Do you feel comfortable speaking in public? No? Well if you don’t, you’re not alone. The most common fear, so we’re told, is the fear of speaking in public. But the fact is that nearly all of us have to make a presentation, give a speech or in some other way speak in public at least sometimes. You might think that sleuths, both real and fictional, wouldn’t have to do this but they do. In fact, the ability to speak comfortably in public can make a real difference in a case even if it doesn’t lead to major clues.
In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers for instance, Ystad police inspector Kurt Wallander and his team have a very difficult case on their hands. Johannes and Maria Lövgren have been brutally attacked on their rural farm. Johannes is dead, but Maria lives long enough to say the word foreign before she too dies. There’s a lot of simmering resentment against foreigners in Sweden and this lurid case will not help matters at all. In fact it leads to another death. So Wallander has to do the best he can to put out the proverbial flames in all of his public comments. He doesn’t relish the prospect of making public speeches; he’d rather be solving the case. But if he doesn’t talk to the press, the anti-immigration hysteria will only get worse, and so will the perception that the police aren’t doing anything to solve the murders. So a couple of times in this novel, Wallander has to update the media on what the team is doing and at the same time discount the theory that the only solution to the case is to go after foreigners and immigrants.
We see a similar use of public speaking skill in Jørn Lier Horst’s Dregs. When the gruesome discovery of a left foot clad in a training shoe is made near the Norwegian town of Stavern, Inspector William Wisting and his team are put on the case. Soon afterwards, another foot is discovered. Then there’s another discovery. Soon, there are several theories about the deaths. One is that a twisted kind of killer is at loose, and that of course makes the locals very uneasy. So one of the jobs that the police have to accomplish is to reassure everyone that people are safe, and that the police are doing everything possible to find out what happened to the victims To that end, Wisting has to give more than one public speech to the press. He’s hardly frightened of doing so, but he is concerned about giving the right impression. So he thinks carefully about what he’s going to tell the media, and he considers his presentations before he gives them. In order to try to find out whom the feet might belong to, Wisting’s team looks at all of the people reported missing in the last year. As it turns out, most of them come from the same elder care home, so the team starts to focus its investigation there. What’s more, most of the people have a connection that goes back to the days of World War II, so there is a possibility that these deaths are connected to some long-ago events. Wisting’s public speaking doesn’t solve the crimes, but it does keep people calm enough to let the police do their jobs.
There’s quite a lot of public speaking in Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series. Kilbourn is a political science expert and an academician. So of course as a professor she does her share of public speaking in class, at conferences and so on. But it goes further than that. As the series featuring her goes on, she gets a position at NationTV on a political discussion show. And in A Killing Spring, it’s that forum that allows her to unsettle the killer of a colleague Reed Gallagher enough for that person to admit guilt. She arranges to make it clear to the killer that she knows what happened to Gallagher, and it’s very interesting to see how she uses the very public nature of NationTV to do so. This series also shows how dangerous public speaking can be. Perhaps I shouldn’t mention this in case some of you are really nervous about speaking to an audience but in Deadly Apperances, the first of the Joanne Kilbourn novels, her friend Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk is poisoned during an important political speech. Trust me, though; poisoning isn’t common during speeches. Really. It’s not.
One of the hardest things to do – even harder really than simply speaking in public – is to be funny in public. Standup comedians have to do ‘double duty.’ They have to be comfortable speaking in public and they have to think of material that will keep people laughing. That’s what Alan Orloff’s Channing Hayes faces in Orloff’s Last Laff series. The Last Laff is a comedy club in Northern Virginia that’s co-owned by Hayes and Artie Worsham. In Killer Routine, one of the comics Heather Dempsey disappears just before she’s supposed to do her routine. At first it looks as though she got too nervous at the last moment and simply fled. But Hayes doesn’t think so. Heather is the sister of Hayes’ fiancée Lauren Dempsey, who was killed in a tragic car accident, so he feels a special need to find Heather and see that she’s all right. It turns out though that he’s not the only one looking for Heather. She’s been keeping some secrets of her own, and Hayes will have to look more closely into her life if he’s going to find out what happened to her. At the same time, he’s been battling back from that same car wreck that killed his fiancée. He’s had to deal with guilt, grief, physical wounds and more, so he’s been very uncomfortable about going on stage again. This novel gives an interesting look at what it’s like for a nervous comic to take (or re-take) the stage.
Even mystery novelists have to do their share of speaking in public. Just ask Martin Canning, whom we meet in Kate Atkinsons’s One Good Turn. He’s a crime fiction writer who’s scheduled to appear as part of a panel at the Edinburgh Arts Festival. Canning isn’t much of a one at all for public speaking. He’d rather live in the dream world he’s created with his novels than in the real one most of the time. But his agent has convinced him that he’ll benefit greatly from the publicity that comes from making public speeches. So he agrees to go. When he gets to Edinburgh, Canning witnesses a car accident between a blue Honda and silver Peugeot. Both drivers get out of their cars and within seconds they’re arguing. Then, the driver of the Honda wields a baseball bat and tries to attack Paul Bradley, the Peugeot driver. Canning, who’s never done a courageous thing in his life, throws his computer case at the Honda driver and saves Bradley’s life. Feeling duty-bound to be sure Bradley is safe, Canning accompanies him to the local hospital. That’s how Canning gets drawn into a case of murder, deception and theft. In the light of the rest of the story, joining in a panel of crime writers, even in public, is not so scary…
But many people do find public speaking quite difficult. Do you? Which novels have you read where it plays a role?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from James V. Monaco and Mack Gordon’s I Can’t Begin to Tell You.