Have you ever asked yourself, ‘How did I get talked into doing this?’ If you have, then you know what it’s like to be under the spell of someone who’s a good manipulator. By that I don’t mean someone who deliberately and maliciously exploits others. Rather, I mean someone who has a way of getting people to do things without threatening, blackmailing, using social status (i.e. ‘Do you know who I am?’) or ‘pulling rank.’
Such people can sometimes be so subtle about it that you’re not even aware you’ve been persuaded…until you’re actually doing something. And they don’t always need to coax or obviously persuade; they just have a way of organizing things the way they want.
There are definitely such people in real life. There are in crime fiction, too, and they can be interesting characters. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, we are introduced to Lady Lucy Ankgatell. She and her husband, Sir Henry, invite a group of people to spend a weekend at their country home. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife Gerda. On the Sunday afternoon, Christow is shot. Hercule Poirot has been invited to lunch, so he arrives just after the murder. At first, he’s not even sure it is a real murder, because the scene looks deliberately set up for his ‘amusement.’ But soon enough he sees that it is all too real. Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. Throughout the novel, we see Lady Lucy’s way of getting people to do things. For instance, there’s a dinner-table scene in which she persuades one of the guests to engage another in conversation without saying a word. As Sir Henry says to one of the guests,
‘‘She gets away with things. She always has…She’s flouted the traditions at Government House – she played merry hell with precedence at dinner parties…She’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table… I’m damned if she hasn’t got away with it.’’
Lady Lucy arranges everything exactly the way she wants without ever being overbearing. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.
In Karin Fossum’s When the Devil Holds the Candle, Oslo Inspector Konrad Sejer and his assistant Jacob Skarre investigate the disappearance of Andreas Winther. When Andreas’ mother Runi first goes to the police about her son, Sejer doesn’t take the matter overly seriously, since the young man has only been gone for a couple of days. But as time goes on, Sejer begins to believe that something bad might have happened. So he starts to look into the matter. His first stop is Sivert ‘Zipp’ Skorpe, Andreas’ best friend. At first, Zipp says as little as possible to Sejer, for several reasons (and no, lest you make the obvious inference, he didn’t kill Andreas). But slowly, Sejer finds out what has happened to Andreas and why. And as he does, we see how Andreas has been able to manipulate people around him, including Zipp, without bullying, threatening, and so on. He’s been able to get people to do what he wants through his own charisma.
Cathy Ace’s The Corpse With the Silver Tongue begins when academician and criminologist Cait Morgan takes an injured colleague’s place at a conference in Nice. One afternoon, she’s relaxing at a café when an old acquaintance (and former supervisor) Alistair Townsend, happens to pass by. He sees her and, much to her chagrin, invites her to a birthday party he’s having for his wife, Tamsin. She dislikes Townsend, and certainly doesn’t want to go to the party. But she finds herself going all the same. And that’s how she ends up getting involved when he’s poisoned during the event. He doesn’t bully or blackmail her into going; it just never seems to occur to him that she won’t. It’s a sort of power of persuasion, if you think about it.
One of the ‘regulars’ in Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series is Mma. Silvia Potokwane, who runs a local orphanage. She is deeply devoted to the children in her charge, and goes to great effort to make sure they are well. Part of doing that involves getting other people in the area to help, and she is a master at that. In several story arcs and sub-plots, she arranges for orphanage events, gets people to donate time and money, and more. In fact, in Tears of the Giraffe, she even gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to take in two of the orphans living there. Here is his thinking about it:
‘How Mma. Silvia Potokowane…had managed to persuade him to take the children was beyond him…Mma. Potokwane was like a clever lawyer engaged in the examination of a witness. Agreement would be obtained to some innocuous statement and then, before the witness knew it, he would have agreed to a quite different proposal.’
That’s also how she gets Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni to agree to a parachute jump as a part of a fundraising event in The Full Cupboard of Life.
Several fictional sleuths have partners who have that power of persuasion. For example, Shamini Flint’s Inspector Singh is married to such a person. She’s not at all what you’d call shrewish. But she has a way of making him do what she wants. Donna Leon’s Paola Falier has the same gift, although she is a different sort of character. She is often able to persuade her husband, Commissario Guido Brunetti, to go places and do things that he might not otherwise want to do. And she serves, in part, as his conscience, so that she also gets him to do the ethical thing (not that he’s unethical by nature). What’s interesting is that she’s not a nag, and he’s not a weak-willed person. She manages to get what she wants without resorting to yelling or browbeating.
And that’s the thing about some people. They have a way of getting others to do things without really seeming to be manipulative about it. And they can certainly add ‘spice’ to a novel.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Genesis’ Invisible Touch.