Novels in search of main characters

Brian Clegg wrote the other day on his blog Now Appearing about finishing a book and feeling manipulated, or cheated. The book in question is not non-fiction nor a science or science-fiction novel, but, relatively unusually for Brian I believe, a crime novel. What Brian found misleading was the fact that the book was being marketed as "A Character X" novel, whereas as it turned out, "Character X" was not the main detective character.

I could not guess which book Brian meant, but kindly he revealed the title and author in the comment thread, and I immediately knew what he was getting at. (Visit Now Appearing for the details if you wish all to be revealed). The question remains as to whether the marketing was deliberately part of the undoubted impact of the final scenes, or if it was just a lazy exercise by people who hadn't read the book and didn't care so long as it sold. (Or other.)

Kerrie, in the comments, identifies another book possibly along these lines. She also refers to the sense of let-down when the supposedly central character takes a very long time to make an appearance in novels. Similarly, I have occasionally felt puzzled by why the "Martin Beck" series by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo is called "The Martin Beck series", as in several of the first books in the series he is an ephemeral character. (The second book is an exception.) The "Martin Beck" branding – even the spines of the Harper Perennial series each have one character of the name so if you have all the books they spell out MARTIN BECK on the shelf, 10 characters/10 books being a fortunate coincidence or deliberate cleverness by the authors — may be a modern addition compared with the original publication of these novels in the 1960s and 1970s. Now that I have reached book 8, I am absorbing how the authors have integrated their biting political satire into the personality of this character, who like the society described, is a general, subliminal presence rather than driving events — so does not need to appear 'in person' even very often within a book. Beck's whole method of solving the cases he faces is done by a slow, thorough dissection of minute details. And, eventually, I am seeing how Beck's own life is a mirror of the world depicted by the authors. As the society degenerates from naive optimism into soulless oppression, the man's dead personal landscape slowly emerges into the light. (Well I think it does, I still have two books to go.)

The Sjowall/Wahloo books have several similarities with J. K. Rowling's septet. The most obvious, and a very satisfying element to the reader, is that both series were conceived as a whole. This enables many aspects to be explored that just don't happen in most books, either because they don't have sequels or if they do, the sequels are added-on, usually displaying the law of diminishing returns, rather than part of a whole – or in the case of series, become formula, however superior. (Note, Lord of the Rings was conceived and written as one book, not three novels.) I might write about some of these aspects another time if I have the energy and if my brain can make a coherent stab at it.

2 thoughts on “Novels in search of main characters

  1. Fascinating. it makes me want to order all 10 books right away but I can’t. No, I really mustn’t. That bit about the Back’s inner life mirroring the outer really grabbed me, though. What a great idea!

  2. When 4MA discussed Arnaldur Indridason’s Silence of the Grave, some readers were disappointed that Erlendur made relatively infrequent appearances since much of the layered narrative follows a family story that gradually you realize is connected to Erlendur’s investigation. Since I read them out of order (and was gobsmacked by this book) I didn’t miss the “main character” as much as those who knew him better. I’m thinking there may be some similarities in that the focus is on the reader (along with the detectives) piecing together what happened, but it’s not entirely on the detectives or on the investigation but rather on the world of the crime victims.

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