Main Character, Too Much? Too Little?

Book series with a reoccuring main character in the thriller/mystery/crime genre generally revolve around two types: the evolving character and the static character.

The evolving character starts and grows, one hopes, over the course of the series, where the other is known only to a slight degree, meaning some background, but that’s all, and is basically an observer, even as he or she solves the crime or mystery.

As examples, I offer Easy Rawlins and Philip Marlowe. I offer them because both played inspirational roles in the creation of my main character, Monk Buttman.

Philip Marlowe, a private detective in LA from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, is something of a cypher, we know and learn little about him over the course of the novels Raymond Chandler has written. This is by design. Marlowe is our oracle, the dispassionate voice chronicling the world in which we live, which is best described in the violence we do to one another. Marlowe’s world is corrupt and venal, justice is a fiction favored by those who can afford it.

The rest fear it.

He is a loner. There are no wives or girlfriends, only his opinion of the women he encounters. He’s educated and a former employee of the DA. That’s it. No history beyond that. Like Perry Mason, of the TV series, he is his work; there is nothing else.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins is the opposite of Marlowe in that he is a whole person. We know his history, from his childhood in Louisiana, to his service in WWII, to his move to Watts, where the first book begins. We also learn what life in LA, during the 1940’s through the 1960’s, was like for this black man in particular, and African Americans in general during that period. We travel with him through love and loss, children acquired, as well as property and a modicum of wealth. But like the rest noted above, he has no faith in justice; justice is for whites.

That both Marlowe and Rawlins inhabit the same place at roughly the same time offers both the similarities and dissonance between them. Racism for Marlowe is casual and simply a part of the landscape; he sees it and accepts it because there is no direct impact to him. This is not true for Rawlins. Racism is ever present, fused into every moment and interaction; it is inescapable. Both bare the brunt of police corruption, but where Marlowes accepts this too, there isn’t the very real terror in his encounters that there are for Rawlins. Rawlins is filled with anger by the constraints forced on him because of his race and the care his must take anytime he comes in contact with the police. Mouthing off as Marlowe might would only get him beaten or killed.

The irony is that both Marlowe and Rawlins know the system is rigged, that it is rotten at its core, that beautiful houses and well-trimmed lawns don’t change that dynamic, or that fine clothes can’t hide the stench of corruption, yet because we know so little of Marlowe and so much of Rawlins, how it affects them is so very different.

And that’s the beauty of these two different paths the authors have taken. One is observational, the other personal, even as they solve cases that are very much the same. The reader is then drawn in for their own reasons; to be drawn in or to observe.

©2019 David William Pearce

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