The Significance of Persona in Mysteries: Identifying Fragmentation in Characters Alive and Dead
Updated: Apr 15
I have recently been tasked with writing short rationales on why I believe two of my favorite mystery characters belong in a compendium of the 100 greatest literary detectives of all time. And, while I could have made a boat-load of suggestions (I am admittedly a mystery genre junkie), for me as a reader, depth of character inevitably comes down to how well the author crafts a character’s fragmented selves. Each mystery novel no matter the bent— whodunits (or traditional mysteries), police procedurals, thrillers or so-called cozy mysteries— all possess the same element of fragmentation. And, mystery-driven self-division is perhaps most gratifying in its two major forms: the intentional fragmentation of a main character and the dichotomy of bodies live and dead.
The multiplicity (or various selves) of main characters is presented in several ways and is strongly dependent upon the author’s writing style. For instance, Anne Perry’s Commander William Monk of the Thames River Police (London circa 1860s) is naturally fragmented between his pre and post-accident selves, as he only remembers mere flashes of who he was and his behaviors before a coach accident at the beginning of the series. This gives Perry’s character jagged edges, as his opposing selves often grate against one another. This is also true in the Adam Dalgliesh mysteries by P.D. James, but Commander Dalgliesh of the Yard (London circa 1960s +) is inherently divided between his Romantically inclined writerly self (as Modernist poet) and his rigidly distant police persona. This dichotomy serves as a gratifying way of developing a character who is both sophisticated and flawed enough to continue to pique readers’ interests through an extended series. Although these are both examples from detective oriented mysteries, it is easy to spot similar divides in the main characters of Dennis Lehane’s thrillers Shutter Island (2003) and Gone Baby Gone (1998) (the latter is particularly filled with complicated and realistic persona fragmentation… by the way, read these right now if you haven’t already!), or even in M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series, but be warned, Raisin’s self-division is decidedly less poignant or relevant. And, of course, there’s always the literal separation of selves as in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), which ultimately implies the unimaginable— that we all possesses such duality to a frightening degree!
In murder mysteries this splitting of the self also happens naturally in another way; there is always at least one (if not more than one) deceased victim, and fragmentation is evident in the presentations of a self, living and dead. The self that often existed prior to the murder is most often gleaned from the statements of those still alive, thus giving the reader an inherently divided view of the character through the varying perceptions of those who knew the victim. However, on top of all of these mini-threads of persona there also exists the physical division of the conscious being everyone remembers and the body itself… and, the presentation of the lifeless body can say a lot to say about the character (and those around him/ her) to the trained observer/ reader. In this sense, I always think of the weight of P.D. James’s brilliant beginning to Unnatural Causes (1967):
The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast. It was the body of a middle-aged man, a dapper little cadaver, its shroud a dark pinstriped suit which fitted the narrow body as elegantly in death as it had in life. […] He had dressed with careful orthodoxy for the town, this hapless voyager; not for this lonely sea; nor for his death.” (3)
It is a story full of paradox, and the fragmentation of selves is set even before the reader fully understands the sheer magnitude of it.
So, next time you read your favorite mystery book/ series ask yourself, what mode of fragmentation does the author accentuate… and why? You might be surprised by how many of these ever-important dichotomies you can find.