As They Would Mingle With the Good People We Meet*

Social SkillsIn today’s world of social media and electronic communication, we can be in contact instantly with people all over the world. I think most of us would agree that that can be a very good thing. But there are also some studies that raise the question of what happens to people’s face-to-face social skills when they focus a lot on social media. And any crime fiction fan can tell you that social skills – the ability to mingle with different kinds of people – are very important for sleuths.

The social skills one needs to make appropriate eye contact, ‘read’ people’s expressions and so on allow the sleuth to find out valuable information. What’s more, those social skills give the sleuth the background to make sense of what people say (and don’t say) and what their non-verbals mean. It’s harder for people with few social skills to work those things out, even if they are highly intelligent.

There are some fictional sleuths who are very effective ‘minglers.’ They’re good at getting people to talk to them and they’re good at making sense of people’s non-verbals. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is one of them. To most of the English people with whom he interacts, Poirot is most emphatically a foreigner. But he has the ability to mix and mingle with all sorts of different kinds of people, including people from different social classes. We see that for instance in Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air). In that novel, Poirot travels by air from Paris to London. One of his fellow passengers is Marie Morisot, a French moneylender who goes by the name of Madame Giselle. When she is poisoned en route, Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who the killer is. He interacts with several different kinds of people during that investigation, including Madame Giselle’s maid Elise Grandier and Venetia Kerr, who is ‘well born.’ He has a knack of getting the various characters to talk to him, and the skills to ‘read’ what they say. And that information helps him get to the truth. I know, I know, fans of Death on the Nile.

Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte has solid social skills too. He is a member of the Queensland Police, so he’s sent to a wide variety of different places, and has to interview all sorts of people in the course of his work. Since Bony is bi-cultural (half Aboriginal/half White), he frequently works with both Whites and Aboriginal people as he investigates. And he has the skills to get people to talk to him no matter their background. In stories such as The Bone is Pointed and The Bushman Who Came Back, he gets ranch hands to trust him at the same time as he mingles effectively with Aboriginal people who give him information. And in some stories, he gets children to trust him, too (Death of a Swagman is an example of that). Bony certainly depends on what he calls ‘the Book of the Bush’ – clues in nature – to help him solve crimes. But he also depends on his social skills. I’m not sure he’d be able to find out as much just using a social media application…

Social skills are important in the PI business, but they aren’t a ‘strong suit’ for Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. That’s where Archie Goodwin comes in. He does do a lot of the ‘legwork’ for Wolfe. But he also does his share of mingling with other people and getting a sense of them. Wolfe doesn’t always like to admit it, but he depends on Goodwin’s social skills, since he himself is almost never willing to use tact or diplomacy. It’s part of what makes that pair a formidable team. Wolfe has the brilliance (‘though Goodwin is no mental slouch) and Goodwin has the ‘people skills.’

Journalists often find that the better their social skills, the more information they get. Certainly that’s true for Lilian Jackson Braun’s James ‘Qwill’ Qwilleran. After a career in big-city news reporting, he’s ended up in Pickax, a small town in Moose County, ‘400 miles north of nowhere.’ He’s got a way of getting all kinds of people to talk to him; and even though he prefers to live alone, he’s got solid social skills. Part of his local appeal comes from his fame as a newspaper columnist. But people do naturally seem to trust him and he’s good at ‘reading’ them, for the most part. And that’s how he often gets people to confide in him.

And then there’s Teresa Solana’s Barcelona PI Josep ‘Borja’ Martínez. Borja and his brother Eduard are in many ways a study in contrasts, although they’re fraternal twins. Where his brother is more reserved, Borja is outgoing, even gregarious at times. He mixes with all sorts of people, and his social skills are considerable. Those skills are often key to getting new clients for the business. For instance, in A Not So Perfect Crime, Borja uses his ability with people to engage Lluís Font, a Member of the Parliament of Catalonia, as a client. Font believes that his wife Lília is unfaithful, and he wants the brothers to find out if that’s true. They take the case and for a week, they follow her movements and find out what they can about her. But there is no evidence that she’s seeing anyone. Then one evening, she is poisoned. Now Font is the prime suspect in her murder. He asks the Martínez brothers to continue working for him and clear his name. Although they’ve never worked a murder case before, they take this one, and it’s soon clear that more than one person might have had a motive. Throughout the novel, there are situations that Borja manages to negotiate because of his social skills.

There are certainly famous fictional sleuths who are not, as the saying goes, good with people. But for a sleuth to get information, it’s useful to have the kinds of social skills needed to make people feel comfortable. It does make one wonder what will happen to fictional detectives as social media and electronic devices continue to be really popular.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Upfield, Lilian Jackson Braun, Rex Stout, Teresa Solana

22 responses to “As They Would Mingle With the Good People We Meet*

  1. Maigret is my favourite example: he seems to solve many of his cases by sitting in a nearby cafe, drinking his white wine aperitif and chatting to people. I won’t mention Miss Marple, of course, who is a born interrogator dressed as a lamb… And I’m sure I’d be happy to talk for hours with Armand Gamache and tell him everything I know about a murder.

    • Oh, you’re right about both Maigret and Gamache, Marina Sofia. Both of them are very personable, and they have the social skills to learn all sorts of things about people. And what’s interesting is that they mix and mingle with all sorts of people. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. As MarinaSofia says, Miss Marple is sort of the ultimate sleuth relying on her social abilities to gather information and clues. So is Patricia Wentworth’s marvelous Miss Silver, who has a wonderful habit of sitting quietly in a room full of possible suspects and doing her knitting, while simply listening to the conversations around her – after all, who would suspect a kindly little old lady doing her knitting of being an amazing investigator of crimes!

    • Exactly, Les! And I actually almost included Miss Silver in this post; she is just so good at mingling with people. But since I didn’t, I’m very glad that you did.

  3. I loved Lord Peter Wimsey going undercover to investigate the crime at Benson’s Agency in Murder Must Advertize; he mixes with all the workers and asks a load of questions, and the picture of office life and conversations and interactions is wonderful

  4. Muah! You just gave me a great idea! Thank you, Margot!

  5. Very good point Margot – specially nowadays, protagonists in modern books so often have lousy social skills – just read one of Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen books, 1222, and my goodness she can be grumpy! But on the other hand, she is very good at reading people – it’s just that she doesn’t like doing it as she just want to be left alone all the time 🙂

    • Well-said, Sergio! That’s just it. She can ‘read’ people, and she certainly knows her job. But extroverted? No. It’s an interesting contrast isn’t it?

  6. Kathy D.

    Guido Brunetti has a lot of social skills. He talks to people and they respond to him, often spilling the beans about the crime.

  7. Having good social skills would be very useful for a sleuth. I love the way that Poirot could overcome people’s prejudices and effectively mingle with them. Although some of my favorite sleuths were a bit awkward, which didn’t help them out, but gave them an interesting flaw to work around. Inspector Morse comes to mind here, in particular.

    • Elizabeth – It’s quite true that Poirot could get all sorts of different people to feel comfortable around him, even if they were initially prejudiced against him. And it’s useful for sleuths to have that kind of skill. But there are definitely some memorable sleuths (like Morse) who are a little more awkward socially. And then there are sleuths such as your Myrtle Clover who aren’t exactly extroverted, but who can get people talking when they want.

  8. Margot: I think of Joanne Kilbourn (Gail Bowen) and Russell Quant (Anthony Bidulka) as a pair of sleuths who learn a great deal because people like talking to them just as people who have met their creators enjoy talking to their authors.

    • Bill – I haven’t had the privilege of talking to either author, but I have been in email contact with both. They are very enjoyable people. And so are their creations. I could well imagine spending time talking with both Joanne Kilbourn and Russell Quant.

  9. Loving this post and I’m wondering if this is why many of my favourite sleuths work in partnership e.g. Dalziel is a little bit too direct to always get to the answer but Pascoe is better socially and together this approach gets them results. Similarly although Morse reads people well he often needs Lewis to smooth the way to get people to ‘spill the beans’

    • That’s a very well-taken point, Cleo, and not one I’d thought of when I put this post together. There’s no doubt that the Dalziel/Pascoe and the Morse/Lewis partnerships work, and part of that probably is that one of the members is good with people. Thanks for the ‘food for thought,’ and the kind words.

  10. Kathy D.

    Good point about Dalziel and Pascoe. It’s a wonder Dalziel can ever get evidence out of people he’s such a blowhard. But he’s a smart one at that.
    Thinking about Nero Wolfe and social skills is a bit of an oxymoron. He has none, just blusters along, yelling at people, including his detectives, chef, gardener, and anyone who comes along as a suspect or witness.
    No wonder his hobby is orchids; they can’t talk back — or talk at all.
    It’s a wonder anyone works for him.

    • Kathy – It is a wonder isn’t it? Dalziel and Wolfe are, of course, very different people. But they have in common that they simply don’t have good ‘people skills.’ They’re brilliant, and they get to the truth. But they have no concern at all for the social niceties.

  11. I would think ability to mingle and chit chat would be a good skill for PIs, more so than policemen, who don’t need an excuse to ask questions and investigate. Very interesting post.

    • Thanks Tracy. And I think there really is a difference between PI or amateur sleuths and cops. As you say, cops don’t need an excuse to ask people questions (although they do get more information when they have social skills). But people aren’t required to talk to PIs or to amateur sleuths.

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