By Wm. Garret Cothran
For a moment, close your eyes.
You are in a room, pipe in hand, deer stalker on the coffee table. All around you are the suspects. The people who readers have learned may have a motive to have killed the victim. This is the moment the entire story comes to a close. The moment we learn who did what to whom and why.
Now, the parlor scene may not be seen much in literature, television or film these days, but it still remains in spirit. From the police interrogation scene to the forensic analysist saying “here is my theory,” there is always that point when the evidence, suspects, and victim align to paint a picture of what happened to a victim. It need not be a murder; it can be a kidnapping, a robbery, or a con. All that matters is that one sees the crime, understands the crime, and knows how the crime was committed.
In previous discussions the focus was on crime, or violence, or how to frame a particular crime in a way that is both easy to write and fits into the general realm of mystery or crime fiction. This article, however, is returning to the ultimate focus: crime and alternate history. While some have written fine works from political, war, or social areas, some see crime as the best way to write alternate history, because it permits (even encourages) exposition and thus explanation of the history of the world - without too obviously being exposition.
Thus, we will look into the ideas of what makes a good cast of characters for a mystery story, but also at what kind of archetypes seemingly lend themselves best to the genre which is Alternate History. Now, anyone can be a criminal. Anyone can be a suspect in a mystery. What we will focus on will be: what kind of people make the best suspects - but only so far as what this allows us to logically showcase the alternate world.
That is: show and not tell, only with the added luxury of someone being told...
The first thing needed to be established is: who is doing the investigating?
From police officer to reporter to distraught family member, the choice of the person who is investigating tells a lot. In Fatherland, Two Georges, and even the Yiddish Policeman’s Union, the answer (more often then not) is a career officer who is middle aged, single or divorced, has a bit of a drinking problem and is in no way upper class.
That is common in Alternate History but also the mystery and crime genre itself. That should tell you how effective such an archetype is. A person who is too low-class will lack the means to move around other circles and someone who is too high-class risks alienating the reader. Of course, as this is Alternate History, one is not limited to the modern thinking of detectives but allowed to explore almost any era and archetype as the story demands. Take that same upper-class detective who is out of place in 2019, and go back to the 1920s and he fits right in.
As Agatha Christie put it when discussing that finicky little Belgian who often used “the grey cells” and was her most successful character, “[Poirot] is an insufferable boring egotistical man who readers like because he is so much better then they are,” yet as time went on, and the detective genre expanded and improved, Hercule Poirot ended up “being read in the 1940s by the same people who read him in the 1920s.” He lost his exciting aspects and became more of “a fun bit of nostalgia” for readers.
(For those unaware, Christie hated writing Poirot by the late 1920s)
Hercule Poirot is a fine example of a detective from a different time. As are Sherlock Holmes, Nero Wolfe, and other refined gentlemen detectives. Men who can enter a high society club and then, without effort, have the means to meet low-brow people if they need to.
High-class being what it is, a story can showcase the well-to-do folks in a community. In Alternate History terms, this means the people who run things can be sat down and made to explain why the Confederate States of America has to trade with the Soviet Union in spite of the cotton embargo by the Franco-Spanish Empire.
(If that last sentence is in no way confusing, then congratulations: you are a Alternate History fan. Welcome to the club. Tea and sandwiches will be served in an hour or so)
The low-class option, however, gives one an entirely different feel and set of options as a detective. While they would be out of place in a fancy dinner party, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Nick Charles, and even Mike Hammer could easily be in the dingiest of dive bars and look like they ran the place. Low class offers much in terms of crime and setting. It gives a drastically different view of a world, compared to a high-class detective. While your detective can now get close to the rabble rousing Communist Party of Toledo they have no chance of meeting with someone of means, without going past lawyers, officials, and all the other barriers which breeding, wealth, and class gives a person.
This leaves us with using a middle-class detective. This is somewhat the sweet spot of crime fiction. Logically able to go to high- and low-class thanks to having a badge, but even without one they can (in theory) at least be mobile when seeking answers for a crime.
A fine example of this type of detective is Chief Gillespie from In the Heat of the Night.
While most would be more familiar with Virgil “They call me Mr. Tibbs” Tibbs, Chief Gillespie deserves some focus.
While looking like the stereotype of a racist southern sheriff, he is worth a look for the way he acts within the politics of 1960s Southern US. He is polite and respectful to the city council, and of course, to the literal old man on the hill who runs the town. He is nice and friendly to small business owners and to locals. Yet in the confines of an investigation, he is really interesting.
Firstly, he is one of the few characters in modern literature or film which openly says they have no experience. Chief Gillespie is not a homicide detective; he is a small-town sheriff. It shows, but the man does have the ability to look at Virgil Tibbs, a black man, and ask for help.
Secondly, when anyone breaks the law - rich or poor - he goes after them. From beating some “good ol’ boys,” to even being willing to arrest one of his own officers for murder.
Gillespie is a fine example of a detective in that he has to straddle that line of upper-class politics and lower-class angst.
Some authors get around all this by having detective teams, or by having a detective naturally be loved by all. Sherlock Holmes could disguise himself as any class of citizen. Nero Wolfe could discuss orchids with captains of industry while Archie Goodwin was his legman to move around. Inspector Morse would listen to Wagner while his Geordie accented assistant Sergeant Lewis was always close behind. As well as making for rather good banter, it allows a detective to have access to a wide range of information and experiences. Experiences which a person of the upper class would never know. Egg in the radiator kind of knowledge.
(You don't know why an egg goes in a radiator? Well slap that silver spoon out of your mouth, and look it up. That's the sort of information one gains by lacking wealth)
So we have covered the detectives, let us move onto the suspects. We shall look to what Dashiell Hammettt, creator of The Thin Man and Sam Spade, called “the required shmucks.” (Hammett had a way with words). This list is not mandatory, but in Hammettt’s words: “helps move the story along from the scene of the crime to places a reader can never go and then right back to places a reader knows all too well.”
Efforts will be made to link these “required shmucks” to alternate history in which a character archetype gives the most chance for an author to both show and tell details about their alternate world.
In the order which Hammett lays them out we have:
the working man
the hero veteran
the lost soul
and the new man.
Now one does not have to use Hammett but, as the man got older, and the Hollywood Blacklist got… blacklistier… he at least made a few dollars explaining his process. So he seems a fine example to follow simply by virtue of his having written it down.
“The fact is no mystery story needs to have these characters but every mystery story sees them show up,” is something to recall here as well. Even if these archetypes do not speak to you as a writer, try to consider what they bring to the story.
Hammett was a big fan of conflicting personalities. This most likely influenced his “required shmucks.”
First, we will look at the veteran and the hero veteran, next is the socialite and the working man, last is the lost soul and the new man.
(The victim is, well, the victim. You can't really have a mystery without a victim. What matters most is that those other characters have links to the victim. So, in a way, you must spend more time on who may be the culprit then on the victim)
A veteran and a hero veteran are, to some, interchangeable terms. This, however, ignores a core element of the person. A veteran can be anyone after a war, but a hero veteran is always a hero.
British murder mysteries in the interwar period were full of both types of veterans. The point, however, is to get a sense of pride and conflict between the two. The simplest reason to pick veterans is to ensure you have people who the reader knows can kill. This can make for wonderful red herrings, as well.
So, the veteran tends to be just that. It defines the man but is not so impressive after the first view. The hero meanwhile is a hero veteran and people need to know that. In mystery tales, the hero veteran is often hiding something. Something worth killing over.
Given how alternate history tends to focus on wars going one way or the other, a veteran is a prime and perfect choice for any writer to pick. Not only can you explain how certain events occurred, but do so while doing nothing more than explaining why a certain character is using a cane, or why they happen to know some odd piece of information. Be aware, though - when writing a mystery, there's nothing to require the veteran or the hero veteran be good people. So, even when dealing with aspects of alternate history that involve monsters like Nazis, these archetypes are available and easy to pop into any story requiring them.
The socialite and the working man are “to make conflict obvious, and motive clear.” Someone of wealth and means who does not know how to lift a finger, set against some salt of the earth fellow with grease under his finger nails and a sharp pain in his lower back. Think of a mystery, and you will in some way see these two characters roaming about. Just by adding a healthy amount of class conflict into a story, you can easily showcase issues and provide turmoil over the pettiest of things. It is around moments like these that Hammett’s communist leanings tend to play out.
The socialite and the working man do not need to be people of wealth and poverty respectively. It is less about money, more about a persona. In a high-pressure corporate board room, you have a man who went to Oxford and Yale - and a fellow from Queens College. Likewise at the NASCAR race track, you have the third generation race driver set against a man who worked his way up from the pit crew into the drivers seat. All are the exact same type of conflict - creating the conditions needed for motive, means and opportunity for your mystery story.
Out of all of them, these are perhaps the best choices to use in Alternate History. ItThey can show both sides of a world, and do so in a way which seems logical for any scenario. You want to show how the Confederate plantation owner and a factory worker live? Just pull out the Socialite and the Working man. You can have a fine bout of exposition, (without it looking like exposition) while also enjoying two characters who would naturally seem to be in conflict with one another. In Alternate History, a key issue is in presenting the world, but doing it in a way which comes off as natural and easy to follow for the reader. Well, what is more natural then some stuck up snob getting into a fight with some poor schlub who has to work for a living?
The last to be discussed are the lost soul and the new man. These can often strike clear religious tones - they are where “a person who lost all faith in some cause is set right against the newest and brightest of converts.”
This covers everything from the old jagged priest dealing with the brand-new father who wants to save everyone to the defense attorney who has seen it all before face-to-face with some brand-new attorney eager to bring justice to all of the downtrodden.
The conflict here, as it pertains to mystery tales, is in the way both parties view the same situation. The new man will see the good in things and have clear hope for the future. The lost soul, meanwhile, could no longer be bothered to care about this.
For alternate history, this may work best in scenarios where a political party, a religion, or a club with a clear ideology is present. In most alternate history stories in which crime is a key feature, you will often see the lost soul as the central character. The Gestapo officer who is just tired of it all. The police officer for the Crown who would rather head home and have a pint before rolling into bed.
The new man, meanwhile, is somewhat harder to place as these characters tend to be extremely positive people. This positivity may be masking deep turmoil, but it can be hard to keep things positive when dealing with alternate history.
Now, these character types are not required for a mystery novel, nor are they only for use in such literature, but they can and will come in handy when trying to figure out the cast of characters in a story. While some have successfully written fine and entertaining books in which everyone gets along and things are pleasant, most of us find it useful to have some kind of conflict in our stories - even if the focus is on something mundane in an alternate world. The six people shown, and the pairs they come in, come with built-in conflict. Wonderful, angry, seething, and petty conflicts.
One can even mix and match them as necessary to make the conflict have layers upon layers. For example, the hero veteran in the same room as the socialite and the lost soul becomes a story about two people trying their hardest to one-up the other while the third just could not care less about their petty problems. In a mystery setting, conflict should be layered. You should have each character possess a motive to do the victim harm. Atop this simple motive, you layer reasons for each suspect to hate other suspects. Was the victim killed by the veteran because he was sleeping with the socialite? Or did the new man, in an attempt to save the reputation of the working man, frame the veteran? Either one works, and works because there is a clear conflict amongst the characters.