Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Who is your favorite trained, professional, but normal crime-fiction protagonist?

"I don't care for amateur sleuth stories, but characters such as this—a trained, yet normal person—are not common enough."

That's what author/reader/friend of Detectives Beyond Borders Dana King wrote in a reply to my comments about Owen Laukkanen's co-protagonists. I had written that
"Laukkanen offers as protagonists a married, male, mid-career state police officer and a beautiful, younger female FBI agent who wind up on the road a lot as the crimes cross state lines. Romantic tension? Sure, but no soap opera, no mid-life crisis, no over-the-top, should-I-or-shouldn't-I angst. Laukkanen's Officer/Agent Stevens is much closer to Brian McGilloway's Benedict Devlin than he is to the male crime protagonists who lie by your bed in messy, unhappy, poorly dressed, divorced, alcoholic heaps."
That's two authors whose main law enforcement characters are highly trained professionals, skilled at what they do and yet believable without going over the top into domestic bathos. Their domestic lives are more than window-dressing. They're heroes and believable characters at the same time.  Stuart M. Kaminsky's Abe Lieberman was like this. Helene Tursten tried for such a balance in the first of her novels about the Swedish police inspector Irene Huss to be translated into English and achieved it in the third, The Glass Devil.

What other crime-fiction characters achieve that delicate balance?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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21 Comments:

Blogger Kelly Robinson said...

Normal? What's that? I guess it's in the eye of the beholder. I'm not so sure I want my detectives to be too normal, whatever that means, because I'm drawn to the weird. If I had to name a name, I enjoy Peter Robinson's Inspector Banks, and I suppose he's normal enough.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Kelly, you're right: We want out detectives weird, which is what makes the execptions that work such a pleasure. Thier normality makes them unusual.

Of course, not all these characters are normal. Abe Lierberman, for example, is a tough cop, violent when he has to be, which is notable, as is goes against a Jewish stereotype, and the character is Jewish. But he also takes in and raises his troubled daughter's child, and the domestic aspect is just as much a part of the character as the violence. It's not mere cheap color.

(And sorry about the delay, but I have not forgotten your miniature shooter.)

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

I see several, sitting in my office, looking at my bookshelves. Tim Hallinan's Poke Rafferty and Junior Bender are average Joes (true, Junior is a professional criminal, but he's not a head case about it.) I think Elvis Cole had a few PTSD issues, but he's come around. Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy is a regular guy doing what he has to do. The gold standard may be Ed McBain's Steve Carella.

Kelly, by "normal," I meant people the average person could know well and not wonder if they were going to fall off the wagon (drugs or booze, take your pick), or weren't haunted by some past tragedy or indiscretion that could push him over the edge at any time. To me, the best crime stories show how what happens to the hero affect him from a stable baseline, not as someone who's already half off the rails. Things can have an effect over time in a series, but then it's good to see how the damage accumulates.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I once called Poke Rafferty ” a 1960s sitcom father in 2000s Bangkok.”

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

Good topic. The "normal" detective is pretty damn rare, although it's common to have a "norm" partnered with someone more flavorful, the best example being Holmes and Watson. The most normal detective I've come across is in a short series of novels by Donald Harstad, a former Iowa cop. His detective is Carl Houseman, and although he's very normal he's also smart and entertaining, and the plots certainly feature a lot oddness. He's worth reading, if you get the chance. Here's his wikipedia entry.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary: I had not heard of Harstad or Houseman, though the the name of the author's home town has an interesting history. Thanks.

I think American crime fiction has always favored loner protagonists, and, given that solitude is not considered by many an ideal state, it may be inevitable that "normal," well-adjusted protagonists are relatively rare.

Dana mentioned Ed McBain's Steve Carella, and a (co)-protagonist with a happy marriage probably rare whem McBain created the 87th Precinct universe.

Readers who know more about McBain might know why he chose to make Carella's wife, Teddy, deaf and mute. That was a masterful touch on McBain's part, I'd say, though I wonder if makes the Carella marriage a bit more than normal.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger sandra seamans said...

I like Laurie R. King's Kate Martinelli Mysteries. Both her and her partner Al Hawkin lead fairly normal lives that you see in glimpses while the rest of story focuses on the mystery.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Glimpses," you say? Sounds a bit like Owen Laukkanen, where the rest of the story focuses on the crimes and the pursuit. Thanks.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Kent Morgan said...

Harstad was one of my favourites and it's too bad that his series featuring Houseman ended. I can only assume he lost his publisher. William Kent Krueger's Cork O'Connor also leads a pretty normal life with a family that has grown up since the series began.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Sounds to me as if I should add Harstad to my list. Thanks.

October 23, 2013  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

Nancy Drew and Lord Peter Wimsey are favourites. Sherlock Holmes is too weird for words, but I liked the writing style there the best.

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Are those first two protagonists really normal? I actually did read a few Nancy Drew books when I was a child after I read the entire Hardy Boys series.

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Paul Davis said...

Peter,

I don't know why Ed McBain made Steve Carella's wife a deaf mute, which I agree was a masterful touch. I would like to know why as well.

But in regards to "normal" detectives, I don't recall which novel it was, but in one of McBain's "87th" novels, Carella dispells the notion of a witness that they were "supercops" or anything like that.

"We've civil servants," Carella said.

I'm bored with cop characters with a ton of personal baggage and a personal angle to the crime story - "this time its personal," as they say.

I enjoyed McBain's novels and the normal character of Carella. I wish he were still with us.

Paul



October 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Second try after Blogger swallowed my first effort:

Paul, Ed McBain did so many things so well and before other writers did them that I wonder if some of his accomplishments get lost in the shuffle. Being among the first to create trained, skilled, but regular-guy protagonists may be one of them. William Campbell Gault created a few such, and I think he began publishing novels around the same time Lombino/Hunter/McBain did.

Making Teddy Carella deaf and mute emphasizes Steve Carella's need to be sensitive and to communicate in extraordinary ways to achieve "normal" domestic felicity. Whether this is why McBain created the character, I have no idea.

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian McKinty's Sean Duffy is a regular guy doing what he has to do.

Dana, that was an interesting comment because Duffy is unmarried, smokes and drinks a lot, and is not exactly a happy character, but he is normal none the less--a normal for our times, you might say, rather than for the 1950s o5 '60s.

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Photographe à Dublin said...

I have much trouble with the concept of "normality" and think that much is culturally defined.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/20/dsm-5-controversy-normal-mental-disorder_n_3306481.html

Nancy Drew went through several avatars, as far as I can remember but she fitted in, which might be one way of deciding whether she was normal or not.

Lord Peter Wimsey is a different kettle of fish and would need a post all to himself. He is a bit odd but not abnormal.

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember that Lord Peter functioned well as an ad man in Murder Must Advertise. That would make him a plausible candidate for normality, though I don't know how typical that book is of Sayers' work. Perhaps it reflected to an usual extent the author's own work experience and is this more "normal" than the other novels.

"Normality" is, of course, culturally defined. Moreover, its boundaries shift within cultures. Perhaps it's best to think of normality for this discussion in the negative: the absence of extravagant handicaps, addictions, or capabilities.

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

You're right about Sean Duffy, both times. He drinks a lot, but he's not an alcoholic. He smokes a lot, but, I wonder, is it more than his peers of the time. He's not angst-ridden or tormented, at least not any more than a thinking person would be under those circumstances.

I hope no one thought I meant "normal" to equal "vanilla." That would be boring. The idea that this character could be anyone--a guy you know to have a beer with, or your kids play together, nothing extraordinary about him except for his training and the circumstances he finds himself in, and how those circumstances affect him, as they might affect us. If he's too damaged going in, a connection is lost.

You're dead right about Poke Rafferty,

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I'm fresh off reading the latest Sean Duffy novel (finished it last night), so your comments were timely. I'd not have thought of him as normal (not that he's messed up), but your comment was astute. He's a more a human kind of normal.

October 24, 2013  
Blogger Tales from the Birch Wood. said...

Your question in the title to this post has left me considering how difficult it must be to train detectives.

It seems to be one trade that can only be learned while on the job.

October 26, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Tales: That's an interesting observation. Crime fiction is full of supporting characters about whom the protagonist will think something like: "He'll be a good cop one day." I can't think off-hand about a novel that covers the evolution and training of a detective, though I'm sure that must be at least a subplot in some stories.

October 26, 2013  

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