The Rise of the Complex Character in Genre Fiction
From Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes to the protagonists of almost every Elmore Leonard novel from 1990 on, we’ve been conditioned to expect our literary detectives to be tenacious, curious and relatively invincible. Often, these characters are exposed to serious trauma, and yet they usually come out unscathed, mentally prepared for whatever the next case will throw at them.
This characterization is changing. Lately, our literary detective-types have been showing some realistic signs of wear and tear. It can show up as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a lasting psychological disorder resulting from exposure to a harrowing experience, with symptoms that range from nightmares and flashbacks to memories that trigger muscle tension and increased heart rate.
This change might be might a result of increased awareness of PTSD and its effect on first responders and members of the military (although the general population is susceptible, too). It could also signal an evolution in writing approach — maybe more writers are trying to develop more complex characters, with richer backstories. Whatever is causing the shift, at least two recent Atlantic Canadian novels are tackling the topic with enthusiasm: Disposable Souls by Phonse Jessome and Fire in the Stars by Barbara Fradkin.
The protagonist of Disposable Souls, which is based in Halifax, has a complicated backstory. Not only is Cam the son of the founder of a major outlaw motorcycle club (and a former member himself), he also served in Afghanistan – where he was captured and tortured – lost his wife to a heart illness while he was abroad and became a police officer when he came home.
Throughout the course of the novel, Jessome throws a lot at his main character, who is caught between all kinds of opposing forces — his brothers (one a priest, one a prominent member of the motorcycle club), his internal struggle between his dedication to his current career as a police officer and his family past, a romantic interest in his sergeant and his attempts to cope with the loss of his wife. And on top of all of this, he’s dealing with PTSD caused by the torture he experienced in Afghanistan. The experience of flashbacks is described vividly near the beginning of the novel, when Jessome writes:
Flashbacks are nothing like you see in the movies. Sometimes they’re about a smell, taste, or sound. Sometimes it’s a visual image, but nothing really clear. It’s not what you see, hear, taste, or smell, though. It’s where those things take you. It’s a full-on fight-or-flight feeling with no one to fight and nowhere to run.
This experience, combined with the survivor’s guilt caused by the loss of his wife and a military partner, influences Cam’s reactions throughout the novel, as he’s plunged into a murder investigation that threatens the people Cam cares about most. Essentially, Cam’s traumatic experiences are his ultimate driving force, combined with a strong-but-unconventional moral compass. All of this makes for an excellent anti-hero.
The plot of Fire in the Stars is heavily driven by PTSD as well, probably even more so than Disposable Souls. In Fradkin’s novel, the protagonist, Amanda, is an international aid worker who was traumatized while working with children in Nigeria. Her friend and colleague, Phil, was traumatized by the same incident, and the story begins when she arrives in Newfoundland so that the two of them can go camping, and hopefully find a way to heal.
But Amanda and Phil took different approaches to managing their PTSD — Amanda sought professional help while Phil rushed back to his family without learning how to cope. When his wife drops a bombshell on him, he takes his son and heads off towards the Newfoundland wilderness, leaving Amanda, her therapy dog and a new police officer friend to chase after them.
Throughout Fire in the Stars, however, Amanda is less motivated by her own PTSD symptoms (although they do affect her), and more driven by her empathy and informed understanding of what Phil may be feeling. Her own intimate familiarity with the effects of trauma guide her as she tracks Phil’s path and discovers what he was up to all along. That same empathy comes in handy during the novel’s main crisis, as she’s able to understand exactly what’s driving the threat she encounters at the end.
The authors of both of these novels are well equipped to write these kinds of characters in an informed, believable way. In his acknowledgements, Jessome writes of his own experience with PTSD, while Fradkin is a retired psychologist. The result of this personal and professional experience, combined with Jessome and Fradkin’s formidable writing abilities? Believable, nuanced characters and unpredictable plots. And when it comes to mystery novels, it doesn’t get better than that.