Thursday, July 05, 2012

Who's your favorite minor crime-fiction character?

Roger Smith's Capture includes a pampered wife whose rough-hewn Serbian lover gives her the sex, glamour, and excitement that her sensitive husband cannot.

No big deal; that happens every day. But the lover leaves the scene in a most unexpected manner and his departure sharpens the plight of the wife, herself a strong supporting character.

You'll have to trust me because this is a spoiler-free blog, but Smith turns a potentially stock character into an instrument of dramatic punch. What other minor characters do this? Who's your favorite minor or supporting character in crime fiction? What does he or she add? Comic relief? Commentary on the main action? Color? Tension? What do strong minor characters bring to a story?
 
© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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23 Comments:

Blogger Declan Burke said...

I'm just going to go ahead and say that my favourite minor crime fiction character is me, sorta.

Cheers, Dec

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

I have two, for different reasons.

Declan Hughes's Tommy Owens is something rare in detective fiction: an unreliable sidekick. Ed Loy is forced to turn to him from time to time out of loyalty and necessity, and the reader is never quite sure how Tommy will come through. He's also a bit of (dark) comic relief.

Arthit, from from Hallinan's Poke Rafferty series, is an honest Bangkok cop with no illusions about what it means to be an honest Bangkok cop. His insights and trials while making the necessary compromises with his conscience and dealing with his wife's slow death and heart wrenching, though never maudlin. Arthit refuses to feel sorry for himself, and doesn't want anyone else to, including the reader.

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Patrick Murtha said...

I love the three 'teers in the Nero Wolfe series, Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin, and Orrie Cather, because they just add to the fun: "They were the three 'teers because once at a conference Orrie had said they were the three musketeers and we had tried to change it to fit. We tried snoopeteers, privateers (for private eyes), dicketeers, wolfeteers, hawketeers, and others, and ended up by deciding that none of them was good enough and settling for the three 'teers."

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Declan: Is that from you, of is it from the co-protagonist of Absolute Zero Cool?

July 05, 2012  
Anonymous Roger Smith said...

Héloise Plïsson, Tom Ripley's wealthy, socialite wife in Highsmith's last three Ripley books may suspect that her husband is up to no good, but never tries to find out. Their apparently sexless, bourgeoisie life in a rural French town is all about maintaining appearances: in sharp contrast to the murder and mayhem Tom involves himself in when he's away on "business."

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, Tommy Owens is a screw-up, and his foibles are no transparent set-up for him to come through when the chips are down. He really is a screw-up. And yet he is there, sometimes, when Ed Loy needs him. He's a terrific supporting character.

Arthit also fills the function, useful for authors writing about protragonists in countries other than their own, of being the protagonist's guide to how things really work.

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patrick, I haven't read enough Rex Stout to remember the name "three 'teers." But they are terrific characters, especially when Archie says:

"My brows went up. Saul Panzer is the best operative south of the North Pole. His rate is ten dollars and hour and he is worth twenty. Fred Durkin's rate is seven dollars and he is worth seven-fifty. Orrie Cather's rate is also seven dollars and he is worth six-fifty."

That brownstone is a nest of strong secondary characters.

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Roger. I had not heard of the character. But then, I haven't even read Ripley's Game yet, so I have a fair amount of catching up to do. But my god, what a set-up that is for Highsmith, It must give her chance to turn the screws as tight as her devious mind ever did.

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Donna Leon's Signorina Elettra. Very intriguing, mysterious, indeed, and in my perfervid imagination very sexy in an unattainable way, and I don't mean a Doris Day way. Far too young and bordering on drab in the television portrayals thus far. I hope the BBC may do better. Perhaps of passing interest that her name is the Italian form of Electra, or perhaps not so passing.

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Authors can't claim mere happenstance in naming their characters. They are God; they create the world.

In what books does Signorina Elettra appear to best advantage?

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

My vote goes to Panicking Ralph Ember in Bill James' Harpur & Iles series. Of course, there are a lot of great secondary characters in that series.

July 05, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, the only quibble you’ll get from me is that Ralph Ember is, arguably, more than a supporting character. He is the title character of one of the books, after, all, and he is the character with whom Bill James himself feels a special affinity.

But you're right. That series is full of great secondary characters, of whom two of my favorite are Harpur's daughters.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Philip Amos said...

Signorina Elettra is something of a constant -- necessarily, I think, without much development, except for just the occasional detail, usually to do with her own powers of investigation on the computer. But assuming one has read at least a couple of the earlier books, I should say A Sea of Troubles. Two fishermen are murdered off an island in the Lagoon, an island where Signorina Elettra has relatives. She volunteers to visit the island, just on the offchance that she may hear of something helpful. Brunetti agrees to this, though he has qualms, and as things develop, rightly so.

Enough said of the basic set-up. We do here see more and another side of the Signorina, though I found, to my pleasure, that once back in the office in succeeding books, she was again Signorina Elettra as we always knew her.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Declan Burke said...

Peter - You won't be surprised to hear that I'll be taking the Fifth on that one ...

Cheers, Dec

July 06, 2012  
Anonymous I.J.Parker said...

Tora! Fans say they love him. Probably more than my protagonist. And yes, he comments on the action, he comments on the protagonist, he's always good for a fight or a roll in the hay, and he holds very definite political opinions. Besides that, he's usually the most cheerful person around. A good contrast to the brooding protagonist.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, Philip. I haven't read any in the series. Pehaps if I do pick it up, I'll be the first to do so thaniks fo a minor character.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You won't be surprised to hear that I'll be taking the Fifth on that one ...

That’s what I'd expect from you and from the guy who created you.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I.J., your guy fills many functions, then. I wonder who history;s first great supporting character was, and who which author first consciously created characters to support the main story.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

You're right; Ralph is a notch above a secondary character. On another topic. Would you be interested in a review copy of a mystery novel I just self-published? Yes, I took the coward's way and did it myself after a bad experience with a publisher. If you want to send me your address at carywatson405@gmail.com I'll send you a copy. Here's a piece I did on my blog about writing Dead Bunny.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I can't think of any great minor characters off hand, - that actually appear in the book:
Often the best use of 'minor characters' are the dead ones, - a picture of whom is only built up through a detective's investigation as in ,....ahem,...'The Zebra Striped Hearse'
(but I don't want to spoil it for those who haven't read this intricately-plotted Masterpiece.)

As for non-book minor characters, there's a host of them in the Fernando Di Leo: The Italian Crime Collection DVD.
I hadn't even heard of him until a few weeks ago but for anybody who loves 70s crime movies/spaghetti Westerns/Elmore Leonard/Chester Himes, this is essential viewing

July 06, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Once you've wandered out of books, how about any character Elisha Cook Jr. played? You could then fo back and read the books on which the movies wer based.

The Big Sleep? The Maltese Falcon? You could do worse.

July 06, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Great minds!: I had thought, immediately, of the Elisha Cook character, - who Bogart referred to as 'the gunsel', and from memory I think Casper called 'Elmer'.
But then I thought it was memory of his character portrayed by Elisha Cook
(I think his 'gayness' was emphasised in the novel)

July 07, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Wilmer, not Elmer, an with the last name Cook, just like the actor who portrayed him.

July 07, 2012  

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