Life teaches most of us to develop a thick skin, as the saying goes, at least professionally. Criticism isn’t always fun, and dealing with it takes skill. And it helps – a lot – to have a thick hide. Having one doesn’t mean you enjoy criticism, or think it’s fun. It means you learn not to take it personally.
In crime fiction, having a thick (or thin) hide can add a really interesting layer of character development. It can also add to a plot, if you think about it. After all, a thin skin can lead to all sorts of interesting conflict and suspense.
In Agatha Christie’s Five Little Pigs, for instance, we are introduced to Elsa Greer (later, Lady Dittisham). She is one of the five people ‘on the scene’ on the day that famous painter Amyas Crale is poisoned. His wife, Caroline, is the main suspect, and there’s plenty of evidence against her. In fact, she is arrested, tried, and convicted in the matter. A year later, she dies in prison. Sixteen years after the murder, the Crales’ daughter, Carla Lemarchant visits Hercule Poirot. She is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants Poirot to clear her name. Poirot agrees, and looks into the matter. In order to get to the truth, he interviews the five people most closely concerned (including Elsa), and gets written accounts of the murder and the days leading up to it from each one. We soon learn that Elsa was Crale’s mistress, a fact which certainly came out at the trial. She’s described as ‘hard boiled,’ and tells Poirot that she didn’t care about the insults she got from people who thought of her as a ‘home wrecker.’ In fact, she developed a tough hide about all that sort of thing, even though ‘ladies’ were supposed to shrink from public criticism. On that level, she’s an interesting character.
Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel also has a very thick skin. Like most of us, he doesn’t think criticism is fun. But he doesn’t take it personally, and fans of this series knows that he gives as good as he gets, as the saying goes. In fact, that’s one thing that Peter Pascoe, Edgar Wield, and the other members of Dalziel’s team have to learn. When you work with Dalziel, you have to have a thick hide. He’s hardly gushing in his praise, and he doesn’t mince words when he dresses people down. It takes Dalziel’s staff some time to get used to his forthright ways, and not take it personally. When they do, they learn that he is also loyal to them, and willing to take on ‘the top brass’ on their behalf if necessary.
Another character with a thick skin is Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin. And for him, that’s a job requirement. His boss is Nero Wolfe, who can be very caustic in what he says, and isn’t afraid to say it. But many people think of Archie as an employee in name only. Really, he’s more of a partner, even though Wolfe pays his salary. Archie has learned not to take Wolfe’s diatribes personally, and he’s not afraid to give it right back, as the saying goes. He’s one of the few people whom Wolfe doesn’t intimidate. Archie’s not overly intimidated by the police, either, and doesn’t take their remarks to him personally. Sometimes, he even gets himself into trouble because he doesn’t react in an ‘appropriately’ humble way when the police lay into him. In fact, fans of this series know that some of the funnier lines in these novels come from Archie.
Of course, not all fictional characters are thick-skinned. And sometimes, characters can hide that thin skin beneath false bravado. For example, in Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, we are introduced to famous director Peter Alan Nelson. On the one hand, he is a well-known director, and every word he says counts. He’s waited on hand and foot, and is very accustomed to getting his way. But he doesn’t handle demurrals or criticism well at all; underneath, he has a thin skin. He does not like to be wrong, and doesn’t deal well with objections. Years earlier, he was married to Karen Shipley, and they had a son, Toby. The marriage ended, and Karen and Toby left. Now, Nelson wants to re-establish a relationship with his son, and he hires Los Angeles PI Elvis Cole to find them. At first, Cole demurs. After all, there are any number of reasons that these people might want to go on with their own lives. But Nelson insists, and a fee is a fee. So, Cole tracks Karen and Toby down, and discovers that they’re living in a small town in Connecticut. It seems like a straightforward case – until he also discovers that she’s mixed up with some very dangerous Mob types…
And then there’s Louise Penny’s Yvette Nichol. When we meet her in Still Life, she’s recently been named to the Sûreté du Québec, and she’s thrilled about it. She’s also determined to ‘make good,’ as much because of her personal situation as anything else. So, when she is appointed to work with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache on a murder case, she does everything she can at first to ingratiate herself with him. But she is new at her job, and knows a lot less than she thinks she does. What’s worse, she has a thin skin and doesn’t deal well with criticism. She’d rather blame others than reflect on her own actions. When she makes mistakes, as we all do, Gamache tries to counsel her and help her become a productive part of the team. She won’t listen to him, though, in part because she can’t deal with criticism. That causes all sorts of problems which, as fans know, are part of a story arc in this series.
For most of us, it’s important to develop a thick skin, at least in our professional lives. We all have to handle criticism, and sometimes it can hurt. It’s healthy to learn deal with it in ways that don’t debilitate us. Some fictional characters can do that well – some can’t…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Joy Ike’s Nomad.