Category Archives: Jill Edmondson

Is There Life After Breakfast?*

BreakfastIt’s been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And it’s not hard to see why people have that view. After all, breakfast gets you going in the morning. Breakfast is also a really useful meal for fiction writers.

For one thing, breakfast is a very culturally contextual meal (they all are, really). In some cultures, and contexts, a heavier breakfast is the custom. In others, one eats a light breakfast, and then a heavier lunch or dinner. What’s more, the foods that one eats for breakfast vary by culture.

Breakfast is also a very individual sort of habit. Each of us is a bit different with respect to what and how much we eat in the morning. For the writer, this means that breakfast can be a very effective way to show what a character is like, both culturally and as an individual.

Breakfast can be the setting for effective scenes, too. Those scenes can add to the tension of a story, or to the portraits of the characters. So it’s little wonder that breakfast is woven into a lot of crime fiction.

Fans of Agatha Christie will know that her Hercule Poirot is a chocolate-and-croissant sort of breakfast eater. He’s not much of a one for the traditional, larger ‘Englishman’s breakfast.’ Just that simple fact about him shows readers something of his cultural background.

Christie uses breakfast scenes quite frequently to build story contexts, too. For example, the first chapter of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is titled, Dr. Sheppard at the Breakfast Table. In it, Dr. James Sheppard, who is the local GP for the village of King’s Abbot, comes home after a very early call. His sister Caroline, who keeps house for him, joins him for a traditional eggs-and-bacon breakfast. At that time, and in that place, breakfast wasn’t a matter of grabbing a protein bar. As the two are talking, we learn about the death of one of the village’s residents, Mrs. Ferrars. That conversation sets the stage for what’s to come next in the novel – the stabbing death of retired business magnate Roger Ackroyd. There are other Christie novels, too (Dead Man’s Folly comes to my mind) in which a breakfast scene gives readers both context and character development.

Some authors use breakfast places and scenes to build a sense of local culture. That’s what Craig Johnson does in his Walt Longmire series. Longmire lives in the small town of Durant, Wyoming. He lives alone and doesn’t do a lot of cooking for himself. But he doesn’t need to, because Durant is home to the Busy Bee Café, owned and operated by Dorothy Caldwell. The Bee, as it’s called, is where the locals go for pancakes, eggs, and other ‘homestyle’ cooking. And coffee. That sort of breakfast food reflects both the small-town context for this series, and the local culture.

Breakfast choices are also very much reflections of the individual. For instance, in D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington stories, we learn that Heatherington’s breakfast preference is an almond croissant. That fits well with his lifestyle (he’s not really the ‘outdoors, strenuous exercise’ type) and his age (he’s – erm – no longer twenty). On the other hand, his detective partner Delilah Delibes, who is much younger and more energetic, prefers a fried breakfast. Not only do their breakfast conversations give readers background for the mysteries, but they also show readers a bit of what these two people are like.

There’s also Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. As fans will know, he’s a born-and-bred Yorkshireman who enjoys his food. His personality is reflected in his breakfast choices, too. In Recalled to Life, for instance, Dalziel has gone to the US to follow up on a long-ago murder case that’s stirred up a lot of interest. In this scene, American journalist Linda Steele invites him to breakfast:
 

‘‘I’ll not quarrel with that. Can I get bacon and eggs? I don’t suppose they do black pudding.’
‘Black…what?’
‘Never mind. I like me bacon crisp enough to shave with, and me eggs like a parrot’s eye.’
Linda Steele translated the order into American and the waitress replied in kind.
‘She wants to know if you want syrup.’
‘No, thanks. Marmalade.’
‘With your eggs?’
‘With my toast! Bloody hell, you’ll be offering me kippers and custard next.’’
 

This bit not only shows Dalziel’s personality, but it also shows gives an interesting cultural perspective.

People’s breakfast choices often become a part of their daily life, too, so that it’s very hard to change them. For example, in Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, we learn that a big change is coming to the Cumbria Constabulary:
 

‘The senior management team had insisted that the catering franchisee should wipe the Big All Day Breakfast off the menu during summer.’
 

The idea is that officers should develop healthier eating habits. But that change is certainly not universally accepted. The series features DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of the constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team. In this novel, her second-in-command is Nick Lowther, who
 

‘…still preferred calorie-laden junk food that resembled an exhibit in a long-ago poisoning.’
 

Scarlett’s friend and fellow DCI Fern Larter isn’t much of a fan of the new healthy eating initiative either. In The Serpent Pool, she and Scarlett agree to meet for breakfast at the Beast Banks Breakfast Bar. Larter chooses
 

‘…eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, fried bread and black pudding.’
 

She’s not one to be dictated to by policies.

Breakfast choices can be influenced by generation, too. For example, Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant doesn’t eat a big breakfast as a rule. But his mother Kay sees things differently. She is a farm wife, who’s spent her adult life cooking heavy-duty farm breakfasts with a Ukrainian flair. So when she comes to stay with her son in Flight of Aquavit, there’s an interesting generation clash about what ‘counts’ as breakfast.

There are a lot of other examples, too, of the way that breakfast choices show us what characters and local cultures are like. Some people simply eat cereal (I see you, Jill Edmondson’s Sasha Jackson). Others don’t eat breakfast at all. Still others (you see this in a lot of classic/Golden Age novels) have breakfast served in bed. Sometimes small details like that add depth to characters and contexts to stories in ways that a lot of words wouldn’t. And let’s face it: breakfast resonates with most of us.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Ray Davies song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Craig Johnson, D.S. Nelson, Jill Edmondson, Martin Edwards, Reginald Hill

Locally Grown*

Natural ProductsIn Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot investigates two deaths, one of which is the murder of Cora Lansquenet, an elderly widow who shared a home with her paid companion Miss Gilchrist. At one time, Miss Gilchrist owned a tea shop, and still very much enjoys cooking and serving. In one scene, she makes tea for herself and two guests: the victim’s niece Susan Banks; and an acquaintance, art critic Alexander Guthrie. For the occasion, Miss Gilchrist
 

‘…made a nice lot of scones and that’s some homemade strawberry jam, and I just whipped up some little drop cakes.’
 

Later, while they’re eating, Mr. Guthrie says,
 

‘…and what delicious jam! Really, the stuff one buys nowadays.’
 

He’s not alone in his thinking. Homemade, natural-tasting food is, for a lot of us, far superior to packaged food.

Many people have ‘gone natural’ (e.g. no preservatives, a minimum of chemicals, etc…) and there’s definitely something to that choice. Most ‘foodies’ will tell you that fresh ingredients and food that’s not processed tastes better. And there is research to suggest it may be healthier too. I’m not a dietician or nutrition scientist, so I don’t have data; still, a lot of people swear by ‘going natural.’ Natural products (both food and non-food items) are a booming business. And many companies, sensing this trend, market what they make to people who are looking to avoid additives and other chemicals.

There’s lots of ‘all natural’ in crime fiction, too. For example, in Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s My Soul to Take, spa owner Jónas Júlíusson hires Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir to help him pursue a lawsuit. He claims that the land on which he’s built his resort is haunted, and that the former owners knew it and didn’t inform him. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts; but the fee comes at a welcome time, and so does a free visit to an upmarket spa/resort. So she takes the case. It’s not long before she finds herself defending her client against a charge of murder when one of the spa guests is killed. The spa prides itself on all-natural, organic food and beauty/health products. For instance, at one point, Thóra and her partner Matthew Reich have a drink with Jónas and discuss the case.
 

‘He [Jónas] reached for his beer and took a sip. ‘This is organic beer,’ he said as he put the glass back down and wiped the froth from his upper lip.
 

Matthew isn’t overly impressed with the quality of the brew, but it’s interesting to see how much of a market there is for the ‘all natural.’

Jill Edmondson’s Toronto PI Sasha Jackson also visits an organic-only, ‘all natural’ spa in Blood and Groom. In that novel, Christine Arvisais hires Jackson to find out who killed her former fiancé Gordon Hanes. Their engagement had ended (and not particularly amicably), so there’s a lot of talk that she’s responsible. But she claims to be innocent and wants Jackson to clear her name. Of course, any good PI knows that not every client is truthful and ethical. So Jackson does her own checking into her client’s background and financial situation. And that includes a visit to the exclusive Crystal Cove Spa where Arvisais and her mother go on regular retreats. It’s a completely all-natural, organic place where clients are not allowed to bring in chocolate, candy, or any other processed food or drink. That’s not exactly the way Jackson or her sister-in-law Lindsey live, so when they go on an undercover retreat there to gather information, they get quite a rude dietary awakening.  But they also get important information.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman takes real pride in her Melbourne bakery. She creates all sorts of fine breads and cakes without using preservatives or extra chemicals. She doesn’t even use chemicals to keep the place free of vermin. Instead, she has two feline Rodent Control Officers who in Chapman’s mind do a better and safer job than chemicals do. It’s not so much that Chapman is what you would call a ‘back to nature’ type. In fact, she enjoys her ‘creature comforts.’ But she does know that the best bread is made from natural ingredients. The bakery’s popularity proves her right, too. She bakes a fresh lot of bread and rolls each morning, and is usually sold out before the bakery closes for the day. If there’s any left over, she donates it to those who need it.

There’s even a mystery series devoted to organic food. Nadia Gordon’s Sunny McCoskey owns Wildside, a Napa Valley (California) restaurant that serves only organic food and wine. And of course there are many novels and series (D.S. Nelson’s Blake Heatherington series is one) in which the sleuth takes pride in home-grown produce.

It’s really not surprising that there’s so much crime fiction that mentions ‘all-natural’ food, cleaning supplies, beauty products and so on. Whether or not you’ve ‘gone organic,’ it’s hard to deny that organic food and other products are increasingly popular, and many people swear by their benefits. And there’s nothing like homemade food that hasn’t been shrink-wrapped…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Tom Chapin song.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, D.S. Nelson, Jill Edmondson, Kerry Greenwood, Nadia Gordon, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

But Who Would Believe It?*

Weird EventsDid you ever have one of those ‘you couldn’t make this up’ experiences? They do happen, which is why there’s arguably something to the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. Let me give you a real example. I promise, this happened to me. The other afternoon, I was walking my dogs in one of the grassy areas we haunt. I looked up and across a nearby parking area and saw someone standing by a car (back to me) dressed in nothing but what nature provided. Now, there are places (such as certain beaches and so on) and some cultures where that’s not so unusual. But in the culture where I live, it’s odd indeed. You couldn’t make it up. And in this case, I didn’t.

The whole thing got me thinking about how those sorts of unusual events and things are woven into crime fiction. Yes, I was thinking about crime fiction at a time like that. I am beyond redemption. Here’s the challenge that the crime fiction author faces. On the one hand, those weird things do happen. They really do. On the other, stretching the limits of credibility too far in a novel is enough to pull a reader firmly out of the story. Even in ‘screwball’ novels, most readers don’t want to suspend all of their disbelief. So weaving in those weird incidents takes thought and care. But when it’s done well, those strange things can keep readers’ interest and add to a story.

For example, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissioner Peterson has one of those odd experiences. He breaks up a scuffle between some thugs and the man they’re harassing, and everyone involved runs off. Not so unusual. The would-be victim has dropped in his haste a hat and a goose. Again, not so strange. But when Peterson’s wife starts to prepare the goose for cooking, she finds a large jewel in its craw. That is, of course, one of those odd things that just simply doesn’t happen – but it does. Peterson brings the case to Sherlock Holmes, who works with Dr. Watson to trace the jewel back to its origin. When it’s all outlined, it’s not as unbelievable as it seems, but my guess is that Mrs. Peterson would likely have told that story to people for a very long time.

In Christopher Fowler’s Full Dark House, we learn about the first case investigated by London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU). In 1940, a pavement chestnut vendor leaves his stall to obey the call of nature. When he comes back, he finds that there is a pair of feet among his chestnuts. That’s definitely not the sort of thing that happens every day, and the vendor is of course shaken up by it. Arthur Bryant and John May of the PCU take the case, and find out that the person originally connected to those feet was a dancer preparing for an upcoming Palace Theatre production of Orpheus. It turns out that her murder, and other murders that occur, are linked to each other and to a modern-day explosion that occurs at the PCU offices. In this instance, there is an explanation for those feet turning up in the vendor’s cart. But it’s definitely one of those stories that would be hard to believe if you didn’t know it was true.

Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom introduces readers to Toronto PI Sasha Jackson. In this novel, she’s relatively new to the business, so she can’t really be choosy about her clients. That’s why she accepts the case of Christine Arvisais. As Arvisais tells the story, she was engaged to marry Gordon Hanes, but Hanes broke it off. Then, just a few months later, on the date they were going to wed, Hanes was shot. The police weren’t able to find the killer, but a lot of people think that Arvisais is responsible. She wants Jackson to find out who the real murderer is, so that her name will be cleared. Jackson investigates and finds that Arvisais is by no means the only one with a motive for murder. And as she gets closer to the truth about Hanes’ death, she also finds herself in some danger. At one point, she’s even shot at. That’s not so odd in a crime novel. What’s a lot more unusual is that she is saved by the underwire in her bra. It’s not such an improbable thing that readers wouldn’t stay in the story, but it’s certainly a very odd thing to happen.

Fans of Fred Vargas’ Commissaire Adamsberg series will know that those novels often include unusual things that would be very hard to believe if the characters didn’t actually experience them. For example, in The Ghost Riders of Ordebec, Adamsberg gets a visit from Valentine Vendermot, who’s come from Ordebec to see him about her daughter Lina. Her story is intriguing enough that Adamsberg travels to Ordebec to investigate more deeply. Among the many odd events and people in this novel is Mme. Vendermot’s son Hippolyte ‘Hippo.’ He’s a bit eccentric to begin with, and what makes him even more unusual is that he talks backwards when it suits him. Not something you’d be inclined to believe – until it happened.

There are also plenty of crime stories that make use of strange sorts of coincidences that you wouldn’t be likely to believe – except that they do happen. If you’ve ever experienced a crazy coincidence, you know what I mean. Of course, it’s important to handle those things very, very carefully in writing; readers are easily put off by contrived coincidences. Still, those things do take place, both in real life and in crime fiction.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Captain Arthur Hastings pays a visit to his friend John Cavendish, who lives near the village of Styles St. Mary. Not so odd, really. But what is unusual is that on his way out of the local post office one day, Hastings bumps into an old friend he hasn’t seen in years – Hercule Poirot. Neither man knew the other was in the area, so it’s a happy surprise for both. They’re both there for believable reasons, too. Poirot is living with a group of Belgians who were displaced by World War I. Hastings is visiting a friend. And yet it seems on the surface of it very odd. And it turns out to be very fortunate when Hastings’ hostess Emily Inglethorp is murdered.

But those strange things happen. Don’t believe me? Here’s another true story. Mr. COAMN and I were on our honeymoon in the Bahamas, far away from home. One day, we happened to wander into a liquor shop. We were browsing there when we heard a very familiar voice. A good friend of ours from university was in the same store with his new bride, whom we also knew. You couldn’t make that up. And I didn’t. Have you had one of those ‘you couldn’t make it up’ moments? Does it pull you out of the story when they occur in novels?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from ZZ Top’s Made Into a Movie.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christopher Fowler, Fred Vargas, Jill Edmondson

Analyze You, Categorize You*

CategoriesWe’re all exposed to so much stimuli in our daily lives that there’s no way that we can make sense of it all. That can make it very difficult to take in and remember the things that are important. One thing that helps us in that process is putting people and things we encounter into categories. For instance, we put work colleagues into one category, and at one level of intimacy. We put close friends in another. We put partners and spouses into yet another. Those categories often determine how we treat people and even the way we speak to them.

The trouble is of course that people are far too complicated to be so easily put into categories. And when it comes to fictional characters, I’m quite certain that like me, you wouldn’t want your fictional characters to be that one-dimensional anyway. But I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us make assumptions about others based on categories we (however unconsciously) put them in when we meet them.

The conflict between what others want to assume and what’s really true about people can make for a solid thread of tension in a story. I’ll just mention a few examples from crime fiction to show you what I mean.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Yellow Face, Grant Munro asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate when a strange family moves into the area where he and his wife Effie live. Munro is especially concerned because he thinks there may be a connection between the new family moving in and the growing distance he’s sensing between himself and Effie. He has the strong feeling that she’s keeping things from him, and that she knows more about this family than she’s saying. Holmes agrees to investigate, and he and Dr. Watson look into the matter. As it turns out, both the new family and Effie’s reluctance to confide in her husband have everything to do with the conflict between the categories into which people are put, and the reality of Effie’s life.

Malla Nunn’s series featuring DS Emmanuel Cooper takes place in 1950’s Johannesburg. At that time, and in that place, people are placed into categories based on one factor: race. The apartheid laws are firmly in effect and determine where people may live, eat and shop. They determine whom people may marry and what sort of job, education, medical care and public service they are likely to get. Racial categories are in fact so rigidly enforced that breaking those barriers can get a person imprisoned or much worse. More than once in this series, there are conflicts between those imposed categories and the realities of peoples’ lives.

Carin Gerhardsen’s The Gingerbread House also touches (although less obviously) on racial and ethnic categories. In that novel, Stockholm police detective Conny Sjöberg and his team investigate when real estate professional Hans Vannerberg is murdered in the kitchen of a home not far from his own. The police don’t have many leads at first; but then, two other murders occur. Both victims are the same age as Vannerberg, and Sjöberg begins to suspect that the killings are connected. One of the members of the police team is Jamal Hamad, whose family moved to Stockholm from Lebanon. In language, dress and so on, Hamad is as Swedish as the other members of the team are. He is a Swedish citizen and that’s the way he lives. But his colleagues still put him in a different category because of where he was born. They respect his work, and they do enjoy his company, but some of what they say and do shows that they think of him as Middle Eastern, even though he isn’t.

In Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant, we are introduced to Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri and his family. One of the ‘regulars’ in this series is Puri’s mother, usually referred to as Mummy-ji. She’s by no means frail and helpless, but she is getting on in years, and even her own son puts her into a certain category based on that fact. One of the ongoing threads of tension in this series is Mummy-ji‘s refusal to fit into the ‘older female’ category into which so many people want to place her. And I know that you can think of lots of other examples of that particular source of conflict in crime novels – more than I could.

Many, many people put parents into certain categories based on assumptions. You know what I mean, especially if you are a parent: “Good’ parents always/would never ______.’ Or, ‘Oh, that must be a horrible parent! Just look at ___.’ Of course, there are some things (like outright physical abuse) that we can pretty much all agree are signs of poor parenting. But in a lot of cases it’s not that easy to put parents into one or another category. Yet, people do. That’s what happens, for instance, in Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and her partner Alistair Robertson travel from Joanna’s home in Scotland to Alistair’s home near Melbourne. As anyone who’s made that sort of trip knows, it’s a very long flight, and it’s complicated by the fact that they’re bringing with them their nine-week-old son Noah. As it is, Noah isn’t an ‘easy’ baby, and it’s only made worse by the flight. The whole experience is harrowing for Joanna in particular, and several of her fellow passengers make all sorts of assumptions about her based on that flight. If you’ve ever been on a long flight with parents who have infants, you can understand the other passengers’ irritation. But as it turns out, the flight is only the beginning of Joanna’s and Alistair’s misery. On the trip from the airport at Melbourne to their destination, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of their baby. The media, the police and the public quickly jump to their aid, and a massive search is made for Noah. Then, questions begin to be raised about Noah’s disappearance. And this leads to increasing suspicion of, especially, Joanna. Now her parenting and Alistair’s come under the proverbial microscope more than ever.

People often put commercial sex workers into categories based on what they do for a living. And the tension between that perception and the reality of sex workers’ lives is a plot point in Jill Edmondson’s Dead Light District. In the former, brothel owner Candace Curtis hires Toronto PI Sasha Jackson to trace one of her employees, Mary Carmen Santamaria, who seems to have disappeared. In the process of investigating, Jackson has to resolve the conflict between her preconceived notions about prostitution, and the reality of it:
 

You have a database of hookers?’… [Jackson]
‘Please, don’t call them hookers. Most of the girls use the term intimacy consultant, though some call themselves relaxation therapists. I know they’re euphemisms, but they’re important to the girls’ self esteem.’
‘Consultants. Right. Got it.’

 

These are professionals, and Jackson has to face the fact that she hasn’t really thought about them that way before.

There are lots of other categories that we use for people, especially if we don’t know them. On the one hand categories are efficient and they help us remember. On the other, they’re often very limiting. That conflict can add some really interesting tension to a story.
 
 
 
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Dylan’s All I Really Want to Do.

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Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Carin Gerhardsen, Helen Fitzgerald, Jill Edmondson, Malla Nunn, Tarquin Hall

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