She’s Got a Way of Talkin’*

Verbal QuirksThe way we speak is as individual as we ourselves are. Each of us has for instance words and phrases we like to use or a certain kind of verbal reaction. Those verbal ‘fingerprints’ help make us unique. Certainly that’s true in real life and those ‘fingerprints’ also add depth to fictional characters. I’m not talking here of accents or the use of dialect in writing. That’s a different matter (and also really interesting. Or maybe I just think that because of my background in linguistics…). Rather, I’m talking about those ways of speaking that are unique to an individual.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a firm believer in psychological approaches to crime solving. The expression he uses most frequently to describe the process of thinking through a case is using ‘the little grey cells’ of the brain. For example in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot retires (or so he thinks) to the small village of King’s Abbot. When retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd is stabbed, Ackroyd’s niece Flora asks Poirot to clear the name of her fiancé Ralph Paton, the prime suspect. So Poirot begins to ask questions. At one point he has a conversation with Inspector Raglan, who is the official investigator. They’re discussing approaches to investigation:


‘‘How exactly did you get to work if I may ask?’ [Poirot]
‘Certainly,’ said the inspector. ‘To begin with – method. That’s what I always say – method!’
‘Ah!’ cried the other. ‘That too is my watchword. Method, order and the little grey cells.’
‘The cells?’ said the inspector, staring.
‘The little grey cells of the brain,’ explained the Belgian.’


It is of course those little gray cells that help Poirot solve this case and that expression has become integrally associated with his character.

Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe has plenty of individual quirks that make him unique. Those extend to the verbal too. For example, when he’s exasperated, one of Wolfe’s verbal ‘fingerprints is the word pfui; it’s designed to express both contempt and impatience and usually does. In Not Quite Dead Enough for instance, Archie Goodwin returns from wartime service only to be drawn into a military case. He’s asked to persuade his former boss Nero Wolfe to investigate the supposed suicide of Captain Albert Cross. The death has to be investigated very quietly for political and national security reasons so the Powers That Be don’t want a high-profile case. At first Wolfe is reluctant but he agrees to take a look at the case. One aspect of the investigation is tracing Cross’ movements in the days and weeks before his death. At one point he discusses those activities with a group of Cross’ colleagues:


‘He sent a telegram to his fiancée in Boston that he would see her on Saturday. And then committed suicide? Pfui.’


As it turns out, Wolfe is justified in rejecting the suicide theory. Lawson’s been murdered and Wolfe and Goodwin find out what the reasons were.

In Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper of the Derbyshire police investigate when an old corpse turns up on Pity Wood Farm near the village of Rakedale. Until recently the farm was owned by brothers Raymond and Derek Sutton; in fact, they owned the farm at the time the body was buried there so one of the team’s tasks is to interview them. Derek Sutton has died but Raymond lives in a nursing home. He is a firm believer in old-style Biblical religion and his conversation often includes references to religion and the Bible. For instance, early in the novel, the detectives have just interviewed Sutton:


‘Raymond Sutton stood to one side of the window and watched the police officers get into their car at the end of the drive.
Quietly, he muttered a sentence to himself.
‘And they answered and said unto him, Where, Lord?’
As the car passed out of sight, he let the curtain drop. He turned back to face the room, looked around him for a moment, and finished the quotation.
‘And he said unto them,
Wheresoever the body is, there will the eagles be gathered.’’


As he explains, what he says comes from the Gospel of Saint Luke. His verbal identity if you want to put it that way is related to his deep religious convictions. When another body is discovered on the farm, it looks very likely that Raymond Sutton could be the killer. And his strong religious views could provide a motive. In the end though, the killings have less to do with the Bible and more to do with the background of Pity Wood Farm.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman lives and works in a Melbourne building called Insula. She and the other residents of the building have formed a strong community and frequently help each other. One of those residents is Miriam Kaplan, who goes by her Wicca name Meroe. Meroe is deeply spiritual and is determined to use her knowledge of herbal remedies for good. She is a skilled healer who notices immediately when there is unbalance and stress in an environment. Meroe’s spirituality is part of what’s behind some of the phrases she uses frequently. One of her best-known is her greeting, ‘Blessed be.’ That’s very often the first thing she says for instance when she walks into a room. Meroe is certainly not the only person to use this expression as it’s a Wicca greeting. But in this series it gives her character an added distinction.

The use of an individual verbal ‘fingerprint’ plays an important role in Wendy James’ The Mistake. Jodie Evans Garrow has what everyone thinks of as a successful life: an attorney husband, two healthy children and a nice home in a nice area. But everything falls apart when a secret from her past comes out. When Jodie’s daughter Hannah is taken to a Sydney hospital, it turns out to be the same hospital where years earlier, she had given birth to another child. One of the nurses at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the child. Jodie claims she gave the baby up for adoption but as the nurse soon discovers, there are no official records. Soon some disturbing questions are raised: What happened to the baby? Why did Jodie never tell anyone about the birth? Did she somehow have something to do with the baby’s disappearance? Before long Jodie becomes a social pariah. The only bright spot as you might say is that she re-connects with an old friend from childhood Bridget ‘Bridie’ Sullivan. Jodie is invited one night to a book club meeting that Bridie also attends. At first Jodie doesn’t recognise her old friend but Bridie knows her. The one thing that finally clinches Jodie’s recognition is Bridie’s use of a pet expression ‘true story.’ She used it all the time when the women were young and Jodie remembers it.  The book club meeting turns out to be disastrous but it does result in a reunion between the two friends. Bridie is the only person who doesn’t judge Jodie and who wants to know what really happened and Jodie comes to depend on her as the case threatens to engulf her.

Our individual words and phrases can be quite distinctive and in fiction they can give a character added personality. I’m thinking for instance of Craig Johnson’s Henry Standing Bear, who doesn’t use contractions. There are other examples too. Do you notice those expressions? If you’re a writer, do you plan the unique expressions your characters use?


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Got a Way.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Kerry Greenwood, Rex Stout, Stephen Booth, Wendy James

33 responses to “She’s Got a Way of Talkin’*

  1. Those are the expressions that help distinguish one character from another when we try to give each one his own voice. One of my elder lady characters in The Desert Hedge Murders uses the same expression over and over–to show shock as well as sarcasm. Because I had a whole group of elder ladies in that book, I had to find multiple ways to keep the characters’ separate in the reader’s mind.

    • Pat – Yes! Of course! My gawd, how could I have not mentioned that? 😉 And you’re quite right. It’s those expressions – those verbal ‘signatures’ – that define characters. You have a well-taken point too that they make it much easier to distinguish among characters in a novel.

  2. I’m not sure how you manage to keep coming up with posts that suggest ways to look at great mysteries, Margot, but the verbal quirks of certain detectives are good ways for readers to identify and become familiar with those characters. From classic mysteries, there are plenty of examples: it can be someone as well-known as Sherlock Holmes (with his “Elementary!” or Nero Wolfe’s “pfui,” as you mentioned, or characters who may be more obscure today – Edgar Wallace’s J. G. Reeder, for example, who always says (rather apologetically), “I have a criminal mind,” or H. C. Bailey’s Reggie Fortune, with his “Oh my dear chap!” and similar exclamations. The Golden Age had plenty of them!

    Along these lines, a book you would probably enjoy is one of my favorite anthologies of classic mystery short stories, “Challenge to the Reader,” edited by Ellery Queen, dating from the late 1930s. Queen took 25 stories featuring some of the world’s most popular fictional detectives at the time. In each story, he changed the detective’s name (and the names of some other familiar characters) and challenged the reader to identify the detective by such quirks as manners of speech, personal habits, descriptions, settings and – most important – methods of detection. It’s one of the best collections of readily-identifiable-by-their-quirks detectives that I’ve ever read. It remains one of my favorite books, long out of print, but, I think, still available through used book dealers. It’s great fun.

    • Les – Thank you 🙂 – There’s not a lot else rattling around in my brain, so there’s plenty of room for crime fiction. It’s interesting too that you’d mention just how many classic and Golden Age ‘signature expressions’ there are. They do help us to keep a character distinct from the rest and I think they add quite a bit to a character’s personality. They make characters unique and you’ve given some great examples of that.
      Thanks also for suggesting Challenge to the reader. I’d heard it was out there but hadn’t gotten to try it. It sounds like it is indeed a lot of fun. It sounds like a good mental exercise too.

  3. In the early Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L Sayers, he talks like a complete idiot – which is obviously meant as a cover to some extent, though there isn’t particularly any evidence of any great depth underneath! But the books get stronger and stronger as they go on, and Lord Peter talks much less like a Wodehouse character. But it happens gradually… the fingerprint changes, I suppose!

    • Moira – You’re spot on about Wimsey and his evolution. And now you’re putting me in mind of Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, who also evolved both as a character and verbally as the series went on. In both cases the growth is as you say slow. But we do see changes in the way the characters’ speech makes them sound. Interesting point and yummy ‘food for thought.’ Thanks

  4. Perhaps this reflects my Australian origins, but I am always conscious of how characters swear. You can tell a lot about a character by the curses they use, whether they blaspheme, whether use crude (by some standards) words or quaint ones.

    I am also interested in how to write accents and dialect and hope you devote another post to this in the future. One reason I gave my PI Jayne Keeney the ability to speak Thai fluently was to avoid having to write conversations in ‘pigeon English’ — which I find excruciating when I read it elsewhere, unless it is used for effect.

    • Angela – Swearing is definitely a giveaway as to what a person is like. As you say, some people use blasphemy, some use obscene words and others use other expressions. In all of those cases that does tell a lot about a person. And I think you can also tell a lot when a person doesn’t swear (I know people like that too).
      As to accents and dialect, I always think that’s a tricky issue. One doesn’t want to make the reader work too hard at understanding what’s being said or pull the reader out of the story. Worse, one doesn’t want to appear condescending or patronising. So for those reasons, accents and dialect have to handled with great care (you’re so right, for instance, about pidgin English). On the other hand, different regions do handle language differently. For instance, your Rajiv Patel speaks English differently to your Jayne Keeney and that makes complete sense to me. He’s got a different cultural background and has learned a different dialect of English. And yet you don’t overdo it so as to pull the reader out of the story or be insulting. Much to think about with this issue and I’ll be glad to do a post on it.

  5. Skywatcher

    Sherlock Holmes has a slightly melodramatic, and even antique, turn of phrase “Now is the dramatic moment of fate!” “At last, a foeman worthy of our steel”. I was unreasonably pleased to discover that P G Wodehouse claimed that Conan Doyle could also talk that way. Apparently he had told Doyle that copies of his books were being printed in Russia without the author being payed. The great man laughed and exclaimed “There’s deviltry afoot here!” Wodehouse was as pleased as I was about this.

    • Skywatcher – Oh, I didn’t know that! I like it too that Conan Doyle could speak that way. I really do think that that classic/Victorian era of crime fiction had some great phrases like that.

  6. kathy d.

    I find so many of Nero Wolfe’s eccentric words and phrases make him more interesting. For instance, he says “Flummery” about a lot of thing he hears but doesn’t believe or thinks are absurd. He has said to his aide, Archie Goodman, “Archie, I am a genius, not a god.”
    And one of my favorite Wolfisms is “With your investigating and my ‘feel for phenomenon,’ we’ll solve this case. He uses his “feel for phenomenon” in a few of the stories. It makes me laugh every time I see it.
    On the dialects’ issue, that’s tough. I cringe when I read it unless a person of the same nationality is writing it. It can be offensive.
    I don’t know what I’d do if I were writing for publication or an editor or publisher. I’d err on the side of sensitivity but then again how does one express differences in class and region without it? I guess with good descriptions of the characters. No easy answer here.

    • Kathy – No, there really isn’t an easy answer to the dialect question. As you say, if it’s not done effectively it can be very offensive. On the other hand if one doesn’t give characters distinctive speech identities, it’s harder for them to be unique and rounded characters. Each author handles it difference; some do it well and some…don’t. It’s a challenging issue.
      And I agree with you about Wolfe. A lot of the things he says add to his individuality. In fact I almost used flummery when I wrote this post. I’m glad you filled in that gap.

  7. Margot: I could not think of a written character with a verbal trait. I did think of Peter Falk in the Colombo series and his trademark “just one more thing” as he turned back to a suspect.

    What I think is hardest is to identify your own verbal traits. It took me over 50 years to realize I use “just” multiple times a day.

    • Bill – I think we all have those verbal trademarks. And we use them so sub-consciously that we aren’t even completely aware of them at times. That’s one reason I always think it really can be an interesting experience to hear oneself on audio or see oneself on video.
      And I loved Columbo. Someone (another character) asked him what his first name was once. His answer? ‘Lieutenant.’ And yes, his ‘Just one more question’ became iconic.

  8. Those little indicators are very useful for writers and readers–great for distinguishing characters!

  9. The hero of my YA thriller is a 16-year-old, but he’s well-spoken. (His father was a writer; his mother an attorney.) So he uses “big words easily and casually.

  10. Funny you just posted this Margot as I have to sit in all day waiting for my new biometric passport to be delivered by courier.
    I love the expressions used by many of the great detectives – Sherlock Holmes, Poirot etc and I think dialogue was the attraction of the early Alexander McCall Smith Precious Ramotswe books. I’ve lost track of the series now though.

    • Sarah – I hope you get your new passport with no delays. With today’s technology it’s interesting to think about all of the identifying information that’s now coded in a passport.
      I like the dialogue too in the Alexander McCall Smith series. What I find especially impressive is that the dialogue in his two other series (the Sunday Philosophy Club and the 44 Scotland Street series) is quite different. He really does an effective job of using dialogue to make characters distinctive.

  11. Certainly food for thought, Margot – enjoyed your post :o) All I need to do now is find that perfect phrase for my main character . . .

  12. I love this post, because I recognise more of this in real life around me than I do in books. It’s funny how people latch on to certain phrases and just don’t realise they keep repeating and repeating them. Or if they do, they just love the comfort of them… now I’m wondering what lies behind real repetitive speech – such as “little grey cells.”

    I also have a massive attachment to the word “just” in my writing. I’m constantly having to remove it!

    • Rebecca – Thank you – I’m so glad you liked what you read. And you’re right too that people do use certain words and phrases all the time in their daily lives without even thinking about it. It could very well be a certain comfort level. Or it could be the same unconscious sort of impulse that leads people to develop certain characteristic gestures. It’s an interesting question.
      As for writing, I’ve noticed I use the word ‘scoop’ too often. I don’t know why and the funny thing is that I don’t use it very often in my speech. Now you’ve got me thinking about writing patterns..hmm…..

  13. What an interesting way of looking at things! I too am a linguist, so am fascinated by speech patterns (although I have to admit I find too much dialect bogs me down in a book).
    Trying to think of other examples. I think Dalziel has a very Yorkshire way of talking, doesn’t he, and provides a great contrast to the well-educated, polite Pascoe. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew always sounded really American to me, and with all the puppyish enthusiasm you would expect from their age.
    But I do wonder how much we lose in translation. For instance, Inspector Montalbano in Italian sounds much more effusive than in English. And I find English detectives sound much harsher in German.

    • Marina Sofia – Now that is a well-taken point about translation! It’s very hard I think not to lose some of those nuances of speech when something is translated. Even a gifted translator might find it hard to convey those qualities of speech.
      And I have to agree with you about the Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys characters. All of them have a very American way of speaking and interacting and we see that almost exaggerated by their youthful enthusiasm. And Dalziel is 100% Yorkshire. I couldn’t imagine him any other way and that includes his speech patterns. No ‘public school voice’ for him!

  14. kathy d.

    Omigosh, we forgot about one of our favorite characters whose language is unique throughout the world of crime fiction: Catarella who works in Salvo Montalbano’s police station, unfortunately, or fortunately for us fans, butchers the language. He answers the phone and takes messages, messing up spellings and pronunciations. However, we laugh at the books and at the TV episodes whenever he bursts forth with his lunacy. The series would not be the same without Catarella. To mention him to a Montalbano fan elicits an immediate smile.
    If there is a post about the Montalbano series, Catarella deserves a paragraph..

    • Kathy – No doubt about it, Catarella’s way of using language is most definitely distinctive and Stephen Sartarelli’s translations bring out that distinctiveness. And I have to agree: the series wouldn’t at all be the same without him.

  15. Pingback: I Got My Own Way of Talkin’* | Confessions of a Mystery Novelist…

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