Creating Arthur Bryant
Rosa Lysandrou thrashed the duster at Bryant. ‘Why must you always be like this? Why?’
‘Oh, because the world is a dark and lonely place and it’s fun. Cast your mind back, Rosa. You remember fun. That night on the fairground waltzer in 1983 when the handsome young lad with the gypsy eyes rode the back of your carriage and said to your girlfriend, ‘You can go free but your mate has to pay’.’
She loomed over him. ‘After we are called forward by the Lord, you will see that the world is not fun.’
‘Maybe so, but I’m going to make sure I have a bloody good laugh until then. If it turns out there’s an afterlife, I’m going to have a lot of explaining to do.’
(From ‘The Lonely Hour’)
Creating a character like Arthur Bryant should have been harder than it was. Most heroes are boring. Sidekicks and villains get the best lines, and women are now finally getting the kind of scenes in films that they get in novels. But Arthur was a gift right from the start. A Machiavellian jokester, a sprite, a twinkle-eyed disrupter. And as times change, instead of falling from fashion he gets to disrupt more because he exists outside of normal behaviour and therefore is more outrageous. Now he’s in a woke world where his comments will cause the young to ‘gasp and stretch their eyes’ (cf. Hilaire Belloc).
One of the only really tricky parts is keeping him upbeat in the face of death. He has to care about victims of crime but not enough to become sentimental, only enough to solve the case. If you avoid sentiment completely a detective is much easier to write. I’m convinced this is why Conan Doyle’s hero is so clinical – he works better that way in short form.
I had half a mind to kill May off and let Janice become Bryant’s sidekick, but I realised she adored Arthur too much to confront him as May does. May needs Bryant but has resigned himself to being the nice unremembered one. People remember Longbright. I seem to have created a character whose personal traits are so clearly defined that I can only use him in specific ways.
But in the wake of May being shot, Bryant is alone for a chunk of the next novel. And that gives me time to make him think about his life and resolve to be kinder – although of course it doesn’t work out that way.
If you give a detective only one trait (Joyce Porter’s Inspector Dover was simply unpleasant, for example) you gradually get trapped into writing one kind of predictable story. Add complicating traits – Bryant’s unexpected kindnesses and championing of underdogs – and suddenly there’s an air of unpredictability that’s dependent on one trait overriding another. MRC Kasasian’s detective Sidney Grice is a clever creation because on the surface he’s quite appalling, but you’re convinced he must really be kind-hearted even though you’re given no reason to believe it.
And that’s another part of the trick – convincing the reader there’s something running beneath the surface. It’s something I’ve learned from European films; in desperate circumstances characters reveal traits rarely seen on the surface. Heroes have to do things that readers would like to do themselves. Obviously I can’t have Bryant pulling off physical feats – he’s no Jack Reacher – but there are plenty of other things he can do that would make a reader smile in recognition or acknowledgement.
‘There’s something very unusual about the circumstances of the death,’ said May. ‘Yes, look at the smile on your podgy little face now, you’re suddenly interested, aren’t you?’
‘We’ll see, won’t we?’ Bryant knotted his scarf more tightly than ever and climbed into the passenger seat of Victor, his rusting yellow Mini.
‘Have you got around to insuring this thing yet?’ asked May, crunching the gears.
‘It’s on my bucket list, along with climbing Machu Picchu, visiting the Hungarian Museum of Telephones and learning the ocarina. Where are we going?’
(From ‘London’s Glory’)