Who is suspicious? The idea of suspicious characters is old — the stranger venturing into an isolated kingdom, the new resident in a small town, the individual that looks different or the person with unusual habits all become “suspicious characters.”
For most of history, just being different — wearing strange clothes or not participating in a community’s social life — could make anyone suspicious. To a great extent this is still true. People who are different are often suspected of crimes they didn’t commit.
The idea of suspicious characters comes up again and again in crime fiction — when the “suspicious character” is the foil or Red Herring created by the author to deflect the detective, and the reader, from the true criminal, who is often a likeable and trusted figure hiding in plain sight.
But what about in real life — do we still assume the stranger is a thief? Do we suspect the new guy of pilfering from the store’s cash register more than the longtime employee whom we know has a problematic gambling habit? Familiarity breeds comfort and hampers our radar.
In cities like New York — cities that have been targeted by terrorists — we’re told to keep our eyes open for people who leave packages on the subway or seem to be up to trouble. But what are we looking for? The suspicious character and how we define that “outsider/troublemaker” says a great deal about who we are. Are we really noticing that stranger dropping a briefcase on the floor of the train car OR are we just taking in an appearance that we label as foreign or strange and deciding that his behavior is unusual.
In fiction and in life, it pays to observe both the good and suspicious characters and to take a serious look at our own definitions of “suspicious.”