Have you ever known someone with the kind of glib persuasiveness that could make you believe black was white? Not all people with a so-called ‘silver tongue’ have unpleasant ulterior motives, but they can certainly get people to do whatever they want. And very often you do find that confidence tricksters and other scam artists are persuasive like that. The savvy person knows that nothing comes without a price, and things that look too good to be real probably are. But even they can sometimes be moved to do things they might not ordinarily do, and all because of the so-called ‘silver tongue.’
We certainly see plenty of characters like that in crime fiction. In Agatha Christie’s Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for example, detective story author Ariadne Oliver has come to the village of Broadhinny to collaborate on the adaptation of one of her novels for the stage. Her partner in the project is budding playwright Robin Upward, who lives in the village with his mother. He’s got talent, and a vision of what he wants the play to be, and one of the sub-plots of the novel concerns his attempts to convince Mrs. Oliver that he’s right. For her part, Mrs. Oliver doesn’t care at all for Upward’s ideas about the play. The result he has in mind is nothing like her book, and that infuriates her. So he doesn’t succeed at winning her over, but it’s not for want of a ‘silver tongue’ and a real effort to persuade her. The play loses its interest for Mrs. Oliver when Hercule Poirot arrives in the village. He’s been asked to investigate the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger. Superintendent Spence thinks the man’s innocent though, and Poirot sets out to find the truth.
John Grant’s (AKA Jonathan Gash) Lovejoy also has a glib and persuasive way about him. He is an antiques dealer who is absolutely passionate about getting hold of the pieces he wants. In fact, that’s his main interest in life. And when he has his eye on a particular object, or when an opportunity comes his way, he can be highly charming and persuasive. He will say whatever it takes to get what he wants at the best prices possible. He admits it himself in The Judas Pair:
‘We dealers are pretty slick. Some are all right but some are not…Cleverer than any artist, better than any actor. They’ll pick your house clean in any way they can and brag about it in the pub afterwards.’
In that novel, Lovejoy works to track down a pair of mythical dueling pistols, one of which was likely used to commit murder. He finds himself involved even more deeply when there’s another murder.
In Carl Hiaasen’s Skinny Dip, we meet Charles ‘Chaz’ Perrone, a marine biologist (mostly in name) who works for a large agribusiness firm owned by Samuel Johnson ‘Red’ Hammernut. Hammernut is ‘in the sights’ of government authorities who believe his company is pouring toxic waste into the Florida Everglades. In order to prevent a media disaster and government prosecution, Hammernut engages Perrone to prove that the water near his firm is not polluted. Perrone is happy to oblige. For one thing, that proof is worth a lot of money to Hammernut. For another, Perrone has come upon a way to alter water tests so that it looks as though the water is safe. All goes well for a time. Perrone has a very glib tongue and has talked his way out of all sorts of difficult situations and into all sorts of women’s beds. Even his wife Joey trusts him, and she’s basically a smart person. That intelligence becomes a problem when she finds out what her husband’s been doing. Seeing no other option, he takes her on a cruise, allegedly to celebrate their anniversary, and pushes her overboard. Joey survives though, and finds her own way to strike back. In the meantime, Perrone has to use his glibness again when the police begin to suspect him.
Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace (AKA Dead Cold) introduces us to C.C. de Poitiers. She’s a celebrated ‘life coach’ who’s founded a company Be Calm to sell her image, her lifestyle suggestions and the inevitable related products and services. She’s got a best-selling book in print, too, with the same name. She’s quite good at selling herself and her message, and lots of people take her at her word. But the reality of her life is quite different. When she and her family move to the small Québec town of Three Pines, everyone soon sees that she is hard-edged, malicious and verbally cruel. On Boxing Day, everyone gathers for the traditional curling match that takes place in the area. During the match, de Poitiers is electrocuted. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his team investigate the murder and they have plenty of suspects.
One of the funnier examples of the ‘silver tongue’ is in Teresa Solana’s series featuring Barcelona PI brothers Eduard and Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Of the two of them, Borja is the one with the persuasive ability. He has the gift of being able to charm just about anyone into anything, and talk his way out of nearly every dicey situation. In fact, he even persuades his brother to get involved in more then one risky plan in A Not So Perfect Crime, when they investigate their first murder. And he juggles two mistresses, one of whom is wealthy enough that Borja can easily wear the designer clothes he prefers, and indulge in expensive haircuts and meals.
And he’s not the only PI who can be glib and persuasive. Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon-based PI Russell Quant would much rather talk his way out of a situation than throw punches or use a weapon. He can get people to do what he wants too, when he puts his mind to it. In Flight of Aquavit for instance, he is hired to find out who’s been blackmailing successful accountant Daniel Guest. The trail leads to a local repertory theatre company, but Quant knows that they won’t just volunteer personal information to a stranger, so he’ll have to be at his most charming and persuasive. So he adopts another name and ‘cover story’ and turns on the proverbial charm. He manages to convince the receptionist to get the information he wants, and uses it to get closer to the answers he needs. There are plenty of other PIs too who have that ability to be glib (I know, I know, fans of Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin).
And then there’s Jack Hardy, whom we meet in Wendy James’ Out of the Silence. That’s the fictional account of the life of Maggie Heffernan, who was imprisoned in Melbourne in 1900 for the drowning of her baby son. James shows us how it all began when Maggie meets Jack. He’s not only attractive, but he’s persuasive and glib. It’s not long before she’s in love with him and he seems to reciprocate. He leads her to believe that they’ll be married as soon as they can, but that they have to keep their engagement secret until he gets himself set up in a good job. Shortly afterwards, he leaves to find work in New South Wales. When Maggie discovers that she’s pregnant, she writes to him repeatedly but gets no answer. Knowing that her parents won’t accept her back in their home, she travels to Melbourne and finds a job in a Guest House. Once baby Jacky is born, she moves to a home for unwed mothers and their infants. That’s where she hears that Jack has gone to Melbourne. When she finally tracks him down, he rejects her utterly and she finally understands that she was taken in by his ‘silver tongue.’ She and baby Jacky are turned away from six lodging places that night, and that’s when the tragedy happens.
A lot of people associate a ‘silver tongue’ with lawyers because they have to be as persuasive as they can in the courtroom. Their job is to make their case as effectively as possible, so the art of persuasion is important. I’ll bet you could come up with lots of examples of legal novels where the attorneys have to depend on that quality.
Whether it’s a sales rep, a con artist, an attorney or someone else, the ‘silver tongue’ can be a valuable asset when you want to have your way. Which examples of this have you enjoyed in crime fiction?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Deep Purple’s Lady Luck.