet Fell, Rampole learns more about the Starberth family history. As it turns out, for several generations, the Starberths were Governors at the now-abandoned Chatterham Prison. Tthat position seems to have come with a curse, as many of the male Starberths have met with untimely ends. Still, each male Starberth has followed a particular ritual on the night of his twenty-fifth birthday. The ritual includes spending the night in the old governor’s room at the prison, unlocking the safe that’s in the room, and following the instructions written on a sheet of paper that’s kept in that safe. It’s now the turn of Dorothy Starberth’s brother, Martin, and despite the curse, he’s going to go through with the ritual. On the night of his twenty-fifth birthday, Martin is in the governor’s room at the prison when he dies of what looks like a tragic fall from the balcony. But was it an accident? Fell and Rampole work to find out the truth. Rampole is bright, educated and so on. He’s also a little naïve, and this is his first experience with murder. He offers an interesting perspective on the case, as he looks at it with young eyes, if I can put it that way.
Angela Savage’s Rajiv Patel is originally from India. But he wanted to get a chance to see the world. So, he went to Bangkok, in part to help out in his uncle’s bookshop. That’s where, in The Half Child, he meets Savage’s other protagonist, PI Jayne Keeney. Patel is fascinated, and Keeney likes him, too. Before long, they begin dating, but more than that, Patel wants to be a part of her PI business. So, when Keeney goes to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck, Patel goes, too. As the case goes on, he and Keeney do have their ups and downs, and things don’t always go smoothly. But they do care deeply for each other, and it turns out that their skills are complementary.
At the beginning of Seán Haldane’s The Devil’s Making, it’s 1868, and Chad Hobbes has just completed his degree in Jurisprudence at Oxford. Now he’s on his way to Vancouver, where he’s given a job as a constable. His duties are, for the most part, quite light: breaking up the occasional drunken quarrel, serving guard duty, and occasionally removing the local prostitutes. Everything changes one day when a group of Tsimshian Indians reports finding the body of Richard McCrory. The victim was an ex-pat American, in Canada to advance his business as an ‘alienist’ – a psychiatrist in the time before modern psychological and psychiatric work. At the time of his death, McCrory was involved with one of the Tsimshian women, Lukswaas. So, her partner, Wiladzap, is the primary suspect. He claims to be innocent, and the police need to make at least a show of investigating. So, Hobbes is tasked with asking a few perfunctory questions and ‘rubber stamping’ the theory that Wiladzap is guilty. But the more questions he asks, the less sure Hobbes is that Wiladzap is really the killer. And, as we learn, there are plenty of other possibilities. Hobbes is a bright young man. He is also sexually inexperienced, and not accustomed to interacting with people from different ethnic groups. So, this experience in Vancouver is very new to him. So are his feelings for Lukswaas. He’s attracted to her, being heterosexual. But he’s gotten conflicting messages about women, and certainly about non-whites. It’s an interesting look at a formative time in Hobbes’ life.
And then there’s Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinjū, the first of her historical novels to feature Sano Ichirō. It’s 1687 in Edo (now Tokyo), and Sano is a yoriki, a senior investigator and police officer. One day, he is asked to handle what he is told is ‘a small matter.’ The bodies of well-born Niu Yukiko, and an artist named Noriyoshi are pulled from the river. The presumption is that this is a case of two lovers whose social class separates them. Since they can’t be together, they’ve chosen to commit suicide. This isn’t uncommon in this place at this time, so Sano is expected to write and file a report very quickly and get the matter handled quietly. But soon, questions arise about that explanation. And Sano begins to believe that murder is involved. His choice to investigate gets him into enough trouble as it is. But he adds to that when the trail leads to some very high places. As he searches for the truth, Sano isn’t completely naïve. But this is his first major, important case, and he learns some (sometimes very unpleasant) lessons about what the life of the powerful is like.
And that’s the thing about characters such as Benjamin Braddock. They may be bright, educated, and interesting people. But they certainly have a lot to learn about the world…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence.