One of the ways people can cement their relationships with each other is through teasing and banter. That’s not true of course in every culture; there are plenty of cultures in which that kind of teasing and joking isn’t considered appropriate. And of course, it can go very much too far. But in cultures where it is done, it’s a part of interacting with friends. In fact, among some social groups, people who don’t get involved in the back-and-forth of teasing are considered aloof – even cold. We do joke with each other in real life, so it’s only natural that we see teasing and banter in crime fiction too. If we didn’t, the interactions might not seem as natural and authentic. There are a lot of examples of this sort of interaction in the genre of course; let me just share a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Hickory, Dickory, Dock (AKA Hickory, Dickory, Death), Hercule Poirot’s frighteningly efficient secretary Miss Lemon asks him to consult with her sister Mrs. Hubbard. Mrs. Hubbard is the manager of a student hostel where some odd things have gone missing and some strange events have occurred. Poirot agrees to look into the matter and visits the hostel. When one of the residents Celia Austin admits to being responsible for some of the thefts, it’s assumed that the matter is solved. But then, the next night, Celia dies in what looks at first like a case of suicide. Then it’s proven that she was murdered, and Poirot and Inspector Sharpe investigate. As they do so, we get to know the various young people who live at the hostel. In their interactions, we see some of the bantering and teasing that often go along with friendship. And Christie makes use of this too. In some cases, that teasing is a sign of friendship. And in others, it’s thinly-veiled resentment…
Andrea Camilleri’s Vigatà-based Inspector Montalbano is not exactly what you would call the gushing kind. And yet, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t value his friendships. One of his friends is TV journalist Nicolò Zito, who works at Vigatà’s Free Channel. The two often co-operate, especially when Montalbano is investigating a case where high-level corruption may be involved. He gives exclusive information to Ztio, who uses all of his access and contacts to help Montalbano. The two of them have a solid friendship although neither is one for flowery words. In The Shape of Water for instance, Montalbano is investigating the possible murder of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. He’s invited Zito for dinner to compare notes on the case. During their conversation, he chides Zito for not being more hard-hitting in the station’s coverage of Luparello’s death:
‘‘…you’ve refrained from dragging Luparello through the mud, as you would certainly have done in the past….the man dies of a heart attack in a kind of open-air brothel among whores, pimps and buggers, his trousers down around his ankles – it’s downright obscene – and you guys, instead of seizing the moment for all it’s worth, you all toe the line and cast a veil of mercy over how he died.’
‘We’re not really in the habit of taking advantage of such things.’
Montalbano started laughing.
‘Would you do me a favor, Nicolò? Would you and everyone else at the Free Channel please go f*** yourselves?’
Zito started laughing in turn.’
That conversation shows as much as anything the way that these men use banter to cement their friendship.
We also see that in the relationship between Peter Temple’s sometimes-attorney/sometimes-PI sleuth Jack Irish and cabinetmaker Charlie Taub. Irish has an interest in cabinet-making and he finds solace in working with wood. So he’s informally apprenticed himself to master carpenter Charlie Taub. The two men like and respect each other, but neither is particularly demonstrative about it. Certainly they’re not gushing. In Black Tide for instance, Irish pays a visit to Taub’s workshop after not having been there for a bit:
‘‘So,’ he said without looking at me. ‘Man who finds the scum of the earth. Man who breaks his parents’ hearts. Horses and criminals. That’s his life.’…
‘I gather you missed me a lot then?’
Another snort ‘What I miss, I miss someone finishes little jobs I give him. Like little tables. Day’s work for a man who actually works.’’
It’s clear in this series that the two are friends, and they express that with banter and teasing.
So does the group of young attorneys we meet in Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar series. Tamar is a law professor who informally works with former student Timothy Shepherd and his friends Selena Jardine, Michael Cantrip, Julia Larwood and Desmond Ragwort. The group members are friends; they support and help each other. They often show that friendship and keep those bonds through sometimes-sarcastic teasing. For instance, in The Sirens Sang of Murder, the group works together and pitches in to help when Cantrip gets drawn into a missing person case when an heir to a fortune disappears. At one point, some members of the group are discussing the case:
‘‘…I was surprised to find myself thinking,’ Julia paused and looked dreamily at the ceiling, drawing deeply on her Gauloise.
‘Thinking,’ said Ragwort, ‘if that is indeed the appropriate word for what we take to have been a not wholly cerebral activity – thinking what, precisely?’’
These attorneys are far from sentimental about each other, but their banter shows the bond they have.
So does the banter and teasing among team-mates that we see in Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors. Australian Federal Police (AFP) officer Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen is persuaded to return to work after taking some time off when former Gough Whitlam government official Alec Dennet and his memoirs editor Lorraine Starck are murdered at a Canberra area writers’ retreat. In one scene, Chen and his new assistant Filipowski are heading to Dennet’s home after a long night of drinking. Already there waiting is another team-mate ‘Talkative:’
‘‘I thought I was going to have to read the finance section,’ he [Talkative] said, getting to his feet. ‘Your face is looking pretty ordinary.’
‘You ought to experience it from my side. What happened to Turner?’ [Chen]
‘He called in sick. Reckons he had a restless night.’
‘That’s not good,’ I said. ‘He’s a bloke who needs all the beauty sleep he can get.’…
‘The two of you aren’t in any position to throw stones….’’
Underneath the teasing we see the friendship that holds this team together; the banter is a reflection of that.
And then there’s Jill Edmondson’s Blood and Groom in which Christine Arvisais hires Toronto-based PI Sasha Jackson to find out who killed her ex-fiancé ‘blueblood’ Gordon Hanes. Arvisais says that everyone thinks she’s guilty, but she’s not, and she wants to clear her name. Jackson takes the case and ends up getting into a great deal of danger. At one point, she’s shot at and saved (trust me; it makes sense given the story) by the underwire in her bra. As you can guess, her friends Mick and Lindsey and her brother Shane can’t resist teasing her:
‘Shane grinned. ‘Nah, we’ve all been making up jokes about bras that lift and separate, eighteen-hour, .38 calibre support bras, cross your heart and protect it – ’
‘Padded,’ Mick said. ‘Don’t forget padded.’’
The teasing is good-natured and readers of this series know that Mick, Shane and Lindsey are good friends to Sasha.
Teasing isn’t part of all cultures’ ways of showing friendship. And of course it can go tragically too far (that’s a topic for a separate post). But sometimes good-natured banter cements relationships and can add a light and authentic touch to a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s You May be Right.