Take the Good From the Bad*

minus-to-a-plusWe all have traits that can be seen as disadvantages. Take me, for instance. At just over 1.5m (5ft) tall, there are plenty of things that I can’t easily reach. And it’s not always easy to find clothes that fit me properly. Other people have other things that can put them at a disadvantage.

The trick is, really, to use those disadvantages as advantages. For instance, as small as I am, air travel isn’t quite as difficult for me as it is for taller people. I can fit my things into a much smaller suitcase, and I don’t need as much room to sit. I don’t need as much leg room, either, so my things often don’t have to go into an overhead compartment.

It’s the same way with other traits. And when people turn disadvantages into advantages, they can often be more successful. Just a quick look at crime fiction, for instance, should show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has the disadvantage, as many people see it, of being a foreigner. At the time and place in which he lives, not being English is often considered a strike against him, and people usually end up respecting him not because he’s foreign, but in spite of it. And Poirot uses that very much to his advantage. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), for instance, he investigates two deaths. One is of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie, whose death was sudden, but not really unexpected. When Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, says that he was murdered, people don’t believe her at first. But privately, Abernethie’s other relatives begin to wonder. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was right. At one point in the story, Poirot attends a weekend gathering of Abernethie family members. The purpose is to choose mementos they want, before the property is sold. Poirot’s there under the guise of a potential buyer, and has accentuated his ‘foreign-ness.’ Because of that, everyone condescends to him, and soon, he’s able to sit and watch, almost forgotten. And that proves to be very useful indeed.

For several fictional female detectives, the fact of being a woman puts them at a disadvantage. But the smart ones have learned to use popular stereotypes and sexist notions to their advantage. For instance, Anna Katherine Green’s Violet Strange is a private investigator in the early years of the 20th Century. She comes from one of the ‘better’ New York families, so she has access to the higher social circles. But she’s still female at a time when ‘proper ladies’ simply do not engage in something like detection. She uses that, though; in more than one story, she takes the ‘I’m just a woman’ approach to lower people’s guards. She hears more than she might otherwise hear, and gets into places from which she might otherwise be barred.

The same is true of K.B. Owen’s Penelope Hamilton. She’s a Pinkerton’s agent who lives and works at the very end of the 19th Century. And she’s learned to be quite good at using her role as ‘just a woman’ to do what she needs to do. So does Concordia Wells, for whom Hamilton is a mentor. Wells is a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut) Women’s College, where she’s supposed to concentrate on her role as a faculty member and supervisor of her pupils. But she often finds herself getting mixed up in mysteries. And she’s learned how to occasionally use her status as a woman to find out what she needs to know.

One of Walter Mosley’s series features Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. A black man, he lives and works in post-WW II Los Angeles, beginning at a time when institutional segregation was a fact of life. And the deep-seated prejudices and bigotry behind that segregation are alive and quite well in Rawlins’ world. On the one hand, that means he is at a real disadvantage. There are places he can’t go, people he’s not ‘supposed to’ speak to, and jobs he can’t hope to get. But he uses his race to advantage in the cases he investigates. He fits in in certain places in a way that a white sleuth wouldn’t. And other blacks trust him in ways that they would never trust a white sleuth. So, Rawlins can solve cases that his white counterparts, and the white police, can’t.

There’s an interesting use of disadvantage in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series. Flavia is eleven years old at the start of the series, which takes place in 1950s England. She may be ‘just a child,’ but Flavia is very skilled at chemistry, and has a knack for detection, too. She knows that no-one really pays very much attention to ‘just a kid.’ Flavia riding her bicycle is just Flavia riding her bicycle, and she’s not considered much of a threat. So, she often finds herself able to go places, observe things, overhear conversations, and so on, that she wouldn’t be able to do if she were an adult. On the one hand, being a child puts Flavia at a disadvantage. She’s smaller, more vulnerable, not as mature, and less well able to get around than adults are. But at the same time, she can go places they can’t, and she has access to private conversations and other clues that they don’t.

Of course, criminals can use disadvantages, too. For instance, in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling, we meet real estate agent William Heming. He’s not particularly attractive, or rich, or…. In fact, he has the disadvantage of being very, very ordinary – the sort of person nobody notices. And if you want to sell real estate, being noticed and remembered can be real advantages. But Heming uses his very, very average appearance and personality quite effectively. He’s observant of all of the people to whom he’s sold homes. And he’s kept copies of each house key. He has, shall we say, interests besides selling houses. And, when a body is discovered in the yard of one those houses, he’s as concerned as anyone. If people really remember him, too much might come out that Heming would prefer didn’t. In this case, that disadvantage of, well, ordinariness turns out to be very helpful to Heming.

And that’s the thing about disadvantages. They do restrict us, but they can also be used to good effect. And people who know how to do that can end up quite successful.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sara Bareilles’ Red.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Anna Katherine Green, K.B. Owen, Phil Hogan, Walter Mosley

43 responses to “Take the Good From the Bad*

  1. Interesting one Margot. As you know I recently read Indridason’s Outrage and I found the vulnerability of the main character and her back story very interesting. Both hindering and aiding her success in the case.

    • That’s a really interesting example, D.S., and I’m glad you brought it up. It’s exactly the sort of disadvantage-that’s-also-an-advantage that I had in mind with this post.

  2. One of the least-likely-looking sleuths has to be Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Maud Silver. Miss Silver looks like (and, I suppose, really IS) a little old lady, sitting in the corner of a room, always knitting (usually small baby clothes) etc. As a result, when sitting in a room full of suspects, nobody is likely to pay attention to her – and, because she is one of the smartest investigators around, she is able to listen to them discussing things they would never dream of disclosing to the police. Christie’s Miss Marple has something similar going for her – that unprepossessing, little-old-lady look.

    (Oh…for what it’s worth…at “just over” five feet, you’re just a hair or two taller than me…)

    • Ah, then you understand, Les, the advantages of being able to drive a small sub-compact car, and of being not quite so uncomfortable in an airline seat…

      And thank you for mentioning both ‘Misses.’ No-one feels threatened, really, by those kindly-looking old ladies who appear to be sooo harmless. But criminals underestimate them at their peril, don’t they? I thought about both as I was preparing this post, but didn’t include them. I’m glad you did.

  3. Tim

    Your excellent posting reminded me of these from long ago on TV:
    Perhaps you and your fans will not remember those “vulnerable” detectives.
    Sorry for being off-topic (i.e., not books but TV)

    • Not off-topic at all, Tim. And thanks for sharing those links. You’re right, too, that Longstreet’s blindness, and ‘Ironside’s disability, mean that they aren’t seen as threats by the very people who should fear them the most…

  4. I’m on the short side too Margot and like you find it comes in useful when flying but not so useful when in the supermarket and what you want is on the top shelf. There are a few books I can think of which use the ‘average Joe’ as a way of being unnoticed either as a detective or criminal. The new Irish writer Caimh McDonnell being ‘A Man With One of Those Faces’ to become a PI as he isn’t noticed.

    • I like the title of that book, Cleo! Just on that score alone I’d be interested in reading it. You make a well-taken point, too, about the value of looking completely unremarkable and unmemorable. It can serve as an advantage on either side of the law.

      You’re right, too, about the supermarket. Invariably, there’s something I need that’s on the top shelf, so that I have to either ask for help, jump, or try some other way to get it down without tumbling everything else.

  5. Very interesting topic, Margot, and I cannot think of a single example. I look forward to more comments with examples.

  6. And I’m the person who often gets asked to reach for things on the upper shelf in supermarkets, so you clearly need me to go shopping with you. Not so nice in older houses or staircases with low ceilings – I could never live in a cramped, picturesque cottage.
    Trying hard to think of another example: only from TV – Frank Cannon and Columbo use their less than perfectly athletic physiques to disarm potential suspects, don’t they? People just assume they are sloppy and slow-witted, but Cannon also proves surprisingly agile with the martial arts (and cunning use of his belly).

    • There’s no doubt about it, Marina Sofia. I really do need to arrange a shopping trip with you. And I could get into crawl spaces for you, and pull out those stored-away items that you need, but can’t get in there to retrieve.

      I’m very glad you brought up both Columbo and Cannnon. In both cases, the detective isn’t always take seriously, so isn’t perceived as a threat. And that’s just the way both characters like it. I always did love Columbo’s ‘Just one more question…’ attitude. And yes, Cannon’s got plenty up his sleeve, too.

  7. Great post, Margot. I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb about turning crisis into opportunity when I think of PIs using ‘disadvantages’ to their advantage, particularly when it comes to playing on people’s prejudices or assumptions about them. I thought of Miss Marple and also my own Jayne Keeney, who like Poirot, uses her ‘foreign-ness’ to her advantage.

    • Thanks, Angela. I like that saying a lot, and it certainly fits with this post. And PIs like your Jayne Keeney, who can take advantage of their perceived disadvantages, show a great deal of cleverness and flexibility. I’m very glad you mentioned her.

  8. Margot: I think Russell Quant in the series by Anthony Bidulka starts with a disadvantage of being openly gay as a private investigator in Saskatchewan. Yet his orientation and sensitivity let him connect with many people. When a case involves gay people he is at an advantage.

    • He is, indeed, Bill. And, in fact, there are a few mysteries where the fact that he’s gay is either the reason he’s hired, or at least, give him a helpful perspective that a straight person might not have. And yet, as you say, his orientation might indeed be seen as a disadvantage at first. I’m glad you mentioned him; I keep hoping we’ll see more of him at some point (a-hem, Mr. Bidulka…)

  9. mudpuddle

    ha! i thought of one: Heron Carvic’s Miss Seeton is one of those bumbling old ladies who are obviously a bit past it… or is she? as she causes havoc around her, she seems to come up with the definitive answers to those so confusing enigmas…

    • Oh, that is a good one, Mudpuddle. And that slightly muddled, kindly old lady persona is so non-threatening that people don’t see just how astute she is…until it’s too late.

  10. Col

    I did like that Phil Hogan book. Again I’m short of examples from my own reading to add to the chat.

  11. Interesting post, Margot. For some reason it made me think of Rita Mae Brown’s Sneaky Pie series where her protagonist was a postmistress for a time. Being postmistress she was able to overhear a lot of conversations.

    • She certainly was, Mason. Her job as postmistress put her in a really good position to know what’s going on in the town. I’m glad you mentioned her; I hadn’t thought about her in a while.

  12. Margot, this is another refreshing perspective on crime fiction. Never really thought about it. Thanks for highlighting so many wonderful examples.

  13. I absolutely love this post, Margot! 🙂 Very interesting read!

  14. A Pleasure and a Calling really intrigues me. I might have to add that one to my ever-growing list. One of the hazards of reading your blog. 😉 I can relate to your disadvantages, Margot. Last week a new neighbor discovered my age, and said, “You don’t dress like you’re that old.” I had to laugh. Vertically-challenged women, especially if they’re petite, often shop in the juniors section. I’m sure you can relate. 🙂

    • 😆 Yes, I can, Sue. And I really do think you’d like A Pleasure and a Calling. I don’t want to say much about it, so you get the full impact. But I do recommend it…

  15. kathy d

    I agree with the issues of being short. I am, but I always find people to be helpful in supermarkets or other stores. Another sign of aging is that if I go to a grocery store and haven’t brought my glasses, I can’t read the labels or other information on the food items. So, I have to ask another customer to read some things for me. And everyone obliges.
    The advent of the female private investigator, as V.I. Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone and Sharon McCone, brought women into areas traditionally belonging to men. They all faced challenges but have managed to get things done in spite of that. And this is true, too, of women police officers.
    One can see in Tana French’s “The Trespassers,” that a woman police detective who is also a woman of color faces a lot of sexism and elitism in the Murder Squad in the Dublin police department. But she faces it and stands strong with her investigation and insistence for justice.
    I think also with elderly sleuths that people can ignore them or let slip evidence in their presence, thinking they won’t notice or put two and two together. Not so with elderly sleuths in crime fiction, whether Miss Marple or others.

    • You’re right, Kathy, that a lot of people are quite happy to help others (like me!) who can’t easily reach things. I’ve never had a problem getting that sort of help if I needed it.

      You make a well-taken point, too, about elderly sleuths. In a way, they are at a disadvantage because of their ages. But at the same time, that can prove a real advantage. Since they’re not really seen as a threat, there’s a lot they hear and learn that people don’t always know.

  16. kathy d

    I do think that being a woman sometimes helps get something fixed or replaced by a landlord or custodian. It’s unintentional, but they get a bit paternalistic. I’m oK with it if I get my new stove or refrigerator. And it can help with the gas company, too.

  17. In Barbara Neely’s marvellous Blanche books, the titular heroine is a Black woman who works as a maid or cook. Her employers underestimate her and don’t notice her, which gives her an advabtage when she investigates wrong-doing.

    • I love those books, Moira, so I’m very glad you mentioned them. Such great stories, and Blanche White is a terrific character, isn’t she? You’re right, too; she makes the face of her race work for her, even though it is, in that culture a disadvantage.

  18. A bit late to the party, but interesting topic (and thanks for the shout-out!). Expanding this idea more broadly, anytime one can step outside the stream, so to speak, and gain a new perspective or have someone underestimate/dismiss you is a two-sided coin: the discomfort wired into our pack-animal survival mode that tells us being an outsider could be dangerous to us vs. the opportunity to see things through fresh eyes and shed the group illusion. I remember the Mrs. Pollifax series, talking about the advantages of the “quiet observers,” people no one pays attention to, although they are the ones who catch on quickly to what’s really going on.

    • I like that perspective very much, Kathy. That whole ‘double-edged sword’ way of looking at being (or being around) someone who’s different is fascinating. And, as you say, because of that, the same thing that can be seen as a disadvantage…can turn right into an advantage. And Mrs. Pollifax is a great example of that, so thanks. And it’s my pleasure to mention your work (Psst, folks – try K.B. Owen’s Concordia Wells stories, and her Penelope Hamilton stories. You won’t regret it!).

  19. I like the concept of this essay. It’s well thought out. And I have a question! 🙂 Once Flavia figures out a mystery [comes up with the answer] how does she get the adults to LISTEN to her?

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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