Category Archives: Elizabeth Spann Craig

Now Paul is a Real Estate Novelist*

Real EstateIf you’ve ever moved house (and most of us have), you know what a complicated, exhausting and sometimes thoroughly frustrating process it is. But there are plenty of people who make their living in that industry. Yes, I’m talking about house agents. The real estate business is a fixture in most places, and those who represent buyers and sellers can (when times are good and the property is of value) make a lot of money.

Real estate/house agents also play roles in crime fiction. After all, fictional characters buy and sell homes too. And sometimes those homes have secrets, and so do the people who move into them.

There are several house agents in Agatha Christie’s stories. For example, in Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Littlegreen House in the village of Market Basing at the request of wealthy Emily Arundell. She’s worried that someone in her family may be trying to kill her, and wants Poirot to find out who it is. But by the time Poirot and Hastings get to Market Basing, it’s too late: Miss Arundell has died. No-one in Miss Arundell’s family or household knows of her concern, so Poirot needs a pretext for visiting the house. He goes to the office of Messrs. Gabler and Stretcher, who have Littlegreen House on their books. Here’s what Mr. Gabler says about the property:
 

‘Ah! Littlegreen House – there’s a property! An absolute bargain. Only just come into the market. I can tell you, gentlemen, we don’t often get a house of that class going at the price…Yes, we shan’t have Littlegreen long in our books.’
 

Anyone who’s ever had dealings with real estate people will find this kind of patter familiar. I know, I know, fans of The Man in the Brown Suit.

In Linwood Barclay’s Bad Move, science-fiction writer Zack Walker is increasingly concerned about the safety of his family. They live in the city, and Walker thinks they would be much safer in suburbia. So after being enticed by some attractive newspaper ads, Walker convinces his wife Sarah to at least look at Valley Forest Estates, a new housing development. When they get to the sales office, they’re even more drawn in by the sales representative, who gets them excited about the extra space, the ground-floor laundry room and more. It’s not long before the Walker family is settled into their new home. And that’s when the trouble begins. First, Walker happens to witness an argument between one of Valley Forest’s executives and local environmentalist Samuel Spender. Later, Walker discovers Spender’s body near a local creek. He ends up getting far more involved in this case than he ever intended; he also learns that life in suburbia is no safer than life in the city…

Lynda Wilcox’s Strictly Murder introduces readers to Verity Long, who serves as research assistant to famous novelist Kathleen ‘K.D.’ Davenport. The arrangement has been working out so well that Long has decided to move to a nicer home than the one she currently has. So, she works with a house agent to find the right place. One afternoon, she and the agent visit a likely possibility. Long is exploring the house when she discovers the body of famous TV presenter Jaynee ‘Jay-Jay’ Johnson. Since Long found the body, DI Jerry Farish considers her (at least at first) to be a ‘person of interest.’ Soon enough, she’s able to convince him that she had nothing to do with the murder. But she remains interested in the case, since she’s involved. What’s more, it may be quite useful as the basis for one of her boss’ plots at some point. So Long does some of her own investigation.

Sometimes fictional real estate professionals find themselves on the wrong end of a murder weapon. For instance, in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, we meet Parke Stockard. She’s a beautiful and very successful real estate developer who’s recently moved to the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. Soon enough, the residents discover that she is malicious and exploitative, and it’s not long before she manages to alienate just about everyone in town. So there are several suspects to consider when she is found murdered one afternoon. Retired schoolteacher Myrtle Clover discovers the body and decides to investigate the death, mostly to show her son (and anyone else who might wonder!) that she’s not ready to be ‘put out to pasture’ yet.

And then there’s Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House. In that novel, Stockholm house agent Hans Vannerberg tells his wife Pia that he’s going out to look at a house for a client, and will be back soon. When he doesn’t return, Pia gets anxious and finally calls in the police. Vannerberg’s body is found in the home of Ingrid Olssen, who’s been in a local hospital recovering from surgery. DCI Conny Sjöberg and his team face several puzzling questions in this case. First, why was Vannerberg at Olssen’s home, when she wasn’t selling her house and in fact, claimed not to know him? And who would have wanted to kill a man who had a loving marriage, a successful business (with no hint of financial wrongdoing) and no criminal associations? In the end, the detective team finds that this murder is connected to other crimes and is linked to the past.

The real estate profession gets quite a different treatment in Phil Hogan’s A Pleasure and a Calling. William Heming is not the kind of man you really notice very much. He’s the local real estate agent who’s sold
 

‘…properties on every street in town.’
 

Most people don’t think much about Heming, and they certainly don’t know that he’s kept keys to all of the homes he’s sold. Heming takes a personal interest in all of the villagers and their doings, and keeps his eye on them. Then, the town is shaken by the discovery of a dead body in a backyard. Heming is just as concerned as anyone. If too much comes out, then everyone will know that selling houses isn’t the only interest he has…

It can be exciting to contemplate a new home, with all of the latest conveniences, in just the right place. But if you do consider a move, just be careful with whom you deal…

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Carin Gerhardsen, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Linwood Barclay, Lynda Wilcox, Phil Hogan

It’s Late in the Evening*

LateNightPlenty of real and fictional crime happens in broad daylight. But most people associate crime with night. We’re more vulnerable at night; and, since a lot of people are at home then, public areas are less populated. So there’s no safety in numbers, so to speak. And those places that are late-night magnets (clubs, bars and pubs, etc.) have their own dangers.

It’s not surprising when you think about it that a lot of fictional crime takes place at night. There are far too many examples of this for me to include in this one post. I’m sure you’ll be able to add more than I could think of, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, for instance, Hercule Poirot is taking a cruise of the Nile. Also on the cruise are Simon Doyle and his bride Linnet Ridgeway Doyle. On the second night of the cruise, Linnet is shot. The first theory is that her former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort is the killer. She certainly had motive, as she and Simon were engaged before he met Linnet. But it’s soon proven that Jackie couldn’t have committed the murder, so Poirot has to consider all of the other passengers. One important part of this investigation is finding out exactly what everyone was doing on the night of the murder. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that the ship was quite active, even late at night. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

In John Bude’s The Cornish Coast Murder, Reverend Dodd, vicar of St. Michael’s-on-the-Cliff, is having dinner with his friend Dr. Pendrill. Their pleasant evening is interrupted when Pendrill is summoned to Greylings, the home of the Tregarthan family. Family patriarch Julius Tregarthan has been shot in his sitting room. Inspector Bigswell and his team are called in and begin to investigate. Interestingly, they find that three shots were fired through the open sitting-room window. Each shot came from a slightly different angle. What’s more, some money is missing from Tregarthan’s wallet. One of the tasks the police face is finding out exactly what all of those involved in the case were doing at the time of the murder. Matters aren’t made any easier by the fact that most of the people concerned were coming or going from somewhere. Although the investigation itself doesn’t occur only at night, a lot of the activity the police (and the vicar) look into does.

Karin Fossum’s Bad Intentions concerns three young men: Axel Frimann, Philip Reilly and Jon Moreno. Jon has recently been released from a mental hospital after a bout with severe anxiety problems, and it’s thought that some relaxation and a change of scenery will do him good. He and the other two take a cabin for a weekend at Dead Water Lake, and all starts out well enough. Late one night, the three young men go out on the lake in a boat. Only two come back. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jakob Skarre investigate, and try to get as much information as they can from the two survivors. In the meantime, the body of a teenager is found in Glitter Lake. So Sejer and Skarre take on that case as well. As it turns out, the tragedies are connected and in both instances, finding out the truth means tracing a series of events that happened late at night. I know, I know, fans of Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride).

Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar introduces readers to Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney. After a particularly difficult case, she decides to take a break and visit her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse in Chiang Mai. Late one night, Didi’s partner Nou is murdered outside a club. Not long after that, Didi himself is shot. The official police account is that Didi murdered Nou; when the police came to arrest him, Didi turned dangerous, leaving the officers no choice but to shoot him. Keeney doesn’t believe any of this, and determines to clear her friend’s name. The trail leads to the Thai sex trade and to child trafficking. And a lot of both the criminal activity and Keeney’s investigation take place late at night. That makes sense, too, since that’s when many Thai bars and clubs do most of their business.

Malcolm Mackay’s The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter features one very memorable night. Callum MacLean is a Glasgow-based freelance professional killer. He’s got a good reputation, so he’s an obvious choice when Peter Jamieson needs to ‘solve a problem.’ Jamieson is a ‘rising star’ in the criminal underworld. He’s noticed that small-time dealer and criminal Lewis Winter has been trying to make his own name. If he succeeds, this will cause real problems for Jamieson and his right-hand man John Young. So they hire MacLean to deal with Winter. One night, Winter and his girlfriend Zara Cope go to a club called Heavenly. Winter has far too much to drink, which doesn’t particularly bother Cope, since she’s having quite a good time with the evening’s ‘conquest’ Stewart Macintosh. She and Macintosh decide to take Winter home and spend the rest of the night together, since Winter will be oblivious anyway. They go ahead with their plan, and that’s when Maclean and his partner put their own plan into action.

And then there’s Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover. She’s a retired teacher who has regular bouts with insomnia. So she often goes for late-night walks, and seems to do her best thinking when everyone else is sleeping. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she investigates the murder of malicious real estate developer Parke Stockard, and it’s not an easy case. So one night, she decides to go down to the lake behind her house and sit for a while to think things out. She’s doing exactly that when she’s shoved from behind and almost drowns in the lake. Fortunately, the man next door Miles Bradford sees her distress before it’s too late and rescues her. For both of them, that’s more than enough for one night’s work.

There’s just something about those late-night hours that lends itself to crime. I know I’ve only touched on a few examples. Your turn.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Eric Clapton’s Wonderful Tonight.

EricClapton

Happy Birthday, Mr. Clapton!!

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Elizabeth Spann Craig, John Bude, Karin Fossum, Malcolm Mackay

Still These Allergies Remain*

AllergiesAutumn (or spring, depending on which hemisphere you call home) is upon us. And that means one important thing: allergies. If you’re subject to allergy attacks, you know how miserable they can make you. Seasonal allergies can be very annoying, but some allergies are more than that: they’re deadly. Some people have such severe reactions to certain foods, stings, etc. that they are at risk for death from anaphylaxis if they come in contact with that allergen.

For a crime writer, anaphylactic shock can make for a very handy murder weapon. The killer doesn’t need a special skill, a lot of medical knowledge or a great deal of pre-planning.  Anaphylaxis is also a handy ‘cover’ for certain kinds of poisoning. There are plenty of examples of the way allergies are woven into crime fiction; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane is one of the later Holmes stories, taking place after he’s retired. In this story, he’s on a seaside holiday at Sussex when he runs into a friend Harold Stackhurst, headmaster of an exclusive preparatory school. As they’re chatting, one of Stackhurt’s employees, science master Fitzroy McPherson, staggers towards them, suddenly collapsing. The only thing he’s able to say before he dies is something about a lion’s mane. At first it makes no sense, but it’s soon suspected that McPherson was murdered. And the most likely possible culprit is mathematics master Ian Murdoch. In fact, Stackhurst fires him. But Holmes doesn’t believe that the case against Murdoch is iron-clad. For one thing, Murdoch has a solid alibi. For another, there are puzzling things about McPershon’s death that aren’t consistent with the theory that Murdoch is the killer. In the end, Holmes finds that the real murderer was a Lion’s Mane jellyfish which stung the victim and to which he had a fatal allergic reaction.

More than one of Agatha Christie’s stories feature allergies to wasps, bees and other stinging insects. For instance, in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), a wasp is blamed for the death of Marie Morisot, who is killed on a flight from Paris to London. There is a wasp on the flight; several passengers comment on it and one kills it. There’s a small sting mark on the victim, too. So at first it looks as though she died from a severe allergic reaction to a sting. But soon enough, Hercule Poirot, who was on the same flight, discovers that the victim was poisoned. The only possible suspects are the other passengers, so Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp look among them to find out who the killer is. I know, I know, fans of And Then There Were None

Kaitlyn Dunnett’s Liss Macrimmon is a former Scottish dancer who’s had to end her career because of an injury. Now she’s returned to her hometown of Moosetookalook, Maine. In Scone Cold Dead, she learns that her former dance troupe Strathespy is on tour in the area, and arranges for them to perform at the University of Maine’s Fallstown campus. One night, she throws a party for the troupe. One of the guests is company manager Victor Owen. During the event, Owen suddenly dies after eating a scone stuffed with mushrooms, to which he was violently allergic. Macrimmon has a not-very-amicable history with the victim, and she was the one who hosted the party and arranged for the food. So as you can imagine, she falls under immediate suspicion. Determined to clear her name, she works to find out who the real murderer is. And it turns out there’s no shortage of suspects.

Susan Wittig Albert’s Chile Death also features food allergies. In that novel, herb and spice shop owner China Bayles and her police-officer partner Mike McQuaid are invited to the upcoming Cedar Choppers Chili Cook-Off. McQuaid is even persuaded to serve as one of the judges. Bayles thinks this will be a good opportunity for him to ‘rejoin the human race’ as he starts to cope with life after a devastating line-of-duty shooting. On the day of the cook-off, insurance executive Jerry Jeff Cody, who’s serving as another judge, suddenly collapses and dies. It looks at first as though he’s the victim of a sudden heart attack. But before long it’s shown that he died of anaphylactic shock brought on when someone slipped crushed peanut shells into a sample of chili he was tasting. Now Bayles works to find out who knew about Cody’s severe peanut allergy, and who would have wanted to kill him.

I’ve actually used peanut flour as a fiction murder weapon myself. In B-Very Flat, violin virtuosa Serena Brinkman is killed just after having won a major musical competition. It turns out that someone knew about her severe peanut allergy and took advantage of it. Serena’s death is devastating to her partner Patricia Stanley, so Patricia asks her academic advisor Joel Williams to help find out the truth.

Of course, allergies can serve as useful clues, too. Just ask Elizabeth Spann Craig’s sleuth, retired teacher Myrtle Clover. In Pretty is as Pretty Dies, she discovers the body of beautiful but malicious Parke Stoddard in a local church. She wants to prove, mostly to her police-chief son Red, that she’s not ready yet to be ‘put out to pasture.’ So she decides to find out who killed the victim. And in this case, an allergy gives her important information.

Whether mild or severe, allergies are a part of life for millions of people. And they’re also a very useful tool for crime writers. These are a few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s Allergies.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Kaitlyn Dunnett, Susan Wittig Albert

Girl, I’m On Your Side*

Female MentorsSometimes we all benefit from the guidance of someone who’s more experienced and knowledgeable. Those mentor relationships are often organic, and they benefit both people involved, really. If you’ve ever had a mentor, you know how much of an impact that relationship can have. It’s certainly a part of real life, and there are plenty of crime-fictional examples as well.

In Agatha Christie’s Cat Among the Pigeons, for instance, we are introduced to Honoria Bulstrode, head of Meadowbank, an exclusive girls’ school. In one plot thread, Miss Bulstrode’s been contemplating what will happen when she retires, and she’s deciding who should succeed her. One possibility is Eleanor Vansittart, her ‘second in command.’ Miss Vansittart is devoted to Miss Bulstrode, and makes it quite clear that she intends to run the school in exactly the way Miss Bulstrode does. Another possibility is Eileen Rich, who teaches English Literature and Geography. Miss Rich is quite young for a position of real authority; still, she has a real passion for teaching, and is gifted in the classroom. Miss Bulstrode’s concerns for the future of the school are put aside when games mistress Grace Springer is shot late one night at the school’s new Sports Pavilion. Then there’s another murder. And a disappearance. Julia Upjohn, a pupil at the school, makes an important discovery about the events at the school. She visits Hercule Poirot, who is acquainted with her mother’s good friend, and asks his help. Poirot returns with her to the school and investigates. Throughout this novel, we see how Miss Bulstrode acts as a guide and mentor, especially to Eileen Rich.

There’s a similar relationship between Gail Bowen’s sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her informal mentor Hilda McCourt. When we first meet them in Deadly Appearances, Joanne is investigating the poisoning murder of her friend up-and-coming political leader Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. In part to deal with her own sense of grief and loss, Joanne decides to write Andy’s biography, and begins with his youth. That’s how she gets to know Hilda, who taught Andy in high school. Over the course of the next few novels in the series, the two women become friends. Joanne is glad of Hilda’s wisdom and experience, and benefits from using her mentor as a ‘sounding board.’ For her part, Hilda ‘adopts’ Joanne’s family and she too benefits from the relationship.

Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue series features Lulu Taylor, who owns Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. The restaurant is named for Lulu’s aunt, who taught her about cooking and about running a restaurant. That mentoring relationship has been very important to Lulu, who is proud to carry on the good traditions she learned from her aunt. Now that Lulu is no longer a young woman, she’s a mentor herself. Her son Ben is married to Sara, a talented artist. In a few novels in this series, Lulu serves as a sort of informal mentor to Sara. And in Hickory Smoked Homicide, she helps clear Sara’s name when she becomes a suspect in the murder of socialite and beauty pageant coach Tristan Pembroke. Lulu has a way of supporting Sara without ‘taking over’ or interfering in her daughter-in-law’s life.

In Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice, we meet former school principal Thea Farmer, who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. Unfortunately, some poor financial decision-making and bad luck have meant that Thea has to give up that perfect house and settle for the house next door. None too happy about that, Thea calls the smaller house ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy the home Thea still sees as her own. Thea dislikes then intensely, referring to them as ‘the invaders.’ Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with the couple. At first, Thea is prepared to dislike Kim as much as she does Frank and Ellice. Instead, she develops an awkward kind of friendship with Kim, and sees real promise in the girl. She even invites Kim to join her in a writing class she’s taking. Thea sees herself as Kim’s mentor and support system, so when she begins to believe that Frank and Ellice are not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to do something about it.

Wendy James’ Out of the Silence: a Story of Love, Betrayal, Politics and Murder is a fictional re-telling of the case of Maggie Heffernan, who was convicted and imprisoned in 1900 for the murder of her infant son, and sentenced to execution. In this account, Maggie meets Jack Hardy when he visits her rural Victoria town to see relatives of his. The two fall in love and secretly become engaged. Then Jack leaves for New South Wales to find work. Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, and writes to Jack several times; but he doesn’t respond. Knowing that her family won’t accept her, Maggie goes to Melbourne where she gets work in a Guest House. When the baby is born, Maggie lives briefly in a home for unwed mothers, until she learns where Jack is. When she goes to see him, though, he rejects her utterly, calling her ‘crazy.’ Maggie and her infant son are then turned away from six lodging houses; that’s when the tragedy occurs. In the meantime, we also follow the story of Elizabeth Hamilton, who moved to Australia after the death of her fiancé. She soon meets Vida Goldstein, the first woman in the British Commonwealth to seek office as an MP. Vida is a champion of women’s rights and women’s suffrage, and wants to mentor Elizabeth. The two women become interested in the case of Maggie Heffernan, and try to prevent her execution. Throughout this novel, we see several examples of women mentoring and supporting other women; it’s one of the story’s themes.

We also see that in Kishwar Desai’s stories featuring social worker Simran Singh. In Witness the Night, an old university friend asks Simran to travel from Delhi to her home town in the state of Punjab to help in an unusual and appalling case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is suspected of the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members; some were stabbed as well. Later, the house was set on fire. One possible theory is that Durga is responsible for what happened. However, there are signs that she may have been a victim too, and simply managed to escape. The authorities can’t get her to discuss that night though, so there’s no way to really know what happened. That’s where Simran comes in. It’s believed that if she can get Durga to talk about that night, there’ll be a clearer picture of the killings. Simran agrees and begins to interact with Durga. Bit by bit, the two get to know each other and Simran feels a sort of mentor-like protectiveness about the girl. In fact, it’s not spoiling the story to say that she plans to take Durga in once the case gets resolved.

There’s also Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark. In that novel, secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein becomes concerned when one of her prize students, fifteen-year-old Serena Freeman, loses interest in school. She stops attending class regularly; and when she is there, she barely takes part in what’s going on. Ilsa takes her concerns to the school’s counselor, but Serena’s family is, to say the least, dysfunctional and not open to help from the outside. Ilsa and her mother Gerda continue to become involved in Serena’s life, and that decision draws them into more than either had imagined.Then Serena disappears. Her older sister Lynnette ‘Lynnie’ travels from Wellington back to the family home in Alexandra to look for the girl. Without giving away spoilers, I can say that mentoring/supporting plays a major role in this novel.

Those often-informal mentoring relationships can make a big difference in how we move along in life. Sometimes they make a bigger difference than more formal things. As I post this, we’re observing International Women’s Day. But really, supporting women is something that we can do all the time, not just on one day. Look behind you: there’s probably a woman (or another woman if you’re female) working her way up in life. Reach back and support her. It’s not a competition; it’s a matter of everyone doing better when each one does better.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thomas Bank and Candy Dulfer’s Girls Should Stick Together (for Nada).

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Kishwar Desai, Paddy Richardson, Virginia Duigan, 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