Being a detective, whether real or fictional, means that you sometimes have to have very awkward, even difficult, conversations. It’s not easy for instance to ask a grieving widow(er) for an alibi or to tell a subordinate s/he’s been fired. But those conversations happen in real life. And in a crime novel, they can add a solid layer of tension to a story. There are a lot of them out there and space only permits me to mention some. Hopefully you’ll get my point with just these few examples.
In Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, Hercule Poirot is in Cairo preparing for a cruise of the Nile. While he’s there he witnesses a very tense few scenes between newlyweds Linnet and Simon Doyle and Linnet’s former best friend Jacqueline ‘Jackie’ de Bellefort. There’s good reason for the tension too, as Simon was Jackie’s fiancé before he married Linnet. Since the wedding, Jackie’s been following the couple wherever they go and it’s unsettling, so at Linnet’s request, a very reluctant Poirot agrees to speak to Jackie. During that very awkward conversation, he urges her to put her hurt behind her and go on. It’s a difficult talk and Jackie doesn’t end up taking Poirot’s advice. When Linnet and Simon embark on a cruise of the Nile, Jackie goes as well and ends up as the chief suspect when Linnet is shot. It turns out that Jackie could not have committed the crime though, so Poirot and Colonel Race, who’s also aboard the cruise, have to look elsewhere for the killer.
In Paddy Richardson’s Traces of Red, Wellington TV journalist Rebecca Thorne hears about a story that could assure her career. Connor Bligh has been imprisoned for several years for the murders of his sister Angela Dickson, her husband Rowan and their son Sam. Only their daughter Katy survived because she wasn’t at home at the time of the murders. There are hints that Bligh might be innocent though. If he is, then he’s been wrongly imprisoned and the killer is still at large. The story has the potential for being powerful, so Thorne is determine to probe into it. As you can imagine, one of the people she wants to talk to is Katy Dickson. But Katy has no desire to talk to her. Katy has always believed that her uncle is guilty and she thinks the press is exploiting everyone’s grief. That’s to say nothing of her concern that the murderer of her family members might go free. So she absolutely refuses to speak to Thorne at first. The two have some extremely difficult conversations in the course of the novel, and they add to the story’s tension and interest.
In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight, Perth police Superintendent Frank Swann returns to the city after a seven-year absence when a friend of his is murdered. Ruby Devine was a brothel owner whose body has been discovered on a golf course. Although they were on opposite sides of the law, Swann considered the victim a friend and wants to find out who killed her. He knows the case is going to be difficult because it’s quite possible that the ‘purple circle’ of corrupt police know all about the murder and are covering it up. He’s already on their ‘list’ because he’s called for a Royal Commission hearing about corruption on the force. Since Swann can’t blindly depend on his colleagues, he tries to reach out to other people he knows – connections that he’s cultivated in the course of his work. One of them is Terry Accardi, who works in the Traffic department. At one point early in the novel, Swann and Accardi have a conversation about the case and about the fallout from Swann’s request for the commission hearing. It’s a very awkward conversation because for one thing, the ‘purple circle’ has let it be known that anyone who talks to or works with Swann will pay dearly. For another, Swann’s in the difficult position of having, one could argue, turned against his own by calling for the commission. So he’s not sure of Accardi’s loyalty. I don’t think it’s spoiling this story to say that Accardi doesn’t like the corruption any more than Swann does, and he proves helpful. But the tension between them in this scene is very clear.
Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn has very difficult conversations with a colleague in A Killing Spring. Reed Gallagher, Head of the Journalism Department at the university where Kilbourn teaches, has been murdered. KIlbourn gets involved in the case beginning when she helps to break the news of the murder to Gallagher’s widow. Meanwhile, some graffiti and other vandalism has occurred in the Journalism Department and the faculty there have to temporarily move offices while everything is cleaned up and repaired. So Kilbourn opens her office to Ed Mariani. The two get to know each other a bit and Ed and his partner Barry Levitt invite Kilbourn and her daughter Taylor over for dinner. This developing friendship makes it hard on both Kilbourn and Mariani when Kilbourn begins to suspect that Mariani could be the murderer. They have more than one very awkward conversation about the case and the strain that causes lends tension to the story.
In Deborah Nicholson’s House Report, we are introduced to Kate Carpenter, house manager for Calgary’s Foothill Stage Network (FSN). One evening during a performance of Much Ado About Nothing, the body of Peter Reynolds is discovered in one of the men’s washrooms. The police are called in and begin their investigation. The most likely suspect is Reynolds’ ex-wife Gladys, who works as an usher at the theatre. Gladys claims she’s innocent though, and doesn’t think the police will treat her fairly. So she asks Carpenter to help clear her name. Carpenter’s no professional sleuth, but she agrees to ask a few questions. Her interest in the case gets more personal when evidence turns up that links her lover Norman ‘Cam’ Caminksi to the murder. On the one hand, Carpenter wants to believe Cam is innocent, and she really doesn’t think he’s a murderer. But on the other, there’s certainly evidence against him and there is a possibility that he could be guilty. It makes for some very awkward conversations between them as Carpenter tries to find out the truth.
Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir have a strong professional relationship, even a friendship. But that doesn’t mean there’s no strain or awkward times between them. Matters come to a head as you might say in The Beautiful Mystery while the two are investigating the murder of Frère Mathieu, choirmaster at the monastery Saint-Gilbert-Entre-Les-Loups. I don’t want to spoil this story arc, but I can say that the rift between them doesn’t magically heal, and we learn more about it in How the Light Gets In. It’s a compelling look (at least it is to me) at what happens when some serious matters come between friends.
Awkward conversations are hard to write and in real life of course they make people uncomfortable. But sometimes they have to happen. I’ve only mentioned a few of them here. Your turn.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s The Dangling Conversation.