Category Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

Am I My Resume?*

Job SearchIf you’ve ever looked for a new job, you know how difficult it can be. To begin with, people don’t usually look for work actively unless they’re unhappy in their present job (which is a stress in and of itself) or they’re unemployed (also a major stressor). So it can be hard to muster the energy you need to present yourself at your very best. And even when times are good and jobs are available, there’s sometimes a lot of competition.

And then there’s the fact that a lot of potential employers don’t treat applicants particularly well. Some keep applicants waiting for a long time, and some are all but rude during interviews. And then there are those who never follow up to let you know whether you’ve gotten the job. If you add to that the very real power imbalance of a job interview, it’s easy to see why the process of finding a new job is so difficult.

That pressure is hard on anyone, but it’s exactly that challenge that can add an interesting layer of tension to a novel. And the job search can be a compelling plot thread. Here are just a few examples from crime fiction.

In Agatha Christie’s short story Jane in Search of a Job, we are introduced to Jane Cleveland, a young woman who is, as the title would suggest, looking for work. She’s up against competition from many other young women with a decent education; and most have more work experience. So she’s at a point of real concern when she sees an unusual employment advertisement. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ she is hired as a ‘double’ for Her Highness, Grand Duchess Pauline of Ostrova. The grand duchess believes that revolutionaries from her homeland may try to kidnap her, and the idea is that Jane will impersonate her on certain public occasions, as a decoy, in case those enemies strike.  All goes well enough until a charity bazaar at Orion House. At that event, Jane finds herself in more danger than she imagined.

People don’t always consider John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to be a crime novel. But there’s definitely a murder in it, and deeply involved in the whole thing is Tom Joad, who’s recently moved with his family from Oklahoma to California. It’s the time of the Great Depression, and, combined with the ‘Dust Bowl’ in certain parts of the US, these years have been almost more than the Joad family can survive. They left their Oklahoma farm because of the dust storms, and were told there was plenty of work on California’s farms. But when the Joads arrive, they find that conditions are abysmal. Those who can find work are given the barest of essentials when it comes to living quarters (and not even always that much). And there are so many people looking for work that the Joads face a lot of competition. One of the elements that comes through in this novel is the power imbalance between farm owners and managers, who are in a position to hire, and job applicants. This sort of job search is among the most humiliating there is, and it doesn’t help matters that there is no legislative or other support for farm workers. Basically employers can hire and fire whomever and whenever they wish, and pay whatever they wish.

There’s also Robert Pollock’s Loophole: or, How to Rob a Bank. Stephen Booker is an architect who’s recently been made redundant. At first, he and his wife do their best to take matters in stride; after all, people do lose their jobs. And he believes that it won’t be long before he finds something else. So he applies, goes on interviews, and endures the difficult process of trying to look for work. Nothing pans out though, and he’s forced to take a night job driving a cab. The idea is that he can still use daytime to keep applying. But he gets a whole different perspective when he meets professional thief Mike Daniels, who takes his cab one night. Bit by bit, Daniels and Booker become friendly, and Daniels finds that Booker could be a real asset. Daniels and his team are planning a major bank heist, and they can use the services of an architect to help them plan the break-in. Booker is reluctant at first, but money is money. So he eventually agrees to Daniels’ plan. Everything goes smoothly, even on the day of the robbery, until a sudden storm comes up and changes everything…

Much of the focus of Ruth Rendell’s Simisola is on Kingsmarkham’s Employment Bureau. Twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande has a meeting there one day with her employment counselor. After that meeting, she disappears. When she doesn’t return, her father, Dr. Raymond Akande, asks for help from Inspector Reg Wexford, who is one of his patients. Wexford isn’t overly concerned at first. After all, there are many reasons a young woman might take off for a few days, and it doesn’t mean anything’s wrong. But when she remains missing, Wexford decides to look into the matter. Part of trying to find the young woman is tracing her movements, so Wexford and his team interview the staff at the Bureau. They want to talk to Annette Bystock, the counselor with whom Melanie had her meeting. But by the time they track her down, she’s been murdered. As Wexford and the team unravel the mystery, we see the inner workings of an employment office. Rendell also shows readers what it’s like to be looking for work.

And then there’s P.J. Parrish’s Dead of Winter. Louis Kincaid has come to Loon Lake, Michigan, for an interview with the police department there. He’s looking for a new start, and he’s hoping that he’ll get this job. When he gets to the department’s building, he’s interviewed by Police Chief Brian Gibraltar. It’s an odd interview (some of them really are!), and doesn’t last long. To Kincaid’s surprise, he is hired within moments, and arrangements are made for his start date. Although it is strange, Kincaid doesn’t want to turn the job down, so he accepts. Soon enough, he is drawn into two murder cases. One is the killing of his predecessor; the other is the murder of a retired police officer. It turns out to be a complex investigation that puts Kincaid in a great deal of danger.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Grace Makutsi graduated from the Botswana College of Secretarial and Office Skills with the highest score of any other graduate. At first, she thinks that will get her a good job. But as she starts applying for work, she finds out that the women who get those jobs are more often hired for their looks than for their skills. But Mma. Precious Ramotswe is different. Mma. Ramotswe sees that Mma. Makutsi is willing to work hard and is skilled. Besides, she needs a secretary for her new detective agency. So she hires Mma. Makutsi. As fans will know, it’s a very good match for both of them. Still, at one point (in The Good Husband of Zebra Drive), Mma. Makutsi considers leaving the agency. She goes looking for a new job, only to be reminded that applying for work is enervating and can be humiliating. It’s not a pleasant lesson, but McCall Smith does remind readers of what it’s like to be a job applicant.

No matter the circumstances, it’s never fun to look for work. But it is a part of life for a lot of people, and it can make for an effective plot thread.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Marvin Hamlish and Edward Kleban’s I Hope I Get It.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, John Steinbeck, P.J. Parrish, Robert Pollock, Ruth Rendell

Wanna See My Picture on the Cover*

FameSeveral cultures place a premium on fame. Perhaps that’s at least in part because fame is often seen as a mark of individual achievement. Name recognition is often a status symbol, too. There’s also the fact that fame can open proverbial doors for a person; and it can mean lots of money. It’s little wonder then that plenty of people want very much to be famous. That goal can push people to work harder, do better, and so on. It can also lead to conflict and much worse. But even when it doesn’t, the desire for fame can add an interesting layer of character development, and it can add tension to a story.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we are introduced to actress Veronica Cray. She’s becoming quite famous; and her goal is to get to the top rung of the acting ladder. When her former lover John Christow is shot, she becomes a suspect in the murder. For one thing, she wanted very much to resume the relationship, although Christow had gotten beyond it. In fact, they had a bitter argument about it. For another, she’s staying in a getaway cottage near the home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell, where Christow was a house guest. She had easy access to the part of the property where Christow was killed. Hercule Poirot also has a nearby cottage, and in fact, is at the Angkatell home on the day of the shooting. So he works with Inspector Grange and his team to find out who killed Christow. Here’s what Veronica says about herself at one point:

 

‘You mean that I haven’t got to the top of the tree. I shall! I shall!’

 

She’s not just egotistical; she’s determined to get to the top.

Ellery Queen’s The Dragon’s Teeth is in part the story of aspiring actress Kerrie Shawn. She’s hoping for fame and success in Hollywood; but so far, she’s not found much of either. She and her friend Violet ‘Vi’ Day share a dingy place and scrape by the best they can. She’s worked very hard, and she has ambition. Still, there are a lot of people who want to make it in the acting world; Kerrie has a lot of competition. Everything changes when eccentric millionaire Cadmus Cole returns from years at sea. He wants to track down his relatives so that they’ll be able to inherit when he dies. So he hires the PI firm that Ellery Queen has just opened with his friend Beau Rummell. There’s a hefty commission at stake, so even after Queen is laid up with illness, Rummell continues to search. As it turns out, Kerrie Shawn is related to Cole. When Rummell finds her, she is shocked at her good fortune. After Cole’s death, she and her friend pull up stakes and move into the Cole mansion on the Hudson River (that’s one of the conditions Cole laid down in his will). The other heir is Margo Cole, who’s been living in France. She, too, moves into the mansion, and, not surprisingly, conflict soon comes up. When Margo is shot, Kerrie is the natural suspect. Then, there’s what seems to be an attempt on her life, too. Now, with Queen’s guidance, Rummell has to find out whether Kerrie engineered that attempt, or whether someone else has targeted both young women.

In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, the focus is on television fame. Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne is the successful host of Saturday Night. But she’s reached more or less a crossroads in her career. She’s very well aware that there are other ambitious people coming up behind her, as the saying goes, and she wants to ensure her place at the top. In fact, up-and-comers such as Janet Beardsley, the darling of the network, are already making their mark. So Thorne needs the story – a story that will make her career. And that just may be the case of Connor Bligh, who’s been in prison for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan, and their son Sam. Thorne learns that there are pieces of evidence that suggest Bligh may not be guilty. If he’s innocent, that story could be Thorne’s breakthrough. So she starts to pursue it. And one of the story elements is the reality of television ambition and the search for fame.

Kylie Manners and Gossamer Judge, whom we meet in Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman series, are also out for television fame. It’s not so much that they’re egotistical. They are, however, both determined to ‘make it’ on ‘the soapies.’ By day, they work in Chapman’s bakery. But they also go to every audition they can; and when they do get parts, Chapman cuts back on their hours (without firing them) so they can do their television work. They’re young enough to have the energy to carry the load of two jobs, as it were. And they’re ambitious enough to do what they have to do.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s Morality For Beautiful Girls, Mma. Grace Makutsi, Associate Detective at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, gets a new client. Mr. Pulani runs a very famous and popular Botswana beauty pageant. Now he wants Mma. Makutsi to help him find the best candidate to win the Miss Beauty and Integrity contest. It’s an odd request, but Mma. Makutsi agrees, and begins to meet the top candidates. She doesn’t have a lot of time to make her choice, but she soon gets to know enough about these young women to decide which one best embodies the pageant’s ideals. It’s an interesting look at the drive to win pageant fame. So, by the way, is Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann CraigHickory Smoked Homicide, which goes ‘behind the scenes’ of the beauty pageant circuit.

Then there’s the interesting case of Clara and Peter Morrow, whom Louise Penny fans will know as residents of the small Québec town of Three Pines. The Morrows are both artists, and when we first meet them in Still Life, Peter is widely acknowledged to be the one with the greater talent, and certainly more recognition. In one story arc, though, Clara finds her own artistic voice and begins to get some attention and notice of her own. She’s really not what you’d call greedy or overly ambitious. But it is interesting to see what happens to the dynamic between the Morrows as Clara begins to get noticed. I won’t spoil the arc for those who don’t know it. I can say, though, that it’s a case of up-and-coming fame changing a lot.

On the outside, anyway, fame seems to offer a great deal. So it’s little wonder so many people dream of it. But as any crime fiction fan knows, that ambition can carry a hefty price tag…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Shel Silverstein’s The Cover of the Rolling Stone made famous by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Yes, that Shel Silverstein.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Ellery Queen, Kerry Greenwood, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson, Riley Adams

No Border Fence Can Separate Us, No*

BorderlandsI live less than an hour’s drive (depending on the traffic) from the U.S./Mexican border. What’s interesting about a borderland area like this is the distinctive culture that’s developed. There are certainly influences on both sides of the border of both the U.S. dominant culture and the Mexican dominant culture. But really, life here is a blend of those cultures, and that makes it unique – neither one nor the other, if I can put it that way.

There are ‘border cultures’ all over the world, whether the border is between two very friendly allies or two enemies. And if you think about it, borderlands are very effective settings for crime novels. For one thing, there is, as I say, a unique culture. For another, even between the friendliest of allies, there are often big and little tensions that can add to a novel’s suspense. Put that together with the mystery that’s the main focus of the novel, and you can have a very absorbing read.

Borderlands figure into a few of Agatha Christie’s stories. For example, in both The Murder on the Links and The Mystery of the Blue Train, Hercule Poirot, who lives in London, investigates murders that take place in France. Several of the characters in those novels cross between the two countries more than once, and do business in both places. That ‘border culture’ of cosmopolitan travel is distinctive – neither French nor English really – and it’s interesting to see how it plays out in these stories. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

Philippe Georget’s Summertime, All the Cats are Bored takes place in the Perpignan region of France, near the French/Spanish border. Two Perpignan police officers, Gilles Sebag and Jacques Molina are dealing with the usual life of a long, hot summer. Sebag’s concerned that his wife Claire may be having an affair, and Molina has his own concerns. Everything’s put aside though when the body of Josetta Braun, a Dutch tourist, is discovered. Then Anneke Verbrucke, who is also Dutch, is abducted. It looks very much as though there’s a serial killer at work, and the media wastes no time making much of that. Now Sebag and Molina have to try to outwit the killer before there are any more murders. In this story, we get a look at the culture of this border area – neither thoroughly French nor thoroughly Spanish, but distinctive.

The Austria/Italy borderland is the setting for Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski, which introduces her Scotland Yard sleuth Henry Tibbett. He and his wife Emmy take a skiing trip to Santa Chiara, in the Italian Alps. They’re staying at the Bella Vista Hotel, which caters to skiers. Then late one afternoon, one of the other guests is murdered. Austrian-born businessman Fritz Hauser is shot and his body discovered on the downward-facing ski-lift. Tibbett doesn’t have jurisdiction, but once the investigating officer Capitano Spezzi finds out Tibbetts is with the Yard, he slowly starts to trust him and Tibbetts gets to work. Santa Chiara is in Italy; however, there’s a strong Austrian influence in the area, not least because this borderland has changed hands more than once. There are important cultural differences between the Italians and the Austrians; there’s even a bit of tension. But really, the local culture is Alpine – neither distinctly Italian nor distinctly Austrian.

Michael Connelly’s The Black Ice takes place partly in the borderland between the US and Mexico. It begins in Los Angeles, when Harry Bosch gets word on his police scanner that the body of a suicide victim has been discovered. The dead man is identified as Calexico ‘Cal’ Moore, a fellow cop. The first theory is that Moore killed himself because he’d ‘gone dirty.’ But certain things don’t add up for Bosch, and he starts to investigate. His search leads him to the ‘twin cities’ of Calexico (in California) and Mexicali (in Mexico), and to a connection with Moore’s past. This area is a blend both of languages (English, Spanish and Spanglish are spoken on both sides of the border) and of cultures. There’s some tension there, but people who live in this borderland have developed their own distinctive culture and ways of living.

The U.S./Canada border is one of the friendlier borders in the world (not that there’s never any tension or strong disagreement). Because it’s such a long border (it’s the world’s longest international border), there isn’t what you’d call one ‘borderland’ culture. There are several. One such culture is the Great Lakes culture in the borderland between the U.S. state of Michigan and the Canadian province of Ontario. Steve Hamilton explores the rural part of that culture in his Alex McKnight series. McKnight is a former Detroit police officer who’s left the force and now makes a living renting cabins near Sault Ste. Marie (Soo) Michigan/Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. There are of course formalities when McKnight crosses the border, but the area isn’t really completely Canadian or completely U.S. Instead, it’s a unique rural hunting/fishing/sport tourist area.

The capital of Botswana, Gabarone, is in the borderland area between that country and South Africa. So Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe, whose detective agency is in Gabarone, visits South Africa in more than one of her cases. And in both that series and the Michael Stanley writing duo’s David ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, we see several examples of people who live on one side of the border but work on the other. It’s a culturally and linguistically unique place, and you can see that in the language patterns. English is the official language of Botswana, but most of the people also speak Setswana. Setswana is also spoken just across the border in South Africa. It’s an interesting case of cultural and linguistic borders being different to geopolitical borders.

Fans of Brian McGilloway’s Garda Ben Devlin series will know that it takes place mostly in the borderlands between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland. And fans of Kate Atkinson and Val McDermid will know that several of their novels take place in the Scottish Border area. In both of those cases, we see a distinctive way of life that blends both sides of the border. Dialect, daily life, and so on are all unique to those areas. And that’s really what a borderland is. It’s not one side’s culture or the other. Instead, it’s a unique culture that has elements of both. Which bordlerlands novels and series stand out for you?

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Boom Shaka’s Unite.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Brian McGilloway, Kate Atkinson, Michael Connelly, Patricia Moyes, Phillipe Georget, Steve Hamilton, Val McDermid

Can You Picnic?*

PicnicsThe weather is finally beginning to warm up a bit in the Northern Hemisphere; and in the Southern Hemisphere, the worst of summer’s heat is over. For a lot of people, that delightful ‘warm-but-not-hot’ weather is perfect for having picnics. If you enjoy picnics, you know how delightful it can be to take off for the beach, a hill, or just your garden and enjoy the outdoors as you eat. It’s a popular thing to do. Little wonder then that we see picnics crop up as they do in crime fiction. Let me if I may just share a few examples to show you what I mean.

Agatha Christie features picnics in a few of her stories. In one of them, Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay. Also staying at the hotel are Captain Kenneth Marshall, his wife Arlena Stuart Marshall, and his daughter (and Arlena’s step-daughter) Linda. It’s soon obvious that Arlena is carrying on a not-too-well-hidden affair with another guest Patrick Redfern, so when she is found dead one afternoon, her husband becomes the obvious suspect. But he can prove his whereabouts, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. The investigation takes a toll on everyone, and at one point, Poirot suggests that they all go on a picnic. At first no-one is in the mood for a light-hearted adventure like a picnic, but everyone finally agrees. And that picnic proves informative for Poirot…

Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock is the story of a group of schoolgirls at Mrs. Appleyard’s College for Young Ladies, an exclusive private boarding school in Victoria. On Valentine’s Day of 1900, they go to Hanging Rock for a picnic. Mmlle. De Poitiers, the French mistress, and Greta McCraw, who teaches mathematics, go along as chaperones. During the picnic, three of the students, plus Miss McCraw, go missing. One of the students is later found, but she is dazed and cannot remember anything that happened. A thorough search of the area turns up nothing. Then, other strange events happen, and parents start pulling their daughters out of the school. Ultimately, things end tragically for the school. This is one of those unusual stories that doesn’t give readers an explanation for what happens. Lindsay later published a chapter that had been removed from the original text; in it, she provides the explanation for the events. But the story itself leaves readers to work out what happened.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: A Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional account of the 1900 arrest and trial of Maggie Heffernan for the killing of her infant son. As James tells the story, Maggie is brought up in rural Victoria by ‘respectable’ parents. One day she sees a newcomer, Jack Hardy, who’s in from Sydney staying with relatives. The customs of that era don’t allow Maggie to be ‘forward,’ as the saying used to go, but she’s smitten. Not long after she first sees Jack, she learns that he’ll be joining the local cricket team in a match coming up soon. So she eagerly goes along with her family for a ‘cricket picnic.’ After the meal, she finally gets a chance for a few words with Jack, and it doesn’t take long before they begin to see one another regularly. In fact, they become secretly engaged. Then, Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. When he does, he tells Maggie, he’ll send for her. In the meantime, Maggie learns that she’s pregnant. She writes to Jack several times to tell him, but gets no answer. She knows that her parents will not accept her, so she decides to leave to find work in Melbourne. The baby is duly born, and for a short time, Maggie moves to a home for unwed mothers. Then, she learns that Jack has come to Melbourne and tracks him down. When she does, he rejects her, calling her ‘crazy.’ With little other choice, Maggie and the baby go to six different lodging houses, and are turned away from each one. That’s when the tragedy occurs. Before long, Maggie finds herself imprisoned and sentenced to execution. Vida Goldstein, the first woman to stand for Parliament in the British Empire, takes an interest in Maggie’s case. She and her protégée of sorts Elizabeth Hamilton work to get Maggie released.

In Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, we are introduced to Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges, Chief of Police for the small town of St. Denis, in the Périgord. The main plot of the novel concerns the brutal murder of Mustafa al-Bakr, who emigrated years ago from Algeria. As dedicated as Bruno is to his job (and he is), he doesn’t let it consume him. In fact, a sub-plot of the novel features his developing relationship with Isabelle Perrault of the Police Nationale. She’s been sent to St. Denis to work with Bruno on this case, since it may involve the Front Nationale, a far-right group that’s not afraid to use terrorism to achieve its goals. At one point, he takes Isabelle out for a dinner picnic near the ruins of a castle. Bruno’s prepared the picnic carefully, and his date is most impressed:
 

‘’My toast is to you and your wonderful imagination. I can’t think of a better evening or a better picnic, and there’s no one I’d rather enjoy it with.’’
 

The picnic may not be the entire reason the two begin a relationship, but it doesn’t hurt!

Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School For Men includes a few of Mma. Precious Ramotswe’s cases. For instance, there’s Mr. Molefelo, who wants to make amends for some wrongs he did. There’s also some competition from Satisfaction Guaranteed, a newly-established detective agency. And there’s the case of Mma. Selelipeng, who believes her husband is being unfaithful to her. As you can imagine, Mma. Ramotswe and her associate Mma. Grace Makutsi don’t have a lot of spare time. To add to everything, Mma. Makutsi has decided to offer typing classes for men, who wouldn’t have been taught how to type in school. So life at the detective agency does get a bit hectic. When matters are finally settled, Mma. Ramotswe, her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, and Mma. Makutsi arrange for a picnic at a dam not far from where they live. They make a fire where they cook chicken, sausages, rice and maize pap. And they’re not the only group there. Other families have also gathered for picnics, and Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni’s two apprentices are delighted to find some pleasant young girls to flirt with as they eat and relax. It’s a pleasant end to the story.

And it’s true that picnics can be very pleasant and relaxing. But sometimes, the insects aren’t the only things you need to worry about as you eat! ;-)

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Laura Nyro’s Stone Soul Picnic, made famous by The Fifth Dimension.

 

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Joan Lindsay, Martin Walker, Wendy James

I Want You Just the Way You Are*

LimitationsOne of the things about real-life humans is that we all have our vulnerabilities. I don’t personally know anyone who has no physical limitations, even among people who are young and in good health. There’s just about always something, whether it’s allergies, myopia, or something else that limits a person. And sometimes it’s not even a physical limitation.

That’s one reason for which it’s so refreshing when fictional characters also have those vulnerabilities. I’m not talking here of the sort of psychological vulnerability that you see in, say, ‘stalker’ novels or novels where characters have suffered emotional trauma. Rather, I’m talking of those everyday limitations that make characters seem more human.

For instance, Agatha Christie fans will know that her Hercule Poirot is very particular about the way he dresses. And that includes his shoes. The trouble is of course that sometimes, fashionable shoes are not comfortable. So Poirot isn’t one to walk for long distances when he can avoid it. When he can’t, he pays the price. For instance, in Hallowe’en Party, Poirot travels to the small town of Woodleigh Common to help his friend, detective novelist Ariadne Oliver, solve the drowning murder of thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds. At one point, Poirot has to take a bit of a long walk to visit Mrs. Oliver at the home of her host Judith Butler:
 

‘Mrs. Oliver waited until Poirot approached.
‘Come here,’ she said, ‘and sit down. What’s the matter with you? You look upset.’
‘My feet are extremely painful,’ said Hercule Poirot.
‘It’s those awful tight patent leather shoes of yours,’ said Mrs. Oliver.
 

She’s right. As it is, Poirot is not exactly in marathon-running form. And a painful pair of shoes makes it all worse. It also adds a little to his humanity. If you’ve ever worn a pair of shoes that pinched your feet, you know what that’s like.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe is also not in top physical condition. To put it bluntly, he’s quite heavy, as fans will know. Of course, he’s made accommodations for that. He has an elevator that takes him to the different parts of his house, so that he doesn’t have to puff up staircases. He doesn’t go running around after suspects (Archie Goodwin, Fred Durkin, Saul Panzer and Orrie Cather do that). And limitations or no, he’s a brilliant detective. But the point is that he has vulnerabilities. And as cantankerous and eccentric as Wolfe can be, that aspect of his character makes him more accessible.

The same could be said of Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe. She is, as McCall Smith puts it, ‘a traditionally built lady.’ She can’t go running after people or engage in really strenuous physical activity. In that sense, she’s limited. And sometimes, she feels limited in another way. For instance, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, she is following a young teenage girl whose father is worried that she may have a secret boyfriend. Mma. Ramotswe stops to admire a rack of African-print blouses:
 

Buy one of these, Mma.’ said the woman. ‘Very good blouses. They never run. Look, this one I’m wearing has been washed ten, twenty times and hasn’t run. Look.’…
‘You wouldn’t have my size,’ said Mma. Ramotswe. ‘I need a very big blouse.’
The trader checked her rack and then looked at Mma. Ramotswe again.
‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘You are too big for these blouses. Far too big.”
 

Mma. Ramotswe is comfortable with her size for the most part, and with herself. She is also certainly comfortable wearing clothes that are suited to her build. But she is also realistically limited by it.

Karin Fossum’s Inspector Konrad Sejer is no longer a young man. But for the most part, he’s in fairly good physical shape. He even goes skydiving at times. But he has his limitations too. In his case, it’s eczema, which especially flares up when he’s under severe work stress. Sejer doesn’t obsess about it; he uses medicated cream and gets on with life. But that little touch of vulnerability adds a human aspect to his character that makes him more approachable. You could say the same of Ann Cleeves’ Vera Stanhope. She’s a terrific and skilled detective. But she’s – erm – no longer twenty, and she’s not in top physical condition. What’s more, she too has eczema. Those little details, since they are realistically depicted (‘though not overdone) make her more accessible.

As we age, of course, those little ‘creaks and groans’ get more frequent. And there are several older fictional characters (you could name lots more than I could, I know) who show those age-related limitations. For instance, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover is in her eighties. She’s not in particularly bad condition. As a matter of fact, given her age, she’s fairly healthy. But she uses a cane. She can’t walk very quickly, and she tires more easily than a younger person would. Those things don’t make her any less of a smart, skilled sleuth, but they are everyday vulnerabilities that she has to take into account. And she’s all the more human for it.

Of course, not all vulnerabilities are physical (or even psychological). For example, Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson is young and physically healthy. She’s also not crippled by phobias or other psychological issues. But she is limited by not driving. In Toronto of course, one can take public transit to lots of different places. But that means one can’t really set one’s own schedule. And there are places that aren’t as easily accessible via a train or a bus. In those cases, Jackson often depends on rides. Fans will know that she’s working with a driving instructor – when she can. But her lack of freedom to just hop into a car and get where she’s going does limit her. And that makes her both vulnerable and human.

There’s always a risk in giving a character limitations. It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a sleuth or major character a helpless victim, and that can be both melodramatic and very much overdone. It’s also easy if one’s not careful to go on and on too much about whatever vulnerability the sleuth may have. That can be tiresome. But when it’s done deftly and with restraint, giving a sleuth or major character some sort of limitation can make that character a lot more credible. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to look for my specs…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Just the Way You Are.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Jill Edmondson, Karin Fossum, Rex Stout