Is That You, Baby, or Just a Brilliant Disguise?*

At first glance, this ‘photo might look like a bunch of mulch and earth, and some bushes. Look again, though, and you’ll see something else. Did you see the lizard? Like a lot of animals, lizards hide from both predators and prey by blending in with their environment, so that you don’t notice them.

If you read enough crime fiction, you see that a lot of characters do that, too. Being able to blend in is a very useful skill. There are far too many examples for just this one post, but even these few should show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to the members of the Abernethie family. When patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, the members of his family gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. At the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself retracts what she said. But privately, everyone starts to wonder whether she was right. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that Abernethie was killed. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot, and asks him to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He finds that every one of the family members benefited from Abernethie’s will, so there are several possibilities, if the man was really murdered. And being able to blend in plays an important role in this novel. I know, I know, fans of Cat Among the Pigeons.

Being able to blend in and camouflage oneself is a critical skill in espionage stories. The one thing that moles don’t want to do is call attention to themselves, after all. For instance, in Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, we are introduced to Bernard ‘Bernie’ Samson. He’s a former MI6 field agent who’s now got a desk job at the agency’s London Central office. In one plot thread of this novel, the agency becomes aware that there’s a mole in a very high place. So Samson starts investigating to find out who that person is. He’s good enough at his job, and experienced enough, to know that anyone could be the culprit. So, he has to consider colleagues, bosses, and other people he doesn’t want to believe are guilty. The outcome of this investigation plays a very important part in what happens in the other two books in this particular trilogy.

In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann gets a new assignment. He’s to travel to Thailand and retrieve a lead-covered black box that ended up in the Andaman Sea when the ship it was on was sunk. Swann’s not told what’s in the box, nor why the British government wants it. All he’s told is that he needs to bring it back to the UK. For Swann, this assignment has an added danger. He’s made some powerful enemies as a result of a previous trip, and he’s going to have to work with those enemies if he’s going to get the resources he needs to do his job. But as it turns out, even Swann’s friends aren’t as trustworthy as he thinks they are. He’s got quite a dangerous enemy he’s not even aware of when he takes on this assignment.

Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that these novels include several story arcs. One of them concerns police politics, corruption, and some enemies that Gamach has made in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is savvy enough to know that these are people with enough power to influence others, including those he works with on a regular basis. And it turns out that he’s right to be wary. Some of the police characters we meet in the series turn out to be rather well-camouflaged.

William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, just before World War II. As a member of the Moscow CID, Korolev’s job is to catch criminals, preferably immediately. The Party, with Stalin firmly in charge, wants to prove that the Soviet Union is crime-free, so there’s a lot of pressure to succeed in all investigations – and severe consequences for not doing so. Korolev wants to solve crimes, too, but he has to move very carefully. When the trail leads to high places, especially to members of the Party, Korolev knows that he could be in bigger danger if he catches a murderer than if he doesn’t. What’s more, people are encouraged to denounce one another. Anyone, including a colleague, a friend, or the person next door, could be a well-disguised enemy. That mistrust adds a layer of tension to this series. You’re right, fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series. There’s a sort of similar atmosphere there, too.

And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, in which we are introduced to Yvonne Mulhern. She, her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter, Róisín, have recently moved from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity. Yvonne is overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for a young infant. And Gerry isn’t much help, as he spends a lot of time at work. What’s more, Yvonne’s never lived in Dublin, so she doesn’t have a network of friends or family there. Then, she learns of Netmammy, an online support group for new mothers. She joins, and soon finds the friendship, support, and commiseration she so badly needs. When one of the members of the group seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets very concerned. But there’s really not much she can do about it. She contacts the police, but they can’t really do much, either, at this point. Then, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, also an expectant mother, is assigned to the case. The dead woman’s profile seems to be similar to that of Yvonne’s missing online friend. If it is the same person, then what might that mean for the members of Netmammy? After all, anyone can be anyone online… The case does turn out to be connected to the online forum, but not in the way you might think.

It takes skill to create a character who blends in in this way. It’s got to be done credibly, or the story loses authenticity. But when they’re done well, such characters can be interesting, and can certainly add to a story.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrew Grant, Len Deighton, Louise Penny, Sinéad Crowley, William Ryan

18 responses to “Is That You, Baby, or Just a Brilliant Disguise?*

  1. Love this and just reminded me of how much I enjoyed reading Len Deighton when I was younger. Uncovering someone is like removing layers of an onion and who know with a spy just how many layers need to come off before the real person is revealed. Wonderful. Thanks.

    • No, thank you for the kind words, Jane. And you’re so right about spy stories. There are always layers and layers to peel away. That process is part of the suspense as you learn who can be trusted and who can’t. And I’m glad you’ve had a chance to get to know Len Deighton’s work. He’s very talented.

  2. Another thought-provoking post, Margot, and I’d like to add a couple of names to it. First, there’s Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte. In many of the books, Bony comes into a small town or an isolated sheep ranch and disguises himself as an itinerant worker and laborer – and, as such, is generally welcomed into the community, giving him opportunities to hear things from the locals that they’d never in a million years say to the police.

    And then there’s my two favorite (and most dangerous) “little old ladies,” Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver. Both of these remarkably sharp woman investigators – Miss Marple, the amateur and Miss Silver the professional – have the ability to fade into the background, often sitting quietly and knitting, and the people seated nearby don’t know that the ladies aren’t missing a word…

    There are many more, of course – nice post tying things together!

    • Thanks you, Les. And, of course, you’re absolutely right about Bony, Miss Silver and Miss Marple. All three do a terrific job of blending in and seeming completely harmless. And as fans know, they are dismissed at one’s peril… Your examples show that it’s not just fictional criminals who blend in.

  3. I was very much struck by Tana French’s The Likeness, where a Dublin policewoman goes undercover, pretending to be a young woman (who is actually dead), living in a shared house. The idea is to flush out her murderer. It is an entirely preposterous plotline, but somehow French makes it work: I thought it was a stunning book, very memorable, and one that has stayed with me.

    • Ah, trust you, Moira, to add in such a great example that I’d not included. Thank you! As you say, it’s certainly a case of blending in and using that to get some answers. Perhaps it’s not the most believable plotline, but a lot of people agree with you that French did it quite well.

  4. Margot: Your post made me think of the estimable Saul Panzer in the Nero Wolfe stories by Rex Stout. The quiet detective with the big nose could blend into a crowd instantly.

  5. Another great post, Margot. Sharon Bolton did a Lacey Flint book where she went under cover as a student at a university. I can’t remember which one it was, but it was a brilliant read. Really putting Lacey in the thick of the action and story.

    • Are you perhaps thinking of Dead Scared, Rebecca? I’m not sure, but I think that might be the one where she solves a university case. I’m glad you reminded me of this series; she’s a good character, and Bolton is a very talented writer.

  6. I didn’t quite buy the premise in the Tana French book The Likeness, although I generally do like her work. And I remember the Sharon Bolton book, about Lacey Flint going undercover at Cambridge University following a spate of suicides.
    In Giles Blunt’s Forty Words for Sorrow, detective John Cardinal not only has a series of brutal teen abductions and murders to deal with, but also a new partner Lise Delorme, who has been parachuted in from financial fraud to investigate him (although he doesn’t know it). The way they gradually build up a relationship of grudging mutual respect, yet don’t quite trust each other is very well done, I thought. I also enjoyed the recent TV adaptation, with its icy Canadian landscapes.

    • Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned Forty Words For Sorrow, Marina Sofia. The relationship between Cardinal and Delorme is very well-developed, I think. And I like the way Blunt shows how they gradually learn about each other, so that they come to respect one another. It’s an interesting and tricky partnership, in my opinion. I admit I’ve not seen the TV adaptation, but I think Blunt certainly does the setting well. As for The Likeness, you’re not alone. Plenty of people weren’t able to make that step into buying the premise. Yet, as you say, French really is a talented writer.

  7. Great post, Margot. It made me think of being able to blend in in a different manner. I thought of Jussi Alder-Olsen’s Department Q series and how Assad (who we know very little about) blends in so well with Detective Carl Mørck. What dark secrets are we going to learn about Assad down the road and why he has been assigned to work with Carl.

    • That’s a really good set of questions, Mason, and Assad is such an interesting character, isn’t he? We know there’s something about his past – perhaps several things – that he doesn’t want revealed. I don’t know what’s going to come out as the series progresses. For now, Adler-Olsen keeps him blended in as an assistant…

  8. Great topic, Margot. I always love stories where someone is not what they seem or someone has to go undercover. In John Le Carré’s The Night Manager, the main character takes on a new identity in order to trap the villain and that turns out to a very dangerous game.

    • Thanks, Christine. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post. And thanks for mentioning The Night Manager, too. Le Carré is so very good at creating characters who aren’t what they seem, isn’t he? I think that’s part of what makes his espionage stories so excellent.

  9. Col

    Thanks for the reminders about Deighton and Ryan, I need to read something by them both – never enough time!

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