Sleuths 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.