We communicate a great deal without needing to speak. In fact, research shows convincingly (at least to me) that more of the messages we send are conveyed non-verbally than verbally. Other research suggests that we pay more attention to others’ non-verbals than we do to their words, especially if the non-verbal message is different to the verbal one. And non-verbals can be harder to monitor consciously, so police and other interrogators learn to pay extremely close attention to people’s non-verbals; they often tell more than their words do. There are good examples of powerful non-verbals throughout crime fiction and that makes sense. As if the importance of non-verbals in real life weren’t enough, they are also very effective tools for “showing not telling” what a character is like or is thinking.
For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd Hercule Poirot has retired (or so he thinks) to the village of Kings Abbott. He gets drawn into the investigation of the stabbing death of manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd when Ackroyd’s niece Flora asks Poirot to clear her fiancé of suspicion. As Poirot looks into the case, he finds that all of the members of the household had good motives to commit the murder. He also finds that all of the suspects are hiding things, so part of his task is to uncover those secrets and sift out which ones are relevant to the case and which not. At one point, he’s interviewing one of the suspects. Also present at the interview is Dr. James Sheppard, Poirot’s next-door neighbour and the character from whose viewpoint the story is told. Sheppard has just realised something important about the suspect:
“I looked at Poirot, full of my discovery and he gave me an imperceptible nod.”
Christie conveys quite a lot in that one sentence. Rather than going into what could be tiresome detail or making use of an overlong conversation, Christie shows us through those gestures that Poirot already knew exactly what Sheppard has just realised and is also warning him not to say anything since the suspect is there.
In Peter Robinson’s A Dedicated Man, DI Alan Banks and his team investigate the murder of retired professor Harry Steadman, who had moved with his wife to the Eastvale part of Yorkshire to devote himself full-time to his passion for archaeology. At first it doesn’t seem that anyone would have had a motive to murder Steadman. He had a solid and enduring marriage, a good professional reputation and no proverbial skeletons in the closet. But as Banks digs more deeply into the case he finds ugliness in the history of the area and of some of the people in the area. Then a local teenager Sally Lumb disappears and Banks is convinced that it’s because she knew something about the murder. Three of her friends are called into the police station to give their statements:
“Hazel was the worst, biting her nails and shifting position as if she had St. Vitus’s dance; Kathy pretended to lounge coolly, casually uninterested in the whole affair, but she was biting her lower lip so hard it turned red.”
There’s no need for Robinson to go on about the fact that these two girls are extremely nervous and upset about being at the police station and at Sally’s disappearance. Their gestures say it all.
Different cultures have different gestures, and the same gesture may mean something different in different cultures. What that all means is that non-verbals are affected by one’s background and culture. We see that in, for instance, Alexander McCall Smith’s Tears of the Giraffe. In that novel, Mma. Precious Ramotswe gets a visit from Andrea Curtin, whose son disappeared ten years earlier and was presumed killed by a wild animal. Curtin wants Mma. Ramotswe to find out what happened to her son so that she can get some closure. Here’s the scene in which the two women meet:
“The woman took her hand, correctly, Mma. Ramotswe noticed, in the proper Botswana way, placing her left hand on her right forearm as a mark of respect. Most white people shook hands very rudely, snatching just one hand and leaving the other hand free to perform all sorts of mischief. This woman had at least learned something about how to behave.”
It’s partly that gesture of respect that opens Mma. Ramotswe to hearing Curtin’s story and taking up this case.
Helene Tursten’s The Glass Devil tells the story of the murders of three members of the Schyttelius family. Jacob Schyttelius is a teacher who hasn’t showed up at school for a few days, and the school principal is concerned about it. So he asks his cousin homicide detective Sven Andersson to look into the matter. Andersson agrees and he and one of his team members Irene Huss travel to the cottage where Schyttelius has been staying. When they get there they find that he’s been shot. Soon afterwards they learn that his parents were shot just a few hours later. At first, it looks as though the murders might be the work of a Satanist cult. But there are enough inconsistencies in the clues that it’s soon clear that something else is going on. So the team looks into the lives of the Schyttelius family to find out who’d want to kill three members of it. At one point, Huss interviews Jacob Schyttelius’ ex-wife Kristina to see if she can add anything. Huss asks Kristina about the reasons for the divorce, and Kristina claims it was because they couldn’t have children:
“It wasn’t the answer Irene had expected. Kristina didn’t look at her, focusing instead on a point behind Irene’s back. She bit her bottom lip hard to keep it from trembling.”
Tursten shows us in just a few words that there was something more to this divorce – something Kristina is either too upset or too afraid to share. And as it turns out, she does have important information related to the case.
In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest gets involved on her very first day on the job in the murder of prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins. The easiest explanation is that he was murdered as the result of a drunken quarrel, and that’s the explanation that Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn wants everyone to accept. But Tempest believes there’s more going on than that and starts to ask questions. The closer she gets to the truth about the murder, the more danger there is for her and at one point she is attacked. Tempest is a brave and strong character, but she’s not unaffected by what’s happened to her. In fact, she’s devastated. For help, healing and comfort, she turns to her best friend Hazel Flinders, who understands better than many what it’s like to deal with tragedy.
“My head found its way to her lap, my tears onto her dress. She ran her fingers through my hair, her palms along my spine….I looked at the base of the fire, saw melting spinifex rosin. A healing agent. Like the bush oils she worked into my temples…Strings of thick black hair drifted across her forehead. Her arms felt like a blanket round my body, then they were blanket.”
Readers can see without a lot of words how deep and important the friendship between these two women is to both of them. It’s also clear – again without dialogue or a lot of explanation – that Tempest is going to begin recovering from what’s happened to her.
And then there’s Håkan Nesser’s The Unlucky Lottery, in which Intendant Münster and his team investigate the murder of Waldemar Leverkuhn. Leverhuhn and some of his friends go in together on a lottery ticket but on the night they discover that they’ve won, Leverkuhn is stabbed. The easy assumption is that one of the other winners killed Leverkuhn for his share of the winnings. That’s even more likely a possibility when one of the other men who went in on the lottery ticket disappears. But there are other possibilities. As Münster and the team interview the members of Leverkuhn’s family and the residents of the building where Leverkuhn and his wife lived, they find that more than one person could have had a motive for murder. At one point, Münster is interviewing Leverkuhn’s daughter Ruth. It’s easy to see that she’s not particularly at ease:
“[Münster] Observed in silence as she hung her brown coat over the back of the empty chair at their table, made quite a show of digging out cigarettes and a lighter from her handbag, adjusted her glasses and also the artificial flowers on the table.”
At the end of the interview, she
“…tried to produce a smile, but when it refused to stick, she turned on her heel and left him.”
Münster’s instinct that Ruth Leverkuhn is an unhappy and anxious woman is quite correct. She and her family didn’t have a happy life and the secrets she is keeping have had a profound effect on her.
Non-verbals are powerful tools for communication that we often use without even being aware of what we’re doing. In fiction they can be effective ways to add depth to a character and for the alert crime fiction reader, they can also be important clues.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s It’s All About Soul.