Agatha Raisin, Dr. Tony Hill & Nero Wolfe: Eminently Readable, Whether You Like Them or Not

Jan 11, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Sharon Tucker

by Sharon Tucker

Many readers, I among them, cannot seem to carry on reading an otherwise good mystery if they cannot relate to or like the protagonist of the piece. Is this bad news for authors? Perhaps not, although as each reader is a critic with decidedly individual preferences, we all make allowances when intrigued. A character that would be difficult to live with might just have saving graces when it comes to solving crimes and saving the day, and we do tend to appreciate genius in its many forms. We also delight in the process of detection winding its way through a killer plot concluding with some degree of resolution.

M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin, Val McDermid’s Tony Hill, and Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe can pose problems for the discriminating reader who would prefer a detective to be physically attractive, young(ish) and friend material.

Agatha Raisin is 50ish and prone to stockiness, irascibility and romantic illusion. One gathers that Dr. Tony Hill is quite attractive, since he is romantically sought in every novel by both men and women, but the sticking point with Dr. Hill is his absolute unavailability. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, gourmand and aesthete, might just be above the human notion of likeability. He is a force of nature.

When M. C. Beaton gave us Hamish Macbeth, she created a most loveable, gentle character whose affable lack of ambition keeps him from seeking promotion in the Highland constabulary despite his investigative talents; however, the same cannot be said of her Agatha Raisin. The reader can appreciate Raisin’s drive and the energy it took to rise from humble beginnings in a Birmingham slum to owning her own successful public relations firm, but along the way it seems Raisin sacrificed gentleness and amiability in order to make her fortune and retire early to the Cotswolds. She finds that her romantic notions of living the quiet life in one of the most beautiful areas of England are quickly dispelled when she settles in Carsely. What is she to do with all that aggression and determination in village life that requires little of either? This is just the point on which the Agatha Raisin mysteries turn.

It’s fascinating to see Raisin quell her instincts and struggle to become a part of such a closed society. Often out of her depth, she frequently resolves to pack up and move back to London until she realizes that she has made friends for the first time in her life. Villagers see qualities in her that she has little notion of and she does find a way to enjoy village life by becoming an amateur detective. This is fortunate for the reader, who has seen Raisin struggle to be worthy of her friends’ and the villagers’ good opinion. We come to see that her noble aspirations and practical generosity far outweigh her many flaws.

In The Perfect Paragon, Beaton’s sixteenth Agatha Raisin mystery, readers of the series won’t be surprised to find that she has gone professional and opened a detective agency. With many unofficial successes as an annoying busybody (if you believe the police), will Raisin’s drive and ability make this next career move a success? Here Raisin’s agency takes on a divorce case, much to her reluctance, and she and her operatives find themselves baffled by how the case fails to develop. Although many new characters debut in “The Perfect Paragon,” Carsely is still well represented by Bill Wong, Mrs. Bloxley and even James Lacey–never far from Raisin’s thoughts. By now we know what a sympathetic protagonist Raisin continues to be and cheer for her canny instincts while forgiving her blunders. The novel is pleasantly complex and even if Raisin is not the most congenial of protagonists, the fun of reading the series is seeing her rise above her own pettiness and grumble her way to success.

Dr. Tony Hill is a case in point that a career in psychology can be a refuge for a damaged personality. It doesn’t hurt that he has a remarkable empathy with both victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, often using role-playing to get inside their heads. Is anyone reminded a bit of Will Graham, the forensic scientist of Thomas Harris’s series involving Hannibal Lecter? These books predate McDermid’s by some fourteen years and are still a standard by which novels of this genre are measured. Hill is, however, a fascinating and attractive character; despite his own personality disorders–perhaps even because of them, as he struggles valiantly to overcome is social uneasiness and abused background. Hill may just be one of the most sympathetic characters that inhabit the genre. Readers find his intelligence and vulnerability compelling because he downplays the former and tries desperately to conceal the latter. The struggle is attractive in itself.

In The Mermaids Singing, Dr. Hill begins by persuading the Bradfield Constabulary that the series of murders they are currently investigating are indeed serial murders. McDermid begins the novel and prologues each chapter involving the investigation with an interior dialogue of the probable perpetrator, so the reader is somewhat prepared for what is to come–if he or she can bear to be inside that mind. I found myself skipping these dialogues that are conveniently in italics because they were too graphic for me. The reader may discern the identity of the villain before Hill and the constabulary does, but it isn’t easy. As surely as Hill is a complex, well-fashioned character, the villain of the piece has unexpected dimensions as well–and I wish I could have toughed it out to read those passages.

Nero Wolf has been on the mystery novel scene since 1934 when he and his leg man, Archie Goodwin, were introduced in Fer-de-Lance. For good or ill, neither character changes nor even ages during the complete run of the novels, the last three novellas of which appeared in the posthumously published Death Times Three in 1983. Wolfe’s characteristics are legendary: sedentary, obese, a gourmet, a rabid orchid fancier and drinker of much beer…and, oh, the ego!

Wolfe’s ego is a bit much to take, but it is countered by his courtliness to women and a courtesy to men that is old-world and most delightful, if not PC. Entering the world of Stout’s novels will turn anyone into a history buff, wondering what was going on in the rest of the world (not to mention New York City) between-the-wars, while Wolfe is fretting over cutting back on his beer intake and Goodwin drinks pitchers of milk.

One of the most enjoyable characteristics of the books is that Wolfe and Goodwin do not really change over the years, which is something we usually require of our major characters in novels–that they grow and learn and evolve. They aren’t quite as well-developed as characters in the first books as in the middle and later, but the foundation is strongly evident and satisfying from their inception. Instead, any novel in the cannon gives you the same Wolfe and the same Goodwin. If one or the other doesn’t know it all, the other does. What’s intriguing is to absorb how both characters approach their cases. You cannot go wrong with Goodwin’s street smarts and Wolfe’s mighty intellect.

When Fer-de-Lance begins, we soon learn that Goodwin has already been with Wolfe for seven years. Into this well-established working relationship intrudes yet another intriguing case: a suspicious death which demands to be examined more closely, so much so that Wolfe demands an exhumation and gets it. Even if you’ve read many mysteries you cannot fail to appreciate the plotting that will keep you guessing through most of the novel. When you do discover the villain of the piece, it’s just a matter of proving your (and Wolfe’s) case. I hope you will, like I did, be grateful that the Nero Wolfe cannon include thirty-three novels and thirty-nine short stories. What riches!

Agatha Raisin, Tony Hill, and Nero Wolfe would be challenging as friends. Raisin might be able to win you over when you come to see what Mrs. Bloxley, the vicar’s wife and Constable Wong picked up on from the beginning in Agatha Raisin. She is pugnacious, but capable of great unselfishness. She may be a spin-doctor, but once in Carsley, uses that talent for the good of the village. She may be chock full of silly romantic aspirations, but, secretly, aren’t we all?

Tony Hill will probably win a reader’s sympathy for his problems before any idea of attractiveness blossoms, but few characters use their shortcomings more effectively as investigative and diagnostic tools than does Dr. Hill. He is noble in his struggle to work around or with his difficulties, and fascinating to read while he works his cases.
Nero Wolfe may annoy us with his genius, but imagine dealing with him on a daily basis as does Archie Goodwin. Wolfe is right too much of the time not to admire him, if only grudgingly. The workings of that great mind and his explanations to Goodwin, as well as their clients, make the novels worth reading. Too, I find that I do like him even if I might not enjoy sharing a beer with him.

Perhaps we need not demand lovableness from our mystery protagonists after all. We can demand good plots, interesting characters and expansion of our worldview from the people we read, but I’ve come to see that paragons are rather boring and have decided to relax and enjoy these difficult people on their own terms. I find I’m reading more mysteries and quibbling less.

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Sharon Tucker is former faculty at the University of Memphis in Memphis TN, and now enjoys evening supervising in that campus library. Having forsworn TV except for online viewing and her own movies, she reads an average of 3 to 4 books per week and has her first novel—a mystery, of course—well underway.


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