What decides the physical appearance of a mystery series character? Does it change?
Miss Marple, she is not. My American eldersleuth, Sophie George, is meant to be much more up to date than Agatha Christie’s revered observer of village life who is so good at upending unpleasant domestic affairs (including murders). Jane’s people have marital difficulties, mainly, or anxiety about inheritance, typical midlife worries of the 1930’s-1960’s. Sophie’s clients in the 2000’s suffer from the agonies of aging: financial woes, estrangements from children, loneliness, heartbreak, bad health, a lifelong desire for revenge. Like Jane Marple, my retired librarian has an ally in a local detective – who is also her steady date. But Sophie is not a spinster. She is a widow and has a son. She is financially independent while Jane, who never was employed, receives support from her nephew. Sophie, raised during the Great Depression, was not educated like Jane, who went to school in Rome, yet she is equally brainy, some would say “street smart.” Her Bridgewater Village is hardly St. Mary Mead; it’s a new Florida condo development around a synthetic (but not entirely safe) fishing pond.
In the most recent TV interpretation, Jane Marple has shed her rather ponderous first movie appearance (Margaret Rutherford) to become quite svelte (Geraldine McEwen). Likewise, my Sophie is slender, keeps up an exercise regimen, and cares about nutrition. That is much more in keeping with today’s expectations.
Still, when I captured this bulky woman in black heading into the walled garden at The Bishop’s Palace, London, I wished I had seen her before I invented Sophie George. With her back to the camera, the commanding figure is going someplace. I followed her, so I know it was to see the first purple irises. She was probably a garden volunteer. Her long fingers look useful. Or maybe she is a benefactress, as she has elegant earrings, though they may be old ones her deceased husband gave her in 1950. (I extrapolate from the man accompanying her that she has a driver.) The coat and hat and clunky shoes seem to have been in her closet for a very long time. (My Sophie seldom wastes money on clothes.)
In WINDOW ON THE POND Sophie is recognized as a New England native by her housewifely cotton skirt. I don’t show her face. It’s not important. I want you to imagine it.
Last year I looked for characters with my camera as I rode around on London buses. I like the messy hairdo under a felt hat on this younger woman in the seat in front of me. Now I am thinking if I imagined it dark it could be Sophie on a future investigative commute. And I am hoping to create a character who looks something like this barrister (probably) who was studying his briefs on a train.