Category Archives: Martin Edwards

Turn the Choral Music Higher, Pile More Wood Upon the Fire*

Preparing For GatheringsIt’s the time of year when people make plans for office parties, family gatherings and holiday travel. There are often all sorts of preparations to be made for everything from clothing to cleaning to food and travel tickets. And that’s to say nothing of gifts (but that’s for another post). It all can add up to an awful lot of stress. Part of the reason for that is arguably that people often picture an ‘ideal, perfect holiday’ as they plan, and hold themselves to that ideal. And of course, all sorts of disasters can happen, and people want to avoid them.

Certainly the stress of those preparations is a fact of real life, and of course, it’s there in crime fiction, too. That sort of stress is seldom the reason for a murder, but it does ratchet up the pace and sometimes the suspense. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA Murder For Christmas and A Holiday For Murder), wealthy family patriarch Simeon Lee decides to invite the members of his family to Gorston Hall for Christmas. Lee is an unpleasant tyrant, but he is very wealthy, so no-one dares refuse the invitation. Lee’s son Alfred and Alfred’s wife Lydia share the home, so most of the preparations fall on them. And it’s not going to be pleasant, either. For one thing, Alfred finds out that his brother Harry, whom he’s disliked for years, will be there. So will his niece Pilar, whom he’s never met. For another, there will be extra bedrooms, more food and so on that will need to be planned. None of the other family members are any more keen to prepare for this holiday, but everyone duly gathers. On Christmas Eve, Simeon Lee is murdered. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area with a friend, and he agrees to work with the local police to investigate. As it turns out, the murder has everything to do with a past that came back to haunt the victim (I know, I know, fans of The Hollow…)

Gail Bowen’s Murder at the Mendel begins just before Christmas. The Mendel Gallery is planning an exhibition of the artwork of Sally Love. As it happens, she was a friend of academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn, so Kilbourn decides to go to the gallery and see the exhibit. She’d like if possible to see if the friendship could be renewed. But that doesn’t work out as planned; in fact, it’s awkward. Then, when gallery owner Clea Poole is murdered, Sally becomes a likely suspect. Then, there’s another murder. Kilbourn has to juggle getting involved in the murders with final preparations for Christmas and for a week of skiing that she’d planned for herself and her children. And the lead-up to the holiday is a little frantic. Here, for instance, is a snippet of a scene featuring Kilbourn’s daughter Mieka, who’s come home from university for the holidays:
 

‘…my daughter Mieka was sitting at the dining-room table behind piles of boxes and wrapping paper and ribbons…
‘Help,’ she said. ‘I’m three days behind in my everything.’
I sat down beside her and picked up a box. ‘For whom? From whom?’ I asked.
‘For you. From me. No peeking. Now choose some nice motherly paper. Something sedate.”
 

There’s nothing like the glittery clutter and frantic pace of gift-wrapping…

In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, successful accountant Daniel Guest hires Saskatoon PI Russell Quant to find out who’s been blackmailing him. Guest is married and firmly ‘in the closet,’ but he has had some trysts with men. And someone’s found out about it. Quant agrees to see what he can do, although he thinks it would be more logical for his client to simply come out as gay. This Guest refuses to do, so Quant gets to work on the case. The search for the truth takes Quant to New York, where he finds out some surprising truths. When he returns, there’s a murder. And an attempt on his own life. Meanwhile, Quant’s mother Kay has come to stay for the Christmas holidays. He loves his mother, but it’s awkward living at close quarters with her now that he’s an adult. But Kay does come in handy as Quant gets ready for his annual Christmas come ‘n’ go. He’s not really a particularly high-strung person, as the saying goes, but he does want things to look nice and turn out well. And with Kay’s help, they do.

There’s a lot at stake in Riley Adams’ (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) Delicious and Suspicious. The Cooking Channel’s Rebecca Adrian has come to Memphis to choose the restaurant that will win the coveted Best Barbecue award. The award will mean lots of recognition and more business for the winning restaurant, so everyone at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue is eager to show the place off to best effect. Aunt Pat’s has been in Lulu Taylor’s family for generations, and as current owner, she oversees everything that goes on there. When Adrian arrives, Taylor’s as anxious as anyone else for the visit to go well:
 

Got to be the Cooking Channel scout,’ Lulu hissed. She scurried to the mirror. ‘I knew I should have worn my power suit today!”
 

She and her family members do their best to make their guest welcome, and she’s confident that the food will be delicious. But only a few hours later, Adrian dies of what turns out to be poison. Then the gossip starts to spread that the victim was killed by the food at Aunt Pat’s. Taylor wants to salvage the restaurant’s reputation and keep the business going, so she decides to investigate. And she soon learns that more than one person had a good reason to want Rebecca Adrian dead.

Martin Edwards’ The Serpent Pool begins on New Year’s Eve. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett and her partner Marc Amos are planning to go to a New Year’s Eve party at the home of successful attorney Stuart Wagg. It’s more upmarket than Scarlett likes, but she’s persuaded to go. She doesn’t lack confidence in herself most of the time, but there is of course the question of what to wear:
 

‘…her mind drifted back to the wardrobe challenge. Leather trousers were a safe bet. They were the colour of chocolate fudge cake – if she daren’t eat it, at least she could wear something that reminded her of it. That halter neck top with copper sequins, maybe, plus the brown boots for tramping outside to watch the firework display.’
 

The two go to the party and at first Scarlett’s pleased with her clothing choice, even getting compliments. But then then things go downhill. First, there’s a loud argument and one of the guests, after too much to drink, throws a glass of red wine at another and storms out. Not many days later, the host is murdered. Scarlett and her Cold Case Review Team are already looking into a six-year-old murder, and they find that this recent one (and another killing as well) is connected.

As crime fiction shows us, it doesn’t matter how frantically and carefully we prepare for gatherings. Anything can happen, and sometimes does…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Right On Time.

23 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Elizabeth Spann Craig, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Riley Adams

I Was Checking You Out*

Sizing People UpSleuths have to develop the skill of being be able to ‘read’ people fairly quickly. It helps the sleuth in figuring out whether to take a case, what sort of person a suspect or witness is, and so on. Of course, sleuths can be wrong about their first ‘sizing up’ too, and that’s interesting in and of itself. But wrong or right, sleuths do, over time, learn to get a sense of what a person is like just from that person’s clothes, comments, bearing and so on.

We see a lot of this in crime fiction and that makes sense. It’s only human nature for us to size people up. And for the author, it allows for ‘showing, not telling’ what a character is like. There’s not enough space in this one post to mention all of the examples out there; here are just a few.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is a master of summing people up just from what he sees of them. And in fact, sometimes he doesn’t even need to meet a person to get a great deal of information. For instance, in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle, Commissionaire Peterson brings an interesting mystery to Holmes and Dr. Watson. He discovered a battered hat and a goose lying where someone had dropped them after a skirmish with some hooligans. Then, when his wife cooked the goose, she discovered a valuable gem in its craw. The mystery makes little sense to Peterson, so he wants Holmes’ impressions. Here’s what Holmes says after one look at the hat:
 

”He picked it up and gazed at it in the peculiar introspective fashion which was characteristic of him. ‘It is perhaps less suggestive than it might have been,’ he remarked, ‘and yet there are a few inferences which are very distinct, and a few others which represent at least a strong balance of probability. That the man was highly intellectual is of course obvious upon the face of it, and also that he was fairly well-to-do within the last three years, although he has now fallen upon evil days. He had foresight, but has less now than formerly, pointing to a moral retrogression, which, when taken with the decline of his fortunes, seems to indicate some evil influence, probably drink, at work upon him. This may account also for the obvious fact that his wife has ceased to love him.”
 

Holmes goes on to explain how he deduced each of these facts and later in the story, we find out just how right he was.

In Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Crack’d), Miss Marple is recovering from a bout of illness, and so has been under the too-watchful eye of hired housekeeper/nurse Miss Knight. One afternoon while Miss Knight is out doing the shopping, Miss Marple decides to take a walk. She ends up in the new council housing development where she accidentally falls and twists her ankle. She’s immediately rescued by Heather Badcock, who lives in the development with her husband Arthur. As she’s sitting in the Badcock home recovering from her fall, Miss Marple gets a chance to ‘size up’ her rescuer. And it’s not long before she’s reminded of someone else in the village with similar personality traits and a similar sort of story. And that worries Miss Marple because that person ended up dying. Sure enough, Heather Badcock dies too, of what turns out to be a poisoned cocktail. Miss Marple and her friend Dolly Bantry look into the murder and they find that the victim’s history has a lot to do with the murder. I know, I know, fans of Five Little Pigs

Cornell Woolrich’s Night Has a Thousand Eyes begins when New York City police officer Tom Shawn is taking a late-night walk. He notices a small, expensive handbag lying on the ground with its contents spilled out. Just by those things he can tell that the owner is a person of a certain social class and has certain tastes. What he can’t work out yet is why those things should have been spilled in what looks like a deliberate way. Shortly afterwards, he sees a young woman getting ready to jump from a bridge. He gets to her just in time and persuades her to come away from the bridge. His first impression of her is that she is both well-off and attractive. So there seems no reason (at least on the surface) for her to attempt suicide. He takes her to an all-night diner where he finally gets her to tell her story. She is Jane Reid, and as Shawn had guessed, she comes from a wealthy background. Her life has been turned upside-down lately because she is terrified that her father, with whom she is close, is about to die. As Shawn listens to her story, he is more and more intrigued by it, and decides to do what he can to help prevent what seems to be an inevitable death.

In Peter Corris’ The Dying Trade, Sydney PI Cliff Hardy makes a none-too-flattering first summing-up of a client just from a telephone call. One day, wealthy and powerfull Bryn Gutteridge calls to basically summon Hardy to his home. Hardy isn’t impressed with Gutteridge’s manner, but a fee is a fee, so he keeps the appointment. Here’s his first reaction to meeting the man in person:
 

‘Mr. Gutteridge didn’t look like he’d be nice to work for, but I felt sure I could reach an understanding with his money.’
 

And Hardy’s first summing-up is fairly accurate. Gutteridge isn’t pleasant or particularly polite. He’s self-involved, self-entitled and obviously spoiled. But he does have a problem that he’s willing to pay to solve. His twin sister Susan is being harassed and getting threats, and he wants it to stop. Hardy takes the case and begins to ask questions, starting with Gutteridge himself. As he gets deeper into the investigation, Hardy learns that there are several people who might want to threaten Susan and target the Gutteridge family.

Sometimes, sleuths can get a somewhat accurate sense of someone, and still be wrong. That’s what happens in Martin Edwards’ The Hanging Wood. Cumbria Constabulary DCI Hannah Scarlett is head of the Cold Case Review Team; as such, she often hears of old cases, and has to decide which ones to re-open. That’s why Orla Payne calls her one day. Twenty years earlier, Orla’s brother Callum disappeared. No trace of him has been found – not even a body. And Orla wants answers and justice for her brother. Unfortunately, Orla is mentally fragile to begin with, and is drunk when she calls in, so Hannah isn’t inclined to take the case seriously at first. Still, once she hangs up the ‘phone, she begins to feel guilty for her attitude and takes a second look at the case. Then, Orla dies, apparently by suicide. Now it’s clear that something more is going on here than a drunken call about a runaway brother.

And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh is persuaded to travel from where she lives in Delhi to her home town in Punjab when she gets a call from an old university friend. Now Inspector General for the State of Punjab, her friend wants her to work with the police on a horrible case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal has been arrested in connection with the poisoning murders of thirteen of her family members. Some were also stabbed. What’s more, someone set fire to the Atwal house. Durga may or may not have been involved in what happened, but the police can’t get any information from her, since she has not spoken of the tragedy since the night it occurred. It’s hoped that if Simran talks to her, she’ll be able to get the girl to open up and talk about the killings. Simran’s reluctant; at the same time though, she doesn’t want to see Durga ‘railroaded’ if she is innocent of any complicity in the killings. So she agrees to see what she can do. When she finally gets the chance to meet the girl, here’s her initial summing-up:
 

‘Durga is not pretty, but she has a healthy, pink complexion like most Punjabi girls from semi-rural India, who have been brought up on fresh milk and homegrown food. Yet, she hunches as she sits down, anxious not to be noticed. Or at least, not have any attention drawn to her. Her clothes are loose, and even though she is tall and well built, she gives an impression of frailty, further enhanced by her meek demeanour.’
 

Simran is also immediately struck by how young and vulnerable Durga is. At first, Durga doesn’t trust her at all (why should she?), but Simran knows that her best chance of finding out what really happened to the Atwal family is to get Durga to tell her.

Sleuths aren’t always correct about their first ‘sizing up’ of people they speak to, any more than any of us is. But over time, they have to learn that skill, as it often proves to be very useful…
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s I Don’t Want to be Alone Any More.

24 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Cornell Woolrich, Kishwar Desai, Martin Edwards, Peter Corris

I Know It’s Building Up Inside of Me*

trysmsallpressuresHave you ever said (or at least thought), ‘If you do/say that one more time, I’m going to kill you!’? In actuality of course, we’d never follow through on those threats. But it goes to show how little things can add up to real stress. So it shouldn’t be surprising that a lot of murders, both fictional and real, aren’t the ‘big, splashy’ murders you may read about on the news or in thrillers. They’re committed because of small things that build and build.

It can be challenging to sustain the suspense in a story like that. But those stories often do reflect the way real people sometimes react to life’s pressures. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, the Abernethie family gathers when patriarch Richard Abernethie dies. When the family returns to the house after the funeral, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone hushes her up and even Cora asks the family not to pay any attention to what she says. But privately, the other family members begin to wonder whether she might have been right. When she herself is killed the next day, they’re even more sure of it. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to investigate. Poirot agrees and travels to the family home at Enderby Hall to look into the matter. As he gets to know everyone involved, he finds that this case isn’t about huge amounts of power or millions of pounds. It’s a ‘quieter’ sort of murder that’s all about, among other things, pressure building up.

So is Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croyden is a meticulous and quite straitlaced banker who prides himself on always carrying the family name with pride. He has a very quiet life that includes his work and his hobby of working ciphers. Then he meets his boss’ cousin Althea, and everything changes. At first, she seems quiet, ‘ladylike’ and a solid match for him. But he soon finds that she is livelier and more vivacious than he thought, and he’s not particularly pleased about that. What’s more, she’s started rearranging the furniture in his home, adding brighter colours and a different look. That in itself makes him uncomfortable, as do some of her other habits (she even shops without a list!). Then one day, Althea pushes too far. She destroys some of the ciphers her husband was working. So Horace takes his own approach to dealing with his domestic problem…

In Glenn Canary’s short story Because of Everything, a man named Ernie finds himself in trouble when he discovers that two men are looking for him. He’s well aware of what that means, so he decides to see if he can stay with his wife Cherry for a few days. He left her a year ago, so he’s not sure of the reception he’ll get, but he can’t think of anything else to do. Besides, they are still married, and he knows that Cherry loved him. She’s not exactly thrilled to see him, but when he tells her why he needs to stay with her, she lets him. As the story goes on, we learn about the little things that built up between the couple; Ernie was not exactly a steadily-working, faithful husband. And in the end, we see how those things figure in to what happens in the story.

There’s also Martin Edwards’ short story 24 Hours From Tulsa. In that short story, a sales and marketing director called Lomas finds his ordered world falling to pieces. For one thing, people’s buying habits have changed with the advent of online shopping, and Lomas can’t seem to adapt his sales strategy to respond to that change. For another, he’s finding that his business is relying more and more on modern technology that he dislikes and mistrusts. He’s expected to be comfortable with mobile ‘phones, computers and so on, but he isn’t. Even the road system has changed beyond his recognition. And then there’s the matter of his children, who no longer seem to live in the same world he occupies. Little by little, all of these things and others build up. In the end, the stress they all create drives Lomas to take a very drastic step.

Karin Fossum’s Don’t Look Back finds Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigating the murder of fifteen-year-old Annie Holland. At first, there doesn’t seem to be much of a motive for murder. Annie was well-liked, popular in her village and reasonably successful at school. She had a boyfirend, too, and they seemed happy together. It doesn’t take long though for Sejer and Skarre to discover that this wasn’t a random killing by a deranged stranger. Someone Annie knew is responsible for her death, and little by little, the detectives uncover the stresses, strains and series of events that led to it. It turns out that small, daily stresses and the way they build up have a lot to do with what happens in the novel.

And then there’s Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry. Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson take their nine-week-old son Noah from Scotland to Melbourne. When they arrive, they begin the long drive from the airport to their final destination in Victoria. Along the way, they face every parent’s worst nightmare: the loss of baby Noah. The couple alert the police and immediately the Australian media makes much of the case. There are pleas for the baby’s safe return, many volunteer search parties and national and international fundraising efforts. As time goes on though, some questions begin to come up about Noah’s disappearance. Could one of his parents have been responsible? If so, which one and why? Soon enough, the couple have as many detractors as they once had supporters, and there’s soon a full-scale investigation. As the story goes on, we see how little pressures, stresses and strains have led to what happens in the novel.

And that’s the thing about those ‘domestic’ murders (and I know I’ve only mentioned a few of them). They don’t usually result from a a major ‘splashy’ event. Rather, it’s the buildup of pressure, stresses and one thing after another that can lead to a tragic end. It’s not easy to pull off this kind of story, as it can be challenging to keep the suspense building credibly. But these murders really do happen, so it makes sense that we see them in crime fiction too. I’ve given a few examples; your turn.
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Running on Ice.

16 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Glenn Canary, Helen Fitzgerald, Karin Fossum, Martin Edwards, Talmage Powell

She’s Dead Serious About Her Family History*

Family SagasAn interesting book review at Cleopatra Loves Books has got me thinking about family sagas. Now, before I go any further, you’ll want to pay a visit to that fine blog. You’ll find all sorts of excellent, thoughtful reviews of crime fiction as well as some books from other genres too. It’s well worth a place on a bibliophile’s blog roll.

Right. Family sagas. Just about all families have their share of stories and ‘skeletons in the closet,’ and some of those stories have an effect for a very long time. Family sagas can be very effective contexts for crime fiction too, since some of those stories and ‘skeletons’ involve crime. Here are just a few examples to show you what I mean.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles concerns the ‘blueblood’ Baskerville family, which has had a home on Dartmoor for many generations. It’s said that the Baskerville family has been cursed since the 1600s, when Sir Hugo Baskerville sold his soul to the Powers of Evil in exchange for a young woman with whom he was infatuated. According to this tale, the family is haunted by a demon in the shape of a hound. In fact recently, the current head of the family, Sir Charles Baskerville, was found dead on the grounds of the Manor of Baskerville. Many people say the family curse was responsible, and now family friend Dr. James Mortimer is afraid for the new heir Sir Henry Baskerville. Sir Henry is due to come in from Canada soon, and Dr. Mortimer wants the matter settled before his arrival. Holmes is unable to leave London at the moment so he sends Dr. Watson in his stead. Between them they find that a curse had nothing to do with Sir Charles’ death…

Agatha Christie weaves in elements of the family saga in several of her novels. In Sad Cypress, for instance, Elinor Carlisle receives an anonymous note warning her that she could lose the inheritance she expects from her wealthy Aunt Laura Welman. Apparently someone’s been playing up to the elderly lady and the note hints that there’s an ulterior motive behind it all. Elinor isn’t particularly greedy, but she and her fiancé Roderick ‘Roddy Welman travel to the family home at Hunterbury. There they renew their acquaintance with Mary Gerrard, daughter of Hunterbury’s lodgekeeper. They soon find out that Aunt Laura has become very much attached to Mary, and insists on altering her will to make a good provision for her; however, Aunt Laura dies before the will can be changed. Much to Elinor’s shock and dismay, Roddy becomes infatuated with Mary. In fact, Elinor breaks off her engagement with him. Then, not long afterwards, Mary dies of what turns out to be poison. Elinor is the most obvious suspect, and not just because of Roddy. There’s a fortune at stake as well. Hercule Poirot investigates and finds that Mary’s death has everything to do with a family saga. I know, I know, fans of The Hollow, Five Little Pigs and Crooked House

In A Dark-Adapted Eye, her first novel as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shares the story of the Longley family. The Longleys have always been a very respectable family – not a hint of grist for the ‘gossip mill.’ But in this case, appearances are, as the saying goes, deceiving. Many years ago, Vera Longley Hilliard was hanged for murder. No-one discusses the matter, but it’s haunted the family ever since. Then, journalist Daniel Stewart digs up the story and decides to write a book about the family and the hanging. He approaches Faith Longley Severn to help him with the work, since she’s a family member. She agrees and together they look into what really was behind the murder for which Vera Hilliard was executed. This novel is about the crime, but it’s also about the family, its history and its relationships.

One of the more famous family sagas is the story of the Vanger family, whom we meet in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Journalist Mikael Blomkvist has just lost an expensive libel lawsuit against well-insulated and powerful Swedish industrial magnate Hans-Erik Wennerström. With his publication Millennium in danger of folding, he’s open to an offer from Henrik Vanger. Forty years earlier, Vanger’s grand-niece Harriet disappeared. Everyone thought she drowned, but Vanger has a good reason not to think so. He’s been receiving anonymous birthday gifts of dried flowers, just as Harriet gave him all those years earlier. Vanger offers to support Millennium financially, and give Blomkvist the information he needs to bring down Wennerström if Blomkvist will find out what really happened to Harriet. Blomkvist agrees and he and his research assistant Lisbeth Salander start exploring the Vanger family’s history and finances. And it turns out that this is quite a family saga…

In Gail Bowen’s Deadly Appearances, political scientist and academic Joanne Kilbourn has been working to support the political life of her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk. He’s got a very bright future in the party, and everyone’s looking forward to an important speech he’s scheduled to make. To everyone’s shock, he collapses during the speech and dies of what turns out to be poison. Kilbourn is grief-stricken at the loss of her friend, and decides to deal with that grief by writing a biography of Boychuk. As she does so, she begins to get closer and closer to the truth about why and by whom he was killed. She also learns quite a lot about the Boychuk family’s history and how it affected him.

Martin Edwards deals with family sagas and stories in several of his Lake District mysteries. For example, in The Hanging Wood, DCI Hannah Scarlett gets a call from Orla Payne, who wants to find out what happened to her brother. Twenty years earlier, Callum Payne went missing and no-one has ever found a trace of him – not even a body. Orla wants Scarlett and her team to look into the case, but unfortunately, she’s mentally fragile and is drunk when she calls, so Scarlett doesn’t make much of the matter. Then, Orla dies of what looks like suicide. Now Scarlett feels guilty for not taking that call more seriously, and begins to look into both Orla’s death and the the disappearance of her brother. That investigation turns up quite a lot of family history and a family saga that’s been going on for several generations.

When it comes to crime fiction, family sagas have to be handled deftly. Otherwise, the history of the family can take away from the story of the crime(s) that’s supposed to be at the heart of the novel. But when they’re well-written, family sagas can add a lot to a crime novel. And they can provide all sorts of useful and realistic motivations for murder. I’ve only mentioned some examples here. Your turn.

Thanks, Cleo, for the inspiration!
 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Lucksmiths’ English Murder Mystery. OK, this is really a fun song if you’re a crime fiction fan. :-)

26 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Barbara Vine, Gail Bowen, Martin Edwards, Ruth Rendell, Stieg Larsson

An Englishman’s Way of Speaking Absolutely Classifies Him*

Adjusting LanguageThere’s an interesting theory of language that suggests that we adjust the way we speak in order to identify with a particular group. If this theory (it’s called Speech Accommodation Theory, or SAT) is correct, people often do that because they’re members of that group, and feel a connection. Or they want to be accepted into the group, so they adjust their language to express solidarity. If you’ve noticed that you change your way of speaking depending on the group of people you’re with, you know from your own experience how this works.

It happens in crime fiction, too, and it’s an interesting way for authors to show not tell, as the saying goes, what a character is like. It’s also an effective way for a fictional sleuth to ‘fit in.’ Let me just offer a few examples.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot takes the Orient Express train through Europe back to London to deal with some new developments in a case he’s working. On the second night of the journey, one of his fellow passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed. M. Bouc, who’s one of the travel company’s directors, is also on board the train and asks Poirot to find out who the killer is. Poirot agrees and begins to look into the case. The only possible suspects are the other passengers in the same car as as the victim, so Poirot concentrates his efforts there. It turns out that this murder has everything to do with a past incident. One of the interesting elements in this novel is the way language is adjusted in order to give a certain impression. If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, and you do read it at some point, keep in mind that not everything is the way it sounds…

Arthur Upfield’s Inspector Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte is a member of the Queensland Police. He’s in the interesting position of being a part of two cultural communities, since his father was White and his mother belonged to one of the Aboriginal groups. He actually identifies himself in two different ways, and in more than one novel there are references to his dual identity. Bony adjusts his language and his cultural ways to suit the needs of situations in which he finds himself. When he’s with other Aborigines, he uses their language and their ways. When he’s with Whites, he speaks standard Australian English. What’s more, he’s even able to adjust his dialect if it’s necessary. This language adjustment is an authentic reflection of Bony’s own identity; it’s also a way for him to put people enough at their ease that they’re more willing to talk to him than they might otherwise be.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a Navajo Tribal Police officer, and a member of the Navajo Nation. He uses English quite a lot of the time, but he also speaks Navajo, and uses it to express his kinship with that group. Even when he’s speaking in English, if the person he’s talking to is Navajo, you’ll find that Navajo words, phrases and cultural references are sprinkled into what he says. And sometimes, he completely code switches to Navajo when he’s speaking to a fellow Navajo. Chee is a cop, so part of the reason he adjusts his speech as he does is to make others feel comfortable enough to tell him what he wants to know. In other words, it’s a deliberate adjustment made for a specific purpose. But he adjusts his speech that way in more casual moments too, so there’s a good argument that he also does it to belong – to be a part of his community.

One of Martin Edwards’ series features Harry Devlin, a Liverpool attorney who works with a somewhat down-and-out firm. Although he’s educated and uses standard British English, Devlin can easily adjust his speech to the Scouser variety of English that’s common in the Liverpool area. And he finds that that’s to his advantage in All The Lonely People. In that novel, Devlin is surprised to say the least when his estranged wife Liz comes back into his life, asking if she can stay with him for a bit. Devlin accepts, hoping that this may mean she is interested in a reconciliation. Two nights later, Liz is stabbed and her body found in an alley. Devlin is determined to find out who killed her, and it’s in his pragmatic interest anyway, since that will clear his own name. So he starts to ask questions. The trail leads through some of Liverpool’s poorer and more dangerous areas, and Devlin knows that he’s not likely to be trusted, to say the least, if he uses his own way of speaking. So he adjusts his speech and adopts
 

‘…a congested Scouse accent…’
 

when he talks to some of those he meets. That change doesn’t solve Liz’ murder, but it does mark Devlin as ‘one of us,’ in some people’s eyes, and that gets him information he probably wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is a proud francophone Québécois, as are several members of the police with whom he works on his cases. And it’s very interesting to see how they interact when they’re speaking with other francophones as opposed to when they’re speaking with native speakers of English. For instance, in Still Life, Gamache and his team go to the small town of Three Pines to investigate the murder of former school teacher Jane Neal. Here’s a snippet of what happens when he speaks to a local police officer Agent Robert Lemieux. Lemieux was first on the scene, and secured the area, so his input about what and whom he saw is important:
 

“Bien sûr! I saw that man over there [indicating a possible witness]. An Anglais, I suspected, by his clothes and his pallor. The English, I have noticed, have weak stomachs.’…
It had also been Lemieux’s experience that the English had no clothes sense, and this man in his plaid flannel shirt could not possibly be francophone.’

 

Lemieux identifies closely with fellow francophones, so he adjusts his language (and his comments!) to express solidarity with them. Fans of this series will know that as a rule, things are different when the team members are speaking with anglophones.

One of Anya Lipska’s protagonists is Januscz ‘Janek’ Kiszka, a Polish immigrant who now lives in London. Kiszka speaks fluent English, and when he interacts with native speakers of that language (such as Lipska’s other protagonist DC Natalie Kershaw), he uses English. He sometimes misses Poland, but he’s comfortable enough in England. However, he’s culturally and linguistically Polish, and uses that language to identify with other Poles. Even when he’s speaking English with fellow Poles, he uses Polish expressions and makes Polish cultural references. He adjusts his language in great part to express solidarity with people from his own background. Kiszka’s ability to adjust his language to fit in is part of why he’s got a reputation in his own community as a ‘fixer.’ He helps his fellow Poles to get things done, to arrange paperwork, to negotiate life in London and so on. And that’s why Kershaw also finds his input useful. In Where the Devil Can’t Go and Death Can’t Take a Joke, she investigates cases that reach into the Polish community. Kiszka is a member of that group and provides valuable insights.

We may not consciously be aware of it, but we do adjust the way we speak, and there’s a solid argument that we do so at least in part to identify with a particular group (or to identify ourselves as not belonging to a given group). So it’s little wonder that we see these language adjustments in crime fiction too. Which ones have stood out in your mind?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Overture/Why Can’t the English.

34 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Anya Lipska, Arthur Upfield, Louise Penny, Martin Edwards, Tony Hillerman