Category Archives: Karin Fossum

I Share Your Name*

Books With the Same TitleOne of the most challenging decisions authors and publishers make is what to title a book. Titles need to be short enough so that readers can easily remember them. The best titles also have something to do with the story. Titles really are tricky, especially when you add in the need to make a title unique – something readers will remember.

It doesn’t help matters that there are already thousands of crime novels out there, any of which could already have the same title the author may be considering. It’s true. There really are a lot of books out there with the same title. That makes it hard for the author/publisher, and certainly difficult for the book buyer. There are a lot of examples of ‘matching titles’ out there. Here are just a few.

Both L.R. Wright and Michael Robotham wrote books they called The Suspect. Wright’s novel is the story the murder of eighty-five-year-old Carlyle Burke. From the beginning of the story, we know that eighty-year-old George Wilcox is the killer; what we don’t know is the ‘why.’ As RCMP Staff Sergeant Karl Alberg learns, it’s one thing to be fairly certain that someone murdered someone else. It’s quite another to find the motive. Robotham’s novel is different. In that story, London psychologist Loe O’Loughlin gets involved in a murder investigation when the body of a nurse and former patient Catherine McBride is retrieved from Grand Union Canal. Detective Vincent Ruiz takes an interest in O’Loughlin as a suspect, since he knew the victim, was near the scene when the body was discovered, and has other connections to the case that come out as the story unfolds. O’Loughlin is going to have to find out the truth, if he’s going to clear his name. He’s also going to have to find a way to work with Ruiz.

Both Lisa Unger and Steve Robinson have written novels called In The Blood. Unger’s features college student Lana Granger, who rather reluctantly takes a job as a sort of after-school nanny for Rachel Kahn’s eleven-year-old son Luke. It seems like an easy enough job. And it’s in Lana’s chosen field of psychology, since Luke has severe social and emotional problems. Lana is uneasy from the start, but she’s soon distracted when her friend and roommate Rebecca ‘Beck’ Miller disappears. Matters get even worse when it looks as though Lana may know more than she’s saying about what happened. Robinson’s novel, on the other hand, is a genealogical mystery. Jefferson Tayte is hired to trace the lineage of Walter Sloan’s wife as a gift. The trail leads to Cornwall, so Tayte travels there. When he arrives, he locates some modern-day members of the family. He also finds that the closer he gets to the truth about that family, the more danger there is for him. Someone is willing to kill to keep certain facts hidden…

Deadly Tide is the title of a Sandy Curtis novel featuring Samantha ‘Sam’ Bretton and Brisbane copper Chayse Jarett. When Sam’s father is implicated in a murder case, she decides that she’ll have to skipper the family fishing boat Sea Mistress herself. Besides keeping the family business going, she wants to find out the truth about the murder. Jarrett’s been assigned to look into the same case, and goes along undercover as a new deck hand. Together they discover that the murder is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg, and is connected with some very dangerous international smugglers. One of George East’s novels is also called Deadly Tide. This one, the second in his Inspector Jack Mowgley series, begins with a gruesome discovery. An exclusive designer bag filled with heroin, a cache of money, and two arms have washed up on a beach. Mowgley and his assistant, Sergeant Catherine McCarthy, are just working on that case when they learn that a cleaner on a cross-Channel ferry has found a torso in one of the ferry’s luxury cabins. To get to the truth, Mowgley and McCarthy will go up against some very nasty drugs dealers, and the Russian Mafia.

Karin Fossum and Erica Spindler have each written a book called Don’t Look Back. Fossum’s features Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre. In this novel, they investigate the death of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland, whose body is found by a tarn near her village. It seems odd that someone like Annie should be killed. She was well-liked, and not the target of bullies. What’s more, there are no signs of rape, so that wasn’t the motive either. Sejer and Skaare will have to uncover quite a few local secrets to find out the truth. Spindler’s novel, on the other hand, is the story of Kat McCall’s return to her home town of Liberty, Louisiana, after a ten-year absence. She left after the murder of her sister Sara – a murder that was never solved. Everyone in town believes that Kat is responsible, and they haven’t forgotten. She is determined to find out what really happened, and works with Sergeant Luke Tanner to discover the truth.

There’s also P.J. Parrish and Sam Brandon. Both the Parrish writing duo and Brandon have written books called Dead of Winter. Parrish’s novel is the story of police officer Louis Kincaid, who takes a job with the Loon Lake, Michigan police. He soon learns that the job opened up because his predecessor was murdered. When he gets permission to re-open that case, he learns that the victim was killed during an investigation, and that there are plenty of people who do not want anyone else looking into that case. As Kincaid keeps digging, he finds that several people he’s met are not what they seem. The real action in Brandon’s novel begins when successful New York lawyer Roger Cornwell hires Tom Cavalier to find out whether his daughter Katherine died in the September 11, 2001 attacks, or whether she simply went missing. Cavalier is reluctant to take the case, but he’s a good choice. He’s an ex-military and psychologist, whose specialty was finding soldiers who’d gone AWOL.  Now he’s hung out his shingle in his home town of Rockland, Maine. Cavalier isn’t eager to return to finding missing persons, but Cornwell convinces him that this case is worth investigating.

As you can see, these books do have certain similarities, and one could trace common themes. But they really are quite different stories, written in different styles, and featuring very different characters. And of course, they’re written by different authors. And yet, they have the same title. I don’t really know what the solution to the title challenge is. I face it myself. I do wonder at times how many people accidentally borrow or buy one book when they mean to get another that happens to have the same title.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Go-Betweens’ Dusty in Here.

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Filed under Erica Spindler, George East, Karin Fossum, L.R. Wright, Lisa Unger, Michael Robotham, P.J. Parrish, Sam Brandon, Sandy Curtis, Steve Robinson

But Me, I’m the Catalyst*

MacGuffinsLegendary filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock is said to have coined the term ‘MacGuffin.’ That particular story may be called into question, but there’s no question that Hitchcock made the term, and the concept, popular. So what’s a MacGuffin? It is, as Hitchcock says, nothing. Really, it’s a possibly inconsequential thing that serves as a catalyst for a story’s plot. And it drives the plot because for whatever reason, the plot revolves around it (think, for instance of the One Ring in Lord of the Rings).

Most people think of MacGuffins as film devices, and they certainly are. But we also arguably see them in crime fiction. There are lots of examples in the genre, and space only allows me a few. I’m sure you’ll fill in the gaps though; at least, I hope you will.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia, the MacGuffin is a photograph. The King of Bohemia is about to marry, and there’s only one potential impediment to that wedding. He was once involved with actress Irene Adler, and there is still a compromising photograph of them. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem in and of itself, but the king knows that his wealthy and powerful fiancée will not go through with the wedding if she finds out about his relationship with Adler. The king hires Sherlock Holmes to get the photograph in order to prevent his fiancée from learning of the affair. Holmes agrees, and he and Dr. Watson begin their search. As fans will know, it turns out that Irene Adler is more than a match for Holmes.

Agatha Christie used MacGuffins, too. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, for instance, wealthy American business tycoon Rufus Van Aldin decides to cheer up his daughter Ruth by purchasing a ruby necklace. One of the stones on the necklace is the famous ‘Heart of Fire.’ Ruth is, as you can imagine, delighted by the gift. Shortly thereafter, she takes a trip to on the famous Blue Train. She tells her father she’s going to Nice, but in reality, she’s planning to meet up with an old lover Armand de la Roche. Van Aldin cautions his daughter not to take the rubies with her, but as it turns out, she doesn’t listen to him. When she is murdered during the train journey, it’s assumed right away that the killer’s motive was robbery, since the necklace is missing. Hercule Poirot is also on the train, and he works with the police to find out who murdered the victim. In this case, quite a lot of people want that necklace, and it’s interesting how Christie uses it to drive this plot.

Jonathan Gash’s The Judas Pair introduces the reader to Lovejoy, an antiques dealer and collector who is passionate about the business. One day he gets a visit from George Field, who presents him with an irresistible puzzle. According to Field, his brother Eric had recently acquired a set of legendary dueling pistols – the Judas Pair. Stories of this priceless pair of pistols have circulated for years, and few antiques people really believe they exist. But Field insists that they do. Further, he says that his brother was shot with one of them. His idea is that if the pistols can be tracked down, the killer will be, too. Lovejoy is no police detective, but the thought of getting his hands on those pistols proves too tempting to resist. So agrees to look into the matter. In this novel, the Judas Pair serves as the MacGuffin. It’s just a couple of pistols, and in that sense inconsequential. But that pair of pistols drives the action.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, the MacGuffin is a painting. Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call one day from Simeon Pawlovsky, a local pawn shop owner. He and Pawlovsky are by way of being friends, and now Pawlovsky needs Revere’s professional expertise. He’s acquired a painting that he thinks may be valuable, and he wants Revere’s opinion. Revere agrees and makes the trip to the pawn shop. When he arrives, he’s shocked to find that the painting is very likely a priceless Velázquez, one of several taken by the Nazis ‘for safekeeping’ during World War II. He wants to do some more research on the painting, but he’s concerned about such a valuable item remaining in the shop. Pawlovsky insists that there won’t be a problem, though, and Revere reluctantly goes to do his background research. By the time he returns two hours later, Pawlovsky has been murdered. Revere feels a strong sense of guilt at leaving his friend in such a vulnerable situation, so he wants to do what he can to help catch the killer. He believes that if he can trace the painting from the time it was taken during the war to the time it ended up in the shop, he’ll be able to find out who the murderer is. The novel is really about the murder and its investigation more than it is about the painting. But the painting drives the plot and motivates quite a lot of people.

A MacGuffin is often an object, but it doesn’t have to be. Some MacGuffins are people. For instance, in Karin Fossum’s Calling Out For You (AKA The Indian Bride), Gunder Jorman takes the unexpected decision to find a wife. He may not be the most physically attractive or youngest or wealthiest ‘catch’ in the world, but he’s a steady worker and responsible man. He thinks he’ll make a good husband, and he decides to go to India to find a bride. Shortly after he arrives, he meets Poona Bai. The two find that they are well matched, and soon enough, she agrees to marry him. Poona has some things to do to finish up her life in India, so the arrangement is that her fiancé will return to Norway. She will follow shortly thereafter. On the day of Poona’s arrival, Gundar’s sister Maria is involved in a terrible car crash, and he needs to remain at the hospital with her. So he asks a friend to meet Poona at the airport and bring her to town. The two miss each other though, and Poona never makes it. When her body is found in a field near town, Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate to find out what happened to the victim. To do that, they’ll have to trace her movements from the time she left India. So the plot really revolves around and is driven by her presence.

A crime novel doesn’t, of course, have to have a MacGuffin. Many don’t. But a MacGuffin can be an interesting way of pulling the plot together. Which MacGuffins have you liked best?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Anna Nalick’s Catalyst.

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Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jonathan Gash, Karin Fossum

It’s Late in the Evening*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 
 
 

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

EricClapton

Happy Birthday, Mr. Clapton!!

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

Behind You Another Runner is Born*

RunningDo you go jogging or running? If you do, then you know that running can be a terrific form of exercise. Studies suggest that running also helps lower stress levels and builds cardiovascular strength. And it’s not expensive to take up running, since there’s no need to join a club or purchase equipment. All you need is a pair of trainers and comfortable clothes like track pants or shorts. What’s more, you can run at nearly any time of day. You’re really only limited by the weather. It may not be for everyone, but it’s not hard to see why running has become such a popular form of exercise in the last decades.

It’s little wonder really that we see running pop up so often in crime fiction. Not only is it common in real life, but it’s also a very handy tool for authors who want characters to find bodies (I’m sure you could think of lots more examples than I could where that happens!). Authors can also use running to describe a particular setting (i.e. readers follow along as the character runs). Space only permits a few examples here, but I’m sure they’ll suffice to show what I mean.

There’s an interesting jogging scene in Ian Rankin’s The Black Book. In one plot thread of that novel, Inspector Rebus is working to bring down a moneylender associated with Edinburgh crime boss ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty. Fans of this series will know that Rebus and Cafferty have an unusual sort of relationship. On the one hand, they are on opposite sides of the law, and neither trusts or really likes the other. At the same time, they sometimes find they have common enemies or a common goal. And they have learned to respect each other. At one point, Rebus and Cafferty go for a jog together. It’s an effective way to have a conversation without being overheard. During that run, Cafferty and Rebus share information, and it’s interesting to see how Rankin uses that scene to build tension.

Fans of Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone will know that she is fond of running along the beach near her home in fictional Santa Teresa. She stays in shape that way and it gives her the opportunity to de-stress. Here’s how she puts it in D is For Deadbeat:
 

‘Sometimes I awaken uncomfortably aware of a low-level dread humming in my gut. Running is the only relief I can find short of drink and drugs, which at 6:00 a.m. don’t appeal.’
 

Millhone doesn’t pretend to be a health fanatic. Fans will know, for instance, that she’s certainly not overly concerned about her diet. For her, running helps with stress relief and is a form of self-discipline.

Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski is also a runner. She likes to keep in shape, and running clears her head. It also gives her the chance to give her dogs exercise. Here’s what Warshawski says about running in Burn Marks:
 

‘I know that, however unappetizing it seems, running is the best antidote for a thick head. Anyway, a big dog like Peppy depends on running for her mental health.’
 

So does Warshawski, although she admits she often doesn’t physically feel like running.

In Karen Fossum’s Don’t Look Back, the small Norwegian village of Granittveien is badly shaken when the body of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland is found by a local tarn. Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre are called to the scene and begin the investigation. On the surface of it, it seems that Annie was well-liked and successful. She was an avid runner, logging in twenty miles a week. Until recently she’d played handball too. She had a boyfriend with whom she had no obvious problems, and wasn’t mixed up in drugs or other dangers. So at first there doesn’t seem a real motive for her murder. But as Sejer and Skarre dig deeper, they discover that more is going on in the village than it seems. As it turns out, Annie wasn’t killed during a run. But her love of running was an important part of her character.

And then there’s Kate Rhodes’ Crossbones Yard. This novel introduces readers to psychologist Alice Quentin. For reasons having to do with her childhood, Quentin tends towards claustrophobia. In fact, she has a special dislike of elevators/lifts. That’s one reason for which she finds a great deal of release in running:
 

‘At seven I changed into my running gear and headed for the best part of the day. Soon I was running down the stairs so fast that it felt like flight…[later] I made my way home at a slow trot, enjoying the rush of endorphins – nature’s reward for nearly killing yourself.’
 

One evening, she’s taking a long run when she discovers a recently-murdered young woman at Crossbones Yard, a former graveyard for prostitutes. It turns out that this murder may be connected to another, earlier series of murders. The only problem with that theory is that the person responsible for those earlier murders is in prison. Is there a ‘copycat’ at work? Or is the criminal somehow engineering more murders? Perhaps there’s even another explanation…

Lots of runners swear by the ‘runner’s high’ that can come from the release of endorphins. And running can be very good for one’s health, not to mention one’s physical condition. Some people even say that going for a run with a friend or partner is a good social activity too. With all of that going for it, it’s little wonder that a lot of crime-fictional characters run. I’ve just given a very few examples. Over to you.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sheila Ferguson and Giorgio Moroder’s The Runner.

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Filed under Ian Rankin, Karin Fossum, Kate Rhodes, Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton

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