Give Me a Heroine–or a Hero

Hey all, Gerry Boyle here, pausing from my monitoring of crime news in the Bangor Daily—a body in the trunk of a Lexus,  brazen burglars in Belfast robbing houses while residents are asleep—to report on a crime novel I just read.

It was sort of a heist novel, pretty favorably reviewed, action packed,  supplied plenty of twists and turns, and set in an African city I’ve visited. The writing was pretty good. The setting was nicely drawn. In fact, I read it cover to cover.

But I’m not going to identify the author or title.

My mother always told me, if you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all.

But I did have good things to say (see above). But when I put the book down I was glad it was over. It was a very sour feeling and I actually picked the book back up and flipped through the pages to try to identify the source of my dissatisfaction. And this was my conclusion: I didn’t like anybody in the book. The villains were brutal and sociopathic. The cops were mostly corrupt and just as brutal as the villains. The main character was a hapless sort of criminal who draws on his combat experience to kill a cornered teenager in cold blood. His wife wasn’t a bad person (compared to the rest of the cast) but was just generally annoying.

I was glad when it was over.

Now, maybe I’m old fashioned. And maybe there’s a whole subgenre of grim, bleak novels filled with characters with no socially redeeming value. (Movies are becoming versions of shoot-em-up video games; maybe the same goes for books).

Now I have to point out that my books aren’t exactly the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. I’ve invented lots of nasty criminals. And people do die in my books, sometimes in unpleasant ways. But I hope I give readers somebody to root for, as do the rest of the writers on this blog. As a reader myself, if I don’t have anybody to root for, I just don’t care. Drop a bomb on the whole bunch. Let ’em wipe each other out. Wake me when it’s over.

Robert B. Parker/John Earle photo

This isn’t to say that the Lone Ranger has to ride to the rescue. There are more flawed heroes in crime fiction than any other kind (run through your list here). But those heroes at some point do the right thing. You know there’s good at their cores. And for that reason you read on, hoping that they prevail. If there isn’t a Paladin, a Spenser, a Reacher (or in my case a Jack McMorrow or Brandon Blake), someone to take up the side of good in the battle against evil, I just lose interest.

How ’bout you all, out there in crime-novel land. What do you think? Ever read a book like this, that had almost all of the right ingredients but left a bad taste?

What draws you to a protagonist? What brings you back book after book? Let’s talk about this.

PS If you want to chat about it in person, I’m at the Rockport, Maine Library, this Wednesday (Nov. 14) at 6:30 p.m.





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7 Responses to Give Me a Heroine–or a Hero

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    Yes, I have read books that left me dissatisfied and, on occasion, found a book I simply could not finish reading. The world in which we live can be harsh enough all on its own . . . I want the “good guys” to be the heroes in the books I read. I tend to come back to the books that are filled with interesting situations, populated with realistic characters I really like, ones that I truly care about . . . .

  2. Lea Wait says:

    Gerry, interestingly enough, at Crime Bake this past weekend — missed you there! — one theme I heard over and over was — people read for characters – not plot. Now, that didn’t mean plot wasn’t important. Of course. But that the reason you hang in there for 300 or 400 pages — or come back for more, as you do in a series — is that you like the protagonist. You’re rooting for him or her. You want to know more. The protagonist may be — and usually is – flawed in some way (how boring to be a perfect person!) But they’re someone you’d like to know, or at least know more about. Plots come and go. Characters can be with you, if not forever, then at least (in a series) for a few more books.

  3. John Clark says:

    Flawed and likable, flawed and the author gives me reasons to understand why the character is a jerk; these work just fine for me. Just plain flawed and it’s goodbye, I’m off to another book. Given how many promising books are published every year, my mantra for myself and my advice to any library patron who is struggling with a book is “If you’re ten pages in and the book hasn’t grabbed you, try another.” Matt Scudder and David Robichaud are most certainly flawed, but are two of my favorite characters because the authors have done an excellent job of getting you inside their souls.

  4. Gerry Boyle says:

    All interesting!
    Inside their soul. A nice way of putting it. And flaws are expected. I think the character has to have some endearing quality, and the possibility of some sort of redemption, even if it is only a glimmer. Hard to root for someone who isn’t striving for themselves, at least some of the time.

  5. John Boyle says:

    Your characters reflect life as it is, warts and all. It is simplistic but I prefer books where evil is always punished. Now if I could figure out my Kindle to let me read the last few pages to see who survives and then go back to my previous point. Technology overwhelms me.

  6. Bill Peschel says:

    Doesn’t have to be a good guy, either. Anybody like “Dexter”? Or how about Donald Westlake’s Parker series? Or “Breaking Bad”?

    People can root for the anti-hero, but there still has to be something there, and that’s a tough job for the writer.

  7. Sometimes I like a crime story with a criminal (like Parker) but most of the time I read crime fiction to have a real hero to root for. A guy / girl who does what’s right, even if it may not be right according to the law.

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