Not the TV or movie actors with their pale interpretations of the great detective, but the man Arthur Conan Doyle revealed in the red linen-bound 1927 volume of The Complete Sherlock Holmes I would tuck under my pillow each night before I closed my eyes.
I met Holmes in “The Speckled Band,” a fifth-grade reading assignment that introduced me to a character unlike any I’d ever encountered. It was love at first sight. Well after lights out, I’d turn the nearly transparent pages by candlelight, drinking in his keen intellect, tolerating his drug abuse and sure a woman who understood him – someone like me – could transmute his misogyny. I savored each page and at the end of each story, blew out my candle, sated like after a well-prepared meal.
I still enjoy well-written detective stories, Tony Hillerman’s, James Lee Burke’s and Elizabeth George’s being among my favorites. As with my first love, it is not the plots that bring me back to these authors, but the characters they create. I feel I know and care about Dave Robicheaux, drawn into the noir setting of Louisiana’s Cajun country; Jim Chee, balancing justice with Navaho tribal ways; and Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers, struggling with their own messy lives as much as criminals.
For me, Elizabeth George’s What Came Before He Shot Her is one of the best examples of a character-driven novel and stands as one of my all-time favorites. There is no question as to “who done it.” The title and first line tell you that. Nonetheless, we’re rooting for 12-year-old Joel to make a different choice from the one that he inevitably does. We see his promise and understand all the wrong decisions he makes for the right reasons.
In recent years, I’ve begun reading my favorite authors critically, gleaning how they use a word, a look, a shrug, a setting to slowly reveal a character’s personality and motivation. I am reading One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life penned by Elizabeth George, a writing teacher herself, to educate and inspire me.
Complex, rich characters not only are memorable, but in driving the plots, they ensure the stories and books in which they appear stand the test of time.