Lost in the Dangling Conversation*

Awkward ConversationsBeing 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, David Whish-Wilson, Deborah Nicholson, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Paddy Richardson

12 responses to “Lost in the Dangling Conversation*

  1. Margot, in Christianna Brand’s “Death of Jezebel,” there is a good deal of tension between the two police officers working on the case – Inspector Charlesworth, who is in charge of the investigation and Inspector Cockrill, known as “Cockie,” who happens to be on the scene. While Brand wrote other books about both, this is the only book where they appear together. Cockrill – having let’s say run into serious problems on an earlier case (“Green for Danger”) introduces himself to the brasher Charlesworth – and we get:

    ““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.

    Needless to say, while the two work together, there is an additional strain put on both men – and it’s no spoiler to tell you that Cockrill will get some of his own back in the course of the investigation…

    • Les – That’s definitely an example of a very awkward, strained conversation. It’s all the more so because these two men have to work together, so Cockrill can’t say what he may really be thinking. I knew that if anyone could think of an effective example from classic crime fiction it’d be you.

  2. Excellent examples there – the Death on the Nile conversation is one of my favourite Agatha Christie moments!
    Another conversation which I always remember – and which does turn awkward – is in Sjowall & Wahloo’s Laughing Policeman. Martin Beck & Kollberg’s colleague Ake Stenstrom was gunned down together with 8 others in a night bus in Stockholm. They go to speak with Ake’s girlfriend Asa and discover not only that he had been rather less than 100% honest with her and with them. Kollberg has to go back and reveal the truth to Asa 19 days later and this makes for a very difficult conversation and a very moving scene.

    • Marina Sofa – Thanks for the kind words. And I’m so glad you gave an example from Sjöwall and Wahlöö. That series is one of the best crime fiction series available. And you’re right about that example too. As if that dishonesty hadn’t made things hard enough, they have to take away any illusions that Åsa had. So difficult for everyone I think, and a perfect example of what I had in mind when I wrote this post.

  3. That Death on the Nile example is so good, so full of sadness and emotion, even more so when you know where the book is going. In Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke there are many extraordinary conversations (including one at the end between Jack Havoc and the Canon) but I would pick out Canon Avril confronting Mrs Cash in his study, and also the remembered conversation he had with his (now-dead) wife many years before when she had got herself into debt. That book makes me shiver just to think of it….

    • Moira – Oh, I agree about Death on the Nile. Christie surpassed herself with those interactions I think. They are really powerful. And now you’ve mentioned Tiger in the Smoke, you’re making me want to read it again!! It’s been a while. You’re spot on about those conversations – extremely difficult, awkward, etc…

  4. I recently saw “Death on the Nile” television film in the “Poirot” series and thought it was done very well. David Suchet is outstanding as Poirot. Now I’m waiting to read the novel.

  5. Once again, no examples spring to mind. But I do agree that the job of detecting probably leads to many awkward conversations. With suspects. With witnesses. I guess you have to have a thick skin to be a detective.

    • Tracy – I think you really do. Any time there’s a murder investigation there’s a lot of hurt and pain along with all of the other awkwardness. I’m sure that real-life detectives have had to deal with all sorts of awful awkwardness, and a thin skin helps.

  6. Col

    No examples either.
    I do like the occasional book where the “awkward conversation” takes place in a courtroom with a barrister verbally dismantling the witness – that said I can only think of the film scene where Jack Nicholson – military officer of some description loses it under cross examination – A Few Good Men?

    • Col – Right you are about A Few Good Men. Those last few moments of the film are so dramatic aren’t they? Such tension during the questioning. I thought Nicholson did a great job in that role.

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