Friday, June 03, 2011

Who do you like?

Jon Cleary's Scobie Malone has to be among the most likable crime fiction protagonists ever set to paper, and Cleary uses the likability to considerable effect in The High Commissioner, building dramatic tension out of the sympathy Malone develops for the man he has been sent to arrest.

Today's question is simple: Who are your favorite likable protagonists? I don't mean admirable, brave, or morally upright. I mean the sorts about whom you might say, "Oh, him. Nice guy." or "She's all right!" How does likability help (or hurt) a crime-fiction protagonist?

(Oddly enough, the one other likable crime-fiction protagonist who comes immediately to mind is also Australian: Peter Corris' Cliff Hardy. Comment welcome, especially from Australians.)

© Peter Rozovsky 2011

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38 Comments:

Blogger Dana King said...

Elvis Cole. I like his attitude, he's not overly haunted by his demons, and he has a sense of humor.

Honorable mention goes to Declan Hughes's Ed Loy, who's not as moody as he used to be and is thoughtful enough to engage in interesting conversation. Also Sean Chercover's Ray Dudgeon, who's also reasonably well-adjusted, and anyone who maintains a friendship with Gravedigger peace has coolness in him.

I like Dave Robicheaux and Charlie parker, but their dark sides make them iffy when thinking of whether I'd think of them as nice guys before I thought of "Don;t piss this guy off."

June 03, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I can like anyone who is funny or witty. I'm less able to like a detective who has no sense of humor or irony - thus my problem with a lot of the Nordic stuff.

June 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'll get back to you in a few minutes, once I've finished reading The High Commissioner. Scobie Malone has no demons to haunt him, at least in this first book, but I always notice when a protagonist has suffered or screwed up but it not haunted.

June 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I've said this before, but Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole is an alcoholic with a cloud over his head, but he does show flashes of humor. Even his name is a joke -- the first name, not the last name.

June 03, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

"...especially from Australians."

Since you asked...I have to agree on the niceness of both Malone and Hardy. They both follow a very typical Australian stereotype.

There are some cultural tropes, I suspect. Self-deprecation is an Australian trait, in theory if not in practice. And just to continue the cultural stereotypes: European detectives tend to be serious characters, the British tend to be depressed (hello Adam Dalgliesh), and the American tend to be forthright and very sure of themselves.

Of the stereotypes, the Australians are the ones you'd probably most want to have a beer with, but if you want a crime solved efficiently, you've probably come to the wrong place.

Having said that, my most likable detective would probably be Roderick Alleyn, written by Ngaio Marsh, a New Zealander steeped in British upper class culture.

Steven Saylor is American, yet his Gordianus the Finder is as serious and un-forthright a character as you can get. It might be significant that Saylor's steeped in European Roman culture.

June 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, there must be some jerks in Australia.

June 03, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gary, does that stereotype militate against the possibility of noir stories and unattractive protagonists in Australian crime fiction?

June 03, 2011  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Wealth has smoothed the edges off most Australians by now. The country is booming with no real problems and certainly not compared to most Western nations. Most days it's clearly a struggle to fill the newspaper with anything but sport or celebrity news. I think this helps create a generally unpretentious, relaxed atmosphere.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There has to be an undiscovered dark side. I can see only throught the art. Sidney Nolan's Ned Kelly paintings are unsettling and funny at the same time.

Hmm, you comment raises a number of provocative questions, which I shall, however, save for a separate post on a rainy day.

June 04, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Lawrence Block's Bernie Rhodenbarr (The Burglar Who . . .) is a likable guy.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

Charlie Stella's Johnny Porno.

June 04, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I have just decided that the reason I don't like hardboiled crime novels is that I like my protagonists to be gentle men. I liked Ghote, for example, because he is a down-trodden, yet hard-working and very polite Indian policeman who gets "kicked around" by his superiors and the wealthy suspects in the cases. I liked Frost, who is equally down-trodden, but fights back by mocking the system. I liked the Scandinavian guys, because they do a job they don't much like because it needs to be done, and they do it humanely. I liked Morse, whose heart was in his classical music and his crossword puzzles. I liked Joe Leaphorn, who tried to make peace between the Indians and the U.S. establishment. If they have a sense of humor, that's an extra.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, I was just reading an interview with Charlie Stella and thinking it might be time to read Johnny Porno.

"Still struggling to pay his bills as well as child support for his beloved son, Albano considers getting more involved with the Mafia, despite his qualms." Yep, that could make him admirable, likable, even gentle.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, Chris Ewan's burglar protagonist (The Good Thief's Guide to ...) is not a bad sort, either. Maybe burglars in crime fiction tend to be good guys because the reader compares them to murderers, serial killers, terrorists, rapists, and other assorted really bad guys.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., you might like Scobie Malone, then. He's not downtrodden, but he does bristle at cynical political manipulation, and he's a modest sort.

June 04, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I might. Making a note of it.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger John McFetridge said...

There's also Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks and Louise Penny's Inspecteur Gamache - Canadians reinforcing the nice stereotype.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

John, take a look at Gary Corby's comment above. This discussion could herald a vindication of stereotypes.

If Johnny Porno is likable, is he likable in a roguish, dangerous way?

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., The High Commissioner, first in the Scobie Malone series and the first that I read, builds its suspense much more on how the protagonist will handle the conflict between work and friendship than on who done or will do the crime. The character is likable, and not just as a tacked-on personality trait.

I'll be interested to see what the author did with this theme later in this long series.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Gary Corby said...

"Gary, there must be some jerks in Australia."

Yes, but they're all in parliament so they're easy to identify.

Slightly more seriously, a stereotype is not an actuality. Nevertheless, I've tried and failed to think of any local noir (someone's bound to immediately correct me...).

I have a theory, based on no evidence whatsoever, that noir does not sell all that well here. Bookstore shelves are chockers with Michael Connolly and Lee Child, but Megan Abbott is barely represented.

Thinking of nice detectives, consider also Arthur Upfield's Boney.

June 04, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Boney is a nice chap but probably closer to hard-boiled than some other Australian detectives because of the occasionally resigned attitude Upfield gives him to his position as a half-Aboriginal on the police force.

Speaking of political jerks, some of the first Australian crime fiction I read was by Shane Maloney.

June 04, 2011  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

I read an early Upfield that was very poorly written. Somehow, he overcame that, The later ones are much better.
I ordered a Scobie Malone (can't recall which one).

I like Lee Child and Michael Connelly. Can't abide John Connolly (if he's the one with the fat thrillers full of monstrous crimes). The names get confusing.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

Elvis Cole. Stanley Hastings. Aaron Tucker. Richard Jury. Gideon Oliver. Amelia Peabody. Inspector Alan Grant. Thomas Black...to name a few off the top of my head.

Funny thing: as much as I love Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin and Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes who is, after all, my favorite character in fiction - I don't actually know that I would like them in reality. Geniuses are so difficult.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Yvette said...

A great interview with terrific answers by Robert Crais is to be read here:

http://popculturenerd.com/2011/05/05/l-a-times-festival-of-books-report-pt-2

June 05, 2011  
Anonymous Linkmeister said...

Peter, I had some thoughts about burglars like Bernie and Dortmunder v. other criminals here.

June 05, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., I've read just a few of Upfield's Boney novels. One was marred by the role of a preposterous mechanical device in the book's killings unaccompanied by the light touch such gimcrackery called for. Another had a lyrical, terrifying description of an Australian brush fire.

Boney is half white, half Aboriginal, and one will find an occasional sentiment along the lines of "He had inherited his mother's instincts for the land along with his father's analytical mind." But at least one he gives Boney the understanding that for a white officer, one success can undo a career of mistakes, while for a black officer, one screw-up can end a successful career. That, I thought, was startling for its time as well as sympathetic toward the character.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, some of the protagonists of Donald Westlake's comic standalone novels are likable, too. I posted a while back about the opening to Somebody Owes Me Money. How could you not like a character who delivers a monologue like that?

Nero Wolfe could well be a disagreeable dinner companion, but I think of him more as loveable old grouch than anything else.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Yvette, thanks for the Crais interview. I'll take a look.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Linkmeister, that makes sense. Block especially has created criminal protagonists over quite a wide range of menace, from Grifter's Game, through Keller to Bernie Rhodenbarr.

June 06, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, somewhat off-topic; in fact polar opposite to this topic, but I've been watching a couple of the 'Lone Wolf and Cub' series of films recently, among other Japanese films, and I'm just thinking that nobody does 'cinema extreme' like the Japanese.

Which itself reminded me that I've never read any Japanese crime novels, and (ah) so, given your pre-eminence as reader of World Crime literature have you anybody you care to recommend, both conventional and extreme/surreal?

June 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Your post may not be entirely off-topic. There just might be something likeable about a samurai who takes care of a baby while he wanders around.

I don't know about surreal and extreme, but I can recommend "Inspector Imanishi Investigates" and "Points and Lines" by Seicho Matsumoto.

June 08, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Well, I've only got to the second in the series so far, but I loved it, so I suppose that qualifies as likeable, subjectively speaking.
Thanks for the recommendations: I'll check them out
(hope the translation's up to scratch!)

June 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Here’s one of several posts I’ve made about Matsumoto. And here’s one about a short story from another intriguing strand of the Japanese crime-writing tradition.

June 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I've seen just one of the movies, but the concept is intriguing, all right ... as is that of Zatoichi, of which I've seen several in the series.

I know no Japanese beyond sayonara, hai, and that some vowels that appear in English renderings of Japanese are virtually silent. (The correct pronunciation, I have read, is closer to skyaki than sukiyaki, for example.) So I'm in no position to judge if the translations are accurate. I remember no complaints about the two books. A short-story collection called "The Voice" or "Voices" is or was also available. I liked it less than the novels.

June 08, 2011  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Check out the first 'Hanzo The Razor' film by Kenji Misumi, the director of most of the 'Lone Wolf' and a number of Zatoichis; he's a 'Dirty Harry' style detective with a failsafe method for obtaining key information from female criminals/gangster's molls

June 08, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's a grimly tantalizing plug. Thanks.

June 08, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most any of the heroes in a series by Stuart Kaminsky: Lieberman, Rostnikov, Fonesca.

June 15, 2011  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'm not a big Rostnikov fan, but Abe Lieberman may be the most admirable protagonist in all of crime fiction. I'm a Fonesca fan, too, so thanks for the excellent choices.

June 15, 2011  

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