by Sally Carpenter
I recently began rewatching an old favorite TV show from the 1970s, “Alias Smith and Jones,” about two bank robbers in the Old West who decide to go straight. This time around I noticed that much of the show—and its appeal—was based less on traditional western action (gunfights, brawls, horse chases) than on character development.
Some of the stories were complex and required close attention, but the focus was on the two charming, good-hearted protagonists and the fascinating characters they encounter each week. We have many long scenes of just two people talking—and it’s interesting.
TV shows of the 1970s were loaded with gimmicks and catch phrases (“Aaayyyy!” “Oooooo, Mr. Kotter!” “Who loves ya, baby?” “There ya go!”). Baretta had his cockatoo. Cannon was obese. Kojak was bald and ate lollipops. McCloud wore a cowboy hat and boots in Manhattan. Ironside was in a wheelchair. Charlie’s Angels was jiggle. Even people who never watched the shows recognized these characters, but does anyone remember the stories?
Columbo (my favorite TV detective) had his raincoat, rumbled suit, cigar, old car, lazy dog, unseen wife and loads of relatives. At one point Peter Falk complained that his show was overloaded with gimmicks. Yet “Columbo” stands out not only for the subtle clues and sharp dialogue but because Falk expanded the character beyond the artifices into a captivating person that viewers wanted to bring home to dinner.
Back to “Alias Smith and Jones.” The protagonists, Kid Curry and Hannibal Heyes, had no gimmicks, tics or catch phrases. Kid was a fast draw. Heyes possessed a silver tongue that could charm the skin off a snake, and was often the brain behind their schemes. But that’s as far as it went. Ben Murphy and Peter Duel (later Roger Davis) developed their characters through their actions and dialogue—as any good actor should do.
What does all this have to do with mystery writing?
Mysteries have a reputation of sacrificing character for plot. The emphasis is on solving the mystery/puzzle. Too often the characters are caricatures or stereotypes (the hard-bitten PI, the femme fatal, the overweight rural sheriff, the klutzy/ditzy female cozy sleuth who falls in love with the police chief) whose sole purpose is to serve the plot. Character depth or development often gave way for clues and plot complications.
Readers may spend time once with a book to solve the crime. But if the characters don’t grab them, they’ll never give the story a second read.
The appeal of cozies is in the character more than the crime. Each cozy series strives to create a loveable cast that the reader gets to know more with each new book. Readers watch a protagonist go through romance, courtship, marriage and maybe children. Young characters grow up and older ones may decline. Many cozies have the “goofy relatives” (which are often stock characters) who provide conflict for the protagonist.
A criticism of cozies is that they are more about the characters than the plot. I’ve seen cozies in which the body appears on page one and then disappears until the murderer, for no reason, blurts out a confession to the protagonist in the last chapter. Not what I call a mystery.
So the challenge in mystery writing is to balance both character and plot—that the crime carries through the entire story and is solved by the protagonist through fair play and sensible clues, and that the characters are fully developed personalities, unique but realistic.
All this with a minimum of gimmicks.