February 21st to 27th: “Who is the best protagonist of all time? Why?”

Is it James Bond? Jack Reacher? Joe Pike? Stephanie Plum? Join ITW members Sharon Linnéa, Jamie Freveletti, C.E. Lawrence, Richard Godwin, Weyman Jones and Jim Duncan as they discuss this week’s Thriller Roundtable question, and be sure to chime in with YOUR favorites!

Sharon Linnéa’s latest books were a trilogy of thrillers, CHASING EDEN, BEYOND EDEN and TREASURE OF EDEN from St. Martin’s Press (new versions out next year!) Her next novel is THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, a mystery that will be released in May 2011. Sharon wrote award-winning biographies of Raoul Wallenberg and Hawaii’s Princess Kaiulani before turning to fiction. Visit her at SharonLinnea.com.

Jamie Freveletti is a trial attorney, martial artist, and runner. She has crewed for an elite ultra-marathon runner at 50 mile, 100 mile, and twenty-four hour races across the country, and holds a black belt in aikido, a Japanese martial art. After law school she lived in Geneva, Switzerland while obtaining a diploma in International Studies. Back in Chicago, she represented clients in areas ranging from class actions for mass salmonella poisoning to securities fraud. Her debut thriller, Running from the Devil (HarperCollins/ Morrow 2009), was chosen as a “Notable Book” by the Independent Booksellers of America, awarded “Best First Novel” by the International Thriller Writers , awarded a Barry Award for “Best First Novel” by Deadly Pleasures Magazine, and nominated for a Macavity Award for” Best First Mystery” by the Mystery Readers International and “Favorite First Novel of 2009” by Crimespree Magazine. It has been translated into three languages and was an international bestseller. Her second novel, Running Dark, released in June, 2010, hit both the Chicagoland and South Florida bestseller lists and won a “Lovey” award for Best Novel 2010. In January, 2011, she was tapped by the Estate of Robert Ludlum to write the next in the Covert One series. The thrid novel in her seires, titled “The Ninth Day” will release in October, 2011. She lives in Chicago with her family.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Screams and Silent Victim are the first two books in her Lee Campbell thriller series.  Silent Kills comes out later this year.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge.

Richard Godwin’s novel APOSTLE RISING is being published March 10th 2011. He is widely published in magazines and anthologies, as well as being a produced playwright. His story ‘Pike N Flytrap’ is in the latest issue of Needle Magazine and his story ‘Face Off’ is in Issue #5 of Crime Factory. You can check out his writing credentials and listen to his recent interview on The Authors Show at his Web site.

Critics describe Weyman Jones’ latest novel as “a great thriller filled with action and misdirection.” Author of three previous thrillers, he has also written written award-winning historical novels for children and a non-fiction book on computers that was republished in several languages.

Living and working away in the state of Ohio, Jim Duncan is a writer of dark, urban-fantasy-suspense. His first novel, DEADWORLD, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011.

Living and working away in the state of Ohio, is a writer of dark, urban-fantasy-suspense. His first novel, DEADWORLD, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011.
  1. Not knowing yet what everyone else has posted (it’s early yet on Sunday), I have to put in a word for the inevitable pair of protagonists, good old Holmes and Watson. What Doyle did was so cunning: he created a perfect “reasoning machine,” as he called Holmes – the brains of the operation – but with the very human and appealing sidekick, so readers would have someone to identify with.

    I don’t posit Holmes and Watson as necessarily the best ever, but I suggest that since the crime genre was being invented by Doyle (and Poe) in that century, the template he created has served ever since then in various forms, to be tweaked and used by later writers (Rex Stout comes to mind as a shining example.)

    The brilliant detective can be off crime solving while the Watson character brings the reader into the story – thereby presenting a kinder, gentler version for the reader, as well as allowing the writer to legitimately “hide” clues from the audience.

  2. C.E. Lawrence, you took the words right off of my computer. I thought of going to a second choice of protagonist, but just couldn’t do it…have to start with Holmes and Watson. I don’t believe our current genres would exist without Conan Doyle’s brilliant use of of settings and suspects. But above all, the use of reason, the leaving of a trail of clues, and red herrings, Holmes’ distinctive personality, and the robustness of the evil doers, all laid the groundwork for our modern day heroes (and heroines). Just say the words “Baker Street,” and you’re surrounded by fog, plunged into the damp atmosphere of London, ready to smell Holmes’ pipe and ferret out the nefarious villain. The settings were so rich, the supporting casts of characters so memorable, and the formula worked so well, that Holmes and Watson could keep calm and carry on through all time.

  3. Yep, gotta go with Sherlock and Watson, too. What surprises me is the longevity of the two. Just recently we had the three new Sherlock stories from BBC in which Sherlock is brought to present day. I tuned in really out of duty, figured it would be bad, bad bad. But it was great! Which just goes to show that the strength of the characters ring true today as much as they did then, and when you create a fascinating character like Sherlock, you can time travel him and he’ll still be relevant.

    Also loved the Afghanistan angle with Watson. (He’d been there during the English attempt at occupation) and how seamlessly it fit into the updated version. Guess some things in history we’re doomed to repeat.

    But second to Holmes has to be Elizabeth Bennett, from Pride and Prejudice. Another protagonist that’s been revised to modern day and still has something interesting and relevant to say.

  4. Maybe not the best ever — that’s a daunting standard — but I’d put P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh among the top few. He is a collection of contradictions. He’s a published poet and a clear-eyed rationalist who out-maneuvers the bureaucrats as he manages a successful Scotland Yard career. In solving complex crimes he’s both a team leader and a loner. He grieves for a lost wife as he struggles to create a relationship with another woman. What’s most important, Dalgliesh becomes emotionally invested in every case, and, as a result, so does the reader.

  5. I’m sorry to say I’ve only read one Dalgliesh story and that was quite a while ago. Will read one this week (any suggestions as to where to start?).
    I like the nuances of the character–you mention poet, loner, leader. Sounds like a real person, which helps. If there is one thing Sherlock lacks it’s warmth. He’s almost an Asperger’s sufferer–all brain and little empathy.

    But if you flip it up to modern (or closer to) modern day, I see a couple of major archetypes in mystery literature. The average man in unusual circumstances, and the loner/hero. Both are common themes. Which would Dalgliesh be?

    I think that Dick Francis wrote the best average man in unusual circumstances. He always had a protagonist on the right side of things, don’t you think? You could count on his protagonists to act ethically, which made them someone you wanted to trot along behind (word trot deliberate–most involved the horse industry) and you were truly engaged in how this good person would take down the bad guys.

  6. Unfortunately, I’m not very well-read in the mystery genre, so I can’t draw from some obviously great choices. I am however, very fond of the emotionally damaged protaganist, and one of my faves is Eve Dallas from J.D. Robb’s series. I have a thing for the tough on the outside, crumbling on the inside character, and Robb does this very well, at least in the dozen or so books in the series I’ve read. Also, Roland the Gunslinger from King’s epic Dark Towers series is a fabulously drawn character, who’s soul is weighed down by his epic struggle against the evil he faces and the lives he’s been forced to take over the years of his quest. I think he’s a classic.

  7. Hi Michael: I mean repeating the attempt to assist Afghanistan. In the early 1800’s England entered Afghanistan and set up a new government. The original idea was to get it working, then leave the country to rule itself. They didn’t however, and tensions mounted. In the end the Brits were driven out of Kabul through a mountainous region where 16,000 were said to have died as the mountain dwelling Afghans bore down on them. Only one Englishman was said to have survived, though some accounts say others did.

    The Sherlock stories have Watson newly returned from Afghanistan. The latest BBC production pointed this out, and it’s an interesting and timely twist that it is entirely plausible, given that we now have another force attempting to assist and set up a new government in Afghanistan, and Englishman are returning from that same country.

  8. Jaimie, Dalgleish is neither the average man in unusual circumstances nor the loner/hero. He could be stereotyped as the gentleman sleuth because he has an upper class education, but I’d argue that he displays no down-the-nose attitudes. I think he’s one of a kind, which makes him convincing and interesting.

  9. I’d say the greatest protagonist of all time is Inspector Morse. Colin Dexter created a brilliant and ambiguous detective who was played to perfection by John Thaw on British televison.
    Morse is irascible and moody, cultured and intuitive. He solves cases with the ease of the greatest detectives while using his cryptic crossword solving abilities to help him understand the the motives he is confronted by. He uses his love of opera to relax. He treats his sidekick Lewis badly at times and then always compensates. He sees criminals with a zoologist’s eye, cuts corners, is meticulous in his gathering of information, loathes bureaucracy, sees people’s humanity at the most unexpected of moments, and brings a vulberability and humanity to his cases that make him the most rounded character.

  10. Gosh, it’s Wednesday already and I can’t believe it! Yikes… just logging in for the second time.
    Sharon and Jamie,
    Thanks for seconding my comment; I felt a bit foolish when I wrote it, but I feel well supported in my opinion now, and I like what you both wrote (and great point about Afghanistan, Jamie.)

    Like Richard, I too am a great fan of Inspector Morse, for the very reasons he state so eloquently. I have little to add other than I’m not sure what dismayed me more – the fictional death of Morse or the real death of the great John Thaw. Indeed, I can hardly imagine another actor playing him . . . the heartthrob of middle aged women everywhere.

    I agree with Weyman that Dalgleish is also a strong front runner – and P.D. James is such a thoughtful, layered writer that he seems like the perfect choice for a novelist like her.

    So far we’ve only been talking about crime protagonists . . . is anyone interested in widening the field, so to speak?? Or shall we stick to our own field? Just thought it might be interesting to throw some of the other great protagonists of world literature into the mix.

  11. You know, I find protagonists really successful any time they become known as an archetype. For example, Jack Reacher as the ultimate loner, Kinsey Milhone as the feisty single woman, (Stephanie Plum as the humorous take on the same archetype); we’ve got archeologists, cats, rabbis, you name it, they’ve carved a niche which has broadened the mystery/thriller landscape for the rest of us. And well done.

  12. What a good point, Sharon! And that goes back to our original simultaneous thought about Sherlock, doesn’t it?

    One of my favorite protagonists of all time is Bartleby – he’s the very essence of the nihilistic modern man, and yet Melville wrote that story in 1853!!

  13. Should we be assuming we’re dealing only with the mystery/thriller genres here? While I know it’s what most everyone here writes, I’d guess that isn’t all we read. The question didn’t specify the genre, yet that’s where the discussion has naturally gone. Not complaining mind you, just curious that it has done so.

    Also, have to agree with Sharon. Characters that come to define a particular type of character certainly get on to that top list of best protaganists.

  14. I mentioned Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. She’s another surprisingly timely protagonist, which is why I think that she’s survived. Her sly humor and dislike of the mores of her era, where women were supposed to marry at any cost, come through but in a subtle manner filled with humor. Austen did a fantastic job with that one!

  15. Maigret created over fifty years by the inimitable Simenon remains fresh no matter how well you think you know him.

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