At first glance, this ‘photo might look like a bunch of mulch and earth, and some bushes. Look again, though, and you’ll see something else. Did you see the lizard? Like a lot of animals, lizards hide from both predators and prey by blending in with their environment, so that you don’t notice them.
If you read enough crime fiction, you see that a lot of characters do that, too. Being able to blend in is a very useful skill. There are far too many examples for just this one post, but even these few should show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, we are introduced to the members of the Abernethie family. When patriarch Richard Abernethie suddenly dies, the members of his family gather for his funeral and the reading of his will. At the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister, Cora Lansquenet, blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up, and she herself retracts what she said. But privately, everyone starts to wonder whether she was right. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, it seems clear that Abernethie was killed. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot, and asks him to investigate, and Poirot agrees. He finds that every one of the family members benefited from Abernethie’s will, so there are several possibilities, if the man was really murdered. And being able to blend in plays an important role in this novel. I know, I know, fans of Cat Among the Pigeons.
Being able to blend in and camouflage oneself is a critical skill in espionage stories. The one thing that moles don’t want to do is call attention to themselves, after all. For instance, in Len Deighton’s Berlin Game, we are introduced to Bernard ‘Bernie’ Sansom. He’s a former MI6 field agent who’s now got a desk job at the agency’s London Central office. In one plot thread of this novel, the agency becomes aware that there’s a mole in a very high place. So Sansom starts investigating to find out who that person is. He’s good enough at his job, and experienced enough, to know that anyone could be the culprit. So, he has to consider colleagues, bosses, and other people he doesn’t want to believe are guilty. The outcome of this investigation plays a very important part in what happens in the other two books in this particular trilogy.
In Andrew Grant’s Death in the Kingdom, British agent Daniel ‘Danny’ Swann gets a new assignment. He’s to travel to Thailand and retrieve a lead-covered black box that ended up in the Andaman Sea when the ship it was on was sunk. Swann’s not told what’s in the box, nor why the British government wants it. All he’s told is that he needs to bring it back to the UK. For Swann, this assignment has an added danger. He’s made some powerful enemies as a result of a previous trip, and he’s going to have to work with those enemies if he’s going to get the resources he needs to do his job. But as it turns out, even Swann’s friends aren’t as trustworthy as he thinks they are. He’s got quite a dangerous enemy he’s not even aware of when he takes on this assignment.
Fans of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series will know that these novels include several story arcs. One of them concerns police politics, corruption, and some enemies that Gamach has made in the Sûreté du Québec. Gamache is savvy enough to know that these are people with enough power to influence others, including those he works with on a regular basis. And it turns out that he’s right to be wary. Some of the police characters we meet in the series turn out to be rather well-camouflaged.
William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, just before World War II. As a member of the Moscow CID, Korolev’s job is to catch criminals, preferably immediately. The Party, with Stalin firmly in charge, wants to prove that the Soviet Union is crime-free, so there’s a lot of pressure to succeed in all investigations – and severe consequences for not doing so. Korolev wants to solve crimes, too, but he has to move very carefully. When the trail leads to high places, especially to members of the Party, Korolev knows that he could be in bigger danger if he catches a murderer than if he doesn’t. What’s more, people are encouraged to denounce one another. Anyone, including a colleague, a friend, or the person next door, could be a well-disguised enemy. That mistrust adds a layer of tension to this series. You’re right, fans of Qiu Xiaolong’s Inspector Chen series. There’s a sort of similar atmosphere there, too.
And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me?, in which we are introduced to Yvonne Mulhern. She, her husband, Gerry, and their newborn daughter, Róisín, have recently moved from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of an important career opportunity. Yvonne is overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for a young infant. And Gerry isn’t much help, as he spends a lot of time at work. What’s more, Yvonne’s never lived in Dublin, so she doesn’t have a network of friends or family there. Then, she learns of Netmammy, an online support group for new mothers. She joins, and soon finds the friendship, support, and commiseration she so badly needs. When one of the members of the group seems to go ‘off the grid,’ Yvonne gets very concerned. But there’s really not much she can do about it. She contacts the police, but they can’t really do much, either, at this point. Then, the body of an unidentified woman is discovered in an abandoned apartment. Detective Sergeant (DS) Claire Boyle, also an expectant mother, is assigned to the case. The dead woman’s profile seems to be similar to that of Yvonne’s missing online friend. If it is the same person, then what might that mean for the members of Netmammy? After all, anyone can be anyone online… The case does turn out to be connected to the online forum, but not in the way you might think.
It takes skill to create a character who blends in in this way. It’s got to be done credibly, or the story loses authenticity. But when they’re done well, such characters can be interesting, and can certainly add to a story.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Brilliant Disguise.