Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Well-Read Detective or Protagonist

You're reading a suspense novel, a mystery, a police procedural, perhaps a noir P.I. novel and in the midst of action and gunplay, your hero, typically the guy who has been investigating the mystery or murder takes a moment to quote Shakespeare. Or he thinks the moment he is in is surreal or it recalls to mind something Einstein or Locke said in a manifesto on the human response to fear. Or as a knife slashes through your lady detective's wrists as a killer attempts to kill her, and she takes a moment to reminisce about a childhood reading of Winnie the Pooh that might this moment save her life, or at least allow her to die in peace.

What is wrong with this picture?
Of course it is very like the moment in a film when at one instant a meteor is racing toward our hero and heroine but they have to work out their relationship problems before it strikes, yet it is hurtling at them at the same moment they decide to open their hearts and hands and hug and kiss when in fact there's NO TIME for that right now!

Some readers detest any internal monologue of the sort that takes a detective to a literary allusion or a psychological questioning of his own steps or motives. Other readers are not in the least bothered by such intrusions as the first readers call them. Still other readers look for the thoughtfulness of the lead characters, their flashback moments, their literary or otherwise allusions to books, philosophers, geniuses. Certainly Sherlock Holmes was a well-read detective, as was Charlie Chan who quoted Confucius ad nauseous. I am sure you can think of a well-read detective. Some readers LOVE a well-read lead who is not shy about quoting well-known and not so well-known experts and geniuses from all walks of life, even pop culture as in Tom Waits, Gordon Lightfoot, or Lady Gaga for example.

So what is a writer to do?
For one, go lightly and go wisely. Being too heavy-handed with literary allusions and asides that involve philosophical points of view, impressive nuggets of information from experts, no matter how apropos will kill any effect you had hoped to make. But is this advice not true of any element in your story?  I personally like my detectives to be keenly aware of their environment which includes pop culture and history and the major events in evolution of the species, but I don't want to force any of it in or hit anyone over the head with it, or make speeches or attempt to send a Western Union message in my fiction.

That said, my longest running suspense character in eleven books, Dr. Jessica Coran is a very well-read person both in her field and in literature and history; in fact she knows everything I know of literature and history, as well as all I have learned of forensics over the years and police protocol. She is a fully-realized, well-rounded person/character. She is prone to self-analysis, self-doubt, and she is very much a strong character with flaws, and she sees the connections between and among things, and in making connections she is going to use metaphorical language, similes, allusions to others, her teacher Dr. Asa Holcraft and his writings, as well as the words of some geniuses in various fields of study and history. However, I do it with a light hand, and I execute it as seamlessly as possible, and somehow it works for me--my first reader--and for many many fans of Dr. Jessica Coran.

How about your detective or P.I. or even your amateur sleuth or beat cop? How much does he or she allude to literary figures, events, books, stories, and quotes by Mark Twain or another humorist, or the lyrics of a Kris Kristopherson or Tom Waits?

I hope you'll leave word here in comments about your detective or lead, whether or not your protagonist is meant to be well-read or not so well-read.

Robert W. Walker (Rob)


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Rob,

Your point is well-taken. Moderation in all things. My amateur sleuth in the Kim Reynolds librarian series is well-read but I don't go overboard on it. I agree, it annoys readers if we do.

John Klawitter said...

Thank you for a thoughtful essay. As you allude, the appropriateness of the moment for dispensing a bon mot is a factor in weighing an author's skill, and his or her characters' believability and interest. In my two "Hollywood Havoc" novels, the protagonist is a low budget producer of schlocky movies...he quotes the cheesy pronouncements of the heroes in his flicks, which in his own predicaments have a hollow ring of truth. Does this work well? Judging by book sales, probably not.

Brenda Hill said...

Enjoyed it, Rob, and as usual, learned something.

Barry Ergang said...

He's not inclined to literary allusions, but the private eye in my novelette "The Play of Light and Shadow" is well-read. The story opens with him sitting in his favorite watering hole sipping Scotch and rereading Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, which he says is an old favorite (one of my favorites, too).

The story is narrated by a college English professor who's on sabbatical and who is tending bar in this particular establishment. During the course of the P.I.'s investigation of the theft of a valuable painting from a locked, guarded room and a subsequent murder, the prof makes reference to Poe's "The Purloined Letter."

Anonymous said...

I used a quote (had to get permission) in the front of my third Maryvale cozy by C.J. Cherryh "Ignorance killed the cat, curiosity was framed."
(It's selling well on Kindle with the other Maryvales, I'm happy to report & my acknowledgement and thanks are in front of the book.)

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I like a protag whose voice considers what We (the royal one) are doing on this planet. I shall have to ruminate about when it becomes inappropriate.

Interesting post, Rob. Thanks!

Theresa de Valence

SBJones said...

I have a lot of dialogue as well as internal monologue in my novel. I however have yet to use this to break a middle of an action sequence apart.

Morgan Mandel said...

I never claim that my characters are well read, but they do need to know what they're supposed to know about their chosen occupation.

Morgan Mandel

Jean Henry Mead said...

Intriguing post, Rob. I haven't had my two 60-year old women sleuths reading anything other than a diary, but because they're contantly traveling in their motorhome, I think I'll have them taking along a Kindle or Nook in their next adventure.

Thanks for the nudge. :)

Chester Campbell said...

My PI Sidney Lanier Chance, named after the 19th century Southern poet, tosses out an occasional literary quote. As for his reading preferences, in the new book just coming out (The Good, The Bad and The Murderous) he's reading the latest Jack Reacher novel to help alleviate his troubles. Not exactly Shakespeare, but...

Rob Walker said...

Wow - some interesting charcters and approaches I am hearing about in these comments; think I will have to quote some of youZ guyZ...or steal some ideas here.

I can't think of a lead character I have done that isn't reading or listening to music or taking note of a painting, etc.

In this way, my characters ACT like Me!

It is one way to keep ME in the loop, so to speak.


jrlindermuth said...

My cop, Sticks Hetrick, is a chess player. He has been known to express a liking for James Lee Burke and once quoted William Blake. But, like you, I think moderation a virtue in this respect.

Rob Walker said...

Ahhh...but a chess-playing, Wm. Blake quoting James Lee Burke loving police lead character is just interesting in and of himself. You should advertise your book via this line. Fact is all of you above should promote your "wise-ass" lead in your promo material as it is interesting to hear of these folks who READ!!


Sharon K. Garner said...

Hi Rob,

The next to last line in Pele's Tears, my romantic suspense that released last week, is my heroine quoting Jules Verne's 1882 line about the color of green in a green flash being the true green of Hope. My heroine has just seen her first green flash in a Hawaiian sunset, despite years of trying.

Lev Raphael said...

My sleuth Nick Hoffman is a bibliographer and an English professor and is very widely read and sees the world in terms of books and plays and films. It all fits, even though one reader complained, "He's too smart!"

Rob Walker said...

"He's too smart!" Yeah, Sherlock gets that a lot too. I have had the same complaint leveled at my Jessica Coran, but she's also, according to some too promiscuous, a word I find hard to spell. I go back at 'em with she's educated and she damn sure likes sex and not alone sex. Fact is, she's somewhat scared of her own dark side...
Some fascinating characters coming to light here.