Not very long ago, I had an author portrait taken. I don’t usually care much for ‘photos of myself – at all. But part of getting the word out about one’s writing is….an author portrait (am I right, fellow crime writers?). I asked my
daughter fashion and image expert which of several shots to choose, and she mentioned that I looked angry in one. I asked her what made her think that. After a second’s pause she said, ‘It’s your upper lip.’ Turns out I have a certain facial mannerism I didn’t even know about that gives away irritation.
But I shouldn’t have been surprised. We all have unique mannerisms that are part of our equally unique identities. Sometimes they are very subtle. Other times they’re more obvious. Either way, they help to define us. And they can be really useful to the crime writer. Mannerisms help to make characters distinctive. Readers might not necessarily remember a character’s name, but they might remember, ‘Oh, yeah, the one who tilts her head back to look at you.’
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a very distinctive character. His pipe, his violin, and so on have served to make him familiar to millions. But he also has some physical mannerisms that distinguish him from others. Here’s what Dr. Watson says about it in A Study in Scarlet:
‘Nothing could exceed his energy when the working fit was upon him; but now and again a reaction would seize him, and for days on end he would lie upon the sofa in the sitting-room, hardly uttering a word or moving a muscle from morning to night.’
As time goes by, Watson learns to ‘read’ Holmes’ mannerisms to determine when he’s feeling sociable, when he’s deep in thought, and so on.
Agatha Christie used mannerisms in more than one of her stories. In at least two novels that I can think of (Sorry – no titles. I don’t want to give away spoilers), characters’ distinctive physical mannerisms help the sleuth identify the criminal. Sometimes, Christie used mannerisms to lead readers down the proverbial garden path, too. And of course, her sleuths have mannerisms of their own. Any fan of Hercule Poirot, for instance, can tell you that he has plenty of physical quirks. He absently straightens anything that’s not in perfect alignment. He smooths his moustache unconsciously, too. And those are only two examples.
Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he has several physical mannerisms. One of them is that, when he’s deep in thought, his lips show it. Here’s a description from Champagne For One:
‘…his lips started to work. They pushed out and went back in, out and in, out and in…’
Wolfe may not always be consciously aware that he’s doing that, but Archie Goodwin knows to leave him alone when he does. It means he’s pondering a case, and will not take it kindly if he’s interrupted.
Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios / A Coffin For Dimitrios introduces us to mystery novelist Charles Latimer. When he hears about a notorious character named Dimitrios Makropoulos, he gets interested. And when he finds out the man has been found dead, Latimer gets even more interested. He decides to trace Makropoulos’ history, and find out how and why he committed the crimes that he did, and how he met his end. It’s a very dangerous undertaking, but Latimer is too curious to stop. Slowly, he gets drawn into the dead man’s story. Along the way, he meets a mysterious man who calls himself Mr. Peters. Peters has the mannerism of smiling – a lot. His smiles change, depending on the circumstances, but he smiles quite often. Latimer finds the smile disconcerting, and it’s interesting to see how that adds to the suspense in the story.
Anne Zouroudi’s Hermes Diaktoros is a somewhat enigmatic sleuth. When he’s on a case, he tells people that he’s been sent ‘from Athens’ to help investigate. But it’s never clear exactly where he’s from or what his actual job is (although he is a sort of private detective). In appearance, he’s not overly distinctive. But he does have the distinctive mannerism of keeping the white tennis shoes he habitually wears pristine.
James W. Fuerst’s Huge is the story of Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls. It takes place in a small 1980’s New Jersey town, where twelve-year-old Huge lives with his mother and his sister, Eunice ‘Neecey.’ Huge has his problems in school, but he’s highly intelligent, and dreams of being a private detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care facility where she lives. Huge goes to work on the case; and in the process of finding out who the guilty person is, he learns a lot about himself. The story takes place, as I say, in the 1980s, and Fuerst places the reader in that time period in some interesting ways. For instance, Neecey has a habit she’s probably not even aware of, of wrapping the family’s extra-long telephone cord around her waist when she’s having a ‘phone conversation. It’s an unconscious mannerism, and it adds a layer of character and of setting (remember those super-long cords?).
There are lots of other examples of crime-fictional characters who have distinctive physical mannerisms (right, fans of Andy Breckman’s Adrian Monk?). Those mannerisms can add layers of character development, and make it easier to distinguish among characters. If they’re overdone, they can take away from a story, but when they’re written well, they can be interesting.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Graceland.