“No plot is devoid entirely of character, and even the most character-rich study has to give them something to do – particularly in my given field of crime fiction. At a more atavistic level it’s really about writing over character or plot, but give me that choice and – 63 times out of 80 – I’m opting for plot, plot, puzzle, scheme, plot, and more plot, and I’ll happily take what character can be gleaned from that in the process.”
That’s JJ, my buddy and the delightful host of the blog The Invisible Event, musing about mystery fiction’s version of the “chicken or the egg” debate: character vs. plot, which is more important? (Read his post here.) In the discussion that followed, as you may imagine, people landed all across the spectrum line. Since no one feels authoritative enough to say which is more important, it becomes a matter of personal preference. I do think it boils down to two hard truths:
First, genre fiction is plot-heavy, none more so than the classic mystery with its myriad of crimes, clues, tangled motives and alibis, possible solutions, false solutions, the only true solution possible, and as much fair play as an imperfect mind is capable of creating.
Second, all fiction is about characters, what happens to them and why.
So the question isn’t really about the balance of plot and character – they’re both there! No, it’s about the complexity of plot vs. the degree of characterization. Those of us who like Golden Age mysteries like complex plots. We like to see things presented in one way and then peeled back like an onion to reveal increasingly marvelous yet heretofore unseen layers of truth. The nature of mystery is that something puzzles and disturbs us until it is explained. A man is found dead in a locked room with all his clothing on backwards. A village is terrified by a series of vile anonymous letters. A woman is seen walking into her husband’s study moments before his death . . . at the exact same moment that she is attending a lavish dinner party across town. The squire is found dead in a bank of snow with no footprints in sight . . . or too many footprints in sight . . . or only the prints of a duck . . . The itch to know begins, grows stronger as layer upon layer of obfuscation is heaped upon us, and is finally assuaged after the suspects are gathered in the library and the eccentric sleuth begins his lecture.
Now, all of these things happen to people, as JJ was quick to point out. I’ll let him explain it to you:
“Character is what a book, especially a detective novel, is based around: crimes are committed against people, other people come to investigate them, more people are sucked in, and there’s (usually) a revelation concerning the involvement of one or more of those people which should surprise and delight us come the end. Without some investment in these people there’s no real motivation to get involved, and nothing to drag you to the finish line to discover who did what to whom and why (and sometimes how, too). The who and the why – the bits rooted in character rather than action – are what drives the entire enterprise, and you can’t really function without it.”
Sometimes these characters are all rather ordinary, differentiated by subtle distinctions of sex, class, and personality, as well as occupation and relationship. The Abernethie family of Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral consists of two generations of aunts and uncles and cousins, some a little more eccentric than others. The most colorful of them sticks out like a sore thumb and is quickly done away with. All of them have problems, which lead to their being suspected of murder, and it is the slight variance of these problems and how they cope with them, that propels the story along. But really, this is all about the plot, which Christie executes brilliantly, hiding real clues in plain sight, palming off red herrings with the expertise of a master, and providing a solution that dazzles without coming off as a stunt.
Other novels are populated with wackos, like the Potts family in Ellery Queen’s There Was An Old Woman or the Lampreys in the (almost universally despised) Ngaio Marsh novel, A Surfeit of Lampreys. Some people crave this way of differentiating character, and others are repelled by it. But in a certain way, the “ordinaries” and the “eccentrics” are no different from each other in terms of the level of characterization that is employed. A few quick physical details, one or two notable traits, perhaps a way of talking, and the work is complete. The argument goes that, with all that has to be included to give you the complex mystery you crave in a size fit for consumption in one to three sittings, you can’t have it all.
And really, the evolution of the mystery novel to modern day seems to bear that out. The classic puzzle mystery has been all but replaced with either the procedural series, where the tortured life of the detective and his inner circle receives at least as much page space as the case being investigated, the cozy, which certainly sounds like a puzzle mystery on the back cover but is actually a romance novel with a sloppy puzzle element stuffed in among the recipes, or the psychological suspense novel, with the unreliable narrator and a slew of nasty people of dubious mental health. A typical P.D. James or Elizabeth George novel might spend hundreds of pages creating rounded characters in settings rendered with as much detail as a Renaissance painting, all at the expense of complex clueing and any sense of fun!
Now, I myself differ from JJ in that I place a great deal more importance on character in terms of my enjoyment of a mystery (as opposed to the success of a mystery – I hope that distinction is understood and appreciated.) There is no doubt that S.S. Van Dine’s The Bishop Murder Case, John Dickson Carr’s The Three Coffins (aka The Hollow Man), and Ellery Queen’s The Greek Coffin Mystery are massively clever constructs. When the killer was revealed at the climax of the Queen novel, I jumped out of my chair. Yet I can barely remember a name or characteristic of any person in that novel except the killer. I can remember certain eccentricities in the Van Dine novel, but none of those people came to life. As for the Carr classic, I went back and read my own review and was sufficiently pleased with my own words about characterization at the time:
“The concept of characterization during a period where the puzzle element reigned supreme is an interesting one. Successful puzzle mysteries turn on reading a situation or a character incorrectly – what actually happened in the white cottage or what we have been led to expect a person is like or is capable of versus his true nature and actions – and the gift of a great mystery writer is to find a way to provide just enough information so that the reader will fall into a trap of making false assumptions. In a classic mystery, the richest characters are often the detectives, of whom such reversals are not required, although some might argue here that since a detective is not required to change, he may become less of a person and more of a collection of tics and stock phrases. I believe a great mystery writer can still create strong character portraits, even if these people serve the prime purpose of bringing a complex murder plot to life.”
Carr was perfectly capable of striking a balance between character and puzzle, as is witnessed by (in my opinion) the infinitely superior He Who Whispers. Yet he chose to focus on puzzle here at the expense of character, and the reaction from readers runs the gamut between adoration and indifference. Most of his books favor plot. Those I like inspire admiration at the cleverness of the construct but little to no feeling for the people involved. As I have stated before, the ending to He Who Whispers sent a chill down my back, and it had nothing to do with the puzzle plot (which is highly satisfactory) but with the characters.
I cannot let go of this discourse without discussing Agatha Christie, although some readers continue to argue that the Queen of Crime moved character types around like chess pieces and was incapable of creating a fully fleshed person on the page. There are certainly enough examples in her work to support this idea, some of them very good mysteries indeed. Yet this argument is specious and ignores a lot of great character work on Christie’s part.
In a mystery, the three most important characters arguably are 1) the detective, 2) the victim, and 3) the murderer. The detective is the protagonist in a great many, if not most, mysteries: it is her journey toward discovery that we follow. However, in a Golden Age mystery, the detective tends to stay fixed as a character. Unlike Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley, who caused his best friend’s crippling accident then lost his girlfriend to said buddy, pursued and married a grand lady whom he at one time suspected of murder, lost her to an assassin, hooked up with his alcoholic boss on the rebound, and is currently dating a hockey-playing zoo vetinarian, Christie’s sleuth Hercule Poirot stays the same until he’s dead. Miss Marple is more observant about the world changing around her, but she essentially stays the same. Even Tommy and Tuppence remain youthful even as they age into great-grandparents.
The murderer is interesting because something has driven him or her to commit the ultimate crime. And yet the need for mystery prevents the author from giving away too much about the killer. Every suspect needs to have some quality or circumstance that will make them stand out as a possible culprit which a good mystery writer will explain away at the end so that the suspicion over each false suspect is eliminated. The problem comes when a character who ends up the murderer is created in too rounded a way. Christie is certainly guilty of this some of the time. Consider four classic titles: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, Death on the Nile, and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. In one of these, the characterization is spread around pretty perfectly, in two others, there is virtually no characterization beyond the tropes that anti-Christie readers complain about (although I could argue there’s a reason for this in one of these titles!) And in the remaining novel the killer is without doubt the most vibrant and well-drawn character in the book.
An author can have the most fun drawing the victim. A classic mystery breaks down to a matter of motive, so creating a sufficiently rich or loathsome person can be done with a few broad strokes of character and leave the rest to plot. But look at the titles above: in Orient Express, the victim is one of the most dynamic characters; Nile contains three victims, two of them suitably flashy; and most interestingly, in And Then There Were None, the characters are far more compelling as victims than they are as murderers. True, some people die before a novel even begins and their personalities can only be sketched in. But think of these great Christie characters whose very essence cries out for them to “come and be killed:” Mr. Shaitana in Cards on the Table, Louise Leidner in Murder in Mesopotamia, Mrs. Boynton in Appointment With Death, John Christow in The Hollow, Heather Badcock in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side. Even in a lesser novel like Dumb Witness, Poirot tells Hastings, “If you reflect sufficiently on the character – the necessary character of the murder – then you will realize who the murderer is!” In other words, the author is working to provide enough characterization of the people involved for the reader to place each person up against the circumstances of the crime and to comprehend enough of each person’s psychology to determine who is more likely to have killed in this way!
I tend to believe that the more stunning a surprise Christie intends to deliver, especially in her novels of the 1920’s and 30’s, the less distinct and rounded her characters tend to be. By the 1940’s however, most of the stunt endings are behind her, Christie holds fast to the admonition Poirot delivered to Hastings, and her plots are more firmly grounded in character. In Sad Cypress, Eleanor Carlisle and the people who revolve around her are more than just types. In The Hollow, Poirot must comprehend the true natures and relationships of each member of the Angkatell family in order to comprehend John Christow’s dying message and the truth behind the murder tableau. Most notably, the victim and his wife in Five Little Pigs are long dead yet are vibrantly rendered through the varied reminiscences of those who knew them. All five suspects are vivid individuals, not mere types, each potentially capable of murder, yet the circumstances of the crime, as much as any single clue, reveal the killer’s identity. To my mind, Christie strikes the perfect balance between character and plot here, showing that it is indeed possible and that the results make for a thrilling experience in mystery reading.