A Character Assessment of Characterization

"I have to create an entire solar system which is astronomically feasible, provide climates and geologies in keeping with the mass and position of a dozen planets and a star, populate one or more planets with hundreds of species which are biologically possible, chart their interactions, build a civilization with a history, a technology, a social structure and an engaging plot - all this and you want CHARACTERS too?!"
- Or words to that effect reputedly spoken (or written) by Isaac Asimov.
The Golden Age-Model of the Grand Detective Story is often (and unjustly) disparaged by its detractors for being overpopulated with cardboard characters that can be cut in the shape needed to fit the twists, turns and blind spots of outrageously contrived plots – which always struck me as the pot calling the kettle black. 
Looks pretty three-dimensional to me...
After all, contemporary crime novelists (if that is still the literary correct term to use) tend to over characterize their books so much that the mundane biographies of their characters have largely replaced clever plotting and digging through the pages of a fictionalized psychology textbook is not exactly the idea I have of a fun book. I know it's lowbrow to admit, but when I pick up a mystery I don't want to dog the footsteps of a policeman who constantly complains about his drunken wife, lousy kids and bitterness over dreams that never amounted to anything. Just shut up about your blather problem and DVD-collection and tell me what you think of that colored shard of glass underneath the body! This is why I gave up on writers like Elizabeth George, Ian Rankin and Henning Mankell.

It's not merely a matter of taste that keep the Literary Pearls, which adorn the bestseller lists of today, starved for my attention; I think I can put forward two fresh arguments against over characterization in mysteries. I know the first argument may impress some of you as a trifle weak, but the second one supports it – or at least, I hope so.

1) Extensive and detailed biographies of characters in modern crime novels are as unrealistic as the reputed characters with the personality of a piece of plywood that populate the classic whodunit. Be honest, when was the last time you met a complete stranger who began to tell you about his life, from the first time his uncle touched him as a kid to the moment his wife left him and took the kids with her three hours ago, except for that one time you sat next to a drunk mess in the bar who felt sorry for himself...

Usually, you will learn this gradually, over a period of time, as you get to know someone and strike up a friendship, which makes it, IMHO, unnecessary to waste as much as a single page on a detailed expose that explains one of the female characters fear for blood as emotional baggage when she was an unprepared and uninformed teenage girl who panicked after her first menstruation. Ah, I hear you say, but fiction is a vehicle to explore these nooks of the human psyche, which may be true, but for an answer I refer you to my second argument.

2) People have the ability to surprise one another, filled with either delight or reverberating with shock, when you unexpectedly trip over a new aspect in the personality of a person you thought you knew – which offers possibilities for this genre but are usually nullified when an author decides to write down every gnawing memory and half-assed musings that might pass through the head of his characters.

Yes, I know, this has been a short and generalizing piece, which was not was written as a putdown of every single detective story that rolled off the presses after 1959, of course not, but simply as an attempt at constructing an originally sounding sneer to fling at the realist movement.

I share Sherlock Holmes' opinion, expressed in the opening of "The Adventure of the Bruce Partington Plans," that "this great and sombre stage is set for something more worthy" than the petty problems of an unhappy and dull housewife seeking happiness in the bed of a bum of a neighbor, however, as I have often noted here, plot and characterization are not always mutually exclusive.

It's easy to drum up a list of contemporary mystery writers who proved my point, but to show that this is not something understood by only post-GAD writers or Crime Queens not named Agatha Christie I have compiled the following list of examples from writers who were topnotch in (nearly) every department but are now all but forgotten (and they were often better than the more well-known counterparts):

Pat McGerr (e.g. Pick Your Victim, 1946; The Seven Deadly Sisters, 1948), Christianna Brand (e.g. Green for Danger, 1944; London Particular, 1952) and Gladys Mitchell (e.g. Come Away, Death, 1937; St. Peter's Finger, 1938).

Note: Gladys Mitchell made somewhat of a comeback in the past decade thanks to the independent publishing industry.


  1. I'm very much in sympathy with your thoughts about characterization. In plain terms, the classic puzzle mystery is deeply unrealistic, since there are no such puzzles in real life, and so the tenets of "realistic" fiction, including the kind of characterization you deplore, are simply out of place. Indeed, they work against the effectiveness of the genre by constantly preventing us from slipping into the dream of unreality.

    As for modern "crime" novels with 3D characters: I don't find crime a very interesting subject for realistic fiction. Perhaps if the writers were actually better, I'd like the books better, but I find nearly all the esteemed "crime" writers to be 2nd rate, if that.

  2. P. D. James' novel The Murder Room had these interesting murders replicating historical murders. What a great idea, maybe Reginald Hill could have done something with it. What P. D. gave us was her usual assortment of miserable, emotionally repressed upper class professionals, none of whom I could ever believe would commit these murders in the first place.

    There is an inherent problem combining ultra-realism with an interesting plot. Most murders are not interesting. Depressing, horrifying, sordid, yes. Interesting (in some way not morbid), no.

    I actually have enjoyed Ian Rankin, but, you're right personal detail frequently is excessive. It's amazing what Simenon could do in 150 pages with Maigret. It seems to be a lost art.

    But I think increasingly mystery readers are primarily interested in the personal detail, with plot being secondary.