I recently watched The Stranger on Netflix (based on Harlan Coben’s novel of the same name). It was certainly gripping. I watched one of the eight episodes a night and I really wanted to know what had happened to the woman who went missing at the beginning. There was a lot of excellent acting and exciting cliff-hangers and yet and yet . . . in the end I felt disappointed. There were several plot strands – too many perhaps – and the attempt to tie them all together wasn’t altogether successful. But the real problem was that two of the main characters behaved so implausibly at the end. Nothing in their earlier behaviour had prepared the viewer for their unethical actions (have to say, too, that even the most rudimentary police investigation would have revealed some pretty large discrepancies). In other words, plot trumped character and as a result the ending for me was weak.
It got me thinking about the importance of character. Yes, plot is important in crime fiction, but ideally plot should spring out of character and when it doesn’t, I find myself losing interest or wanting to throw the book across the room, shouting, ‘they just wouldn’t have done that!’ It is one of the hardest things to get right, and I have spent many hours trying to work how I can get my characters to do what I want them to do without provoking that kind of response in my readers. When we think of the books that we love, isn’t it so often the characters that stay with us, however startling or original the plot?
Last summer at the St Hilda’s crime fiction convention I guessed who the murderer was (Val McDermid!) in the after dinner play. I wasn’t the only one to get it right, but mine was the name picked out of the hat, and the prize was a year’s subscription for a crime novel sent by Blackwells every month and selected by them. Shiny new books! For free! Well, you can imagine what a treat that is and with what eager anticipation I rip open the parcel every month.
As a result I am reading more contemporary crime than usual and one of the books I’ve received is Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party. I liked the set-up – a group of thirty-something friends celebrate New Year in the Scottish Highlands, are cut off by snow, and then a body is found. One of them must have done it: but who? I was gripped by the narrative and raced through it. And yet . . . what a very unpleasant group of people! What did they see in each other? I put the book down feeling glad that I don’t have friends like this.
When I moved on to the next book from Blackwells, I began to feel conscious of a trend. The protagonist of this one is a professional woman who drinks too much, has reckless adulterous sex, and treats her husband and child appallingly. I couldn’t get interested in this woman or care about her. I disliked her too much – and disapproved of her (call me old-fashioned . . ) and I felt the conclusion of the book let her off too lightly.
Nasty people as protogonists are not a new thing in crime fiction. Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, for instance, is a sociopath, but he is superficially charming at least. This new trend seems to be something rather different. Did it begin perhaps with Gone Girl (which I thought was a tour-de-force) and The Girl on the Train (which I haven’t read)? Do I have a point or am I becoming a censorious old bat?