Oh Well I Heard a True Confession*

Talking to Total StrangersIt’s interesting how sometimes people tell things to complete strangers that they wouldn’t necessarily tell even to a good friend or family member. In some ways, odd as it seems, strangers can be easier to talk to, since they have no stake in a problem. Then too, a stranger is someone one may very well not see again, so there’s less risk in unburdening oneself. Of course, when that happens in crime fiction, you never know quite where it will lead…

In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we meet Katherine Grey. She’s spent the last ten years as a paid companion in the village of St. Mary Mead (and oddly enough, she doesn’t meet Miss Marple…). When her employer dies, Katherine unexpectedly inherits a fortune. She decides to use some of it to travel, something she’s never had the luxury of doing before, and decides to start by visiting some distant cousins in Nice. Katherine’s taking the famous Blue Train to Nice when she meets wealthy Ruth Van Aldin Kettering, who’s on the same train. Ruth is dealing with some personal problems and a dilemma, and Katherine strikes her as a sympathetic sort of listener. So Ruth unburdens herself at least to an extent. It turns out that her conversation with Katherine is one of the last that Ruth has before she is murdered that night. So when the train stops at Nice, the police want to interview Katherine and before she knows it, she’s embroiled in a murder mystery. Hercule Poirot has also come to Nice, and he works with Katherine and the police to find out who murdered Ruth Kettering and why.

A train is also the backdrop for Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train trip to visit his estranged wife Miriam. He’s unhappy in his marriage and has a lot on his mind. So when he meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s also on a journey, he’s happy for a sympathetic listener. Bruno too has his share of troubles. He’s got a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, and finds Haines a pleasant person to talk to about it. Then the conversation works round to a solution that Bruno proposes. His idea is that each man will commit the other man’s murder. Since neither man has a motive to commit ‘the other murder,’ the police won’t get suspicious. Haines doesn’t take Bruno seriously at first, but confiding in a stranger gets him into serious trouble when Bruno kills Miriam and then demands that Haines fulfil his side of the bargain.

A chance conversation in a taxi gets architect Stephen Booker involved in crime in Robert Pollock’s Loophole or, How to Rob a Bank. Booker has been laid off from his job with an architect firm, and hasn’t been able to find another in his field. So, in order to make ends meet, he’s taken a night job as a taxi driver. That way, so he thinks, he can use his days to keep looking for a new professional position. One night, his passenger is professional thief Mike Daniels. Daniels and his team of fellow thieves are planning to rob the City Savings Deposit Bank. But they’ve run into several logistics obstacles since the bank is well-protected and equipped with the latest in security devices and procedures. Daniels is an affable person and not a bad listener, so it’s not long before Booker tells him the story of his job loss and his frustrations. When Daniels learns Booker’s story, he realises that Booker could be just the man who could help the team get past the bank’s security barriers. So Daniels cultivates a friendship with Booker and then proposes that Booker join the team. Booker finally agrees and the team prepares for the robbery. Everything is planned down to the last detail. But no-one has anticipated the major storm that blows in unexpectedly…

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, art expert/historian Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere gets a call from pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. Pawlovsky has just gotten a painting that could be worth something and he wants Revere’s professional opinion. Revere agrees and takes a look at the painting. It turns out that it’s likely an extremely valuable Velázquez that was one of many ‘acquired’ by the Nazis during World War II. When Pawlovsky is murdered, Revere thinks that perhaps finding out how the painting got into the shop will lead to the killer’s identity. So he starts tracing the painting forward from when the Nazis took it to the present day. Before his death, Pawlovsky had arranged for Revere to meet his grand-niece Alexandra ‘Alex’ Porter. When the two meet for the first time, Alex finds Ben pleasant to talk to and ends up telling him a lot about her family background. In turn Ben finds her pleasant to talk to as well, and it’s interesting to see how the opportunity to talk to a stranger is helpful to them both. In fact, Alex proves to be a useful ally as Ben traces the painting and in the end, finds out the truth about Pawlovsky’s murder.

There’s a very interesting kind of opening up to a stranger in Virginia Duigan’s The Precipice. Thea Farmer is a former school principal who’s had a dream house built in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. She’s all ready for this next phase of her life when some disastrous financial decisions mean she has to sell her beautiful home. As the novel begins she’s had to take the house next door to her dream home – a house she calls ‘the hovel.’ As if that’s not bad enough, new neighbours buy her perfect home and move in. As it is, Thea isn’t much for company and would prefer to keep as much to herself as possible. But Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington have bought Thea’s dream home and she thinks of them as ‘the invaders.’ Thea is a very private person who tells very little about her life to anyone. But she and Frank eventually do develop a kind of rapport. Then, Frank’s twelve-year-old niece Kim comes to live with him and Elllice. Perhaps because Kim’s not threatening, and perhaps because Thea recognises real talent when she sees it (Kim is a born writer), Thea strikes up a friendship with Kim despite her dislike of strangers. And for her part, Kim likes Thea very much despite her prickliness. They end up telling more about themselves to each other than either thought would happen. But that’s precisely what leads to tragedy when Thea begins to suspect that Frank and Ellice are not providing a safe and appropriate home for Kim…

We normally think of sharing confidences with trusted friends and family members. But it’s odd how sometimes, people feel most comfortable talking with a stranger on a bus, a park bench, or a gym. And I haven’t even mentioned the myriad novels in which it’s the sleuth who’s the sympathetic stranger…



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dave Bartholomew and Antoine ‘Fats’ Domino’s True Confession.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Patricia Highsmith, Robert Pollock, Virginia Duigan

22 responses to “Oh Well I Heard a True Confession*

  1. The Highsmith is a great example of this Margot- and how amazing that you’ve the Pollock novel as I read it as a kid and still remember it fairly well but have never met anyone else that has even heard of it!

    • Sergio – Thanks for the kind words. You know it’s funny. The Pollock is a great little novel with some well-done features. I’d have to do more research than I’ve done, but I think he’s only written a few novels. He’s also a former footballer who’s written a few non-fiction things. I really would like to dig up some of his other fiction, but it’s very hard to find.

  2. In Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero, there’s a strand about people confessing to things they didn’t do – but there’s also a nice example of strangers who start talking and telling each other things, and they end up helping each other out and sorting out each other’s lives…. I always liked that bit very much.

  3. Trains do provide an opportunity to share confidences, don’t they? In Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Turns, young Iris Carr is feeling out of sorts travelling all alone from Germany to England. She strikes up an acquaintance with the middle-aged Miss Froy. Later in the journey Miss Froy disappears in thin air and worse still the other passengers in the carriage don’t seem to recall any such woman. Ghostly presences, feverish imaginings, or a conspiracy of silence?. Poor Iris almost goes out of her mind.

    • Neeru – Oh, that’s a great example of a story where someone starts talking to a stranger, and it has all sorts of consequences. Little wonder Hitchcock decided to use it as the inspiration for The Lady Vanishes. It’s a deliciously creepy tale. Thanks for the reminder.

  4. In Gillian White’s ‘Copycat’ the two women meet when kind-hearted Martha takes Jennie under her wing in the maternity ward. Both women end up sharing their secrets, providing plenty of ammunition when their relationship turns sour. I loved this one as showing how a random acquaintanceship can turn to an unlikely friendship and then on to a rivalry.

    • FictionFan – Yes, indeed. I’ll admit I’ve not yet read that one, but the maternity ward setting is really effective for that kind of sharing of secrets. And your point is so well-taken that that kind of can certainly be the basis of a friendship, or it can turn sour (or both).

  5. It is strange but true how easy it is to share confidences with a stranger. Or even someone you know more as an acquaintance than as a friend. And I can easily see how someone could take advantage of that situation. A fertile field for mystery novels. I have not seen Strangers on a Train (the film) in a long time. I should read it and watch it.

    • Tracy – I do recommend the film. In my mind, it’s very well done. And you’re right; it’s surprising until you think about it how easily one shares things with acquaintances or strangers, but not as easily with loved ones. Odd, isn’t it? And yes, people do take advantage of that…

  6. So true — I often bury my nose in a book because I tend to draw people who want to bare their souls to a stranger — I don’t feel comfortable listening to a person who clearly needs a therapist…or a prison term. I guess I’d make a good undercover investigator if I was trying to gather information and solve a mystery.

    • Pat – I’m exactly the same way. I think people see me as harmless, so they tell me their stories. If only they knew I write crime fictioni… 😉 Seriously, though, I think you have a well-taken point. People are more comfortable talking to a stranger at times.

  7. Col

    Strangers by Highsmith will hopefully get read next year!
    I was actually watching a true life crime programme earlier in the week, where a son had murdered his parents and with his brother’s assistance disposed of the bodies. They had actually gotten away with it, until one of the boy’s unburdened himself years later. It was quite a high profile case in the UK at the time.

  8. I have not had anyone confess to a crime such a murder, but I do attract strangers who want to tell me their life histories and sometimes very intimate details about themselves when travelling, as you may well have concluded Margot, from some of my stories. It is fascinating listening to a total stranger unburdening themselves and I can only imagine it is because they know that they shall never clap eyes (hopefully) on me again and so feel liberated. I on the other hand listen with interest, say little and file it all away for a rainy day when I am contemplating my navel, blank screen in front of me and suddenly these little snippets pop back into my head and the page remains blank no longer. I would love someone to tell me a dark secret but of course, if it were about a crime or a murder for instance, I would have to tell…..such a wonderful concept and imagine if one had been the person to unburden and the offer of a solution presented itself. What would one do? Endless possibilities I think.

    • Jane – Oh, there’s no doubt about it! Those stories people tell are not just fascinating, they’re also sources of inspiration. I can well imagine that you’ve gotten ideas for many a story from what people have told you. I know that’s happened to me, too. Like you I’ve never heard a confession of murder, but still, I’ve heard some interesting things.

      • I expect you have as I imagine you are a very good listener and people respond to that. I have the sort of face people seem to want to engage with and low and behold, within moments I know all their details, their inside leg measurements and the contents of their kitchen sinks! Alas, no dark and dastardly deeds have surfaced yet. One lives in hope. LOL

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