She Seems to Have an Invisible Touch*

ManipulatingHave 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Alexander McCall Smith, Cathy Ace, Donna Leon, Karin Fossum, Shamini Flint

26 responses to “She Seems to Have an Invisible Touch*

  1. That skill at manipulation can be used for good or evil, that’s for sure. In thrillers about serial killers and mass murderers, and in real life cases, these socio/psychopaths tended to be very manipulative and persuasive, even though often appearing quiet and/or timid. I was thinking of the female killer in The Third Deadly Sin by Lawrence Sanders. Of course, her manipulation techniques were not so subtle….

    • You have a well-taken point, Pat. Manipulation can be used for any number of purposes, both good and bad. And you’re right; certain kinds of socio/psychopaths can use manipulation extremely effectively. And therein, of course, lies the danger. They say that was true of Ted Bendy, and he isn’t the only example by any means. And in fiction, of course, there are dozens and dozens of examples, like the Sanders one.

  2. We live next door to one of these people. My poor husband gets caught in his web more times.

  3. Not quite what you are getting at perhaps, but you made me think of those god-like manipulators from behind the scenes that used to appear in several of the later Ellery Queen novels like TEN DAY’S WONDER and ORIGIN OF EVIL, making others do their dirty work

    • Oh, that’s really an interesting way to conceive of what I had in mind with this post, Sergio! Perhaps those manipulators aren’t beneficent. But they certainly have a way of getting people to do what they want without those people really being aware of it. And as an aside, I do like the way Queen handles t he matter in Origin of Evil. I think it’s clever.

  4. Margot, I have actually heard and seen Indian politicians threaten ordinary people, like street hawkers, with “Do you know who I am?” They are a sick and pathetic lot. How do they even manage to get elected?

    • Oh, that’s terrible, Prashant! There’s no excuse for behaving that way at all. I wonder, too, how they get elected. We some politicians like that here too, I’m afraid, and it’s really upsetting.

  5. Have you read In A Dark Dark Wood – Ruth Ware Margot? Manipulation is the key to this one.

  6. I’ve been recently enjoying Ariana Franklin’s 12th century Adelia mysteries: now she gets manipulated (protesting a lot) by Henry II, who seems regularly to need her help investigating something or other. He IS the King, so perhaps this isn’t so much of a discreet manipulation as those you mention, but he is a great character. And so is she.

    • Oh, they really are, Moira! And even in that case, where there’s such a power difference, there is a sense that the manipulation isn’t cruel. It’s assumed that she will acquiesce, but it’s not brutish.

  7. Col

    Interesting post. Alas no examples I can think of.

  8. I agree with Col, interesting but not a situation I remember reading about. I do want to finally read the Inspector Sejer novels by Fossum sometime. And also the Cait Morgan series by Cathy Ace. So thanks for reminding me.

    • Oh, the Karin Fossum series is one I particularly like, Tracy. I know I’m biased, but I really do think you’d like them. The Ace series is very nicely done, too, with a nice touch of wit. I hope that if you try these, you’ll enjoy them.

  9. Kathy D.

    Hmmm, King Henry II isn’t so directly manipulative with Adelia Aguilar. Who could manipulate her anyway? She has a backbone like my immigrant grandmother had, ( the one who worked at the Triangle Factory; she wasn’t there the day of the fire) with determination to do what she had to do in the face of danger and disapproval.
    However, that kind manipulated everyone to pay taxes to keep his kingdom going. I remember Tax Day when accountants came from everywhere to examine every poor soul’s finances and throw in jail those who couldn’t pay.
    That doesn’t even include the other poor souls who were involuntarily sent to fight in the Crusades. Adelia exposes all of this quite wonderfully.
    I know people who are very persuasive and can win people to doing things for the greater good. I don’t call it manipulative though.
    Gosh, where do people get the mental energy to be manipulative, to have double agendas going on, one underneath the obvious one? I have enough to deal with to just do what I must do and say. I can’t imagine having a hidden agenda.

    • That does take a real effort, doesn’t it, Kathy? I think it takes a lot less energy to simply and directly follow one agenda. But there are plenty of people who are manipulative in that way. And you’re right that King Henry doesn’t overtly ‘work on’ Adelia. One of the things I like about her character is that that probably wouldn’t succeed anyway. But he does get things done. And I’m very glad that we don’t pay our taxes now in the way they were paid then…

  10. Hi Margot, Fascinating post. As other comments have noted, the key here seems to be manipulation, and it occurs to me that manipulation is a prime element in crime and mystery stories, in the motivation, execution – and solving – of the crime. Alas, it seems manipulation also plays a big role in our culture in general, and not just mystery novels!

    • It sure does, Bryan. From politics to advertising to business and on, manipulation really does seem to play a major role in our culture. It does, of course, in mystery fiction, too. That makes sense, when you think about it. After all, the ‘bad guys’ want to manipulate a situation so that they can commit (and get away with) crime. The sleuth manipulates the situation to trip up the ‘bad guys,’ and so on. And that’s not even to mention the manipulation that goes on before there’s ever a crime…

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