Category Archives: Agatha Christie

Do You, Do You Wanna Be My Sidekick, Sidekick*

The Evolution of the SidekickOne of the interesting developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the past decades has been in the role of the ‘second in command,’ or sidekick. This character plays a very important role in a novel or series. Authors use assistants/sidekicks to give a different perspective on the sleuth, to provide plot twists, and sometimes, to find out information. And these characters can be very interesting in their own right.

In many (certainly not all!) classic and Golden Age novels, the assistant may find clues and so on; and sometimes, the sleuth is both aware of and grateful for the assistant’s input. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Dr. Watson and Agatha Christie’s Captain Hastings are arguably examples of this. Both of these characters are intelligent, educated people, and not unusually foolish or gullible. They provide perspectives that help Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, respectively, and they certainly don’t sit idly by, gaping in admiring awe. At the same time, in both cases, it’s the sleuth who solves the case. The sleuth puts the pieces of the puzzle together, and makes the vital connections.

In some cases, the sidekick has even been a detriment to the sleuth (I’m thinking, for instance, of Catherine Aird’s Inspector Sloan/Constable Crosby series. Fans of this series know that Crosby is not exactly what you’d call an original, insightful thinker. Of course, not all assistants have been incompetent, but we certainly see them.

As we look at more modern crime fiction, though, we see assistants coming into their own, if I may put it this way. Many of today’s fictional assistants solve cases, carry their own sub-plots, and more. And lots of crime fiction fans like it that way.

Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel/Peter Pascoe series is an example of this development (although I grant it’s not a new series). Fans of this series will know that Peter Pascoe is at least the intellectual equal of his boss. He looks at life differently, and of course, Dalziel is still the boss. But Pascoe more than carries his proverbial weight. In several of the novels in this series (I’m thinking, for instance of Pictures of Perfection), it’s really Pascoe who does a lot of the investigating. His character is, at the very least, as well developed as that of Dalziel.

The same might be said of Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, who ‘co-stars’ in Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus series. Rebus is Clarke’s boss, but she contributes a great deal to their investigations. She has skills that Rebus doesn’t have; and, in novels such as Resurrection Men, she more than proves that she can handle cases. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that Rebus respects her, too, and depends on her, and not just for admiration. In fact, in novels such as Exit Music, Clarke takes on her share of interviews (even difficult ones) and other police work.

There’s a very interesting sleuth/assistant relationship in Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck series. When the series begins (Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes)), Mørck is assigned to head the newly-formed ‘Department Q,’ which is tasked with looking into cases of ‘special interest.’ This basically amounts to cold cases that, for political reasons, are getting new attention (mostly to show that the police are doing their jobs). Mørck insists on having an assistant, and is provided one in the form of Hafez al Assad, who’s originally hired to clean. But Assad very soon proves to be much more than just a floor-sweeper and teapot-washer. He has a somewhat mysterious past, which we learn in bits as the series goes on. And he has surprising skills that his boss doesn’t even know about, at least at first. And he has a way of getting Mørck to do things and think about things that he otherwise wouldn’t. He’s most definitely his own person.

There are certainly plenty of modern assistants (e.g. Ausma Zehanat Khan’s Rachel Getty) who have things to learn, and who look to their bosses for guidance. But those assistants are also skilled and intelligent in their own right. They have their own histories, personalities and perspectives. Their bosses know this, and many value and depend on their assistants for that reason.

I don’t have the data to support this, but I see a connection between this evolution of the assistant/sidekick and the evolution of crime fiction fans’ interest in rich character development. As crime fiction fans continue to want better developed characters, it makes a lot of sense that that would include assistants and sidekicks. And most readers are not satisfied with the assistant whose only purpose is to bask in the sleuth’s glory, so to speak.

What do you think about this? Have you noticed that sidekicks and assistants are getting more deeply developed and capable as characters? If you have, why do you think this is? If you’re a writer who’s created an assistant, how do you think about this?

ps. You may notice that I didn’t include Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin here. I often wonder whether he’s really a sidekick, even if he is officially an employee.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walk the Moon’s Sidekick.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Rankin, Reginald Hill, Catherine Aird, Ausma Zehanat Khan

I’m Kinda Awkward and Afraid*

Reactions to Mental IllnessIn Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress, Elinor Carlisle is arrested for the murder of Mary Gerrard. She’s got motives both personal and financial, and there’s enough circumstantial evidence against her that she is a very likely suspect. Local GP Peter Lord has fallen in love with Mary, and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to do just that. Poirot agrees to look into the case (‘though not to fabricate evidence), and begins investigating. In the meantime, Elinor remains in prison, and has to endure a trial. Needless to say, by the end of the book, she’s mentally and emotionally devastated. So Lord arranges for her to go for a rest cure. Christie doesn’t outright say it, but you can certainly imagine Lord’s referring her to some sort of mental institution. Christie doesn’t tell us, but one could wonder what happens to Elinor when she leaves that place? How will she be received? The hint is that Lord intends to be there for her. But it does raise the question of how others will receive her.

We continue to learn more and more about the human mind and how it works. But there’s still a great deal of misunderstanding and, sometimes, downright fear about those who’ve been in mental health care. Certainly it makes for a lot of awkwardness, especially when one’s going back to work after a time way, or otherwise trying to reconnect with people. It’s true in real life, and we often see it reflected in crime fiction, too.

In Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions, we are introduced to Jon Moreno. He’s recently been released from a mental institution where he was dealing with severe anxiety issues. He’s still fragile, and not everyone’s comfortable interacting with him. Thinking that he could use a little cheering up, Jon’s friends Axel Frimann and Philip Reilly take him to spend the weekend at a cabin by Dead Water Lake. Late one night, the three young men decide to go out on the lake. While they’re there, a tragedy occurs, and only two come back. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate what happened. They try to get the two survivors to tell what they know, but that proves to be much more difficult than they thought it would be. Then, another body is discovered, this time in Glitter Lake. Now, the police have to cases on their hands, which may or may not be related. Among other things, this novel touches on what it’s like when someone returns to a group of old friends after having been in a mental health facility.

At the beginning of Åsa Larsson’s The Black Path, Stockholm attorney Rebecka Martinsson is under psychiatric care, mostly due to events detailed in Sun Storm and The Blood Spilt. She’s released from the hospital and returns to her home town of Kiruna, where she’s decided to stay for a while and start to rebuild her life. The main plot of The Black Path concerns the murder of Inna Watrang, Director of Communications for Kellis Mining. The key to the murder may be some of the legalities behind the company’s activities, so Martinsson gets involved in the case. As she does, we see at some points that it’s very awkward for her and for others to talk about her experiences in the hospital and accept her as ‘ready to re-join the world.’ There’s some of that awkwardness in The Blood Spilt, too, actually.

Certainly New South Wales DS Kate Farrer feels it in Kathryn Fox’s Skin and Bones. She’s just returning to work after three months’ medical leave of absence that became necessary after she went through a traumatic experience (you can read about it in Malicious Intent). During her leave, Farrer got psychological treatment, and was on the way to healing. She would have liked to take more time away, but staffing shortages have made it necessary for her to return, so she’s still a bit fragile. She’s dropped right back in it, so to speak, when the charred body of a woman is discovered in the remains of a house fire that seems to have been caused by arson. Also discovered is a bag full of baby clothes. What’s more, it’s soon revealed that the victim had recently given birth. But no child’s body is discovered, and no-one reports having found an abandoned infant. It’s a difficult and painful case, and there was awkwardness already as Farrer returned to work. But she does her best to focus and work with her new partner, Oliver Parke, to find the truth behind the fire, the death, and the baby.

And then there’s Matthew Wyman, whom we meet in Michael Hogan’s Burial of the Dead. A highly intelligent and talented artist, he’s always been somewhat mentally fragile. But matters come to a head when he gets mixed up in the death of seventy-year-old Emma Kost O’Neal. It comes out that he discovered the body. Moreover, he was involved with the victim’s great-niece, Emmanuelle ‘Manny’ Whitman, who stands to inherit a good deal of money. So there are pieces of evidence to link him with the case. And it’s not long before the police fix on him as a suspect. But it’s equally possible that he’s being framed. He’s a good target because of his mental health history. In fact, in the course of the novel, he has complete breakdown and ends up in a mental institution. As the police try to get to the truth about the case, it’s interesting to see how different people react to Wyman’s situation. His family doesn’t want to discuss it, or accept the fact that he needs mental health care. Other characters in the novels react in other ways, some awkward, and some less so. That plot thread adds a layer of complexity to the novel.

Mental health care still remains one of the more complex issues we face. And, for a lot of people, it’s too awkward to discuss. It makes some people downright uncomfortable. But it’s a fact of life, and it’s interesting to see how it’s woven into crime fiction.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alice Cooper’s How You Gonna See Me Now?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Karin Fossum, Kathryn Fox, Michael Hogan

You Meet Him On The Street And Never Notice Him*

Nondescript PeopleDo you ever really pay attention to the person who waits your table at a restaurant? To the person who washes your car, handles your bank transaction, or stocks the grocery shelves where you shop? Unless you live in a very small town or rural area, where everyone knows everyone, you may not even know anything about those people. And that’s only natural; there are only so many things and people we can pay close attention to at any one time. So unless there’s something distinctive about a person, so that you really notice, you’re not likely to pay that much attention.

That fact actually plays an important role in crime fiction. Being the sort of person no-one really notices can put a fictional murderer in a very advantageous position. Of course, it works for sleuths, too. The sleuth whom nobody pays much attention to can learn quite a lot.

In G.K. Chesterton’s short story The Invisible Man, private investigator Hercule Flambeau and his friend, Father Brown, investigate the strange murder of Isidore Smythe. What’s particularly odd about this case is that Smythe was murdered without anyone seeing a person going in or out of his apartment. The solution turns out to linked to that phenomenon of not really noticing everyone.

Agatha Christie uses this plot point in more than one of her stories (right, fans of The ABC Murders?). In fact, one of her recurring characters is an interesting example. He is Mr. Goby, a sort of private investigator who is very skilled at finding out information. He’s the sort of nondescript person whom nobody really notices. And so are the people he employs. They’re shop assistants, household staff, newspaper delivery people, and all sorts of other ‘nameless, faceless’ people who have access to information. It’s rare that Mr. Goby isn’t able to get answers.

There’s another kind of anonymity: the kind that comes from social structure. We see that, for instance, in Barbara Neely’s Blanche White. She is a professional housekeeper whom we first meet in Blanche on the Lam. Most of her employers are white, while she is black. In this case, really, the social divisions are along two lines: racial and socioeconomic. In many cases, her employers aren’t particularly interested in knowing her as a person. They see her as ‘the help;’ and, even though she’s a human being, she tends to ‘fade into the background.’ That actually proves to be very useful. Nobody pays much attention when to what she does, as long as the meals are on time and tasty, the laundry’s done, and so on. Once she learns the routine of the households in which she works, Blanche can move around without being much noticed.

There’s also Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce. She’s a pre-teen, so most people don’t notice her as they would an adult. And she takes advantage of that. Even though she lives in the kind of village where people do know each other, she can still ride around on her bike without people checking where she’s going. People don’t raise eyebrows when they see her, and so on. In some senses, she’s limited in terms of what she can learn. But that very limit (her youth) also allows her to escape a lot of notice.

In Luiz Aflredo Garcia-Roza’s Alone in the Crowd, we are introduced to Hugo Breno, a teller at Rio de Janeiro’s Caixa Econômica Federal. He’s not the kind of person that you’d pay much attention to; there’s nothing really distinctive about his appearance. And that’s been very helpful to him. He falls under suspicion when one of his regular customers, Dona Laureta Sales Ribeioro, is killed after falling (or being pushed) under a bus. It turns out that she visited the bank on the day she died, and then went to the police station and asked to speak to Inspector Espinosa. He wasn’t able to break free to speak to her, and now, he feels a sense of responsibility. He also suspects (because of her visit) that her death was no accident. So he takes a special interest in this case, and it turns out that this case touches on his past as well as Breno’s.

And then there’s real estate agent William Heming, whom we meet in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. He’s not the sort of person you notice very much, or remember well. He’s just the house agent. Once the hands are shaken and the keys turned over, nobody really thinks about him at all. And that’s just how he likes it. What people aren’t aware of is that Mr. Heming is a lot more observant of them than they are of him. And he’s kept keys to all of the houses he’s sold. When a body is discovered in one of the town’s backyards, Mr. Heming is as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, and people start to notice him, the people in the town might learn that he has interests besides selling homes.

See what I mean? There are all sorts of people we encounter whom we don’t even really notice. And sometimes, that turns out to be a mistake…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Nina Mouskouri’s Bill.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Barbara Neely, G.K. Chesterton, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Phil Hogan

You Wear Smug So Very Well*

SmugnessMost of us know that no-one’s always right, and no-one has all of the answers. Still, there are some people who are so convinced of their own perspective that they’re unwilling to even consider the possibility that they may be wrong, or that there may be other perspectives out there. That sort of smugness can be grating for anyone who has to deal with a person like that. It’s limiting for the person who’s smug, too, if you think about it.

In crime fiction, smugness can even make a person vulnerable. After all, if the only ‘correct’ perspective is your own, you’re not willing to consider that you might have enemies that could get the better of you. Such a character can also add a nice dose of conflict to a series, so that human frailty can be a useful tool for the writer as well.

In Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, ten people accept an invitation to go to Indian Island. On the evening of their arrival, it becomes clear that their host, whoever she or he is, will not be there. That’s odd enough, but things take a darker turn when each person is accused of having been responsible for the death of at least one other person. One of the guests, Miss Emily Brewster, has been accused of being responsible for the suicide of a former housemaid. It comes out that when she discovered that the maid was what used to be called ‘in trouble,’ she fired her, leaving the young woman with no place to live and no options. In her smugness, Miss Brewster believes that she was correct, and that it wasn’t her fault if the maid had ‘loose morals.’ Miss Brewster ends up paying for her smug perspective when she becomes a victim to a killer who seems to be preying on all of the guests.

Louise Penny’s series features Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. In one story arc in this series, he is assigned a new member of the Sûreté, Yvette Nichol. On the one hand, when she first begins working with Gamache, she’s eager to make the best impression she can. On the other, she is smug. Because of this, she’s unwilling to learn from anyone else, and unwilling to take even the friendliest of advice. This makes for a host of problems for Gamache’s team. Not only does Nichol make mistakes (as we all do), but she isn’t willing to admit she’s wrong, watch and learn, or accept the fact that she doesn’t always know best. This is really limiting for her, as we see in the course of the series. She alienates people who might be real allies for her, and she’s not really welcome socially, either. It’s difficult for everyone.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men, Mma Precious Ramotswe takes on the case of a client who wants to make amends for wrongs he did years ago. In order to do that, he needs to locate his former landlady. That’s not going to be easy, but Mma Ramotswe thinks of a good starting place. The woman her client is looking for is the widow of a government worker, so it’s quite likely that her address and contact information can be found at the office that deals with government pensions. The clerk at that office is not helpful, though, and at first, refuses to give her any information. In fact, he’s quite smug about it:
 

‘‘But that is not the rule,’ said Mma Ramotswe. ‘…The rule says that you must not give the name of a pensioner. It says nothing about the address.’
The clerk shook his head. ‘I do not think you can be right, Mma. I am the one who knows the rules. You are the public.’’

 

Mma Ramotswe has to think quickly, since this clerk is really her only solid lead. But she comes up with a way to best the clerk, and ends up getting the information she needs.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we meet Jodie Evans Garrow. As the novel begins, she seems to have the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she’s the mother of two healthy children, and she herself is both attractive and intelligent. Everything begins to fall apart, though, when a secret from Jodie’s past comes out. Her daughter, Hannah, is rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie herself gave birth to another child. She’s never told anyone about this, but a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that the child was adopted, but the overcurious nurse can find no formal records. Now, questions begin to be asked, and before long, Jodie becomes a social pariah. Of no help at all is Jodie’s mother-in-law, Helen Garrow. She’s a ‘blueblood’ who wasn’t happy when her son married Jodie, and who certainly doesn’t befriend her very much. She does ‘damage control,’ as far as the media goes, but that’s only to preserve the Garrow reputation. She’s quite convinced she’s right about the kind of person Jodie is, and although she does help to take care of the children, her smugness alienates Jodie, just when Jodie needs support the most.

And then there’s Brian Stoddart’s Arthur Jepson. Jepson is Madras Commissioner of Police in 1920’s Madras (today’s Chennai) during the British Raj. He’s not only very conscious of his position, but he’s absolutely convinced he’s right about the way to investigate. For instance, in The Pallampur Predicament, the Rajah of Pallampur is murdered. Jepson is sure that the victim was killed by disgruntled servants (Jepson is no fan of Indians). And that’s not an impossible explanation. But Superintendent Christian ‘Chris’ Le Fanu (Stoddart’s protagonist) and his team believe that this is much more than just a ‘grudge murder.’ And they have more than one possible suspect. Still, Jepson is unwilling to listen to anyone else’s point of view. It all makes the case much more challenging for Le Fanu.

And that’s the thing about smug characters. I’ll bet we’ve all met people like that, and they have a way of making everything more difficult. Such people can be downright annoying in real life, but in crime fiction, characters like that can add interesting layers to a story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Poliça’s Smug.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian Stoddart, Louise Penny, Wendy James

Endless Irritation, Endless Aggravation*

Frustrations and IrritationsIt never fails, does it? You’re busy with your life, when something happens to disrupt your routine. It may be someone coming in to fix the boiler/air conditioning/etc., or it may be that your access to the Internet isn’t working. There are lots of other things like that that happen, and they always manage to happen just when you’re in the midst of everything.

It’s frustrating in real life, of course. And it’s realistic in crime fiction, too. After all, those are the sorts of frustrating things we all have to deal with at times. And for the writer, those discomforts also allow for added tension and sometimes conflict.

In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence pays a visit to Hercule Poirot. Spence is concerned because James Bentley is soon to be executed for the murder of his landlady, Mrs. McGinty, and Spence thinks Bentley may be innocent. He asks Poirot to look into the matter, and Poirot travels to the village of Broadhhinny to investigate. There’s not much available in terms of lodging in such a small village, but Poirot finds a room at Long Meadows, the property of Johnnie and Maureen Summerhayes. Almost immediately, Poirot finds that his accommodations are, to say the least, not to his taste. His hosts are not skilled at running a guest house, so the food is bad, the room is uncomfortable, and the home is completely disorganized. Needless to say, those frustrations add tension (and actually, some funny moments) to the story. And they don’t make Poirot’s investigations any easier!

Stan Jones’ White Sky, Black Ice introduces readers to Alaska State Trooper Nathan Active. Although he is Inupiaq, he was adopted and raised by white parents in Anchorage. So when he is assigned to the small northern town of Chukchi, there are a lot of adjustments he has to make. Shortly after his arrival, Active gets involved in the investigation of two deaths that, on the surface, look like suicides. One is George Clinton, who’s found dead outside a bar. The other is Aaron Stone, who’s found dead on what was supposed to be a hunting trip. Investigating Stone’s death involves going out to Katy Lake, where the victim’s hunting cabin was, so Active gets a ride from bush pilot Cowboy Decker. The plane is extremely small and uncomfortable, with so much noise that both pilot and passenger have to wear headphones so that they can communicate. And the trail isn’t any more comfortable, especially with night coming on and winter approaching. Fortunately, Active finds a place for the night with Amos Wilson, who has a cabin in that area. The cabin is far from what most of us would think of as comfortable, but it’s warm and safe.

In one sub-plot of Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn gets a temporary office-mate. There’s been vandalism in the building that houses the Department of Journalism at the university where Kilbourn works, and several of the faculty members in that department have to find temporary office space elsewhere until the damage has been repaired. Kilbourn offers to share her office with a colleague and friend, Ed Mariani. On the one hand, the two like each other, so they both work to make this arrangement go as smoothly as possible. On the other hand, it’s awkward for both of them. If you’ve ever had to share an office with someone, you know how uncomfortable that can be, what with people’s different habits, schedules and so on. Still, the two of them make the best of the situation. Matters get even more uncomfortable, though, when Kilbourn begins to wonder whether her friend and temporary office-mate might have committed murder…

In Michael Robotham’s The Suspect, clinical psychologist Joe O’Loughlin is asked to lend his expertise when the body of a young woman, Catherine McBride, is discovered. It turns out that the victim is a former client of O’Loughlin, so he rather reluctantly agrees to try to help find out who would have killed her. Then there’s another murder. And this one implicates O’Loughlin. DI Vincent Ruiz was already under the impression that O’Loughlin might know more about the case than he let on; now he begins to suspect him. O’Loughlin will have to clear his own name, and go up against a very dangerous killer, to avoid being convicted of crimes he didn’t commit. At the same time as all of this is going on, the boiler in the O’Loughlin home is broken, and a plumber will have to be called in. That means strange people coming in and out of the house, a disruption of routine, and, of course, the expense. If you’ve ever had that happen to you, you know how frustrating the whole thing can be.

And then there’s Sarah Waters’ The Paying Guests. In that novel, which takes place in London in the early 1920s, Emily Wray has recently lost her husband. At this time, and in this place, ladies don’t really have careers, as a rule. So Emily and her daughter Frances have no other option, as they see it, but to open their home to lodgers (they’re called ‘paying guests’ as a euphemism). The Wrays put out discreet advertisements, and soon enough, Len and Lilian Barber accept the terms and move in. Everyone knows that the arrangement is more or less necessary. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy, fun, or smooth. For one thing, there’s the awkwardness of having strangers in the house. For another, there are the inevitable annoyances such as extra noises, not enough hot water when you want it, and so on. But everyone tries to make it work. Before long, though, things begin to spin out of control, and the end result of this arrangement is real tragedy.

Not all of those frustrations do end up that way, but they’re often enough to put us completely out of sorts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think my Internet’s about to cra –

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from No Fun at All’s Trapped Inside.  

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Michael Robotham, Sarah Waters, Stan Jones