‘Cause He Was in the Mood For a Little Confrontation*

ConfrontationOne of the strategies authors use to build suspense is confrontation between people. In crime fiction that confrontation is often between the sleuth and the suspect/culprit, but it doesn’t have to be. Whenever there are two people who are opposed or perhaps are rivals, there is the possibility of a confrontation. It certainly happens in real life, so it makes sense that it would also happen in crime fiction too. It’s not always easy to write about a confrontation because unlike film-makers, authors don’t have the advantage of the visual. But when it’s done well, a confrontation adds to the suspense and builds tension. It’s realistic too. As you’ll imagine, there are far, far too many well-written confrontations in crime fiction for me to mention them all. So I’ll rely on you to help fill in the gaps.

There’s a very effective confrontation between Hercule Poirot and M. Giraud of the Sûreté in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links. In that novel, Poirot and Captain Hastings travel to Merlinville-sur-Mer to the home of Paul Renauld. They’ve come because Poirot received a letter from Renauld claiming that his life was in danger and begging for Poirot’s assistance. But by the time Poirot and Hastings get to France, it’s too late: Renauld has been stabbed. M. Giraud is placed in charge of the case and it’s clear from the outset that he and Poirot will not get on. Matters between them steadily worsen until they have a confrontation:


‘Poirot drew himself up. A dangerous light showed in his eyes.
‘Monsieur Giraud, throughout the case your manner to me has been deliberately insulting. You need teaching a lesson. I am prepared to wager you five hundred francs that I find the murderer of Monsieur Renauld before you do. Is it agreed?’
Giraud stared helplessly at him and murmured again: ‘Toqué!’
‘Come now,’ urged Poirot, ‘is it agreed?’
‘I have no wish to take your money from you.’
‘Make your mind easy – you will not!’
‘Oh, well then I agree! You speak of my manner to you being insulting. Well, once or twice, your manner has annoyed me.’
‘I am enchanted to hear it’ said Poirot. ‘Good morning, Monsieur Giraud. Come, Hastings.’’


Fans of Poirot will not be surprised that he wins that bet. And this confrontation shows part of the human side of Poirot.

In Ian Rankin’s Resurrection Men, the team at St. Leonard’s Police Station is investigating the case of Edward Marber, a murdered Edinburgh art dealer. There haven’t been many productive leads in the case and everyone’s nerves are getting frayed. Then one morning, DCS Gill Templar is holding a meeting for her staff to discuss the case. DI John Rebus is fed up with what he sees as another useless round of time-consuming ‘phone calls, interviews and so on. He makes a remark under his breath and Templar calls him on it:


‘‘Well I’m sure we all can learn something from you, DI Rebus.’ Not ‘John’ anymore. Her voice rising to match his…
‘Maybe you’d like to come up,’ she was saying, ‘and give us the benefit of your thoughts on the subject of just exactly how we should be proceeding with this inquiry.’ She stretched an arm out, as if to introduce him to an audience.
‘Ladies and gentlemen…’

Which was the moment he chose to throw the mug. It traveled in a lazy arc, spinning as it went, dispensing cold tea.’


That choice gets Rebus remanded to Tulliallan Police College for a ‘last chance’ opportunity to learn to work better with a group of other people. In this case, it’s a group of police officers who have difficulty working with others. That assignment isn’t going to stop Rebus looking into the Marber case though…

Nevada Barr’s Track of the Cat introduces readers to National Park Service Ranger Anna Pigeon. In this novel, she’s been assigned to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. One day, she finds the body of fellow ranger Sheila Drury. All of the signs point to the likely possibility that Drury was killed by a mountain lion. Pigeon is truly hoping that’s not so, as she fears for what will happen to the park’s population of mountain lions of people hear that one of them killed a human. What’s more, some of the evidence just doesn’t seem to add up to a lion kill. So Pigeon starts asking questions. Almost immediately she meets a ‘wall of resistance’ from locals who are only too happy to shoot the animals, and from the authorities, who don’t want any unfavourable attention. In the end though, Pigeon finds out how and by whom Sheila Drury was killed. When she does, there’s a strong final confrontation scene between her and the killer, who thinks Pigeon will be easy prey. It turns out though that she is not…

In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, political scientist and academician Joanne Kilbourn is drawn into the investigation of the murder of Reed Gallagher, a university colleague. As it happens, Kilbourn knows the victim’s wife Julie, so she comes along to help break the news of Gallagher’s death. Julie’s history with Kilbourn has not always been pleasant, and of course, the news of her husband’s death is a shock, so when Kilbourn and Regina Police Force Inspector Alex Kequahtooway go to the Gallagher home, they aren’t exactly received warmly. Julie is silent at first, and then lashes out, insulting both of her visitors. They do their best to keep their tempers in check, but it’s a real scene of conflict. In fact, here’s what Kilbourn and Kequahtooway say about it afterwards:


‘‘My grandmother used to say that every time we turn the other cheek we get a new star in our crown in heaven.’
Alex raised an eyebrow. ‘Let’s hope she’s right. I have a feeling that before Reed Gallagher is finally laid to rest, his widow is going to give us a chance to build up quite a collection.’’


Neither sleuth lets this conflict get in the way of finding out what happened to Gallagher.

Peter Temple’s Jack Irish gets into more than one confrontation in his line of work. He’s a sometime lawyer who also has a side business of finding people who don’t want to be found. When a former client Danny McKillop is murdered in Bad Debts, Irish decides to find out why and by whom. At one point, he’s following up a lead at the Safe Hands Foundation, a charitable organisation. He wants to speak Father Gorman, who’s head of the group. Here’s what happens when Irish gets to the door and confronts the security man:


‘Then he wanted my driver’s license.
‘I’m not trying to cash a cheque here, sonny,’ I said. ‘Just phone the man.’
Tight little smile. ‘The body corporate lays down the security proceedings.’ Flat Queensland voice. Pause. ‘Sir.’
‘This isn’t Pentridge,’ I said. ‘Didn’t they retrain you for this job? Just phone.’
He held my  gaze briefly but I’d got him in one. ‘I’ll check,’ he said.’


As it turns out, Irish gets an interesting lead on a man he’s trying to find once he gets past security. 

Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Carl Mørck is not the most cheerful of people under the best of circumstances. And in Mercy (AKA The Keeper of Lost Causes), he is especially testy as he copes with the aftermath of a line-of-fire shooting incident. He was gravely wounded and one of his colleagues was killed in the tragedy. Another has been left with paralysis. Mørck becomes so difficult to work with that he is ‘promoted’ to head a new department, ‘Department Q,’ that’s charged with investigating cases of ‘special interest.’ The first such case is that of Merete Lynggaard, an up-and-coming politician who disappeared five years ago. Evidence soon suggests that she may still be alive, so Mørck and his assistant Hafez al-Assad re-open the case. Along the way, Mørck finds more than one instance where the original investigator Børge Bak missed important evidence. At one point, the two have a meeting in the office of their boss Marcus Jacobsen. Here’s what Mørck says:


‘So,Bak! That was a hell of a job you lot did on the Lynggaard case. You were up to your necks in signs that everything wasn’t as it should be. Had the whole team caught sleeping sickness or what?…So now I want to know if there’s anything else in the case that you’re keeping to yourself…Was there someone or something that put the brakes on your excellent investigation, Børge?’


Of course, that’s exactly the wrong approach to take to enlist Bak’s help in providing any information he has. Eventually, though, Jacobsen gets Bak to add to the reports he’d submitted, and that information helps greatly in the investigation.

Confrontations are difficult to write, as they have to be authentic. But when they’re well done, they can add a solid thread of tension to a story. I’ve only had space here for a few examples. Your turn.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Carole King’s Smackwater Jack.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Jussi Adler-Olsen, Nevada Barr, Peter Temple

22 responses to “‘Cause He Was in the Mood For a Little Confrontation*

  1. Great topic – one that always adds spice to a story! One of my favourite Simenon stories is Maigret’s Mistake: the only when where Maigret is almost intimidated following a confrontation with a renowned and rather domineering surgeon.

  2. One of my favorites from a recent read is between two of Christianna Brand’s series detectives who appear together in “Death of Jezebel.” Her main detective, Inspector Cockrill, is introduced to the inspector who is actually assigned to the murder investigation, Inspector Charlesworth. The two have never met – but Charlesworth remembers that “Cockie” had, er, problems in an earlier Brand book, “Green for Danger.” On being introduced:

    “Cockrill, Cockrill…” said Charlesworth thoughtfully biting upon his underlip. “Where have I…? Oh, yes! It was you who made such a muck of that hospital case down in Kent!” Innocent of the slightest intention to wound, he shook the Inspector thoroughly by the hand. “Delighted to have you down here. Hang around!”
    “Thank you,” said Cockie austerely.

    You may be quite sure that Cockie gets his own back – solving the case much to Charlesworth’s surprise. And Cockie can’t resist a final dig:

    “Wise BEFORE the event, you see,” he said with ineffable sweetness to Inspector Charlesworth…And with a satisfied twinkle in his eye, he stumped off into the night.

    It’s a delightful sparring contest between the two (even when they work together, as they do for much of the book).

    • Les – Oh, that’s a priceless confrontation! And each of them gets a taste of the other as you might say. Thanks for sharing this. Little wonder I have so much respect for Brand’s writing. Underrated, sez I.

  3. I’m currently reading David Whish-Wilson’s wonderful second novel in the Frank Swann series, Zero at the Bone. This noir tale is filled with confrontations between Swann, an honest ex-cop, and his corrupt former colleagues. In one scene, Swann is brutally beaten by a corrupt Detective Inspector and taken to a lock up in the same police station where he once served, where he makes the following, chilling observation:

    They hadn’t taken Swann’s belt, or shoelaces, as they were supposed to.

    Now he had to wait, for what happened next. For the darkness to fall, for the early hours, when they would come at him, and string him up. Paint it as an act of desparation, and despair.

    I won’t say what happens next for fear of spoilers, but the novel brilliantly riffs on confrontations between the corrupt and the incorruptible.

    • Angela – Oh, that does sound terrific. And I know Whish-Wilson’s work well enough to be confident that it’s well-written and draws the reader in. That’s an excellent example too of a powerful confrontation even if it’s not between a sleuth and a suspect. ‘Course in this case, some of the cops are the ‘bad guys…

  4. IN Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke there is an astonishing confrontation between Jack Havoc and Canon Avril – a very memorable encounter between the forces of good and evil, and one to make the reader shiver.

  5. Margot: Confrontation is at the heart of many cross-examinations in court.

    No one who watched the Perry Mason shows with Raymond Burr will forget his confrontations with witnesses.

    In Scott Turow’s book Sandy Stern is a skilled at more subtle confrontations.

    In the legal mysteries of Canadian writers, William Deverell and Robert Rotenberg, the lawyers challenge witnesses to get testimony the witnesses never expected to give in court.

    I wish real life cross examination was easy as the fictional lawyers make it look in their cases.

    • Bill – You’re right; cross examination is a special and sometimes very powerful form of confrontation. And it’s not easy to portray it well in books because so much depends on the visuals and on non-verbals such as pauses, tone of voice and so on. Conveying that in just words is not easy. And thanks for those examples, too. You also made me think of the ‘Perri O’Shaughnessy team,’ whose Nina Reilly also engages in cross examination.

  6. I’m glad Bill Selnes mentioned Perry Mason for one of the most intense confrontations I have come across in crime fiction are the ones between Mason and Hamilton Burger. One of the things that attracted me to Perry Mason novels were those courtroom battles with Burger and company. I think there were quite a few novels where the DA didn’t feature. I remember turning to the last few pages to see if there were courtroom scenes before actually reading Gardner’s books.

    • Prashant – I’m glad Bill mentioned courtroom showdowns too. They are important literary (and real-life actually) confrontations. And you’re right; Erle Stanley Gardner did them very well.

  7. Interesting topic and some great examples, Margot. Lots of books here I want to read someday. I cannot believe that I have not read any Nevada Barr books yet. I have had her first one on my TBR pile forever.

    • Tracy – Thank you. Some of Nevada Barr’s books have a lot of violence in them, but I haven’t found them overly gratuitous. Still, Anna Pigeon has to deal with her share of terrible situations. I like her character very much though, and I like Barr’s writing style. I do recommend her work.

  8. Col

    I like reading about confrontations, probably because I prefer to avoid them in my daily life – not always possible. Thanks for reminding me that I need to re-visit Temple and Irish.

    • Col – I know what you mean. I’m not one to seek out confrontation myself. As you say, it’s not always possible to avoid it though. And I think Peter Temple’s work is always worth a re-read.

  9. For a slightly different take on confrontation, you could try Douglas Adams’ hilarious ‘Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency’. It’s a brilliant mix of detective novel, comedy and surrealist sci-fi where the eponymous main character ends up in confrontation with just about everyone, from his best mate to his long-suffering secretary to the police. The end result is very, very funny.

    • Tess – Thanks so much for reminding me of that terrific novel! You’re right that Gently does get into it with just about everyone. And it’s got so much of Adams’ trademark wit. Folks, she’s right; do try it if you haven’t.

  10. Margot – I’m with Col: love reading about confrontations in mysteries but hate them in real life. The hard-boiled mystery tradition seems a natural for the confrontation scene, and one of my favorites occurs in The Maltese Falcon just before the police arrive: Spade has it out with Brigid O’Shaughnessy and forces her to tell the truth of the matter.

    • Bryan – Oh, that is an absolute classic confrontation moment isn’t it? I’m very glad you mentioned that. Moments like that can make a novel unforgettable, but like you, I prefer fictional confrontations to real ones…

  11. kathy d.

    Nevada Barr’s series — a must-read if ever there was one. They vary in violence and confrontations, and stories, too, but they’re nearly all very good unputdownable reads. And Anna Pigeon is a complicated character; layers of her personality are revealed in each book.
    As a veteran of the Perry Mason TV series and some books, I recall his confrontations with suspects and witnesses were usually done verbally and in court — not too much violence.
    And I recall this about Raymond Burr as Ironside, too. Just watched the new TV version of Ironside with Blair Underwood. About the only commonality is the main character’s disability, but the amount of violence in the new show is awful, makes it unrecognizable to the old one.
    Confrontations are often good in fiction, but still the gratuitous violence is getting hackneyed. Words, arguments, evidence, proof — all good, cerebral confrontations or legal ones are better in my book than all this physical violence. What would Sherlock Holmes say to all this?

    • Kathy – Good question. About the new Ironside…I was wondering whether that’s good. Perhaps I’ll give it a miss. I’m glad you’ve reminded me of the way the courtroom confrontations were done in the old Perry Mason TV series. Quite dramatic. And I think you’re right about Nevada Barr’s Anna Pigeon series. It’s very well-crafted and as you say, Pigeon herself is complicated. Not unrealistic, but complicated and interesting. And I do love the settings of those novels. I think Barr does an excellent job of changing settings too, as Pigeon moves among the different National Parks.

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