One of the important skills that sleuths need to develop is the ability to communicate effectively. That seems like a blatantly obvious point to make, but if you think about it, communication is a key part of what sleuths do. They have to communicate with witnesses, suspects, the family of the crime victim, colleagues, superiors and more. The challenge of course is that we all speak differently and many of us speak different languages. So a sleuth who can speak more than one language and switch languages when necessary has a real advantage. In linguistics, moving from one language to another is called code switching, and we see it in crime fiction more than you’d think. I’ll just give you a few examples; I’m quite certain you’ll be able to give me many more than I could suggest.
Fans of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot will know that he is multilingual. His first language is Belgian French, but he is also fluent in English. And in several novels that feature Poirot, he code switches as it’s necessary. In Murder on the Orient Express for instance, he is traveling back to London on the famous Orient Express train when he gets caught up in a murder investigation. A fellow passenger Samuel Ratchett has been stabbed and Poirot and M. Bouc, a director of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons Lits, have to search among the passengers for the killer. Interestingly (‘though not surprisingly) the passengers speak a number of different languages including English, French, Swedish, German and Italian. So Poirot has to code switch frequently as he interviews them. In the end, it’s what the witnesses tell him and what the evidence shows that helps Poirot figure out the truth.
In the case of Poirot, he code switches in order to be comprehensible to others. But there are other reasons we might switch codes. One of them is to identify with or express solidarity with one or another group. We see that in M.J. McGrath’s White Heat. One of McGrath’s protagonists is hunting guide Edie Kiglatuk. She’s half Inuit and for the most part, that’s how she self-identifies. She speaks English and uses that language with people who don’t speak Inuktitut, but she is also a native speaker of Inuktitut, and uses that language too. Edie gets embroiled in a case of multiple murder and greed when one of the men she’s leading on an expedition is shot. At first the police and the council of Elders puts it down as a tragic accident, but Edie isn’t sure of that. She’s even more convinced it was murder when there’s a second death. Throughout this novel we see her code switching as she talks to various people. She finds that skill quite useful when her investigation takes her from her own Ellesmere Island community to Greenland.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee also code switches and quite frequently it’s to express solidarity as much as anything else. A member of the Navajo Nation, he is a native speaker of that language and he self-identifies that way. So when he is investigating cases, he speaks to other members of the Navajo Nation in Navajo. Using Navajo in those situations also makes Navajo-speaking witnesses more comfortable speaking to Chee, so he’s able to learn more from his interviews than would a cop who only spoke American English. At the same time, Chee, like most Native Americans, is a fluent speaker of English. He uses that language when he communicates with non-Navajo witnesses, suspects and colleagues, and it proves very useful of course in novels such as Talking God, where Chee travels off the Reservation.
Travel is also the reason for which Helene Tursten’s Inspector Irene Huss code switches. She is based in Göteborg, so her first language is Swedish. But she code switches when the situation calls for it. For example, in The Torso, Huss makes use of her Danish when a lead on an unknown dead man takes her to Copenhagen. In this case, Huss finds that code switching is very much worth the effort, but effort it can be:
‘It was unbelievably tiring always having to strain to understand Danish…Up to now, she had managed pretty well, but it wasn’t always easy. Especially when people spoke Danish quickly.’
Huss also makes use of her English from time to time. In The Glass Devil for instance, she travels to London to track down a member of a Swedish family that seems to be targeted by a killer. In Huss’ case, it’s a matter of code switching for the purpose of being understood, and it’s interesting to see how she accomplishes it.
And then there’s Angela Savage’s Jayne Keeney. Keeney is an Australian ex-pat who lives and works in Bangkok. She’s also spent time in France. So besides her native Australian English, Keeney is fluent in Thai and also speaks French. Being able to code switch sometimes turns out to be extremely useful for her. As an example, in The Half Child, Keeney has tracked down a lead in the investigation of an untimely death. Maryanne Delbeck was an Australian volunteer in a Pattaya children’s home when she jumped (or was pushed, or fell) from the roof of the building where she lived. Keeney’s been hired by Maryanne’s father Jim to find out what really happened to his daughter. Her search leads to a bar where she ends up playing pool with some American soldiers, one of whom has important information she needs. For that encounter she uses her English. But shortly thereafter she needs to make a hasty retreat. She escapes to another part of the bar, where some young Thai women are getting ready to do a show. She quickly code switches to Thai, and that allows her to hide herself just long enough to get out of trouble.
There are a lot of other examples too of fictional sleuths who find that code switching can be a very effective tool for solving cases. And as a side note, I think it’s worth mentioning that code switching is (at least in my opinion) best integrated into a novel when the author refers to it without using a lot of words in another language that readers may not understand. In other words, code switching that doesn’t interrupt the pace and flow of the story, or pull the reader out of it. See now? Don’t you wish you’d paid more attention in your foreign language classes??
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Van Morrison’s Walk and Talk.