For a lot of people, there’s just something about the ‘underdog.’ You know the sort of character I mean. Outgunned, as the saying goes, but not willing to give up the fight. Sometimes we cheer for the underdog because we want a fair fight; we want everyone to have a sporting chance. Other times, it’s because the underdog happens to be right, and we want right to prevail. There are other reasons, too, that people seem to love underdogs.
That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is anywhere else. And having a character in the role of underdog can add a layer of character development. It can also invite readers to invest themselves in a story.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Man in the Brown Suit, we are introduced to Anne Bedingfield. Her father has recently died, leaving her with practically nothing. Still, she’s young and somewhat adventurous. One day, she happens to witness a tragic death at an underground station when an unknown man falls under an oncoming train. Naturally, she’s upset at the death, but she gets curious about a piece of paper that falls from among the dead man’s possessions. After a short time, she works out that the writing on the paper refers to the upcoming sailing of the Kilmorden Castle for Cape Town. Impulsively, she books passage on the ship, and is soon drawn into a web of international intrigue, stolen jewels, and murder. She’s up against considerable danger and a powerful enemy. But, although she’s far from perfect, she does have appeal. And part of that comes from the fact that she’s the underdog.
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee knows all too well what it’s like to work with underdogs. In fact, he prefers them. McGee is a self-described ‘salvage consultant’ based in Lauderdale, Florida. He works with people who’ve been robbed and need to get their property back. They don’t have anywhere else to turn, and they don’t generally have money to spend on expensive PIs. McGee doesn’t charge a fee per se. Instead, he takes half of whatever he recovers for his clients. And for those down-and-out clients, it’s a bargain at twice the price, as the saying goes. And McGee is scrupulous about letting his clients know his terms before he goes to work for them. He has a soft spot for those who’ve been ‘taken’ by the corrupt, the dishonest, and the powerful. And that adds a layer to his character. It also invites readers to invest themselves in what happens to his clients.
The same might be said of the clients we meet in Ian Hamilton’s Ava Lee series. Lee is a Toronto-based forensic accountant. Her specialty is finding money that people want to keep hidden. She works for Chow Tung, who owns a Hong Kong based company that recovers stolen money. This company’s clients have been swindled, often of large amounts of money, and are desperate to get their money back. Most have no other options. And, much of the time, those who’ve stolen the money are well-heeled, well-protected, and formidable opponents. So, Lee is quite familiar with taking the underdog’s side against a strong adversary. But, she’s no slouch herself…
Fans of C.J.Box’s Joe Pickett will know that he’s often a sort of underdog. Pickett is a Wyoming game warden who often goes up against dangerous and powerful opponents. He does have the force of law on his side, but he’s also learned the law can be for sale. So, he sometimes finds himself very much on his own, going against wealthy developers, well-armed drugs and animal traffickers, and so on. His status as the underdog arguably adds to his character, and invites readers to care what happens to him, especially readers who don’t care much for big business and corruption.
Fans of legal mysteries and courtroom thrillers can tell you that the ‘underdog lawyer’ is a very popular plot point in such stories. There are lots of examples; I’ll just share two. I know you can offer lots more examples than I could.
Gordon Ferris’ The Hanging Shed isn’t really, strictly speaking, a legal novel. But it does have an important legal dimension to it. Hugh ‘Shug’ Donovan has been arrested and convicted for the abduction and murder of a young boy, Rory Hutchinson. He’s scheduled to be executed in a matter of weeks. But he claims he’s innocent, and asks his former friend Douglas Brodie to try to help clear his name (Brodie is a former police officer who’s now trying to start a career in journalism). Brodie’s not sure what he can do, but he travels from London, where he’s been living, to Glasgow to see if he can help. That’s when he meets Donovan’s lawyer, Samantha ‘Sam’ Campbell. She lost her court case, but is still convinced her client was framed, and is working to appeal his conviction. In this novel, she’s very much the underdog. For one thing, the prosecuting attorneys are skilled and experienced. Sam’s got the skills, but not a lot of experience. For another thing, she’s a woman in what is very much a man’s world (the novel takes place in 1947). What’s more, once she and Brodie find out who’s really responsible for Rory’s murder, they learn that they’re up against money and power. The underdog status adds tension to the plot as the two try to save Donovan.
And then there’s Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). Italian immigrant Fabrizio Collini has lived peacefully in his adopted Germany for decades. Then one day, he abruptly travels to Berlin’s Hotel Adlon, where he finds, shoots, and kills Jean-Baptiste Meyer. He’s promptly arrested and taken into custody, where he says almost nothing. German law requires that all defendants be represented by an attorney, but Collini doesn’t have one. So, Caspar Leinen, a newly-fledged lawyer who’s on stand-by duty for legal aid, takes the case. To Leinen’s frustration, Collini doesn’t try to defend himself. He admits to the shooting, but gives no motive. Leinen does his best, though, to prepare for the trial; and in this case, he’s the underdog. The prosecution has the confession, witness testimony, the weapon, and more. The only thing they don’t have is motive. Nor do they have any evidence that Collini is deranged or otherwise a threat. If he’s going to win his case, Leinen will have to go back to the past to find out the truth behind this murder.
There are plenty of other novels that feature underdogs. And that plot point can add a great deal to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Europe’s Spirit of the Underdog.