Secondary Characters Who Steal the Spotlight

Eliza Sommers

Sometimes, secondary characters are as interesting as the stars of novels. They might have as many quirks, as much charisma, and other qualities that make them shine as brightly as the protagonist. In certain cases, they’re even more interesting.

Which can lead to the question: why weren’t they in the leading role? Well, who knows? The author wants what the author wants. 🙂 Or maybe some great secondary characters are better in smaller doses, or too villainous to get top billing, or of a certain gender, color, ethnicity, or sexual preference that unfortunately made it harder to be the protagonist in a novel written or set many years ago, or…

I just finished Isabel Allende’s fantastic Daughter of Fortune, whose fascinating protagonist Eliza Sommers (pictured above) leaves Chile to live in Gold Rush-era California. Eliza — only in her late teens for much of the novel — is brainy, talented, courageous, independent, adventurous, and adaptive. But the book’s Tao Chi’en — a secondary character who’s almost a co-star — is just as compelling. The widower and superb physician with a heart of gold shares Eliza’s aforementioned qualities, and succeeds in the face of anti-Chinese prejudice as much as Eliza succeeds amid a patriarchal society.

Lee, another came-to-California character of Asian descent, steals the show in John Steinbeck’s masterful East of Eden despite not being as prominent a character as several Trask family members. Lee is a cook/household manager who’s highly intelligent and keeps a level head when things get tough.

There’s also an employer-employee dichotomy in Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent The Lacuna, whose protagonist Harrison Shepherd is quite interesting in of himself (he’s gay, half-Mexican, becomes an accomplished author, and then a McCarthy-era victim) and via who he encounters (working for Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and Leon Trotsky). But his assistant, Violet Brown, is so efficient and appealingly quirky that she becomes just as memorable despite having a smaller role in the novel.

The handsome Daniel Deronda in George Eliot’s riveting novel of the same name is a skillful creation: kind, smart, and curious. But more fascinating is the woman who eventually falls in love with him, though she had married someone else out of financial desperation. The brainy, beautiful, spirited Gwendolen Harleth is spoiled and narcissistic early in the novel, but goes through a character arc that leaves her shaken but more caring, mature, and sympathetic.

Another 19th-century novel, James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer, stars a young/pre-Last of the Mohicans Natty Bumppo. He’s already a pretty interesting guy and skilled wilderness man, but I found Judith Hutter to be more compelling in the book. She’s a strong, proto-feminist character for her time: early-19th-century America.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Your examples of novels and characters that fit this theme?

Note: I wrote a somewhat-related 2018 post on notable sidekicks in literature — mentioning characters such as Hermione Granger of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Huck Finn of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Samwise Gamgee of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Sancho Panza of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

Another note: My next column will post on Monday, December 16, rather than the usual Sunday (December 15).

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which talks about everything from snow to shopping locally — is here.

You Read and Adore and Then You Can Read More

Night WitchesOne of literature’s pleasures is reading an established living author for the first time, loving the novel, and knowing you not only have past books but (most likely) future ones to enjoy by that writer.

That was certainly my feeling when I recently finished The Huntress. Set during the World War II era, Kate Quinn’s fabulous 2019 historical novel focuses on the attempt to bring to justice a Nazi woman who murdered many children and adults before changing her identity, escaping Europe, and marrying into an American family. Her young-adult Boston stepdaughter Jordan grows to love her but is also suspicious of her, even as three Nazi hunters (including English war correspondent Ian Graham and Soviet aviator Nina Markova) team up to try to find her. Nina — who grew up abused, uneducated, and in grinding rural poverty to become one of the USSR’s famed “Night Witches” bomber pilots (shown in real life in the above photo) — is an especially memorable character creation: brave, brainy, feisty, funny, profane, vengeful, and a bit nuts.

The Huntress is one of the best books I’ve read in years by a living novelist. It’s masterfully written (as it jumps between different years and characters), it’s a thriller, it’s romantic, etc.

So, I’m very happy that there will be more Kate Quinn reading in my future. She has authored about a dozen books, and, given that she’s only 38, many more are sure to come.

A sampling of several other living novelists who fit this theme? I’ll go alphabetically.

I didn’t read Isabel Allende’s classic The House of the Spirits until about 20 years after its 1982 publication, so by that time there were plenty of other books in the Allende canon. (I’ve read Zorro, and am now in the middle of Daughter of Fortune, which is terrific so far; I’ll discuss it as part of next week’s post.) And Allende is still churning out fiction in her 70s.

My reading of Lee Child’s thrillers started several years ago with 2010’s 61 Hours — the 14th book in the riveting Jack Reacher series about a roaming loner righting wrongs. I soon doubled back to Child’s earlier novels and also moved forward to his later novels. His newest was published this fall, and he’s still cranking out one a year.

It was about a quarter-century after it was written before I got to Fannie Flagg’s enduring 1987 gem Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe — meaning there were quite a few other Flagg novels to read by then. I’ve since polished off all but one, including two the author wrote after I finished Fried Green Tomatoes. The second was published in 2016 (The Whole Town’s Talking), so Flagg was still writing novels fairly recently.

I’ve mentioned novelist/neuroscientist Lisa Genova a couple of times in recent posts after reading Still Alice (2007) earlier this year. That moving chronicle of a woman with early-onset Alzheimer’s quickly led me to two other excellent works by Geneva, who’s still only 49 with a long writing future.

John Grisham? I read that compelling author for the first time when I picked up his fourth novel, 1993’s The Client, around 2012 or so. I’ve since read four of his other novels — one pre-’93 (1991’s The Firm) and three post-’93 — from among the 30-plus he’s penned. His writing pace has yet to slow at 64.

It was also a fourth novel — 2011’s The Hypnotist’s Love Story — that introduced me to one of today’s best authors: Australia’s Liane Moriarty. I’ve yet to read her first three (darn local library doesn’t stock them), but have “consumed” her fifth, sixth (the especially engrossing Big Little Lies), and seventh novels. She’s just 53.

I finally read Walter Mosley’s first two Easy Rawlins mysteries (1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress and 1991’s A Red Death) a couple of years ago, and now there are 12 others in that series from which to choose — as well as many other Mosley novels. He’s still going strong at 67, with a new book set for 2020 release.

Lionel Shriver? I read her superb So Much For That a few years after it came out in 2010, and have since enjoyed three of her 14 other novels. She’s now 62, and — like Mosley — has another novel in the 2020 pipeline.

I was introduced to Zadie Smith’s work with On Beauty (2005), and then doubled back to her even better debut novel White Teeth (2000). Few authors depict our multicultural world better, and there are surely many more books in the 44-year-old’s future.

More than three-dozen years went by before I finally picked up Martin Cruz Smith’s gripping 1981 novel Gorky Park. That led me to read seven Gorky sequels and two of his standalone novels. He’s still writing at 77.

And Donna Tartt? I first read her third and most recent novel, the great The Goldfinch (2013), before going back to The Little Friend (2002) and The Secret History (1992). Yes, Tartt has penned just one novel every decade or so — meaning, at age 55, perhaps we might see two or three more?

Which living authors (whether mentioned by me or not) were you gratified to read for the first time — and gratified that there were many more of their novels available from their pasts and in their futures?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which has a Thanksgiving theme — is here.

Very Talkative and Very Quiet Characters in Literature

Marx BrothersIn Marx Brothers movies, we have the talkative Groucho and Chico and the mute Harpo. “So it goes” with novels — there are some loquacious characters as well those who say little or nothing, though of course most are somewhere in between on the speaking scale.

When I think of chatty characters, the first one who comes to mind is the young Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. Her long, brainy, funny, descriptive, free-associative monologues are very endearing and memorable. Interestingly, Anne becomes less talkative as she grows older in that novel and in the various sequels; part of the reason is that she gains some confidence and is less insecure.

Also quite talkative is another young protagonist, Holden Caulfield of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, though I would not call him endearing. Rather annoying, actually.

Some of literature’s loquacious adult characters?

In Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, there’s the rarely-stops-talking Mrs. Nickleby — a well-meaning but silly person said to be partly based on the author’s mother. Also, Theo’s charismatic/kind-of-dangerous friend Boris in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the loyal/admirable Samwise Gamgee in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and the “religious” titular character in Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry (con men are usually big talkers). Many others, too.

Quieter characters? Among them are Matthew Cuthbert of the aforementioned Anne of Green Gables (making for quite a contrast between him and adopted daughter Anne) and the titular orphan character of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (though the oft-beleaguered Jane can definitely say her piece at times, showing that shy characters are not always shy). Also, the gentle Beth March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, the reclusive Boo Radley of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and the at first socially awkward Ireland-to-U.S. immigrant Eilis Lacey of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn, to name just a few more.

Then there are characters who are nearly or completely mute, usually after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. For instance, the boy Ricky in John Grisham’s The Client becomes catatonic after seeing a suicide, and the boy Bernardo in Isabel Allende’s Zorro stops talking after witnessing his mother’s rape and murder. Also, in Maya Angelou’s novel-like autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, she becomes mostly mute after being raped as a girl. Those kinds of characters clearly draw our sympathy for what they’ve been through.

Your favorite talkative or not-talkative people in fiction?

Here’s a clip with Groucho, Chico, and Harpo from the 1932 movie Horse Feathers. (A screen shot I took from the clip is above this blog post.)

I’ll be skipping a post next Sunday, November 24. Back on December 1!

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which covers out-of-control development and rent control — is here.

Formulaic vs. Non-Formulaic Authors

Lee ChildSome fiction authors are rather formulaic while others vary their approach with almost every novel — and I like both kinds of writers.

Formulaic positives? There’s comfort in knowing (approximately) what to expect. Non-formulaic positives? The delicious element of surprise. If the authors are good, satisfaction is guaranteed either way.

Plus formulaic authors often offer enough differences in each of their books to satisfy a reader’s yen for variety, and non-formulaic authors frequently have recurring elements in their works. So there’s some blurring between the two “camps.”

I recently finished my third Lisa Genova novel, Left Neglected. As with her also-great Still Alice and Inside the O’Briens, a character faces a major neurological challenge — with the story told from the perspective of that character and Genova covering all the medical and emotional bases. But there are variations: A different kind of neurological challenge in each of the three novels, whether ultimately fatal or not. Female protagonists in Still Alice and Left Neglected, a male protagonist in Inside the O’Briens. Affluent families in Still Alice and Left Neglected, a less-affluent family in Inside the O’Briens. Adult children in Still Alice and Inside the O’Briens, younger kids in Left Neglected. Etc.

Lee Child of Jack Reacher series fame also has his formula: The roaming Jack goes to a new place, trouble arises, Reacher deals with that trouble, Jack leaves town. But then there’s the variety: a new locale in almost every book, different kinds of trouble in almost every book, new supporting characters in almost every book, and so on. The 24th Reacher novel, Blue Moon, was released late last month, and I have no doubt it will be another Child page-turner when I get to it.

Excellent authors of thriller, detective, or mystery series frequently fit into the formulaic but not totally formulaic camp. Agatha Christie, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Tony Hillerman, Martin Cruz Smith, and many others.

In each of his 20 Rougon-Macquart novels published between 1871 and 1893, Emile Zola featured one or more members of those R-M families and usually offered an overarching theme: alcoholism in The Drinking Den, retailing in The Ladies’ Delight, mining in Germinal, art in The Masterpiece, rail travel in The Beast in Man, etc. So, those compelling Zola books were similar in a way, yet the characters of course had varied personalities and fates, and the aforementioned themes were also quite varied.

Some authors who often avoid a formula from novel to novel?

Margaret Atwood is certainly one. She’s expertly handled contemporary fiction (such as Cat’s Eye), historical fiction (Alias Grace), and of course “speculative” fiction (including The Handmaid’s Tale and its recent sequel The Testaments). But there are certain commonalities amid Atwood’s genre-jumping, most notably a feminist sensibility and other kinds of social awareness.

We also have J.K. Rowling. After she finished her seven blockbuster Harry Potter books, she wrote the decidedly non-magical/very sobering novel The Casual Vacancy. Then Rowling switched things up again with a crime series (four so far) starring private investigator Cormoran Strike. She skillfully nailed each of the three genres — and, while her approach in each is different, there are common elements such as deep sympathy for the underdog and a keen awareness of evil in the world.

Aldous Huxley is best known for his dystopian sci-fi classic Brave New World, but he also penned un-BNW-like novels such as Point Counter Point — a societal chronicle reminiscent of some 19th-century British literary fiction. Huxley displayed enough versatility to almost seem like different writers.

Authors you feel fit into either the formulaic or non-formulaic categories?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which covers overly aggressive driving and many other topics — is here.

Some Alarming Characters You Didn’t Want Trick-or-Treating at Your Door

Daniel Deronda

With Halloween only a few days in the rearview mirror, who are some scary characters in literature? Overtly scary, subtly scary, Richard Scarry…oops, he’s the children’s book author, and I rarely discuss children’s books.

Anyway, I’ll name 26 (13 + 13) scary characters, going back in time by the novel’s publication date. Some are scary in the horror-movie sense, while others are physically or emotionally abusive — or just generally villainous.

Perry of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (2014) is a wealthy banker with a hidden-from-society side of being a domestic abuser and sexual-predator sicko.

Lord Voldemort of J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books (2007 going back to 1997) is a no-brainer (though he was more lacking a nose than brain). The (hor)crux of the matter: LV is pathologically evil and menacing, as Harry well knows.

Anton Chigurh of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men (2005) is a psychopathic murderer who even has one potential victim flip a coin to “decide” whether he’ll kill her or not.

Martin Vanger, a disturbed corporate CEO and serial killer in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005).

Francine Whiting of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls (2001) is an ultra-wealthy widow who basically controls a Maine town with meanness and manipulation.

Baby Kochamma of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (1997) — an adult despite her name — is so spiteful that she ruins the lives of several family members.

Real-life dictator Rafael Trujillo, a murderer, torturer, and rapist from Julia Alvarez’s historical novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994).

Zenia of Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride (1993) wreaks havoc on the lives of three women who (initially) considered her a friend.

Nathan Locke of John Grisham’s The Firm (1991) is a thug who’s second in command at the novel’s titular law firm — a white-collar front for the mob.

Frank Bennett of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) is a scarily abusive husband to Ruth.

Annie Wilkes of Stephen King’s Misery (1987) puts a captive writer through a mental wringer while also physically assaulting him in gut-wrenching ways. She has a history as a serial killer, too.

Esteban Trueba of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (1982) becomes wealthy as well as violent and right-wing, though he has some redeeming qualities.

Colton Wolf of Tony Hillerman’s People of Darkness (1980) is a chillingly methodical killer for hire — with one person doing the hiring another criminal: ultra-wealthy mining magnate B.J. Vines, who began amassing his fortune via mass murder.

Rufus Weylin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (1979) is a despicable slaveowner and rapist — a two-strikes-you’re-out lack of humanity.

Nurse Ratched of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) holds sadistic sway over a psychiatric ward, and is not afraid to use lobotomy as revenge.

Cathy of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952) is cold and amoral enough to set a fire that kills her parents and shoot her husband, among other ghoulish deeds.

Undine Spragg of Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country (1913) is so consumed with climbing the social ladder that she treats many people like dirt, even driving her second husband to suicide.

Gilbert Osmond of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881) is the cruel, narcissistic husband of protagonist Isabel Archer — and has a hidden unsavory past.

Fyodor Karamazov of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) is a bad husband, bad father, and all-round bad dude.

Henleigh Grandcourt of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda (1876) is a wealthy, sadistic man who makes wife Gwendolen miserable. (They’re pictured above in a screen adaptation of the novel.)

Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859) is a charming but chilling man who concocts a clever, dastardly scheme to make a financial killing.

Rigaud (aka Lagnier) of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit (1857) is a murderer and blackmailer.

Simon Legree of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) is another slaveholder — a cruel, brutish, heartless man.

Roger Chillingworth of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) is Hester Prynne’s nasty husband who returns after seemingly being lost at sea and acts fiendishly toward Hester and the man he suspects is the father of Hester’s born-out-of-wedlock daughter Pearl.

Henri of Alexandre Dumas’ Georges (1843) is a spoiled, scary racist. (One interesting fact about that lesser-known Dumas novel is that it’s the only one in which the part-black author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers heavily focused on issues of color.)

Brian de Bois-Guilbert of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) is a power-hungry, violent, and arrogant 12th-century military man who — like the aforementioned Esteban Trueba — has some redeeming qualities.

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. What fictional characters have you found to be alarming?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which features a parade of weird trick-or-treaters — is here.

Characters Who Lose Their Reputations, Giuliani-Style

RudyOne of the many jaw-dropping spectacles offered by the dumpster fire of the corrupt and incompetent Trump administration is seeing how low Rudy Giuliani (pictured above) can go.

Trump’s personal lawyer — like the president himself — is greedy, erratic, a liar, and a crook. What a comedown for someone lauded as “America’s Mayor” when he headed New York City at the time of 9/11.

Of course, Giuliani was overrated back then — and a stone-cold racist to boot. But, still, his reputation has fallen so precipitously since 2001 that calling him a clown in 2019 would be an insult to clowns.

Anyway, all that’s an introduction to the theme of this week’s blog post: fictional characters whose reputations sharply or somewhat decrease in a novel — whether deservedly so, a la the real-life Rudy G.; or wrongly so, like the protagonist in a book I read last week.

That was John Grisham’s page-turner The Racketeer, whose Malcolm Bannister attorney character is serving 10 years in prison for helping a client he didn’t know was taking part in criminal activity. Malcolm loses his freedom, his law license, his professional reputation, his wife and son, the regard of his retired state trooper father, and more. But Malcolm (who is African American) has some information that can get him out of jail, and we watch how that scenario plays out — a scenario that includes a really clever plot twist.

Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter also loses her reputation in her 17th-century Puritan community — despite being a good, admirable person. Her “crime”? Having a child out of wedlock. Of course, that was a bigger thing back then than it is now, but the unkindness and hypocrisy of her not-without-sin neighbors is still pretty breathtaking. Plus the male in the sexual equation doesn’t face any public infamy, though he is wracked with guilt.

Now for a few fictional characters, like the real-life Giuliani, who deservedly lost their good names — with some deserving of a little sympathy and others not.

In Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret, the titular character has a sterling reputation in his household and the world before the (awful) titular secret is discovered.

Willie Stark is an idealistic lawyer early in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men — but he becomes thoroughly corrupt after being elected governor. So Stark’s ethical reputation takes a big hit, though his part-real/part-fake populism keeps him relatively popular among some constituents.

Janine of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls divorces decent guy Miles to take up with local jerk Walt — and also becomes very conceited after losing a lot of weight. She’s doesn’t really become a bad person, but many in town (including the teen daughter of Janine and Miles) certainly lose some regard for her.

Gervaise of Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den is initially a hardworking woman who manages to open her own Paris laundry and also marries fellow teetotaler Coupeau. He’s a decent man, but goes downhill after being injured in an accident — becoming a lazy alcoholic and dragging Gervaise into that same lifestyle. Both lose their good names.

In the realm of less-realistic fiction, Quirinus Quirrell of J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book has enough wizard-world standing to become a professor at Hogwarts. But he rashly put himself in a position to be controlled by Lord Voldemort for nefarious purposes, so QQ’s status — not to mention his chances of staying alive — hit rock bottom.

Can you name some characters who fit this post’s theme?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which takes a funny and admiring look at rec sports for kids in my town — is here.

We Know What’s Gonna Happen But That’s Fine With Us

Lisa GenovaIn the case of many novels, readers basically know the general parameters of what will happen. In the case of many other novels, the plot destination is a complete or near-complete unknown (unless a review or too-talkative friend gives things away 🙂 ). Either type of novel has the potential to be compelling.

But can a novel be truly compelling if you kind of know what will happen? The obvious answer is “yes,” because lots of the appeal is in the journey: how the author gets to the expected conclusion, how characters deal with things, the quality of writing, and so on. Also, there are still usually some unexpected moments.

For instance, I read Lisa Genova’s excellent Inside the O’Briens last week, and — as in that author’s earlier novel Still Alice — a character is stricken with a devastating incurable disease early on (Huntington’s in the O’Briens and Alzheimer’s in Alice). But even though we know bad things are in store for the protagonist — Boston police officer Joe O’Brien — we are drawn to how he realizes he’s sick, how he and his family react to the Huntington’s diagnosis, and so on. Plus there’s still plenty of suspense, because Joe and his wife Rosie’s four adult children (a firefighter, a dancer, a yoga instructor, and a bartender) each have a 50-50 chance of possessing the death sentence of the Huntington’s gene. Do they want to take the blood test?

The very title of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold informs readers that a character will be murdered, but the author maintains lots of interest through such means as Santiago not being warned of his fate even though many people knew about the threat he was under.

Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird definitely contains some surprises, but we unfortunately know for certain — as the book’s iconic trial begins — that innocent, falsely accused black man Tom Robinson will be convicted by a racist all-white jury in the 1930s U.S. South.

Of course, historical fiction has all kinds of elements we know are coming, but those novels can still be gripping — including their humanizing of the past. One of many examples is Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. Most readers are aware of the heroic story of Joan, her rigged trial, and her gruesome early-in-life death by burning, but Twain takes us on a fascinating journey along the way.

Another historical-fiction example is Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent — whose protagonist is Dinah, a minor character in the Bible. But her parents are Leah and Jacob, and her grandparents are Rebecca and Isaac, so people versed in the Old Testament know what happens in the lives of those four famous personages.

Novels whose outcomes are almost a complete mystery to people reading them for the first time? Some of my favorites include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (will Jane and Rochester’s romance ultimately work out?), Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (will murderer Raskolnikov be caught?), Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (will Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska reunite?), W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (will Philip Carey stop acting like a lovestruck idiot?), Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred (will 20th-century African-American writer Dana become stuck in her ancestral Antebellum South after getting yanked back in time?), Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (what will happen to a priceless painting?), Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (will the rich banker guilty of severe sexual misconduct get his just desserts?), Andy Weir’s The Martian (will stranded-alone-on-Mars Mark Watney escape the planet?), etc.

Then there are mystery novels themselves. Most of the time we don’t know “who done it” until near the end of the book. There won’t be much mystery if that wasn’t the case, though there are some novels in that genre that reveal the culprit relatively early even as we still wonder how, when, or if that wrongdoer will be caught.

Your favorite novels that fit both sides of this topic?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which satirizes overdevelopment by focusing on the fictional Variances family — is here.