Do you like to ‘people-watch?’ Sitting back, so to speak, and watching the way people interact can teach one a lot about the way people behave. ‘People-watching’ is a useful pastime for sleuths, since it gives them a good sense of what the people involved in a case might be like. And if the sleuth is skilled enough at fading into the proverbial background, it’s quite interesting what that sleuth can learn.
One of my favourite examples of ‘people-watching’ is in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). When wealthy family patriarch Richard Abernethie dies, his family gathers for the funeral. At the gathering, Abernethie’s sister Cora Lansquenet suggests that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up and Cora herself urges everyone to pay no attention to her. But when she herself is murdered the next day, the family members become convinced that she was right. Family solicitor Mr. Entwhistle asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter and Poirot agrees. He arranges to have the family brought together for a weekend under the guise of choosing what they would like from the Abernethie home before the house is sold. He himself poses as a representative of an organisation that wants to purchase the house. Once everyone arrives, they soon forget about Poirot and he has the opportunity to observe them. Poirot’s ‘people-watching’ enables him to pick up an important clue to the two deaths.
Ngaio Marsh’s A Clutch of Constables gives artist Agatha Troy a chance to ‘people-watch.’ She decides to take a getaway cruise on the Zodiac, but she soon finds that it’s anything but restful. One of the passengers is left behind and later found killed, and then another passenger is drowned. At the same time, there is a very strong possibility that there’s an international forger on board the cruise. No-one knows anything about this forger, who goes only by the name of Jampot. As the cruise goes on, Troy ‘people-watches’ and slowly gets bits and pieces of the truth. As she does so, she writes letters to her husband Inspector Roderick Alleyn, telling him what happens on the cruise. Along with helping to solve the case, Troy’s ‘people-watching’ skills give Alleyn interesting material for a course that he’s teaching.
Nicolas Freeling’s Double Barrel also includes an important role for ‘people-watching.’ Inspector Van der Valk of the Amsterdam police gets an unusual assignment: he is dispatched to the small town of Zwinderen to investigate a series of threatening anonymous letters that have accused several residents of terrible immoral behaviour and demanded blackmail money. Zwinderen is a very small town in which everyone knows everyone else, so the threat of revealing a personal indiscretion is very real. In fact, the letters have resulted in two suicides and a mental breakdown. It’s not likely that anyone in town will tell an outsider what’s been going on, especially if that outsider is a police detective. So Van der Valk and his wife Arlette travel to Zwinderen under the guise of doing a Ministry study. Van der Valk starts watching and listening and so does his wife. Soon enough they start slowly picking up threads of the local history. What they learn just from ‘people-watching’ and listening leads eventually to the truth about the letters. More importantly Van der Valk uncovers another, even darker, secret that someone in town has been keeping.
Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin often ‘people-watches’ and reports back to his boss Nero Wolfe about what he sees and learns. In Champagne For One for instance, Godwin reluctantly agrees to stand in for a friend at a dinner dance hosted by powerful socialite Louise Robilotti. The dinner is intended mostly as a charity effort on behalf of Grantham House, a home for single mothers. The idea is to invite some of the young women to a ‘society event’ to give them a chance to see how things are done in ‘the better circles’ and perhaps even meet a young man. During the dinner, Goodwin meets several of these young women, including Faith Usher, who, so Goodwin is told, has threatened to commit suicide. When she actually does die during the evening, everyone says that she followed through on her threat. But Goodwin doesn’t believe it. So against the family’s wishes (to say nothing of instructions from the police), Goodwin starts to ask questions. Wolfe supports Goodwin and in the end, Wolfe finds out what really happened to Faith. In this case, Goodwin’s ‘people-watching’ skills turn out to be very important.
Tarquin Hall’s Delhi private investigator Vishwas ‘Vish’ Puri works with a team of other people who have various skills. One of them is a woman Puri has nicknamed Facecream because she blends in perfectly in nearly every surrounding. That allows her to spend quite a lot of time ‘people-watching’ and learning about those involved in the cases she investigates. For instance, in The Case of the Missing Servant, Facecream gets a position as a made in the home of wealthy lawyer Ajay Kasliwal. He has been accused of the rape and murder of a family servant Mary Murmu, but he claims to be innocent. Facecream insinuates herself into the home and starts some active ‘people-watching.’ That’s how she learns about some important things that have been going on in the household, and it gives her a clue about what happened to Mary. In The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing, Facecream does some ‘people-watching’ at an ashram belonging to a cult leader. In that case, Puri is investigating the death of Dr. Suresh Jha, who has made a career of debunking charlatans who call themselves religious leaders. He believes that Jha’s death may be related to what’s going on at the ashram, and Facecream spends time there as a ‘new recruit.’ Her skill at ‘people-watching’ gives her some very important information about the cult leader.
Louise Penny’s Inspector Armand Gamache has also learned the value of ‘people-watching.’ He engages in it in several novels in the series and it often proves quite useful. In Still Life for instance, he and his team are assigned to travel to Three Pines, a rural town in Québec, to investigate the murder of a former teacher Jane Neal. She was taking a walk one morning when she was killed in what looks very much like a tragic hunting accident. But Gamache isn’t convinced, and starts to ask questions. One of the things he has to take into account is that this is a small town with an intricate system of relationships. So instead of plunging right into the investigation, Gamache takes time to sit on an outside bench near the local B&B and observe. His ‘people-watching’ bears fruit as he learns quite a bit about the different residents of the town and how they all relate to each other.
And that’s the thing about ‘people-watching.’ You can learn an awful lot about someone just be observing what that person does and how that person interacts. Which ‘people-watching’ novels have you enjoyed? Which are your favourite ‘people-watching’ sleuths?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jack Johnson’s People Watching.