We all know how important tact can be in negotiating life. Being diplomatic has an awful lot of advantages and it’s amazing how far tact can get a person. But on the other hand, diplomacy can have its limits. If you’ve ever watched someone who speaks very plainly tell off a rude person and thought, “I wish I’d said that,” you know what I mean. There can definitely be times and places for “taking the gloves off.” Even if you tend to be a very diplomatic person yourself, it can be fun, too, to read what happens when people who are less tactful have their say. A quick look at crime fiction should show what I mean.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is usually able to be quite tactful. He needs to be that way because he often has to work with members of police force and besides, tact often gets witnesses to speak their minds. But every once in a while even Poirot gets pushed to his limit. For instance, in The Murder on the Links, he and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. Also assigned to the case is M. Giraud of the Sûreté. Giraud is rude, condescending, insulting and worst of all stubborn. Poirot finds it nearly impossible to work with him but for quite a time he tries. Then one day Giraud pushes him too far and insults him once to often. Here is Poirot’s response:
“‘M. Giraud, throughout the case your manner to me has been deliberately insulting! You need teaching a lesson. I am prepared to wager you 500 francs that I can find the murderer of M. Renauld before you do. Is it agreed?’…
‘I have no wish to take your money from you.’
‘Make your mind easy – you will not!’
‘Oh, well, then, I agree! You speak of my manner to you being insulting. Eh, bien, once or twice your manner has annoyed me!’
‘I am enchanted to hear it,’ said Poirot. ‘Good morning, M. Giraud. Come, Hastings.’”
Even Poirot can be quite plain-spoken when the occasion calls for it.
So can Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. He’s certainly not one to spare another’s feelings, especially when he’s trying to solve a case. For example, in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the poisoning death of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Oxford Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That group oversees exams given in other countries with a British education connection. There are several suspects among the members of the group, since Quinn’s nomination to it was not universal. Besides, Quinn had found out some secrets that some of the group members were only too eager to keep hidden. Then there’s another murder. Now Morse and Lewis have to find out what connects the two deaths. At one point, Morse is interviewing Syndicate member Donald Martin, whom he’s recently discovered lied to him during their first conversation:
“Morse said nothing to enlighten him [Martin]. ‘Let’s come back to last Friday afternoon.’
‘Not again, surely! I’ve told you what happened. All right, I lied for a start, but – ’
‘You’re lying now! And if you’re not careful you’ll be down in the cells until you do tell me the truth!’”
The conversation continues in this vein until Martin explains himself to Morse’s satisfaction – not an easy thing.
Another character who’s not at all afraid of being tactless is Reginald Hill’s Superintendent Andy Dalziel. There are a lot of examples of him saying exactly what he thinks, and many of them are really funny. In Recalled to Life, for instance, Dalziel and Sergeant Peter Pascoe are drawn into the investigation of an old crime. Cissy Kohler has recently been released from prison for involvement in the 1963 murder of Pamela Westrop. At the time, Ralph Mickeldore was arrested, charged and convicted, mostly based on evidence gathered by Dalziel’s mentor Wally Tallentire. Now, new evidence suggests that Kohler wasn’t guilty and there’s gossip that Tallentire knew that and hid what he knew. Dalziel doesn’t believe it and furthermore he resents the implication for his former mentor. At one point, Dalziel is visiting Tallantire’s widow Maudie when she gets two other visitors. One is Deputy Chief Constable Geoff Hiller, who knew Tallantire at the time of the Westrop murder. With him is DI Stubbs. Stubbs makes the mistake of greeting Dalziel this way:
“‘Hi. Glad to meet you, supe.’
‘Supe?’ echoed Dalziel. ‘Up here we drink supe. Or if it’s home made we chew it. Will you be staying in West Yorkshire long enough to learn our little ways?’”
It doesn’t help matters that Dalziel finds out that Hiller and Stubbs have been assigned to re-open the Kohler case. That’s enough for Dalziel and, in his own way, Pascoe, to look into the case themselves.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is also not known for her tact and diplomacy. In fact even she admits that she’s too quick sometimes to say what’s on her mind. But she is refreshingly honest, and one can’t help thinking, “I wish I’d said that!” when she speaks her mind. For instance, in Gunshot Road, she’s just begun her work as an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) when she and her team are called to Green Swamp Well. Prospector Albert “Doc” Ozolins has just been killed in what looks like a drunken quarrel gone terribly wrong. But Tempest doesn’t think it’s quite that simple. Her boss Bruce Cockburn though insists that the team has the right culprit and orders Tempest to leave it alone. As it is she’s riled by his officious and overbearing manner and at one point she’s had enough:
“‘You’re complicating a perfectly straightforward homicide investigation.’ [Cockburn]
‘Bunch of blokes flashing a video round a cabin? There hasn’t been a homicide investigation.’…
‘Are you questioning my competence?’
‘I’m sure has hell questioning something – reckon that’d be a reasonable place to start.’”
Needless to say, Tempest’s forthright way of speaking does not exactly endear her to Cockburn. Neither does her insistence on looking into the matter. In the end though, it turns out that Ozolins was killed for a much bigger reason than a drunken quarrel.
And then there’s Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck. He’s a Copenhagen homicide detective who’s not known for being overly tactful and polite, especially since the line-of-duty shooting incident from which he’s recovering in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes). In fact Mørck has become so difficult to work with that no-one is willing to team up with him. So he’s “promoted” to a newly created department – Department Q – that’s assigned to look into cases of “special interest.” One of those is the five-year-old disappearance of promising politician Merete Lynggaard. It was originally thought that she fell overboard in a tragic ferry accident, but little hints begin to suggest that she might still be alive. When Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad discover how the original investigation was mishandled, Mørck is only too eager to tell the original investigator Børge Bak exactly what he thinks of him:
“‘So,Bak! That was a hell of a job you lot did on the Lynggaard case. You were up to your necks in signs that everything wasn’t as it should be. Had the whole team caught sleeping sickness or what?…So now I want to know if there’s anything else in the case that you’re keeping to yourself…Was there someone or something that put the brakes on your excellent investigation, Børge?”
We might agree that Mørck isn’t exactly the most tactful and diplomatic of sleuths but at the same time, it’s easy to cheer for him.
And that’s the thing about sleuths who speak their minds. Sometimes they reflect exactly what others are thinking, and we can’t help but respect their frankness. There are a lot of examples of them, too – more than I have space for here. Which are your favourites?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kiki Dee’s I’ve Got the Music in Me.