Sooner or later, most of us are faced with the prospect of giving a lecture or presentation. It might be something as simple as sharing some information at a business meeting; or it might be a formal academic lecture. No matter what kind of presentation it is, there’s a lot to consider. There’s the matter of tailoring one’s talk to one’s audience. And there’s the not-at-all trivial matter of making the presentation interesting to that audience. Some people are naturally more extroverted than others, so one also has to consider the delivery. In particular, if you’re not a natural extrovert, how do you make your voice, your mannerisms and so on more interesting than whatever games members of your audience may be playing on their telephones? It’s also important to find ways to deal with the natural nervousness that can go along with giving lectures and presentations. Some people’s careers involve lots of presentations, so they’re accustomed to having all eyes on them, even if it’s not something they enjoy. Others, however, get extremely anxious in front of a group. Finally, there’s the matter of logistics. Power Point or video? What about the audio? Is there WiFi in the room you’ll be using if you need that? If not, how will you adjust? Handouts or no? How much time do you have? Are you going to leave time for questions and comments? You get the idea.
Despite all that, people give presentations all the time. So it’s little wonder we see them throughout crime fiction. Some characters handle them more easily than others. There’s an interesting mention of a presentation, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly. In that novel, Ariadne Oliver has been commissioned to create a Murder Hunt as an attraction for an upcoming fête at Nasse House, the property of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Mrs. Oliver has a strange feeling there’s more to this than just an attraction, so she asks Hercule Poirot to visit, and see what he thinks. Mrs. Oliver’s worst fears come true on the day of the fête, when fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker is strangled. On the surface of it, there seems no motive for the murder, but Poirot and Mrs. Oliver discover that the victim had a way of finding out other people’s secrets, and that she might have found out more than was safe for her to know. At one point, Poirot has a telephone conversation with Mrs. Oliver. His first question is whether it’s a good time to talk:
‘It’s splendid that you’ve rung me up,’ she said. ‘I was just going out to give a talk on How I Write My Books. Now I can get my secretary to ring up and say I am unavoidably detained.”
Mrs. Oliver is pleased to get out of this obligation because she feels there’s not much interesting about writing books:
‘What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up.’’
It’s much better, from her perspective, to work on the case at hand.
The real action in Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes begins when Miss Lucy Pym, who’s gained some renown as a psychologist, is invited to Leys, an exclusive physical training school for young women run by her old friend Henrietta Hedge. Miss Pym is scheduled to give a lecture on psychology to the Leym students. She’s there for several days and is getting to know the students when word comes that a well-known school has a job vacancy. Everyone thinks that Mary Innes will be selected; instead, the choice is Barbara Rouse. There are already some questions about Barbara; she’s behaved in an odd and secretive way. But this infuriates everyone. Then, Barbara is badly wounded in what looks like a terrible accident. Later, she dies of her injuries. Now Miss Pym has to use her observation and her knowledge of psychology to put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Kathryn Fox’s Malicious Intent introduces Anya Crichton, a New South Wales-based pathologist. She’s recently opened her own freelance office, and sometimes gives lectures at the local university. Here are her thoughts about preparing her lectures:
‘Put the word ‘forensic’ in a lecture’s title and it pretty much guaranteed a full house.’
Of course, university lectures don’t always go over the way one thinks they will. Trust me. Here, for instance, is the first question Crichton is asked:
‘‘Excuse me, but will this be in the exams?’’
Every educator will be able to relate to that. All thoughts of successful lecturing are put to one side, though, when Crichton’s friend, DS Kate Farrer, asks her to take a look at an unusual death. It turns out to be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg as the two end up pitting themselves against a very dangerous force.
Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind is an Oxford historian who became something of a celebrity. He’s gotten ‘burned out’ on it, though, and has taken a cottage in the Lake District. There, he works with DCI Hannah Scarlett as she and her Cold Case Review Team look into unsolved cases that still resonate. His work with Scarlett doesn’t mean that Kind has lost interest in his own field, though. He continues to do research and give presentations and lectures. In fact, in The Serpent Pool, he’s just returned from the US, where he spent several months giving a series of guest lectures. While he enjoyed the experience, he’s glad to back in the Lakes. And it turns out to be none too soon, as Scarlett and her team are faced with a six-year-old case of drowning that turns out not to be suicide, as was originally thought. That death, and two other, recent, deaths turn out to be related to Kind’s current research topic.
And then there’s Philip Kerr’s The Lady From Zagreb, which features his PI sleuth Bernie Gunther. The story takes place in 1956, but in it, Gunther remembers the Germany of 1942, when Gunther, who hated the Nazis, was drawn against his will into a Nazi plot. The goal was to get famous actress Dalia Dresner to return to making Nazi propaganda films. To defy the Nazis was not possible, but Gunther found a way to navigate the waters, so to speak. In one plot thread of this novel, the Germans have arranged an international crime conference; and General Arthur Nebe, who’s in charge of it all, wants Gunther to be speak at the conference. As you can imagine, Gunther is loath to do so:
‘‘My idea of public speaking is to shout for a beer from the back of the bar.’’
But Nebe has no other real option, and Gunther is not in a position to refuse. The conference makes for an interesting plot point in the novel.
Giving lectures and presentations is second nature to some. To others, it’s an onerous task best avoided if at all possible. But no matter how we feel about it, most of us have that experience sooner or later. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go through my Power Point slides and make sure my video works….
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Sublime’s What’s Really Goin’ Wrong.