Category Archives: Elly Griffiths

You Don’t Have to Be a Star (To Be in My Show)*

Police in Supporting RolesFor obvious reasons, police characters play critical roles in crime fiction. Even when the main character is a PI or perhaps amateur sleuth, we see a lot of police presence. It’s a bit tricky to write a story where the police play an important role, but aren’t main characters. On the one hand, the author wants the protagonist to be the main focus of attention, which means that character needs to be featured and developed. On the other, readers know that it’s the police who have the authority to make arrests, and who have the resources and government sanction to go after criminals. Most readers want their crime fiction plots to reflect that. And they want their police characters to be more than caricatures. It’s interesting to see how different authors have integrated police character when they are not (co)protagonists.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s police characters are arguably often used to highlight just how skilled his Sherlock Holmes is. Holmes fans will know that he has, in general, little respect for the police. He works most often with Inspector Tobias Gregson and of course with Inspector Lestrade, and refers to them as,
 

‘…the pick of a bad lot.’
 

To Holmes, the police of Scotland Yard are thick-headed and miss obvious evidence. Gergson and Lestrade are, perhaps, less guilty. At least they notice when things don’t add up. But even so, they certainly don’t save the day. That’s Holmes’ role.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin are definitely the ‘stars’ of his series. But Inspector Cramer and Sergeant Purley Stebbins also play roles in the stories. Rarely does Wolfe approve of what they do, although both he and Goodwin depend on them for actual arrests. And as fans will know, Cramer, Stebbins and Lieutenant Rowcliff aren’t always happy about what Wolfe and Goodwin do, either. In this series, the police play a more integral role than just making Wolfe, Goodwin and their team look good. And that makes sense, given how important police are to crime detection. They’re not bumbling imbeciles, either (‘though Wolfe might beg to differ at times). Rather, they add tension and sometimes conflict to the stories.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot gets ‘top billing’ in most of the novels and stories that feature him. But the police certainly play integral roles, although not as ‘co-stars.’ And although Poirot is not at all modest about his own powers of deduction, he does have respect for police detectives whom he considers to be good at their jobs. And he often says that the police have more resources at their disposal than he does; in fact, he frequently suggests that his clients go to the police. Chief Inspector Japp is perhaps the best-known of Poirot’s police associates. But he’s not the only recurring police character. There’s also Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence. And of course, other police characters make one-time appearances. In just about all of those cases, the police play a supporting role, but an important one. We may not get much of a look at their home lives or what it’s like at the police station, but they do matter in the stories. It’s interesting too that Christie created a mix of skilled detectives (such as Japp) whom Poirot respects, and detectives for whom he has little liking (Am I right, fans of The Murder on the Links?).

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels feature Wimsey, and later, Harriet Vane, as protagonists. But Inspector Charles Parker is an important supporting character. In Clouds of Witness, where we first meet him, Parker is called in to help the local police find the killer of Dennis Cathcart. The victim was the fiancé of Lady Mary Wimsey, Lord Peter’s sister; and at one point, the evidence seems to implicate her. Luckily for both her and Parker (who has fallen in love with her), it turns out that Cathcart’s murderer was someone else. As the series goes on, Parker marries Lady Mary, and he and Wimsey become friends. That makes things a bit awkward in Strong Poison, when Parker gets solid evidence that mystery novelist Harriet Vane has poisoned her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey has fallen in love with the accused, and is determined to clear her name so that he can marry her. And Parker’s made out the case against her. Still, they do work together, and in the end, Parker helps Wimsey find the truth about the murder. In this series, Parker plays the role of friend, sometimes-confidant, and professional resource for Wimsey.

The protagonist of Lilian Jackson Braun’s Cat Who… mysteries is newspaper columnist James ‘Qwilll’ Qwilleran. Circumstances have placed him in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ The stories are told from Qwill’s perspective, and he’s the one who often puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But one of the important supporting characters in the series is Police Chief Andrew Brodie. Qwill respects Brodie as an intelligent police professional, and he lets Brodie and his team do the evidence-gathering and arresting. Brodie may not be a main protagonist in this series, but he does have a key supporting role. Especially in series such as this, where the protagonist is an amateur sleuth, the presence of a recurring police-officer character adds realism.

It does in K.B. Owen’s series, too. These historical mysteries, which take place at the very end of the 19th Century, feature Concordia Wells, a teacher at Hartford (Connecticut)’s Women’s College. She herself is, of course, not on the police force. And during the era in which she lives, it’s considered unseemly for ladies to be interested in crime and detection anyway. But she is insatiably curious, and does get drawn into murder as it touches those she knows. She’s made a friend of Lieutenant Aaron Capshaw, who is married to her best friend Sophie. Capshaw isn’t the main character of this series. But he plays an important role, since he has access to information that isn’t available to civilians. In that sense, his presence in the stories makes the series more realistic.

You’ll notice I’m not mentioning series such as Stuart Palmer’s, Elly Griffiths’ or Martha Grimes’, which feature recurring police characters. That’s because in those cases and cases like them, the police character really is one of the protagonists. That dynamic can be highly effective. But it’s also interesting to look at cases where the police are supporting players. Which ones have stayed with you?
 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis, Jr.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, Elly Griffiths, K.B. Owen, Lilian Jackson Braun, Martha Grimes, Rex Stout, Stuart Palmer

We Could Learn From Digging Down*

Archaeoloists and AnthropologistsA recent article I read reported on the discovery of the 430,000-year-old remains of a murder victim in a cave in Spain. One of the things this finding suggests is that people have been killing one another for a very, very long time. That violent aspect of human nature is (at least) another post in itself.

Another thing that the article made clear is that modern science can reveal a great deal about ancient life – but not everything. In this case, experts have established how the victim was probably killed, and what the likely weapon might have been. But with an ancient murder like that, there’s no way to tell who the killer was or what the motive was. We can suppose, but there’s no longer any evidence to bear on those matters.

And in real life, that’s the sort of unanswered question that forensic archaeologists often face. How does that translate into crime fiction? After all, crime fiction fans usually want answers to the who/how/whydunnit questions that come up in a novel. Not every tiny thread needs to be knotted, but most fans want to know what’s behind a murder.

Some authors manage that balance by writing about murders that aren’t so ancient. For instance, Aaron Elkins’ Gideon Oliver is a forensic anthropologist whose main interest when the series starts is the study of ancient human remains and fossils. He’s very good at what he does, and in Fellowship of Fear, that skill helps him solve a very modern mystery involving international intrigue and espionage. In Twenty Blue Devils, he is called to Tahiti to help solve the murder of coffee plantation manager Brian Scott. Oliver has the skills to make very solid deductions about ancient remains. But the murders he investigates are recent enough that he can also draw conclusions about motives and so forth as well.

Simon Beckett’s David Hunter is also a forensic anthropologist. When the series featuring him begins (with The Chemistry of Death), he’s given up his work in forensics and become a small-town doctor in the village of Manham. But he’s drawn back into the profession when one of the town’s residents, Sally Poole, is found brutally murdered. Hunter is somewhat of an outsider, since he’s only been in town for three years. So a certain amount of suspicion comes his way. Then, another woman goes missing. Hunter works with the police both to clear his own name and to find the killer before there’s another victim. In this novel, as well as in the other novels in this series, Hunter investigates murders that are modern enough so that witnesses can be interviewed and so on. The same is true of Kathy Reichs’ Temperence ‘Tempe’ Brennan novels.

What about fictional murders that take place in the more distant past? How can an author credibly ‘fill in the gaps’ as to killer, motive and the like? One way is to use letters, diary entries and other written records. Humans have been using written symbols for many thousands of years, so it’s logical a forensic anthropologist or archaeologist might use those records. That’s what Beverly Connor’s Lindsay Chamberlain does. Chamberlain is a University of Georgia forensic anthropologist whose specialty is archaeology. Beginning with A Rumor of Bones, Chamberlain investigates old (sometimes very old) murders as well as newer murders. She certainly uses forensics clues such as skeletal evidence. But she also uses clues such as diary entries to piece together the whole story of even an ancient murder. Kill Site, which hasn’t been published yet, will focus on a Paleo-Indian dig site. Many Native American nations don’t have what we generally think of as written languages, so it’ll be very interesting to see how Connor approaches that story.

Fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series will know that Galloway is a forensic archaeologist associated with the University of North Norfolk. As such, she is interested in ancient sites, and is skilled at reading the stories that remains have to tell. In The Crossing Places, for instance, she uses her knowledge and skills to determine that some newly-discovered bones are not the remains of Lucy Downey, whose disappearance DCI Harry Nelson is investigating. Instead, the bones belong to a girl from the Iron Age, and they suggest all sorts of interesting lines of research for Galloway. At the same time, she also gets caught up in Lucy’s disappearance and investigates that as well as the disappearance of Scarlet Henderson, who’s just recently gone missing. This novel doesn’t tell the reader who the Iron Age girl really was, what her family was like or precisely why she died. Instead, the focus is more on the modern cases. Yet, a lot is suggested by the original discovery, and I can say without spoiling the story that Galloway draws some interesting conclusions based on those ancient remains. Her conclusions are realistic, though.

Some authors, such as Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, take another approach to telling stories of ancient murders. In their Anasazi trilogy, for instance, there are actually two plot lines. One concerns archaeologist William ‘Dusty’ Stewart, who takes a team on a dig in New Mexico’s Sonoran Desert. His goal is to find out more about the Anasazi people who lived in that desert’s Chaco Canyon. When he and his team discover the remains of eight women who seem to have been buried in a mass grave, forensic anthropologist Dr. Maureen Cole joins the group. Her role will be to study the remains and try to establish how the women died. There isn’t much evidence to suggest who the women were or why they died. But both Cole and Stewart use their skills, as well as what they know about that period of time, to deduce what probably happened. The other plot line ‘fills in the gaps’ about those deaths. It’s the story of 13th Century Anasazi War Chief Browser and his deputy and closest friend Catkin. When they discover an unexpected body in a gravesite intended for Browser’s son, they start to ask questions. Then there’s another attack. Now it seems that a very dangerous force is at work among the Anasazi, and Browser and Catkin work to find out the truth. In this case, the modern-day scientists don’t really have letter, diaries or other written evidence; and they certainly can’t interview suspects or witnesses. So the authors chose to tell the story from the perspective of someone who might have been able to talk to witnesses and suspects. It’s a dual timeline approach, and admittedly, we can’t know precisely what one 13th-Century member of this group might have said to another. But it’s credible because the story is based on things that we do know.

Authors who choose to tell stories of ancient murders do face the challenge of finding credible ways to solve them. There are certainly different approaches to meeting that challenge in a plausible way. It’s interesting to see how authors go about it. Oh, and in an interesting note, Elkins, Reichs, Connor and both Gears are or have been professional archaeologists or anthropologists. It’s fascinating to watch as they weave their experiences into their stories.

ps. I can’t help but think that the late and sorely-missed Maxine Clarke would have found this latest discovery to be really interesting. I wish she were here to read up on it…MC

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s Traffic in the Sky.

 

 

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Beverly COnnor, Elly Griffiths, Kathleen O'Neal Gear, Kathy Reichs, Simon Beckett, W. Michael Gear

If Not For You*

Strong Secondary CharactersMany crime novels feature one or perhaps two main protagonists. The stories focus on those people, and in high quality novels, they’re well developed and interesting. But sometimes, one of the secondary characters is at least as interesting – maybe even more so. Sometimes it’s because that character has an air of mystery about her or him. Sometimes it’s because of that character’s strong or unusual kind of personality. Sometimes it’s for other reasons. Either way, those secondary characters may not have leading roles, but they still stand out in the memory. Here are just a few examples; I’m quite certain you can think of more than I could anyway.

One such character, Mr. Robinson, appears in several Christie stories, including Cat Among the Pigeons (in which Hercule Poirot ‘stars’), Postern of Fate (A Tommy and Tuppence Beresford Novel) and Passenger to Frankfurt (a standalone). We never learn a great deal about Mr. Robinson, and that adds to the mystery of his character. We do know that he’s financier who counts among his friends people in high and sensitive government positions. He also does business with all sorts of international clients as well. We know nearly nothing about his background, nor do we know exactly where he lives. He’s quite honest about his interest in the adventures he’s involved in: money. But at the same time, he’s not a cruelly greedy person. Here is how he describes himself and his fellow financiers in Cat Among the Pigeons,
 

‘It is a very old trade… And a lucrative one…We work in with one another and remember this: we keep faith. Our profits are large, but we are honest.’
 

Mr. Robinson might or might not be a good choice for a ‘lead’ character, but he adds an interesting layer to Christie’s work as a secondary one.

We could say the same thing of Eleanor Wish, who appears in several of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels. When we meet her in The Black Echo, she’s an FBI agent works with Bosch on a complicated case involving a major carefully-planned bank robbery, the murder of Vietnam veteran, and a group of Vietnamese families who live in Orange County (south of Los Angeles). Wish leaves the FBI and takes up a new career as a professional poker player. She’s still helpful to Bosch in some of his cases (see Trunk Music), and the two develop a relationship. Eventually they marry. The marriage doesn’t last, but they have a daughter Madeleine ‘Maddie’ together. And there are suggestions that Bosch never really stops loving Wish. She is an interesting person with a bit of a mysterious background. She’s also very much her own person with her own way of thinking. Like Mr. Robinson, Eleanor Wish might or might not have been successful as the ‘lead’ character in a novel or series, but as a secondary character, she adds much to the Bosch novels.

Elly Griffiths’ series features Ruth Galloway, Head of Forensic Archaeology at North Norfolk University. It also features DCI Harry Nelson, who benefits greatly from Galloway’s help on his cases. They are the two protagonists, and both are very interesting characters. But one of the most interesting characters in this series doesn’t really get ‘top billing.’ He is Michael Malone, who goes by his Druid name of Cathbad. He and Galloway met years ago on a dig, and have now become friends. We don’t know an awful lot about Cathbad’s past, and that adds a bit of mystery to his character. But he’s interesting for more reasons than that. Cathbad is an unconventional person, even eccentric. But he is extremely knowledgeable about ancient customs in Romano-Britain, and he’s well versed in even older lore. He has a different way of looking at life to the way a lot of other people do, but that doesn’t really bother him. He is loyal to his friends (including Galloway), and he’s quite good with her young daughter Kate. He adds a layer of interest to this series.

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is a Saskatoon former cop-turned-PI who encounters all sorts of interesting people in his cases. He’s the protagonist of the series, and is a well-developed character in his own right. But some of the secondary characters who figure in the series are at least as engaging. For example, as the series begins, Quant’s neighbour is Sereena Orion Smith. She’s had all sorts of experiences, including plenty with drugs, alcohol and more than one wild party. Now she’s settled into a quieter life, and seems to be content with that. She’s got plenty of money, and as the series evolves we get to learn just a few things about her. But she is still somewhat of a mystery. She pops up in unexpected places and seems to know the most unexpected people. And although he’s curious at times, Quant never really does find out a great deal about her. What he does know though is that she’s a plain-spoken, loyal and supportive friend. She’s the kind of friend who likes Quant enough to tell him the truth, whether or not he wants to hear it. And she proves to be helpful to him in more than one of his cases.

Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series takes place mostly in Bangkok and features Rafferty, who is an ex-pat American and a travel writer by trade. But he has also proven himself rather good at finding people who don’t want to be found. He’s also well-enough versed in Bangkok life that he can be very helpful to English-speaking foreigners who visit. He is the protagonist of the series, but he’s by no means the only strong and interesting character in it. His wife Rose is also compelling. Rose is a former bar girl who originally came from one of Thailand’s more remote villages. She has since left the bar life and now owns her own apartment cleaning company staffed by other former bar girls and prostitutes who want to leave that life. Rose is a deeper character than it may sometimes seem on the surface. She is Thai, so she sees life from that cultural point of view. In her way, she is also spiritual, and that adds to the richness of her character. Rose may not be the central character of this series, but she contributes a great deal to it.

That’s also true of attorney Zack Shreve, whom we meet in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn (later Shreve). Joanne is the main character in this series; she’s a political scientist and academic who’s also the proud mother of three grown children and one teenager. Joanne first meets Zack in The Last Good Day, when one of his firm’s law partners dies in what looks like a suicide. The two begin a relationship and as the series progresses, they fall in love and marry. Zack proves to be a very strong character although he’s not really the main protagonist. He’s got a distinctive personality and brings his own background and viewpoint to the series. What’s more, since he’s an attorney, he also brings professional expertise (and several plot points!) to the novels.

Strong secondary characters like these can be a bit tricky to write. After all, they’re not protagonists, and perhaps they wouldn’t do well in series of their own (‘though some might). But they do add much to a series, and many readers follow them almost as avidly as they do the protagonists. Which strong secondary characters do you like best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Bob Dylan song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Michael Connelly, Timothy Hallinan

We’re On Our Way Home*

HomesYou can tell a lot about people from the kinds of homes they have. For example, people who are fond of art deco may have homes that are furnished with geometric-patterned carpets and furniture with spare lines. People who love gardening may very well have as ‘open’ a home as they can, with a sun room or something like it.  When authors use that match between character and home setting, they can show (not tell) readers quite a lot. Let me just offer a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is a neat, orderly person. Symmetry matters to him and it shows in the way he lives. Here’s a description of his home from Mrs. McGinty’s Dead:

 

‘The lift took him up to the third floor where he had a large luxury flat with impeccable chromium fittings, square armchairs, and severely rectangular ornaments. There could truly be said not to be a curve in the place.’

 

It’s an interesting way of letting readers know a little about Poirot. His home is in keeping too with his way of looking at life. It really suits him and adds harmony if I may put it that way to the stories in which he features.

The same might be said about the New York brownstone home where Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe lives. Fans will know that Wolfe is passionate about orchids. His home reflects that in that he has an entire area set aside for his prized plants. Stout didn’t have to go on and on about the way Wolfe feels about orchids; the orchid room shows us that. Readers also can see without having to be told that Wolfe is fond of ‘creature comforts.’ The furniture (at least the furniture he uses) is luxurious and comfortable. His kitchen and dining areas are large and well-appointed. And then of course there’s the custom-made elevator. The house is made to suit the needs of a large person, too, so although Archie Goodwin likes to remind readers of how large Wolfe is, he really wouldn’t have to; the size of the house and its rooms and furnishings show us that. I honestly couldn’t see Wolfe in a rustic country cottage. It would be jarring. As it is, Wolfe’s home and surroundings are, you might say, an extension of himself.

Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway also has a home that’s very well-suited to her particular needs, tastes and lifestyle. She and her daughter Kate share a small home in a rural part of North Norfolk, not far from the Saltmarsh. The house is small, with comfortable but certainly not luxurious furnishings. And although Galloway isn’t slovenly, it’s the kind of house that doesn’t need a lot of attention, tidying or heavy-duty cleaning. And that suits Galloway just fine, as she isn’t the ‘home conscious’ type. Galloway’s home also reflects her more or less solitary nature. She has a few close friends, and she works well enough with other people, but she’s no extrovert. She enjoys her own company and she is passionate about her work. So her small house out in the back of beyond suits her quite well. I couldn’t imagine her ‘fitting in’ in a flat in the middle of a large city.

Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza’s Inspector Espinosa has a home that reflects his tastes and personality. He’s a bibliophile. Or, to be more precise, he’s a person who loves stories. So he has a large collection of books and quite a lot of space in his home is devoted to them. But he is devoted to his work, and since he’s single, he doesn’t feel a powerful urge to spend all of his evenings at home. So the books remain stacked in various places rather than put onto bookshelves. His home is comfortable enough, but he hasn’t dedicated a lot of time to choosing a particular décor or style of furniture. And that makes sense given the fact that he isn’t married, doesn’t have children and spends a lot of time on the job.

And then there’s Åsa Larsson’s Rebecka Martinsson. When we first meet her in The Savage Altar (AKA Sun Storm), she’s living in a small Stockholm apartment. But circumstances in that novel and later novels take her back to her home town of Kiruna. There, she lives in the house previously owned by her grandparents, and she can still feel her grandmother’s presence at times. As time goes on, Martinsson learns (or re-learns) that she belongs in that part of Sweden, close to nature. Her emerging personality is reflected in her home too. It’s in a rural area, away from people, which is just how she likes it. It’s comfortably-enough furnished, but Martinsson is not one for luxuries or a lot of ‘creature comforts,’ so her home doesn’t have them. It’s interesting to see how her home and surroundings provide sanctuary for her, too.

There’s a strong example of personal investment in a home in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s decided to have a home built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She has her dream house built exactly the way she wants it, and she’s pleased that it’s ‘away from it all.’ She’s not fond of her fellow human beings and is happy not to have anyone living nearby. The house exactly reflects her personality and tastes, and she’s preparing to enjoy life there. Then some financial setbacks and mistakes leave her no choice but to sell the house. Devastated at being forced to give up the home that so perfectly suits her, she has to settle for the house next door, which she refers to as ‘the hovel.’ To add insult to injury, her perfect home is bought by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, people she considers ‘invaders.’ In her perception, they’ve taken over her home and therefore, taken a piece of her if I may put it that way. As if that’s not enough, they invite Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim to live with them. Against odds, Thea and Kim form an awkward kind of friendship though, and when Thea finds out that Frank may not be providing an appropriate home for the girl, she makes her own plans to deal with it.

There are a lot of other examples of the way a home can reflect its owner and show the reader what that person is like. It can be an effective strategy to reveal a character’s personality without going into a lot of verbal detail. Now, I’ve had my say. Your turn. Do you notice home surroundings in your crime fiction? If you’re a writer, did you consciously plan your protagonist’s home?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles’ Two of Us.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Åsa Larsson, Elly Griffiths, Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, Rex Stout, Virginia Duigan

How You Gonna See Me Now*

ViewsoftheSleuthThere are several ways in which authors can help readers get to know their sleuths’ personalities. One of them is by manipulating point of view. Some crime novels are narrated by someone who isn’t the sleuth. That strategy allows for a really interesting perspective on the sleuth. We see the sleuth through another pair of eyes and that can be quite revealing, depending on who the narrator is. Other crime novels are told from the sleuth’s point of view, either in the first or the third person. This choice gives the reader real insight into the sleuth’s personality and way of thinking.

Both ways of telling a story have their advantages and disadvantages. And for the crime writer, both ways allow for the kind of misdirection, unreliable narration and so on that can make for a thoroughly engaging mystery. Let me just give a very few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

One of the best known examples of narrators other than the sleuth comes from Arthur Conan Doyle. His stories are by and large told from the point of view of Dr. Watson, whom Sherlock Holmes refers to as ‘my biographer.’ That choice allowed Conan Doyle to easily share an ‘outsider’s’ impression of Holmes’ physical appearance, as when Watson first meets Holmes in A Study in Scarlet. It also allowed Conan Doyle to keep the reader guessing, since Holmes often doesn’t reveal his deductions until nearly the end of the story. Conan created an interesting narrator in Watson, too. Watson is an intelligent and educated man and that’s the way he thinks. So in some ways his perceptions of the cases he and Holmes investigate are quite accurate. So are his perceptions of Holmes, whose faults he details honestly. But at the same time, he doesn’t deduce in the same way that Holmes does, so the choice of Watson as narrator allows for misdirection.

Interestingly enough, we see a very similar pattern in stories that feature Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Some stories are told from the point of view of Poirot’s friend Captain Arthur Hastings. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is told from the point of view of a village physician Dr. James Shepphard. And Murder in Mesopotamia is told from the point of view of a professional nurse Amy Leatheran. In those cases, we see Poirot from the outside.  Although we are often privy to the same information Poirot gets, we don’t really see the cases from his point of view until the end. This strategy allowed Christie to do a masterful job of misdirection. Hastings, for instance, is reasonably intelligent. He thinks the way a lot of us might. In fact, as Poirot puts it in Lord Edgware Dies,

 

‘In you, Hastings, I find the normal mind almost perfectly illustrated.’

 

Using other perspectives also allowed Christie to give readers a more or less candid look at her sleuth. After all, we’re none of us truly objective about ourselves, and Poirot is no different when it comes to that.  We see his brilliance as a detective, but we also see the eccentric, sometimes very unusual way in which he goes about solving cases. And we see his faults and flaws.

Rex Stout made the same choice – an ‘outside’ narrator – for his Nero Wolfe stories. Fans will know that these stories are told by Wolfe’s partner Archie Goodwin. Technically speaking, Goodwin is Wolfe’s employee. But although he won’t really admit it, Wolfe needs Goodwin as much as Goodwin depends on Wolfe. And that’s what makes Goodwin’s perspective on Wolfe so interesting. He is absolutely candid about his boss’ many quirks and faults. Through Goodwin’s eyes we see that as brilliant as Wolfe is (and he is!) he is also very much a human being. And that honesty comes partly from Goodwin’s knowledge that he’s a fine detective in his own right. It also comes from Goodwin’s savvy, wise-cracking sort of personality. At the same time though, Goodwin does respect Wolfe’s ability as a sleuth. And in stories such as Champagne For One, he depends greatly on that ability. It’s a very interesting way to show what Wolfe is like.

Of course, there are also many series and novels that are narrated from the sleuth’s point of view. Those too can give the reader real insights into the sleuth’s personality and character. And when they’re done well, they can provide plenty of misdirection and surprises. For instance, Anthony Bidulka’s PI series is narrated from the point of view of his sleuth Russell Quant. Quant is based in Saskatoon, although he does travel quite a lot in the course of his work. We learn a great deal about Quant through the way that he thinks, the choices he makes and the way he approaches cases. And as he interacts with other characters, we learn how they treat him and what they say to him; that too gives us insight into his character. That’s also one of Bidulka’s strategies for providing suspense and misdirection. Quant is human. Therefore he’s wrong sometimes. He has weaknesses, biases and immaturity as we all do. So although the reader knows what Quant knows, that certainly doesn’t mean that the reader knows everything about a case too early in the story.

Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels are, for the most part, told in the third person. But they are told from Bosch’s point of view. As we follow his thought patterns and see the way he treats others and vice versa, we get real insight into the kind of person he is. We know his rationales for doing things, and we how developments in his cases and in his personal life affect him. This all gives us a solid perspective on his character. Connelly also uses Bosch’s point of view to add tension and to misdirect the reader. Bosch is a good cop and a dogged one, but he’s not perfect. He’s wrong sometimes, he’s distracted sometimes, and he can’t be everywhere at once. So even though we know what Bosch knows, there’s still plenty of opportunity for surprise and suspense.

Elly Griffith’s Ruth Galloway series is also told from the points of view of her sleuths Ruth Galloway and Harry Nelson. This allows Griffiths to give readers deep insight into what these characters are like. And that’s just what also provides Griffiths with tools for building suspense, for adding misdirection and other plot twists, and for creating story arcs. Galloway and Nelson are human and therefore, fallible. And even though there are two of them, meaning a broader perspective on a given case, this doesn’t mean they know everything. So there’s still plenty of opportunity for twists and turns in the series.

There are just a very few examples of the way authors show what sleuths are like. Do you have a preference when it comes to point of view? If you’re a writer, how did you choose the point of view your stories take?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Alice Cooper, Bernie Taupin and Dick Wagner.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elly Griffiths, Michael Connelly, Rex Stout