Believable sleuths can’t solve crimes by themselves. Besides the help they may need from experts such as forensics professionals and other scientists, they also need to get answers from witnesses and suspects. Oh and there’s the not-so-trivial matter of having to work with supervisors. All of this means that sleuths have to develop a certain amount of skill and diplomacy. I think a lot of readers enjoy it when sleuths speak their minds, especially when what they say is witty. But in real life, we can’t always get away with saying what we’re really thinking; life just doesn’t work that way. There are a lot of examples in crime fiction where sleuths have to use tact when they might much rather not. I’ll just have space here for a few, but I think you get the point.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple has been weakened by a bout with bronchitis, and her nephew Raymond West has been kind enough to arrange for Miss Knight to help out in the house and look after his aunt. But Miss Marple is not best pleased with Miss Knight; she’s well-meaning, but she’s condescending, meddlesome and annoyingly perky. Miss Marple knows that confronting Miss Knight directly won’t get her anywhere and besides, she was not raised to be rude. So she cleverly and tactfully finds a way to get Miss Knight out of the house one afternoon so she can take a walk by herself. That’s how she meets Heather Badcock, who ends up getting poisoned at a charity fête. There’s a really humourous look in this novel at the strategies Miss Marple uses to get what she wants without being caustic about it.
Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee needs a great deal of tact in Tony Hillerman’s The Dark Wind. Among other cases, he’s investigating the disappearance of Joseph Musket. Musket may very well have been mixed up with drugs trafficking, and even if he isn’t, he could have valuable information about a plane crash that Chee witnessed since he was in the area. Chee thinks that Musket’s mother Fannie Musket may know something about her son’s whereabouts; she may even know something about the plane crash. Chee very much wants to talk to her but he also knows that barging in and insisting on answers isn’t going to get him anywhere. So he handles the situation more tactfully:
‘Chee and Mrs. Musket had introduced themselves, by family, by kinship, and by clan…He had told her that he hoped she would talk to him about her son.
‘You are hunting for him,’ she said. Navajo is a language which loads its meanings into its verbs. She used the word which means ‘to stalk,’ as a hunted animal and not the form which means, ‘to search for,’ as for someone lost. The tone was as accusing as the word.
Chee changed the verb. ‘I search for him,’ Chee said. ‘But I know I will not find him here. I am told he is a smart man. He would not come here while we search for him, and even if he had, I would not ask his mother to tell me where to find him. I just want to learn what kind of a man he is.’’
Chee’s tact puts Fannie Musket somewhat more at ease, and she ends up by giving him some useful information.
We also see the real value of tact in Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City. In that novel, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team are called to the scene when the body of a seemingly inoffensive old man named Holberg is found in his flat. At first it looks like a burglary gone wrong, but there are cryptic signs that this was a deliberate murder. Holberg wasn’t rich though, and he didn’t have any obvious enemies. So Erlendur and the team have to dig deeper to find out who the killer is. They discover that Holberg has a dark secret hidden in his past. Many years earlier, he was accused of (‘though not arrested for) rape. What’s more, if the rumours about him are true, there were several victims. As a part of the investigation, Erlendur interviews Elín, the sister of Kolbrún, who made the first accusation of rape against Holberg. Kolbrún committed suicide, so Erlendur knows that Elín is dealing with a lot of loss and grief. What he soon learns too is that Elín is deeply distrustful of police. At the time Kolbrún made the accusation of rape, no-one believed her and in fact, she was humiliated. Elín is convinced that was part of what led to her suicide. So Erlendur knows that he will have to be extremely diplomatic and tactful if he’s going to get Elín to talk to him about her sister. Eventually she does thaw sufficiently to tell him what she knows, and despite a few more ‘bumps in the road,’ she proves to be very helpful.
There’s also Jonathan Kellerrman’s When the Bough Breaks, which introduces us to child psychologist Alex Delaware. For a few reasons Delaware has retired from his practice, but he’s called back as an expert when his friend LAPD cop Milo Sturgis is faced with an unusual case. Dr. Morton Handler and his lover Elena Gutierrez have been brutally murdered in Handler’s home. The only real witness is seven-year-old Melody Quinn, who lives in the same building. Sturgis wants Delaware to talk to the child and see whether he can get her to open up about what she may have seen or heard. Delaware agrees, but he’s soon blocked by the child’s pediatrician Dr. Lionel Towle, who argues that Delaware poses a threat to the child. It’s soon clear that some very important people do not want the murderer caught but Sturgis still has his homicides to solve and Delware has gotten curious (and concerned about Melody’s welfare). So each in his own way, the two men pursue the case. At one point, Delaware visits the home of Elena Gutierrez’ parents and asks her mother Cruz for whatever help she can give. Cruz Gutierrez is in mourning. Besides, she doesn’t really trust the police and she’s from a different culture. But Delaware is tactful and besides, he’s accompanied by Elena’s best friend Raquel Ochoa, who is close to the family. So little by little he and Raquel put Cruz at her ease. Her input turns out to be helpful.
In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Jim Delbeck learns that his daughter Maryanne has died from a fall off the roof of the Pattaya, Thailand hotel where she was living. The official police report is that she committed suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe it. So he hires Bangkok PI Jayne Keeney to look into the matter. One of his reasons for hiring her is that she knows the country and the language. Keeney agrees to take the case and prepares to travel to Pattaya. She knows though that she can’t just go there and start asking people questions. In any case that approach would probably ensure that people wouldn’t talk to her. That’s particularly true in this culture, which values certain kinds of tactful ways of dong and saying things. So Keeney uses the more diplomatic strategy of contacting an acquaintance Police Major General Wichit, who heads the Tourist Police. He is powerful enough that offending him would be foolish and gaining his support could be helpful. Besides, he owes Keeney a favour. Wichit agrees to help, and it turns out that his support is useful. Throughout this novel, we see an interesting difference between the tact that Keeney needs to use on the surface, so to speak, and her real private thoughts. And in the end, that tact proves quite helpful as she slowly gets closer to the truth about Maryanne Delbeck’s death.
Lots of readers enjoy outspoken sleuths. I know I do. They say things we wish we could say and they can be witty. But in real life, there are times when it’s much more productive to be tactful. The wise sleuth knows this and the realistic crime novel makes use of it.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from When in Rome’s The Promise.