Marina Sofia, who blogs at Finding Time to Write, offered a ‘sneak peek’ at the novel she’s writing, and I was glad to read it. You’ll want to check it out yourself as you do your blog rounds. The character Marina Sofia depicts is malicious and cutting, and I have it on good authority that she was fun to write.
It all has me thinking about the way those malicious characters are portrayed in crime fiction. They may be first wives, office ‘queen bees,’ fellow club members, or something else. But they can make one’s life miserable. Still, they can add a layer to a crime story, and they can be fun to create.
In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She and her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, are staying with the other members of Leidner’s dig team near an excavation site a few hours from Baghdad. Louise hasn’t really had an easy time of it at the site, though. She’s begun to have real fears about seeing faces at windows and hearing hands tapping and so on. Her husband has hired a nurse, Amy Leatheran, to stay with her and help allay her fears. It works well enough until the afternoon that Louise is found bludgeoned in her room. Hercule Poirot is in the area on business, and is persuaded to take some time to investigate. He soon learns that the victim was not a much-loved, angelic person. While she could be polite, even charming, when she wanted, she could also be quite rude. In fact, more than one character admits that Louise could get anyone angry, and that sometimes, she did so deliberately. It’s an interesting psychological portrait, and it gives Poirot plenty of suspects.
Louise Penny’s A Fateful Grace (AKA Dead Cold) features celebrated ‘life coach’ C.C. de Poitiers. Her book, Be Calm, has gotten a lot of notice and interest, and she’s parlayed that into a series of successful businesses. In private, she’s far from the supportive, kind coach that people see in her public persona. She’s rude, malicious and greedy. So when she decides to move her family to the small Québec town of Three Pines, it doesn’t take long for her to alienate just about everyone. On Boxing Day, she is murdered during the traditional curling match that takes place in the area. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team investigate the murder. They find out that there are plenty of people who were upset at the victim’s rudeness and malicious treatment of others.
In Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night, Delhi social worker Simran Singh returns to her home town of Jullundur in the state of Punjab to help with a troubling case. Thirteen members of the powerful and wealthy Atwal family have been poisoned, and some stabbed. The house has been set on fire, too. The only survivor is fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal, but she hasn’t said anything about what happened. And it’s not clear whether she is guilty, or is a victim who survived the attack. The police hope that Simran will be able to get the girl to talk about what happened. This case means a return to Simran’s home town, and it’s not exactly a happy occasion. Still, she resolves to try to find out what she can. That will mean talking to several people whom she knew as a child. One of them is her school friend Amrinder, with whom she used to compete academically. Both Amrinder and her mother, Ma Sukhhi, remember Simran very well, and although Ma Sukhi is now older and quite ill, she is still more than happy to ‘put Simran in her place’ with plenty of rudeness and reminders of her social position. That reunion doesn’t solve the case, but it does give the reader a sense of what social life is in towns such as Jullundur.
In Betty Webb’s Desert Wives, PI Lena Jones goes undercover at a strange religious compound called Purity. She’s there to find out who killed its leader, Solomon Royal. The most likely suspect is one of Jones’ own clients, and she wants to clear her client’s name if possible. As a part of her cover, Jones adopts the guise of a new arrival, and is assigned to work with the other women of Purity. Soon enough, she encounters Sister Ermaline, the victim’s first wife, who runs Purity’s large kitchen operations. In her position, she is in charge of just about everything the other women do, and is quick to establish both her authority and her power. She’s unpleasant and bossy, and it’s easy to fall afoul of her. So Jones finds it a challenge just to speak with her, let alone find out anything useful. It’s an interesting example of the ‘pecking order’ in the place.
We get a slightly different perspective on such characters in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Alistair Robertson and his partner Joanna Lindsay take a very long trip from Scotland to his home near Melbourne. With them is their nine-week-old son, Noah. The trip itself is a disaster, but they finally arrive in Melbourne, and begin the drive from the airport to Alistair’s home town. The idea is that if they move there, he’ll be in a better position to get custody of his teenaged daughter Chloe, who lives with her mother (and Alistair’s ex-wife) Alexandra. During the drive, Joanna and Alistair face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of Noah. A massive search is undertaken, and at first, there’s a lot of public support for the couple. But then, questions arise, as they often do in such cases, and people begin to wonder whether the parents, especially Joanna, might have had something to do with Noah’s disappearance. Some of the chapters in the novel are written from Alexandra’s perspective, and a few include interactions between her and Joanna. In those, it’s interesting to see that on one level, Alexandra is the bitter, rude ex-wife you might expect. On another, though, there is more to her character than you might imagine. It’s an interesting look at what might be going on in the mind of what seems like a malicious character.
Interestingly, it’s not always female fictional characters who are portrayed in this way. For instance, in Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinju, which takes place in 1689 in what is now Tokyo, we are introduced to Sano Ichirō, the city’s newest senior police commander. He is assigned to write and submit a report on the deaths of ‘well-born’ Niu Yukiko and a peasant artist named Noriyoshi. At first, the deaths look like a double suicide, and the official theory is that the couple were secret lovers who committed suicide because they couldn’t be together. But Sano soon comes to believe that there was more to these deaths than that. Very soon, though, he runs up against several obstacles. One is that his supervisor insists that he not do any personal investigation, as that sort of work is for police who are lower in rank. Another is that any suggestion of bothering or offending Yukiko’s wealthy and powerful family will mean serious trouble. It doesn’t help matters that Sano doesn’t have the support of his fellow senior investigators Yamaga and Hayashi. They both see themselves as superior since they’ve been there longer, and since they were born into families of higher social status. So they never hesitate to insult Sano and treat him rudely, sometimes subtly and sometimes quite overtly. Still, Sano has a sense of duty to his position, and continues looking into the case. He finds that these deaths are much more complex than a case of desperate lovers.
Malicious, rude characters can add a lot to a story, particularly when they offer insight into a social structure or character. And they can be fun to write. Which ones have stayed with you?
Thanks, Marina Sofia, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by ELO (Electric Light Orchestra).