A Hard Look in the Mirror
What do Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Flannery O’Connor’s Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Nabokov’s Humbert, Camus’ Mersault, Melville’s Ahab, Faulkner’s Snopes clan, and, closer to home, Hammett’s Continental Op and Cain’s Frank and Cora have in common?
They are not likeable.
They are, however, something else.
Of all the criteria for responding to a piece of fiction, the question of a character’s likeability seems to me to be the most reductive and least productive. It’s the equivalent of donning a set of blinders before you go sightseeing.
Crime fiction, even more than other genres, seems susceptible to this kind of criticism; it’s hard to imagine crime writers not hearing at some point or another in their careers that their characters are not likeable or not likeable enough to keep readers turning pages.
That begs the question of why readers turn pages in the first place.
The impulse for readers to identify with characters is perfectly understandable. It is the basis of one of the oldest bonds between storytellers and their audience. How that bond is defined, though, when it comes to crime fiction or noir can be problematic for both writers and readers.
At bottom, crime fiction is rooted in the concept of transgression. Lines are crossed. Rules are ignored. Laws are broken. Ethics and morals are tested. The fine print in the social contract is exposed. The everyday world and its foundations are put on trial.
Because of that, crime fiction does not always show the best sides of humanity. In every respect, it asks an uncomfortable identification from the audience.
Uncomfortable but necessary.
Likeable characters, however, are a different story. They reassure us of our place in the universe and reinforce what we want to see in ourselves. In fiction, they are the mirrors that throw back flattering reflections.
But too often, likeable characters are also synonymous with the status quo. They can be the equivalent of Do Not Disturb signs. They may ask the right questions, but duck the answers and where they lead. Readers who over-emphasize the importance of likeable characters run the risk of creating the same lock-step and tyrannical dynamics of high school cliques. There is no room for anyone who doesn’t share the same beliefs and tastes.
Crime fiction denies the easy dichotomy between likeable and unlikeable characters and replaces it with a different emphasis and perspective. It asks us to consider the full range of what it means to be human. Crime fiction then goes on to ask the hard questions and doesn’t flinch at the answers.
Crime fiction, at bottom, explores what we as humans are capable of, and there’s nothing comfortable in that.
But it’s also the source of crime fiction’s appeal and power: a brutal and beautiful honesty that trumps likeability.
It’s a hard look in the mirror.
And then, finally, nodding at what you see.
A Postscript: while I was working on the blog post, I caught The Verdict again on Turner Classic Movies. The film came out in the early Eighties and was directed by Sidney Lumet. David Mamet wrote the screenplay. Paul Newman played the lead. For my money, Newman gave one (among many) of his best performances as broken-down alcoholic lawyer Frank Galvin, who is looking at one last chance to redeem what’s left of his life, career, and character.
It turns out that the role of Frank Galvin was originally offered to Robert Redford. He was initially very enthusiastic about the project, but once he’d read the screenplay, he balked because he was worried the protagonist was not likeable enough.
The script then went through two major rewrites. By their completion, the character of Frank Galvin was decidedly more likeable. In the rewrites, he was destined to become a crowd-pleasing hero.
Sidney Lumet, however, decided to go back to the original script, and Redford took a pass on the role.
Paul Newman signed on because he immediately saw Frank Galvin for what he was. He wasn’t likeable. Instead, he was irrevocably and irredeemably human.