So here’s a starting point that doesn’t belong on a blog about crime fiction between 1920 and 1959 with frequent diversions into apparent impossibilities: I freakin’ love Batman. The whole Bruce Wayne/Batman duality in almost any form is an absolute joy to me – I’m not going to geek out here over the many, many years I’ve spent reading the comics nor the sundry disappointments of the various cinematic fusterclucks (I’m looking daggers at you, Schumacher…Burton, you’re borderline), and shall instead make the following observation: the second I heard Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was announced, I’d practically bought my ticket on the fact of it being a new Batman incarnation.
And the film? Well, it wasn’t great, but it did have a great Batman that while not completely loyal was, for my money, easily the most interesting thing that’s been done with the character on the (big) screen (and, on a side note, what is there to be loyal to any more? I mean, there are so many versions of Batman, where are you supposed to go for your immutable inspiration?). The plot was…well, kinda terrible, but I loved the fact that I was able to sit through something new with that character which actually felt like a genuine realisation of that character – it’s fair to say that a lot of us who have followed the ups and (mostly) downs of Bruce Wayne over the years didn’t want another origin story, and coming in later in the career of the World’s Greatest Detective was a gleefully brilliant decision to explore the changing face of the character.
But, and here’s the thing, the word I’m using again and again is character. I was sold on that movie because of the character of Batman. If I’d gone in looking for an exciting or well-developed plot…well, no, I’d be less convinced. As I read more and more Agatha Christie, getting closer to the end of her output where her plotting begins to decline, the same becomes true: I’m only sold on these later books because of Batman. I, er, mean the characters – who doesn’t want to spend more time with Papa Poirot or Old Aunt Jane, especially – as I’ve posited first here and then again here – when these familiar faces can be used to explore a larger point in the context of Christie’s writing?
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.
Except, and here’s the thing, give me a choice between a book with genius characters and a book with a genius plot and I will bite your hand off if I believe it will help me get to the plot quicker.
In my eyes, wonderful characters can be sunk by a terrible plot far more easily than a plot will be dragged down by poor characterisation. Personally, I delight in being caught up in a scheme of such brilliance that you never know where it’s actually going, and have suffered through many bland and unrealised characters to see the plot through – whereas the converse is true a much smaller proportion of the time. I have come to hugely enjoy the novels of Christianna Brand and Catherine Aird, to name but two, even though their detectives are virtually interchangeable with a) each other and b) about eight or nine other authors’ chosen sleuths (Roderick Alleyn, Alan Grant, etc). This is because they take a plot and push it and develop it so wonderfully that the tropes of character are totally fine by me: in fact, that’s the right word – tropes. I’d rather fall back on character tropes than hoary plot developments, which is probably why I get so much joy from the novels of John Dickson Carr, Paul Halter, Rupert Penny and others who have failed to catch fire with even such discerning readers as my good friend Brad at AhSweetMysteryBlog.
In a way, this post is motivated by the next two books to feature on this blog: Carter Dickson’s Death in Five Boxes and Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Sharkskin Book, both of which fall on different sides of this fence – the first is a wonderful plot with unrealised characters, the second a fabulous character cast adrift in the dullest and slowest plot I’ve tolerated for some time – but it’s also part of a wider issue that keeps cropping up in the conversations and reviews I see on so many blogs. I had no particular plans to write about this until about 40 minutes ago when, 38 pages into Slight Mourning by Catherine Aird, I realised how little the actual character of Inspector “Seedy” Sloan matters, and how much the other characters are clearly going to fall into a broad type and be suspicious or otherwise for the next 130 pages. And how completely fine I was with that.
Naturally, the two don’t separate out this distinctly: 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.
Aaaah, that feels better. Does anyone have any thoughts they’d care to add?