Category Archives: Elzabeth Spann Craig

I Was Just a Kid, They All Called Me ‘Sidekick.’

young-sidekicksAn interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about the roles that young people play in crime novels. It’s a bit tricky to have a young person as the sleuth (‘though there are exceptions, such as Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series). It’s also tricky to have a young person as a sidekick. After all, investigating crime is dangerous, even deadly at times, and adult sleuths wouldn’t want to put a young person in harm’s way. What’s more, it can be a challenge to write a convincing young character. Still, there are some interesting examples of young people playing the role of crime-fictional sidekicks.

Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes can tell you that, in several of those stories, Holmes makes use of a group of street children he calls the Baker Street Irregulars. Led by a boy called Wiggins, they serve as Holmes’ ‘eyes and ears’ in some cases. They have an advantage in those situations in that no-one really takes very much notice of them at all. So they can easily follow people, keep watch on a place, and so on. Holmes himself treats them quite the same as he does his more adult informants, and that’s not surprising. For one thing, he respects anyone who helps with his cases. For another, many Victorians didn’t see the need to especially protect children, or shield them from danger. As you’ll know, it wasn’t until late in the 19th Century that laws protecting child workers were passed and began to be enforced. Holmes’ attitude towards the Baker Street Irregulars isn’t strange, considering the era.

By the time Agatha Christie was writing, attitudes towards young people had changed, and we see that as her sleuths encounter young people. Still, there are examples of young people as sidekicks in her work. In 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), for instance, a friend of Miss Marple’s is on a train when she sees a murder. At first, no-one believes her, because nobody’s been reported missing, and there isn’t a body. But Miss Marple doesn’t think her friend was imagining things. She deduces that the body must be on the property of Rutherford Hall, which belongs to the Crackenthorpe family. So she makes an arrangement with professional housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow. Lucy will apply for a position as the Crackenthorpe’s temporary housekeeper, and do some sleuthing during her stay. All goes as planned, and Lucy settles in. That’s when she meets Alexander Eastley (grandson of patriarch Luther Crackenthorpe) and his friend, James Stoddart-West. The two boys are home for the Christmas holidays, and they’re only too eager to find clues and help solve the mystery. Lucy has concerns for them, because they’re just boys. But they prove helpful, too.

One question we might ask is: at what age does a young person become an adult? The answer to that question has changed over time, and I’m not sure we’d all agree on it. Still, if you look at Ellery Queen’s The Origin of Evil, there’s an interesting example of a young sidekick whom you could argue still falls into the ‘not really an adult yet’ category. She is nineteen-year-old Laurel Hill. When her father, Leander, dies suddenly of a heart attack, she becomes convinced that his death was planned. She visits Queen, who’s staying in a rented home nearby, and asks him to investigate. At first, he’s very reluctant. But then she tells him that, prior to his death, her father had received a series of macabre ‘gifts’ that led to his heart attack. So, says Laurel, did his business partner, Roger Priam. This piques Queen’s interest, and he starts looking into the matter. Laurel Hill may be all of nineteen, but she’s still rather innocent and vulnerable. That doesn’t stop her being very helpful as Queen investigations, and she certainly sees herself as his assistant.

Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee gets an unexpected sidekick in The Ghostway. In that novel, he’s looking into the death of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s come to live on the Reservation. At the same time, he is assigned to find Margaret Billy Sosi, a sixteen-year-old Navajo girl who has gone missing from the school she attends. Chee traces the girl back to Los Angeles, where she’s clearly following a lead on the Gorman case. It turns out that Gorman was a distant relative of Margaret’s, and that she got a postcard from her grandfather about him. Chee finds Margaret; and, although they don’t officially work together (in fact, he is very worried for her safety), she does help a lot in solving the case. She even saves Chee’s life at one point.

The protagonist and sleuth in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Memphis Barbecue Series is Lulu Taylor. She’s the owner of Aunt Pat’s, a well-respected Memphis restaurant. Lulu’s nine-year-old granddaughter Ella Beth is a budding detective, and actually keeps a detective notebook in which she writes down things she sees and describes people she encounters. And in Finger Lickin’ Dead, it’s Ella Beth who discovers the body of bitterly-hated restaurant critic Adam Cawthorn. On the one hand, she’s not Lulu’s ‘official’ sidekick. But she’s got the same curiosity and interest, and Lulu can see her becoming a police officer or PI when she’s grown. That said though, Lulu does feel protective of her, and doesn’t deliberately expose her to danger.

And that’s the thing about young sidekicks in crime fiction. There’s a delicate balance between the very credible desire to protect them and keep them away from murder investigations on the one hand, and their curiosity (and sometimes, helpful assistance) on the other. Which young sidekicks have stayed with you?

Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, give yourselves a treat and go visit Clothes in Books. Excellent reviews, and interesting discussion on fictional clothes and popular culture, and what it all says about us, await you.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Guy Clark’s Desperados Waiting For a Train.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alan Bradley, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ellery Queen, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Riley Adams, Tony Hillerman

But You Hid Behind Your Poison Pen and His Pride*

PoisonPen Letters‘Poison pen’ letters have been around for a very long time. Sometimes they’re sent out of spite or malice. Other times the purpose is bullying or blackmail. And sometimes they’re a reflection of the sender’s fragile mental health. Whatever motivates them, they can be distressing and frightening for the person who gets them. And sometimes they represent a real threat. They’re also interesting clues and ‘red herrings’ in crime fiction too. There are lots of examples from the genre; here are just a few.

Agatha Christie uses ‘poison pen’ letters quite frequently in her stories and novels; I’ll just mention one. In The Moving Finger, siblings Jerry and Joanna Burton have just moved from London to the village of Lymestock so that Jerry can recover from wartime injuries. They’ve just settled in when they receive a vicious anonymous letter claiming that they’re lovers rather than brother and sister. The letter seems like a crank, but it leaves as the saying goes a nasty taste. Then, the Burtons discover that they’re not the only ones to have gotten nasty letters. Several of the other residents of Lymestock have also been victims. Soon, the letters spark ugly rumours throughout the village. Then, things turn tragic. First, a ‘poison pen’ letter to the wife of the local solicitor results in a suicide. Then there’s another death. The police investigate, but vicar’s wife Mrs. Dane Calthrop has another idea. She asks Miss Marple to look into the matter. Miss Marple is thoroughly familiar with village life. What’s more, she’s intelligent, observant and good at making meaning from the local gossip. Miss Marple starts asking questions, and finds out the truth about the letters and the deaths.

In Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane is invited to return to her alma mater Shrewsbury College for its annual Gaudy Dinner and festivities. At first, she’s not inclined to go, as she’s not sure what her reception will be. She has, after all, achieved a certain notoriety after being tried for murder (See Strong Poison for the details on that). But at the request of an old friend, she finally decides to participate. When she gets to Shrewsbury she’s pleasantly surprised at the warm welcome she’s given, and is glad she attended. Then trouble starts. First, Harriet finds an anonymous note accusing her of murder. Then she gets a letter from the dean of her college, saying that there have been other incidents, including vandalism, going on at the college. The college authorities don’t want a scandal, so the dean asks Harriet to return to Shrewsbury and investigate quietly rather than call in the police. Harriet agrees and goes back to the college under the guise of doing research for a book. What she finds, with help from Lord Peter Wimsey, is that the events at Shrewsbury are all connected with something that happened in the past, and that one person has not forgotten…

Inspector Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police faces a bizarre case of ‘poison pen’ letters in Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel. There’s been a spate of such letters in the small town of Zwinderen, and the police have gotten concerned. Normally not much attention is paid to one or just a few such letters, but this is a bit different. Two of the letters have resulted in suicide and one in a complete mental breakdown. The local police haven’t been able to make much headway, mostly because the people of Zwinderen are close-mouthed and unwilling to talk about anything that might have led to the letters being sent. So Van der Valk is sent to find out who is behind the letters. It’s an interesting case of a small community where everyone knows everyone’s business and public reputation is all-important. Still, Van der Valk slowly gets to the truth about who’s been sending the letters and why. He also makes another completely unexpected, discovery that’s related to wartime crimes.

Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden also features ‘poison pen’ letters. Ten years before the events in the novel, landscaper Warren Howe was murdered one afternoon with his own scythe. At the time, the police thought that his wife Tina was guilty, and she had good reason. Howe was an abusive alcoholic who wouldn’t leave other women alone. But the police couldn’t get conclusive evidence, so they couldn’t pursue the case. The whole business gets brought up again when a series of anonymous notes, including one to the Cumbria Constabulary, suggests that Tina really was guilty of the murder. DCI Hannah Scarlett and her Cold Case Review team re-open the case and begin another investigation. In the meantime, Oxford historian Daniel Kind is researching the history of the oddly-shaped garden of the cottage he’s recently taken. As it turns out, it was laid out by the same company that employed Warren Howe. Each in a different way, Scarlett and Kind look into the history of the area and find that it’s closely linked with the murder.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Quilt or Innocence introduces us to Beatrice Coleman, who’s recently retired from Atlanta to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. She’s moved there to be closer to her daughter Piper and to enjoy some long-awaited relaxation and reading time. Soon enough Beatrice finds that social life in Dappled Hills revolves around quilting. So, somewhat reluctantly (since she doesn’t know a lot about quilting), she joins the Village Quilters. When one of its members is murdered, she starts asking questions. Then she gets a threatening letter. And then another. Now it looks as though someone is targeting the quilters, especially when Beatrice and another quilter are attacked. It’s a scary experience for Beatrice, especially since she lives alone. But she gets to the truth about the letters, the murder and the attacks.

Today’s Internet technology means that nasty letters, comments and the like can be posted from just about anywhere. Sometimes they’re done anonymously and sometimes it’s easier to find out who sends them. Either way, they’re at least as unsettling as traditional letters. We see a bit of that in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. In that novel, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson have come from Scotland to Melbourne with their nine-week-old son Noah. For Alistair it’s a homecoming, but Joanna has never been to Australia. They’re on their way to Alistair’s family’s home when the unimaginable happens: the loss of Noah. When news of the missing baby gets out, the entire Australian media gets to work and the case generates a frenzy of interest. There are all sorts of appeals for help, charity benefits and the like. But little by little, questions begin to be raised about the event. Those questions start people wondering whether one or both of Noah’s parents might have had something to do with his disappearance. Now there are websites and blog posts set up that vilify, especially, Joanna. It’s an interesting case of how a story can generate passionate public opinion and how modern technology allows people to express that opinion in all kinds of terms. It’s also interesting to compare the ‘poison pen’ comments, tweets and blog posts with the reality of what actually did happen to Noah.

‘Poison pen’ letters, notes, tweets and comments are unsettling and sometimes frightening, especially when you don’t know who’s responsible. They can generate a lot of tension and certainly add levels of suspense to a crime story. These are just a few instances. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from REO Speedwagon’s In Your Letter.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Helen Fitzgerald, Martin Edwards, Nicolas Freeling

Nosy Pokes Will Peek Through Their Shutters and Their Eyes Will Pop*

BusybodiesWhen police investigate a crime, one of the things they spend a lot of time doing is talking to neighbours and other witnesses. And in most cases, somebody has seen something. That’s one reason why the police find so useful the kind of witness who looks out windows, pays attention to other people’s doings – in short, a busybody. There really are people in real life who notice everything going on in the block and who can let you know who comes, who goes and when. And of course, the busybody is a staple of crime fiction. I’ve only space for a few examples; I’m sure you’ll be able to think of far more.

In Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, special agent Colin Lamb is following up a lead on a case in the town of Crowdean. He’s especially interested in a neighbourhood called Wilbraham Crescent, which is where he is when a young woman named Sheila Webb runs out of one of the houses screaming that there’s a dead man inside. Lamb goes into the house to find out that she’s right. The dead man has no identification and nobody seems to know him. What’s more, none of the neighbours seems to have seen anything helpful. There are a few odd little facts about the case, so Lamb takes it to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. Poirot takes an interest in the case and puts the pieces of it together. The one piece of the puzzle that doesn’t fit into place at first is exactly how the dead man got into the house. Lamb gets unexpected help in that matter from ten-year-old Geraldine Brown, who lives in a flat right across the way from the crescent. She’s laid up with a broken leg and spends a lot of time looking out her window with an opera glass. It turns out that her observations are both detailed and useful…

In Ruth Rendell’s Simisola, Inspector Reg Wexford and his team have several cases on their hands that turn out to be related. One of them is the case of the strangling murder of Annette Bystock, who was home sick when she was killed in her bed. She worked at the local Employment Bureau, but no-one there had a grudge against her or a real motive for murder. There are very few clues as to who killed her or why, but Wexford thinks her death may related to the disappearance of twenty-two-year-old Melanie Akande. Melanie disappeared shortly after a meeting with Bystock at the Bureau and hasn’t been seen since. In making the rounds of the neighbours, Wexford’s colleague Mike Burden meets retiree Percy Hammond, who lives next door to the victim and spends a lot of time looking out his window. Hammond is able to give Burden and the team some valuable information which they’re later able to put into the larger perspective of the case.

One plot thread in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief concerns the murder of retired business executive Aurelio Lapècora. He’s killed one morning in the elevator of his apartment building and of course, none of the neighbours admits to seeing anything. Little by little, Inspector Salvo Montalbano connects that murder with the case of a Tunisian sailor who was shot while working on an Italian fishing boat, and a young boy who seems to have no family and no history. One of the keys to this case is a set of things that happened at Lapècora’s office, which he visited from time to time although he was officially retired. And that’s where Clemintina Vasile Cozzo comes in handy. She’s a retired teacher who’s not in good health and doesn’t always sleep nights. And because she’s still curious about the world, she looks out her window and watches what happens. And she’s got some valuable information to share with Montalbno. 

Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss introduces us to Sven Andersson and the Violent Crimes Unit of Göteborg’s police force. The team investigates the death of financier Richard von Knecht, who jumped (or fell, or was pushed) off the balcony of his penthouse. One of the witnesses is Fru Eva Karlsson, who was standing not far from where the body landed. So Inspector Irene Huss takes the time to go and visit her. Fru Karlsson is a widow without much opportunity for socialising, so she’s delighted to have a visitor. On the one hand, the interview takes a lot of Huss’ time, and what’s more, Fru Karlsson is overgenerous with the pastries and coffee she offers (Yes, there is such a thing😉 ). On the other, she is an observant person who spends a lot of time noticing what goes on outside her window. So she has valuable information to offer.

Sometimes busybodies can also be interesting ‘regulars’ in, especially, cosy mysteries. In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover series for instance, we meet Erma Sherman. She lives next door to retired school teacher Myrtle Clover in small-town Bradley, North Carolina.  Erma means well – she really does – but she has taken it upon herself to look after Myrtle, something that the independent Myrtle does not always appreciate. Erma pays attention to everything she sees Myrtle do, mostly by peeking through her curtains. It gets very aggravating sometimes, but there are advantages to living next door to Erma. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Myrtle borrows Erma’s car as she pursues her own investigation into the murder of a successful but malicious real estate developer.

We may get annoyed by people who don’t mind their own business. But the reality is, the police depend on folks like that to give them valuable information about cases. And if you think about novels such as Cath Staincliffe’s Split Second, where there’s a good argument that someone should have minded others’ business, you see that busybodies have an important role to play.


Wait – hold on a sec – I think I just saw my neighbour leaving. Wonder where she’s going…😉



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Surrey With the Fringe on Top.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Cath Staincliffe, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Helene Tursten, Ruth Rendell

Come on and Join Us in the Club*

ClubsDo you belong to a hobby or interest club, like a book club, a gardening club or perhaps a film club? With the ease of access to the Internet, our social life is going increasingly online, but there are still an awful lot of local face-to-face clubs. And any time you get a group of people together, even people with a common interest, you get disparate personalities. What’s more, each club member has a personal life with all sorts of ‘baggage,’ so it’s no wonder at all that we see a lot of clubs in crime fiction.

There’s a crime club in Agatha Christie’s collection The Thirteen Problems (AKA The Tuesday Club Murders). That set of stories is bound together by the overarching theme of a regular gathering to discuss crime. Here’s how Joyce Lemprière, one of the members, describes the club:


‘How would it be if we formed a Club? What is today? Tuesday? We will call it the Tuesday Night Club. It is to meet every week, and each member in turn is to propound a problem. Some mystery of which they have personal knowledge, and to which, of course, they know the answer.’


The group agrees to form in that way, and the stories are based in part on that group’s meetings and on the mysteries each member shares.

There’s a different sort of angle on the ‘crime club’ theme in Anthony Berkeley’s The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Mason & Sons, a chocolate manufacturer, has developed a new variety of chocolates. A box of these is sent to Sir Eustace Pennefather, presumably as a gift to induce him try them and then buy the chocolates. But Pennefather is a chocolate hater, so he passes the candy on to a fellow member of his social club Graham Bendix. Bendix shares some of the chocolate with his wife Joan and both are soon taken very ill. Graham survives but his wife dies of what turns out to be poison. The police can’t get any leads or really plausible suspects, so the case hasn’t been solved. The only theory they have developed is that Joan Bendix was poisoned accidentally because the intended victim was Pennefather. That’s logical too as Pennefather had made a lot of enemies. DCI Moresby, who investigated the case, is invited as guest speaker to the Crimes Circle. That’s a discussion group for those interested in crime, run by sometime newspaper columnist and amateur sleuth Roger Sheringham. Once Moresby outlines the known facts of the case, each member of the Crimes Circle offers a theory as to who committed the crime and why. And in true ‘Golden Age’ style, Berkeley saves the truth for the end of the novel…

The Manhattan Flower Club is featured in Rex Stout’s novella Disguise for Murder (AKA The Affair of the Twisted Scarf). Nero Wolfe has been persuaded to invite the members of the club to his brownstone to see his prize orchids. Archie Goodwin is posted in the orchid room to mingle with the guests and ensure that the orchids themselves remain unharmed. It’s not Goodwin’s sort of afternoon, so at one point he sneaks out of the party to relax in his office. That’s when he gets a visit from one of the guests. She calls herself Cynthia Brown and tells Goodwin that she needs Wolfe’s help. Her story is that she recognised another guest who has committed a murder and who knows that she knows about it. She wants Wolfe to bring the murderer to justice, but to leave her out of it. Goodwin is finally persuaded to get Wolfe, but by the time they return to Goodwin’s office, the young woman’s been murdered. Now Wolfe and Goodwin have to find out which of the other guests is the killer.

There’s more horticultural mayhem in M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and the Potted Gardener. In that novel, PI Agatha Raisin returns to her home in Carsely after a prolonged holiday only to find out that there’s a new resident Mary Fortune. The newcomer is an avid gardener and a member of the local horticultural society. She’s also got the attention of Raisin’s next-door-neighbour James Lacey, whom Raisin herself fancies. So Raisin decides to join the horticultural society although gardening is most definitely not her forte. Still, she resolves to try to do something for the upcoming Garden Open Day, when the villagers are invited to visit each other’s gardens. Raisin finds other things to occupy her on that day though, because Mary Fortune is found hung upside-down and buried head first in a gardening pot. It turns out that there are several suspects, as the victim had her share of enemies. In the end, Raisin finds that village life can breed a lot of resentment…

You wouldn’t think that book clubs would be dangerous, but they can be. In Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Progressive Dinner Deadly, retired teacher Myrtle Clover decides to try to get the local book club to read books other than ‘blockbuster’ best-sellers. Unfortunately her suggestion gets misunderstood and taken out of context so that before she knows it, the idea has morphed into a progressive dinner club. The idea of a progressive dinner is that the club members will visit each other’s homes on a given night, with each host providing one part of a meal. So the members will visit one host’s home for soup, one for the main course, another for dessert, and so on. Myrtle is not exactly a gifted cook and has no interest in a progressive dinner club. But she grumpily goes along with the plan. On the night of the club’s first dinner, the group makes a stop at the home of member Jill Caulfield. To everyone’s shock she’s been murdered by a blow to the head from a heavy pan. Her husband Cullen is the most likely suspect, but Myrtle soon finds that he’s far from the only one. Craig also writes the Southern Quilting series which features the Village Quilters, another club in which disparate personalities and histories can lead to murder.

In Wendy James’ The Mistake, Jodie Evans Garrow becomes a social outcast when questions are raised about her past. She and her husband Angus were considered practically model citizens of the small town of Arding, New South Wales. In fact Angus was even being spoken of as a good candidate for the upcoming mayoral election. But then a secret from Jodie’s past comes to light. Her daughter Hannah is in an accident and is taken to the same Sydney hospital where years earlier, Jodie gave birth to another child. A nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and when she asks about the baby, Jodie says she gave the baby up for adoption. But there turn out to be no records of that adoption and no evidence that the baby grew up. Very soon people begin to believe that Jodie might have had something to do with the baby’s disappearance and she’s ostricised. Then one day Amber, an acquaintance from the gym, invites Jodie to join her book club. Jodie’s so pleased that there’s at least one group that hasn’t shut her out that she agrees to come to the club’s meeting. That’s when she learns that she was actually invited almost as a curiosity because the group is reading a book about the Lindy Chamberlain case, another case of a mother whose baby disappeared and who has been accused of being responsible. Angry and humiliated, Jodie leaves the meeting. What she doesn’t know at the time is that one member of that book club is a friend from long ago – a friend who turns out to be Jodie’s psychological salvation.

A ladies’ bowling club is the focus of Ellen Mary Wilton’s Hysteria at the Wisteria. The Wisteria Ladies’ Bowling Club of Sydney is getting ready to play one morning when they find the body of a dead man on the green. It turns out that he has more than one connection to the club; he is the son of a former member and it seems that he was on his way to meet a current member when he was killed. The club’s vice-president Lucy Law decides to investigate the murder. I have to confess I’ve not (yet) read this one, but it was just too good an example of a club not to mention it. Want to know more? Check out this excellent review at Fair Dinkum Crime, which is the place for information and reviews relating to Australian crime fiction. It’s well worth a prominent place on any crime fiction fan’s blog roll.

Clubs like book clubs, dinner clubs and so on unite members with common interests, and they can be an important source of support. They can also be a source of tension, the clash of disparate personalities and worse. No wonder they’re great contexts for murder mysteries…


On Another Note…


Speaking of clubs, author and fellow blogger Rebecca Bradley has organised a terrific online book club, which will meet once a month. Want the details? Check them out right here. And while you’re at it, her blog is a great source of inspiration for writers, as well as a fine source for interesting book reviews.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joe Walsh’s Welcome to the Club.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, Ellen Mary Wilton, Elzabeth Spann Craig, M.C. Beaton, Rex Stout, Wendy James

You’re as Cuddly as a Cactus*

GrinchI think most of us try, most of the time, to get along with other people. But if you’ve ever been subjected to really shoddy customer service, gotten the ‘one (or two) finger wave’ from a complete stranger for no reason, or been ambushed by multiple telemarketing calls, then you probably have those days where you wonder why you bother. Those are the times when we can identify with people who are misanthropic. Now, I’m not saying it’s a good thing to dislike other people, but sometimes that attitude is at least understandable.

Misanthropic characters can add to a novel too. As I say, we’ve all had those negative experiences, so we can identify with at least a little of the misanthrope’s bitterness about other humans. And misanthropic characters sometimes have a certain dry, sarcastic sense of humour that can be appealing. Creating that kind of character can be tricky though. Misanthropes aren’t generally very pleasant people. If they don’t have any redeeming qualities it’s hard to get readers to care what happens to them. But well-drawn misanthropes can also be really interesting characters.

In Agatha Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!) we meet Luther Crackenthorpe, a misanthropic patriarch who lives with his daughter Emma at Rutherford Hall. Crackenthorpe doesn’t care much for other people; in fact, he’s fairly bitter. When his sons Harry, Alfred and Cedric gather at the family home for Christmas, we can see that he even has contempt for his own children. The Crackenthorpe family gets drawn into a case of murder when Miss Marple’s friend Elspeth McGillicuddy witnesses a woman being strangled on a train. She tries to raise the alarm but no-one believes her because there is no dead body on the train and no-one has reported a missing person who matches the woman’s description. Miss Marple believes her friend though and deduces that the body must have been thrown from the train and ended up on the grounds of Rutherford Hall. She arranges matters so that her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow is hired as the Crackenthorpe’s housekeeper, her hope being that Lucy will do some sleuthing. Lucy does indeed discover the body and soon the police are involved. Then there’s a case of poisoning. And another murder. Luther Crackenthorpe wants as little to do with the investigation as possible and it’s interesting to see his response as the investigation continues. He isn’t a nice character (although he’s not evil) but he is interesting and sometimes darkly humourous.

Marek Krawjewski’s Police Counsellor Eberhard Mock is another misanthropic character whom we first encounter in Death in Breslau, which takes place beginning in 1933. In that novel, he’s assigned to investigate the murders of Marietta von der Malten and her governess Françoise Debroux, whose brutally murdered bodies are found in a railroad car. Around the bodies the police discover scorpions, and a cryptic message is written in blood on the wall of the car. Mock follows the clues, which seem to lead to Isador Friedländer, an importer and an expert in arachnids such as scorpions. When he is arrested for the crime, the Nazi authorities who are gaining increasing power are only too happy about it since Friedländer is Jewish. Mock is promoted and the matter seems settled. Then, Friedländer dies, officially a suicide. Mock receives a cryptic note and a clue that suggests to him that Friedländer’s death was not what it seems and that the killer is still free. Now, Mock has to navigate a very dangerous political landscape as he searches for the murderer. Mock is not a nice person. He’s sarcastic, has a sense of humour most people would find offensive, and he doesn’t care much for other people. But he is a good detective and a determined one. Oh, and he plays chess very well.

Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Southern Quilting series begins with Quilt or Innocence. In that novel, Beatrice Coleman has recently retired from her work in an Atlanta art gallery and moved to Dappled Hills, North Carolina. There she’s hoping for a relaxing retirement. Shortly after her move, Beatrice discovers that social life in Dappled Hills revolves around quilting guilds, so to be polite she joins the Village Quilters. When one of its members is murdered, Beatrice starts asking questions. She soon begins to receive threatening notes and at one point, she’s even attacked. In the end though, she finds out who the killer is. In a sub-plot of this novel, Beatrice tries to learn quilting and at first, she’s not very good at it. In fact, she’s so bad at it that she decides to give up. But one of the other quilters Miss Sissy shows her how to do the job. And that’s not at all like Miss Sissy. She is rude, outspoken and contemptuous of most people. In fact in one scene, she nearly runs Beatrice down with her car (accidentally) and unleashes her fury at Beatrice for getting in the way. But she is interesting, and she is a master quilter – truly gifted at it.

In Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes) we are introduced to Copenhagen homicide detective Carl Mørck. He is just returning to work after recovering from a line-of-fire injury in which one of his colleagues was murdered and another left with paralysis. Even before the incident Mørck was not exactly brimming with the proverbial milk of human kindness. But this incident has left him more bitter than ever. In fact, he makes himself so difficult to work with that he is ‘promoted’ to a newly-formed department, Department Q. That department has been hastily formed to investigate cases ‘of special interest.’ Mørck is soon granted a cleaner/assistant Hafez al-Assad, who calls Mørck’s attention to the five-year-old case of Merete Lynggaard, a promising politician who went missing. In spite of himself Mørck gets interested and takes another look at the case. He and Assad find clues that Lynggaard may still be alive, and they begin a search for her. Mørck is not at all friendly. He’s brusque, rude and sarcastic. He really doesn’t enjoy the company of other people at all and has contempt for most of his colleagues. But he is interesting and he is a skilled detective. What’s more, he has the kind of wit that makes it hard to keep from snickering, even if you do think he’s being rude.

And then there’s Thea Farmer, a retired school principal who tries to make a life for herself in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea has had her dream home built and is looking forward to sharing it with her dog Teddy, but some poor financial decision-making has left her with no option but to sell her perfect home. She moves into the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel,’ and wants nothing more than to be left alone. To Thea’s chagrin, ‘her’ house is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, who soon move in. Thea doesn’t like people very much to begin with, and the thought of these people (she calls them ‘the invaders’) moving in just makes things worse. Then of all things, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim joins the family. What’s worse, Kim tries to make friends with Thea, not really seeming to understand that Thea wants nothing to do with her. Little by grudging little though, Thea gets to know Kim a bit. She even learns to like her in her own way, and sees promise in her writing. That’s part of why she gets very upset when she begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. Thea doesn’t have the kind of direct evidence that the police need to act on the matter, so she decides to take action herself. Thea is prickly, she can be self-righteous and she has her moments of outright rudeness. As the story evolves, we also learn that she may have some dark secrets in her past. But she is an interesting character. She is intelligent, independent and takes her own life decisions. She may be sarcastic and it’s obvious she doesn’t think much of people, but her wit is sometimes quite funny.

It’s not easy to create misanthropes because there’s a big risk of making them so objectionable that the reader is pulled out of the story. But if they’re drawn well, they can also be interesting, even funny, and can add leaven to a story. Which are your favourite misanthropes? If you’re a writer, do you like creating people like that?




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thedor Seuss Geisel (yes, he wrote the lyrics) and Albert Hague’s You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Elzabeth Spann Craig, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Marek Krawjewski, Virginia Duigan