Don’t Ask Me No Questions*

Don't Ask QuestionsOne of the challenges that sleuths face, both in real life and in crime fiction, is to get answers to their questions.  That can be difficult under the best of circumstances, since a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking to the police. It’s even more of a challenge among groups where the social rule is that you don’t ask too many questions.

In those situations, even an amateur sleuth, who might otherwise be considered less of a threat, can run into a proverbial roadblock. The friction between sleuths who need answers and people who aren’t accustomed to that culture of questioning can add a layer of tension and interest to a crime novel.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Third Girl, Hercule Poirot gets a visit from a young woman who says she may have committed a murder. She doesn’t give her name, though, and leaves abruptly, before Poirot can find out anything more about her. When Poirot has a telephone conversation about it with his friend, detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver, she says that the young woman sounds familiar to her. And it turns out that she has met the woman and knows her name: Norma Restarick. By the time Poirot learns who his visitor was, though, Norma has disappeared. She shares rooms with two other young women, but in that youth culture, people don’t ask a lot of questions or really check up on each other. So neither of Norma’s two roommates knows where she is. Even her boyfriend says he isn’t sure of her whereabouts. So it’s not easy to trace Norma. Poirot and Mrs. Oliver have to follow several leads before they find out the truth about her and about the murder.

In Aaron Elkins’ Loot, Boston art expert Benjamin ‘Ben’ Revere learns all too well that the art buying community has its share of people who aren’t used to asking questions. One day, Revere gets a call from his friend, pawn shop owner Simeon Pawlovsky. He’s just gotten a new painting into his shop, and thinks it may be valuable. Revere stops over at the shop to have a look at the painting and is shocked to find that it is very likely a priceless Velázquez that was ‘taken for safekeeping’ by the Nazis. He can’t be 100% sure, though, so he wants to do a little research. Pawlovsky isn’t willing to let the painting leave his shop, even though Revere tries to convince him that it would be safer. Finally, a very reluctant Revere goes off to find out more. When he returns a few hours later, Pawlovsky is dead. Guilt-ridden over having left his friend in a vulnerable position, Revere wants to do something to help. He reasons that if he can trace the painting from the time it was taken by the Nazis until the time it went to the pawn shop, he’ll find the killer. So he travels to Europe to follow the trail. He finds, though, that a lot of people are all too happy to acquire art without asking too many questions about where it came from originally. So it’s difficult to follow the painting’s history. Still, Revere persists, and in the end, he finds out the truth about the Velázquez and about Pawlovsky’s murder.

Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone begins with the execution-style shooting of an unknown Senegalese immigrant in an open-air Venice market. It takes Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello some time and effort even to find out where the man lives, let alone anything about him. The victim wasn’t in the country legally, and among that immigrant community, people don’t ask questions. Even those in volunteer and social service positions know better than to ask too much. So it isn’t easy to find out anything at first. But when Vianello and Brunetti find a cache of diamonds among the dead man’s possessions, they know that this is no ordinary murder (if there is such a thing). It turns out that this killing is related to arms trafficking and ‘conflict diamonds. ‘

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home also features an immigrant community in which it’s the custom not to ask questions. DI Dushan Zigic and DS Mel Ferreira investigate when the body of an unknown man is found in the burned-out remains of a shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. Since the dead man was very likely an immigrant, Zigic and Ferreira have two sets of leads to explore. One is the Barlows; they claim not to know who the man was, but it’s soon clear that they aren’t telling all that they know. There’s also the group of people whom the dead man knew. When he is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov, the police detectives begin to ask around to trace his last days and weeks. For that, they need to ask questions of his workmates, people who live in the same places he lived, and the people from whom he rented rooms. They quickly find that the community of immigrants and those with whom they interact are not accustomed to asking a lot of questions. Those who rent rooms don’t ask much about their boarders. Those who hire are interested only in getting enough people to do the job. And in both cases, they have their own secrets to hide from the police. The end result is that even those who might otherwise be willing to talk to the police aren’t always very helpful. They live and work in contexts where you just don’t ask questions.

The world of paid killing is also one where people don’t tend to ask a lot of questions. For instance, in Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy, we learn about the lives of Glasgow’s crime bosses and gunmen. One of them, whom we meet in The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, is Callum MacLean. Peter Jamieson and John Young hire MacLean to take care of a problem they have: a small-time dealer/criminal named Lewis Winter who’s getting too ambitious. Among other things, the novel details MacLean’s preparations, and we see that he asks only questions that are absolutely necessary to ask. And he only deals with people who do the same. It’s better for everyone if people know as little as possible about what anyone else is doing.

There are some cultures and groups where people know better than to ask too much. Those groups can be difficult to penetrate if you’re a sleuth, but the tension of trying to do so can add a layer of real interest to a story. Which ones have stayed with you?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Lynyrd Skynyrd song.


Filed under Aaron Elkins, Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Eva Dolan, Malcolm Mackay

26 responses to “Don’t Ask Me No Questions*

  1. Fascinating, thanks s much Margot. Given me something to mull over. 🙂

  2. interesting, Margot. I’m thinking of Fredric Brown’s The Dead Ringer, set in a traveling funfair, where the detective finds it difficult to get answers from people who aren’t always quite on the right side of the law. He asks Ed Hunter who works for the ‘carney’ to keep his eyes open.

  3. I love stories like these, Margot, especially when there are unreliable witnesses.

  4. Margot: Maisie Dobbs is able to penetrate two closed communities because of her background.

    Veterans of WW I are reluctant to talk about happened during the war and connections with the war with non-veterans. When they learn Maisie was a front line nurse she has their confidence as a comrade.

    In An Incomplete Revenge we learn Maisie’s grandmother was a water gypsy. Without that family connection she is no longer an outsider to the gypsy encampment.

    • Thanks very much, Bill, for those examples. In both cases, you have groups of people among whom it’s not the custom to ask a lot of questions. As you say,, Maisie gains acceptance because of her background, but it’s easy to see how people without that acceptance wouldn’t be able to find out anything from those witnesses.

  5. Once again, sadly, I have no new examples to add to your post even though I know I’ve read some! As you say some communities repel questions especially from the police so they need a trusted person to get to the truth.

    • Exactly, Cleo. And it’s quite true, too, that groups where it’s not the custom to ask questions are often especially wary about saying anything to the poolice.

  6. When I worked as a young citybeat reporter, there were often crimes where the police had to tread carefully in the local community, and would ask for our co-operation on that. I remember once there was an issue where they had set up a temp building to run their operation – but someone pointed out that the entrance was in too obvious a place – someone who wanted to quietly pass over info might be put off, as others would see them go in. So they changed it. I haven’t thought of that in years, it could be a useful and authentic detail for someone’s crime story, don’t you think?

    • Oh, I agree, Moira. And thanks for that example. If you live in that sort of community, where the culture discourages asking any questions, you certainly don’t want to be seen giving out information. It’s the sort of detail, too, that you might not know about if you don’t know the local culture. The police were wise to get insights from you folks.

  7. Interesting, Margot. I have always wondered how fictional sleuths muster up the courage to walk up to a door, ring the bell, and ask questions of the person, or likely suspect, who opens the door. That’s just one scenario but it such a tricky and a dangerous situation.

    • Thank you, Prashant. I wonder about that, too, actually. Even if the sleuth is with the police, and so has the force of law, that doesn’t mean the witness/suspect is going to be willing to talk. And if that person sees the sleuth as a threat, who knows what might happen?

  8. Though it’s the police rather than the private detectives, I remember those scenes in old movies where they are grilling the suspect/witness under a bright light, or lights. Who would want to talk under such conditions!

  9. It must be especially hard for all investigators trying to get answers from a closed community. I was thinking of the Betty Webb mystery “Desert Wives” which focuses on a secretive polygamist group. Similar difficulties must exist for those investigating the families or contacts of those horrible shooting attacks on innocent people.

    • Oh, yes, absolutely, Pat. And that Betty Webb novel is a perfect example, too. And as far as those awful shootings go, it really must be difficult to find out the truth from friends, contacts, and so on. A sobering thought…

  10. Col

    A recent Pronzini – Nameless read had him trying to gain information from seedy elements in the Chinese community in San Francisco – not easily done.

    • No, it’s not, Col, and that’s exactly the kind of thing I had in mind with this post. That’s definitely one of those communities where you don’t ask questions.

  11. One of our favorite detectives, Margot, Australian DI Napoleon Bonaparte, has an elegant solution to that problem in Arthur Upfield’s Death of a Swagman. Drifting into town as an itinerant worker, Bony immediately gets himself arrested by the local police sergeant. After his arrest, he reveals his true identity to the sergeant and swears him to secrecy – then arranges to be given a 14 day jail sentence. Then, he tells the sergeant:

    “Every evening at five-thirty you will pay me two shillings to spend over at the hotel. And then instead of everyone holding their horses in the presence of Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, they will talk quite freely with poor old Bony, the latest victim of the ber-lasted per-leece. It is all so simple.”
    Yes it is. And quite effective!

    • Oh, I do love that scene, Les! And so very glad you included it here. And you are absolutely right about how well it works. Folks, If you haven’t read Death of a Swagman, I recommend it. It’s a great example of finding ways to get answers from people who don’t generally like asking too many questions.

  12. Agatha Christie’s Third Girl sounds like a good read. I like the idea of having as character Ariadne Oliver a detective story novelist. Should be fun and informative.

    • It’s both, Carol. I actually like Ariadne Oliver’s character an awful lot. I think she’s top on my list of recurring, but not ‘starring’ characters in CHristie’s worrk.

  13. Another interesting post, Margot. I did finally get a copy of The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter but I find it is written in present tense so not rushing to read it. I do hope to get to it in 2016. And I hope I can get past the present tense.

    • Thanks, Tracy. The present tense isn’t my top choice, either, to be honest. But authors are certainly using it these days. If you do get to the Malcolm Mackay, I hope you enjoy it.

What's your view? I'd love to hear it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s