Robert Langdon, Harry Potter, Lisbeth Salander – you can picture them instantly. Visually memorable characters are making a welcome comeback to crime and thriller novels
by: John Dugdale
The Harris Tweed jacket of Dan Brown's protagonist Robert Langdon has understandably been mentioned in most reviews of Inferno, with critics noting how often Brown refers to it (not to mention its label: "Harris Tweed's iconic orb adorned with 13 buttonlike jewels and topped by a Maltese cross") and its elevation into playing a part in the plot – everything starts with the Harvard professor of "symbology" discovering a titanium case stitched into its lining.
Yet there's a jeering tone whenever reviewers pick up on what Langdon wears – invariably a turtleneck, khaki trousers and loafers with the jacket, whatever the context – that suggests a lack of appreciation of what Brown is doing, and of the subtle but significant role of clothing in thrillers and crime novels in general.
It's no accident that you can usually summon up an image of their protagonists (from Sherlock Holmes's pipe to Sarah Lund's Faroese jumper), because the writers strive to imprint in our minds a simple visual idea of the hero or heroine, often a single item of clothing or prop. And what they're eager to get across is both the garment's and the character's unsuitability, the one a metaphor for the other. Sleuths and spies are themselves compilations of symbols, as well as readers of them.
Langdon's taste for tweed in all weathers – mirroring, of all people, Agatha Christie's Jane Marple, as Brown is probably wryly aware – says several things about him: that he's a don, and a little stuffy and old-fashioned; more European than American in his interests and ways. Though not a conscious disguise, the outfit is deceptive: he resembles "Harrison Ford in Harris Tweed", The Da Vinci Code said, and can morph into an action hero who never falls short when required to prevent catastrophes.
Usually too old, too foppish, too bookish, too bohemian, or the wrong sex or nationality, classic crime-busters likewise tend to look all wrong. Poirot is a fussy "dandified" throwback to pre-1914 with patent-leather shoes; Marple wears sturdy skirts and likes to knit; Lord Peter Wimsey favours a Bertie Woosterish monocle, top hat and spats (all "jolly useful", he says, in order "to look like a bally fool").
Later, tougher types make seemingly misguided choices, too. Raymond Chandler called Philip Marlowe his "white knight in a trenchcoat", but a trenchcoat in California is as out of place as tweed in Tuscany. James Bond's Savile Row suits are right for a playboy diplomat but hopeless for fighting. Often, this misconceived garb ought to cause embarrassment but doesn't: Maigret's hefty, woolly overcoat is always getting soaked yet he never learns, George Smiley keeps on buying expensive but "really bad" clothes that are too big ("like skin on a shrunken toad").
With his habit of wiping his glasses on his tie, Smiley also epitomises another emblem of unsuitability. As with Len Deighton's Harry Palmer, another 60s spy meant to contrast with Bond, specs suggest someone too scholarly or nerdy for derring-do, let alone tangling with world-class evil-doers. But, by then, authors were starting to forget the importance of clothing. If you can visualise another protagonist between the 60s and the 90s (eg Morse, Adam Dalgliesh or VI Warshawski), it's probably the actor's face from a screen version, with what they wore making no impression.
That trend, however, has recently been reversed, with a slew of global bestsellers that (just coincidence?) all feature characters made visually memorable: Harry Potter in Hogwarts uniform and round glasses; Langdon saving the planet in his Harvard don costume; Lisbeth Salander in punky-goth outfits, with piercings and tattoos; giant Jack Reacher in workman's clothes he throws away after one use. It was an indication of how far the pendulum has swung back when Lee Child, Reacher's creator, recently devoted an entire article to how his macho hero dresses.