How to Walk Into a Conference Room With an Idea*

MeetingsTo: _____

From: ________
RE: Meeting

 

To some people, an email with that subject line is the bane of their existence. And meetings sometimes are annoying. They take up time (sometimes unnecessarily), they sometimes require us to work with people we don’t want to work with, and I’ve never known a meeting that didn’t end up adding to my workload in some way. That’s just the way meetings are.

At the same time though, meetings are an important vehicle for getting things done. They allow for the efficient passing on of information, they let people interact face to face (which can improve communication) and if they’re handled well, they can be very productive. So it’s no wonder there are so many meetings in most people’s work life. And of course, they find their way into crime fiction too.

Fictional meetings have to be handled deftly because in real life, meetings can be…well, not exactly scintillating and thrill-a-minute. So too much ‘meeting detail’ can drag a story down. But a few doses of ‘meeting’ can add realism to a story and can serve as a solid backdrop for tension.

Agatha Christie uses meetings in several of her novels even though they aren’t really usually ‘ensemble’ novels. In The ABC Murders for instance, Poirot and the police work to solve a series of murders. They’re connected only by the fact that Poirot receives cryptic warnings before each killing and by the fact that an ABC railway guide is found near each body. The killer doesn’t leave many clues and the police don’t get very far at first. So the brother of one of the victims proposes what he calls ‘a special legion’ of friends and family members of the victims. His idea is that if everyone gets together and talks, among them they’ll remember something that may connect the murders. Poirot agrees and the group gets together. And it’s interesting to see how Christie uses that legion both to provide clues and to deceive the reader.

Ian Rankin includes a memorable meeting scene in his Resurrection Men. DCS Gill Templar and her team are investigating the murder of Edward Marber, an Edinburgh art dealer. They’ve interviewed people, looked at the forensics reports and in other ways worked the case as much as they can but so far, there haven’t been any solid leads. Everyone at St. Leonard’s Police Station is getting a little testy about it, including DI John Rebus. One morning Rebus has enough. Templar is leading the morning meeting outlining the day’s activities when Rebus makes a remark under his breath. Templar sarcastically invites him to lead the meeting, which is when Rebus throws a mug of cold tea in her direction. It’s not exactly a productive meeting and it serves to show just how tense everyone is. It also serves to get Rebus assigned to Tulliallan Police College for a chance at ‘redemption’ with some other police officers who’ve had difficulty working with others. They’re given a ‘cold case’ – the murder of gangster Rico Lomax – to solve as a team and they get to work. As the story goes on, Rebus finds that this case is related to the Marber murder and with help from his teammate DS Siobhan Clarke, he finds out the truth about both murders.

Helene Tursten’s Inspector Irene Huss and her teammates in Göteborg’s Violent Crimes Unit have regular meetings about their cases. They call their morning briefing ‘morning prayers’ and everyone who’s not actually out on a case or on holiday is expected to be there. The team often meets at the end of the day too to compare notes and get direction if there’s a major case. Under the supervision of Sven Andersson, the Violent Crimes Unit usually works well together so meetings are often a productive and helpful exchange of information. But people’s nerves do get rubbed raw at times. For instance, in Detective Inspector Huss, Birgitta Moberg gets fed up with her teammate Jonny Blom’s double-entendres and other crude jokes. For his part, he thinks she needs to ‘lighten up.’ The tension between them flares up more than once as the team investigates the death of financier Richard von Knecht so not all of the meetings are exactly productive and friendly. In the most dramatic of the meetings in this novel, the team members have been sharing reports at an evening briefing. Pizza’s been passed round and the coffeemaker turned on. Just then everyone hears a powerful explosion. Emergency crews are sent to the site of the explosion and discover that a bomb has gone off in a building where von Knecht had an apartment. Now the team has a new angle on the case and it turns out that von Knecht had a more complicated life than most people thought.

In Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman, the Paris CID La Crim’ is faced with a series of awful murders beginning with that of Marie-Hélène Jory. They’re just starting to work on that case when another body is found. This time the killer has left a cryptic warning: seven days, seven women. So it’s clear that the team will have to work as quickly as possible to catch the murderer. As the case goes on, CID Head Nico Sirksy, criminal psychologist Dominique Kreiss and the rest of the team pool their resources to try to solve these murders but the killer leaves very little evidence. Finally, though, there’s a breakthrough and after a few proverbial wrong turns, the team finds out who is responsible for the murders. This book also shows just how much work it takes to solve a series of vicious crimes. The team sometimes meets at all hours and there’s a real sense of tension as they try to work out who the killer is.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett often has to deal with meetings as she briefs her team, gets their reports and tries to co-ordinate her team’s effort. While some meetings go well, others don’t. For instance, in The Serpent Pool, Scarlett and her team re-open the investigation of the six-year-old death of Bethany Friend.  She said to have committed suicide by drowning herself, but Scarlett has never really believed that. So the team gets to work on the case. New to the team in this novel is Greg Wharf, who’s having trouble fitting in at first and who certainly annoys Scarlett. She considers his behaviour

 

‘Not quite insubordination, not far from it.’

 

And that makes for tension during team meetings. Still, Scarlett manages to work with Wharf well enough so that by the end of the novel, he’s a functioning part of the group. It’s not easy though…

Meetings often cause tension between people who don’t get along. They take up time and they can be tedious. But at the same time, they can be very productive and they can allow for communication that isn’t as easy and quick in any other way. That’s part of why we have them in real life, and with all of those disparate personalities together, it’s part of why we see them in crime fiction too. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a meeting to get to and I don’t want to be late.  😉

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed.

12 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Frédérique Molay, Helene Tursten, Ian Rankin, Martin Edwards

12 responses to “How to Walk Into a Conference Room With an Idea*

  1. I was going to say: Ick, meetings. But I don’t really mind meetings at work when they accomplish something.

    It does make sense that policemen would have meetings just like other working groups. I guess in most books I remember, the meetings are very informal and usually impromptu. It does seem like there were several meetings in the book I just finished, Mind’s Eye, by Nesser. When the police realize they have to begin the investigation all over again. In the current book I am reading, Open Season by Archer Mayor, about a police department in a small town in Vermont, everything seems more informal.

    • Tracy – I’m glad you mentioned Mind’s Eye. I like Nesser’s work very much, and I think he does give a fairly accurate description of what it’s like when police work together. Nesser does that in other novels too and I think it works very well.
       
      Thanks too for mentioning the Mayor. I’d heard about that one but not (yet) decided if I’m going to read it. I’m looking forward to your review of it.

  2. When you’re the boss of a police team I suppose it’s easy to get everyone together for a meeting, but I was reminded of the struggles poor old Archie Goodwin used to have to go through every time Nero Wolfe decided it was time to get all the suspects together…

    • FictionFan – Well, that’s true enough. And of course, Wolfe isn’t exactly flexible about that. When he says to bring Panzer and the rest of the team together, that’s what happens. He doesn’t really pay much heed to anyone else’s plans.

  3. Margot: Police settle for the prosaic word, meetings, to describe their gatherings. To be different and, I suppose attempt to elevate the importance, lawyers have conferences not meetings.

    When you read legal fiction there are constant conferences. John Grisham’s many books are filled with conferences of lawyers, Big firm or small firm or single person firm they all have conferences.

    Law firms have conference rooms rather than meeting rooms.

    Do academics meet or confer or is there another word for professors getting together?

    • Bill – You’re absolutely right about the myriad conferences there are in legal mysteries and thrillers. But that makes sense as I would imagine both sides of a case need to get input from all sorts of people. As you say, even novels featuring small firms include those meetings. In academia, at least in my experience, it’s a ‘meeting’ if it takes place in-house. A ‘conference’ is a gathering of academics from different colleges and universities.

  4. Maybe it’s more of a summons – but in procedurals there’s always an awful lot of times when the investigating policeman is called in by his/her superior and told they have to lay off the case, or work with someone they don’t like, or leave a witness alone. It’s such a standard scene. Along with someone saying ‘You’re getting too involved inspector X. You’re taking it too personally.’ Not a meeting that happens all that much in real life…

    • Moira – Oh, yes, the inevitable, ‘Have a seat and let’s talk’ meeting with the superior. You’re right that it’s a very common scene in, especially, police procedurals. Sometimes it’s handled very effectively – other times not. In fact, that whole thing of being called on the carpet is an interesting topic in and of itself…

  5. I used to *hate* meetings in my old job, especially internal ones which were just the worst. I used to think I’d die of boredom. I can easily imagine a murder being plotted while everyone drones on.

    • Sarah – LOL! I’ve been to meetings like that too. Some meetings (and you’re right; internal meetings are often notorious for this) seem to be held for no productive purpose at all. And like you, I can well imagine how many demises are being planned by people as they listen oh, so politely…

  6. Meetings seem to be even more common in TV crime series – a great opportunity, I suppose, to summarise where they are in the investigation, as well as reveal any hidden (or not so hidden) tensions within the team. I almost can’t think of any recent series that doesn’t feature several meetings. I especially enjoyed the ones highlighting the Danish/Swedish cultural differences (and different working practices) in the TV series ‘The Bridge’.

    • Marina Sofia – You know, I hadn’t thought of television series when I was preparing this post, but you have a very well-taken point. There are a large number of meetings in most crime dramas, and they do serve several purposes. One of course is as you say, to summarize where the case is. Another seems to me to be to further develop and distinguish the characters, as they can be in solid contrast to each other at meetings. This makes for suspense too, I think.

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