There are people (I’ll bet you know some, yourself) who live life absolutely on their own terms. It’s not that they don’t care about others, such as friends and loved ones. Very often they do. What they don’t care about is ‘what everyone else will think!’ They don’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, and they live as they see fit, without trying to self-consciously fit in.
That independence of character can make a person all the more interesting, and can add depths to a fictional character, too. Of course, as with most things, creating this sort of character requires a tricky balance. Independence of thought is one thing; too much eccentricity or thoughtlessness can be quite another. But there are some characters out there in crime fiction who seem to strike that balance. Here are just a few; I know you will think of many others.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is not at all bound by what people might think of his lifestyle. He keeps unusual hours, has a very unconventional approach to housekeeping (the tobacco in the slipper being just one example), and doesn’t exactly play by the conventional rules when it comes to catching criminals, either. He doesn’t particularly worry about what anyone thinks of his lifestyle, either, and makes no apologies for it. To be fair, in A Study in Scarlet, he does warn Dr. Watson about the way he is when they begin to share rooms:
‘‘I generally have chemicals about, and occasionally do experiments. Would that annoy you?’
‘By no means.’ [Watson]
‘Let me see — what are my other shortcomings. I get in the dumps at times, and don’t open my mouth for days on end. You must not think I am sulky when I do that. Just let me alone, and I’ll soon be right.’’
But he isn’t very much attached to what Watson thinks of him – not in the ‘aiming to please’ sort of a way that new roommates sometimes have.
Although he lives a more conventional lifestyle than Holmes does, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t very much bound by what people think of him, either. And some of Christie’s other characters are like that, too. For instance, in Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), Hercule Poirot investigates the sixteen-year-old murder of famous painter Amyas Crale. At the time of the murder, his wife Caroline was the most likely suspect, and she certainly had motive. He was having an obvious affair with Elsa Greer, even going so far as to have Elsa in his home while he did a painting of her. Caroline was arrested, tried and convicted, and died a year later in prison. Her daughter thinks she was innocent, though, and wants Poirot to find out the truth. To do so, he interviews the five people who were ‘on the scene’ on the day of the murder; one of those people is Elsa, now Lady Dittisham. We learn about her that she was not at all worried about what people would think of her. On one level, she wanted to be ‘respectably married.’ But she dressed as she wished, she lived life completely on her own terms, and still doesn’t much care what people think of her. In fact, when Poirot asks her what her husband’s opinion would be of her involvement in the investigation, she says,
‘‘Do you think I care in the least what my husband would feel?’’
And she really doesn’t.
Fans of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe will know that he doesn’t care very much what people (clients, the police, or even his own employees) think of him. He has his own very rigid schedule that suits him, and he sees people when he agrees to do so. He lives life on his own terms, and it doesn’t matter in the least bit to him that he is unconventional. Rather than try to fit into a world where people go out to offices, travel, interact in public and so on, he’s created a world that suits him. He has a world class chef, so that he only need eat elsewhere when he wants to do that. He has an elevator in his home, so that he doesn’t need to use the stairs. And he relies on Archie Goodwin and his other employees to do the ‘leg work’ for him and bring witnesses and suspects to him. Of course, if you’re a fan of this series, you’ll know that Goodwin has his own way of manipulating situations and getting his boss to do things. But Wolfe lives his life as he sees fit, with no apologies to anyone.
Another character who makes no apologies to anyone is Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer. She’s a former school principal who has bought some land in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s even had a dream home built there. Then, bad luck and poor financial decisions mean that she has to give up that home and settle for the house next door, a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ To make matters worse, her dream home is purchased by Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington, and they soon move in, much to her chagrin. She has nothing but contempt for these ‘invaders,’ and doesn’t much care if they like her. The only person there whom she finds even bearable is Frank’s niece Kim, who comes to live with the couple. So when Thea begins to suspect that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for the girl, she gets concerned. The police aren’t going to do anything about it; so, rather than worry about what anyone will think of it all, Thea makes her own plans.
Sulari Gentill’s Edna Higgins is another crime-fictional character who lives life on her own terms. She is a friend, secret love interest, and muse to Gentill’s protagonist, Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair. At the time that this series takes place – the 1930’s – there are things that young ladies do and do not do, but Edna doesn’t worry overmuch about that. She feels no need to prove herself to anyone. She is a sculptor who creates what she wants to create. She’s also a sometimes-model, who isn’t afraid of the social sanctions for posing in the nude. She does some acting, too. She lives the life she wants to live, on her own terms.
And then there’s Sheldon Horowitz, whom we meet in Derek B. Miller’s Norwegian By Night. He’s moved from his native New York to Norway, to be nearer his granddaughter Rhea and her Norwegian husband. In one plot thread of this novel, Horowitz rescues a young boy whose mother has just been murdered. The two go on the run, and Horowitz does his best to protect the boy from some very nasty people. His thinking is unconventional, and he really doesn’t care much about that. He’s not worried about what a man of his age ‘should’ be doing, either. And that makes him all the more interesting.
That’s the thing about characters who don’t have anything to prove (You’re absolutely right, fans of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher!). They live life on their own terms, and that in itself can be very interesting. They can certainly add to a story, too.
ps. That’s a ‘princess’ dress over a T-shirt and a pair of sport leggings, and those shoes are mine. Yes, that’s what I call living life on one’s own terms.. ;-)
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Motorcycle Song. Interestingly, this song later became All About Soul. If you’ve heard both songs, you’ll notice the similarity…