News flash: I’m officially over the trend of saddling strong, smart, female protagonists with weak and ditzy supporting character baggage.
I get why authors do it; there’s a certain misguided logic there. You want your main character to stand out – to look badass and independent, worthy of the title “heroine”. And if you surround her with a wishy-washy cast, she’s bound to look that much better by comparison, right?
Yeah. The problem with that is, you populate your book with those kinds of characters and not only is your protagonist stuck dealing with them, but your reader is, as well. And I gotta tell ya, there some days when the last thing I want to do is spend 300 pages in the company of a whiny, simpering sidekick/boss/sister/best friend. Which is why I was so delighted to stumble across Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure by Diane Kelly. The book in question stars Tara Holloway – a badge-carrying, gun-toting Special Agent with the Criminal Investigations Division of the U.S. Treasury Department. (That’s right – Tara’s a Tax Cop.) Tara may be an IRS agent, but she’s not afraid to kick a little ass when the situation warrants:
Taking advantage of our relative positioning, I threw a roundhouse kick to Battaglia’s stomach, my steel-toed cherry-red Dr. Martens sinking into his soft paunch. The shoes were the perfect combination of utility and style, another great find at a two-for-one sale at the Galleria.
The kick didn’t take the beer-bellied bastard out of commission, but at least it sent him backward a few feet, putting a little more distance between us. A look of surprise flashed across Battaglia’s face as he stumbled backward. He clearly hadn’t expected a skinny, five-foot-two-inch bookish woman to put up such a fierce fight.
Nor is she going to take any guff:
“You have the right to remain silent.”
Battaglia glared up at me from the floor. “Screw you, bitch.”
“I said you have the right to remain silent.” I waved the card at him. “Nowhere on here does it say you have the right to be an obnoxious dipshit.”
Not only are steel-toed shoes great for kicking, they also serve as effective gag devices. When Battaglia opened his foul mouth again, I shoved the toe of my shoe into it. The Treasury’s special agent manual didn’t exactly recommend this technique as standard operating procedure, but when you’re in the field sometimes you have to improvise.
And while Tara’s sidekick, rookie DEA agent Christina Marquez, may look at first blush to be the kind of ditzy bimbo I just spent two paragraphs raging about:
I turned around to find myself face-to-face with a life-sized Latina Barbie.
Christina was tall, thin, and busty, with big brown eyes and full lips. Her lustrous black hair hung halfway down her back. She performed a curtsy in her fitted black-and- white polka-dot minidress, then waggled her fingers at me in a cutesy wave. “Hi!” she gushed. “You have to be Tara, right? ’Cause you look like a librarian, just like you said.”
I took in her painted acrylic nails, her perfectly arched brows, and her four-inch heels. She should be wearing a tiara and tossing Tootsie Rolls from a parade float, not hunting down drug dealers. My thoughts spilled out of my mouth before I could stop them. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Looks can be deceiving:
Her brown eyes flashed with fury and before I knew what was happening, Christina had wrapped her arm around my neck and pulled me into a headlock. “No,” she hissed in my ear, her voice now low and tinged with a sharp Spanish accent. “I’m not kidding you at all.”
And then there’s Tara’s boss, Lu Lobozinski. Given our introduction to the character:
Lu had been with the IRS since the late sixties and appeared to have time-traveled from that decade. Today she sported a lime-green polyester pantsuit with shiny black vinyl go-go boots. The box of hair color may have said “strawberry blond,” but the Lobo’s eight-inch beehive was really more pink than red, like a cotton-candy wig. Take forty years and forty pounds off her and she could star in an Austin Powers movie.
I was worried I’d finally found the anchor around Tara’s neck – the pathetic loner that Tara feels sorry for, and would make me want to roll my eyes and toss the book across the room. I needn’t have feared, though; Tara might be young and brash and bold, but she could learn a thing or two from Lu:
When I’d interviewed for a special agent position several months ago, Lu had leaned forward across her desk, her eyes—fringed with sixties-style false eyelashes— narrowed and fixed on mine. “I didn’t get to be director of criminal investigations because I’ve got a vagina, and I didn’t sleep my way to the top.”
“I believe you.” What man would have the balls to approach such a tough broad? Besides, the polyester pantsuits did nothing for her sex appeal.
She’d pointed her lit cigarette at me, her smoking a blatant violation of office policy but one nobody apparently dared to challenge. “I’m director because me and my people have collected over ninety-seven million dollars in past-due taxes for this agency.”
She took a deep drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke out through her nose. “Don’t suck up.”
She flicked ashes into a Styrofoam cup containing the dregs of her morning coffee. “As soon as I reach a hundred mil, I’m retiring.”
My gaze locked on hers through the swirling smoke. “Hire me and before you know it you’ll be sitting around in your bathrobe watching soap operas and sucking down bonbons.”
She stared at me for a few seconds, her cigarette poised just inches from her lips. I didn’t look away. And I didn’t blink.
She took another drag on her cigarette, then shot a poof of smoke out the side of her mouth. “You’re hired.”
If you want to make your protagonist look good, don’t settle for good by comparison. Instead, surround her with strong characters and have her hold her own. Your heroine will look all the better for it, and your readers will be far less likely to hold it against you.
Death, Taxes, and a French Manicure comes out on November 1, but in the meantime, you can check out my full review over at The Maine Suspect.
Katrina Niidas Holm loves mysteries. She lives in Maine with her husband, fabulously talented pulp writer Chris F. Holm, and a noisy, noisy cat. She writes reviews for The Season E-Zine and The Maine Suspect, and you can find her on Twitter.