I’m sure you’ve had it happen. You’re sitting with a group of people, perhaps at dinner, or perhaps at a business meeting. All of a sudden, someone says something that’s at best awkward. It’s the kind of moment where everyone takes a sudden interest in the food, or meeting notes, or something – anything – else besides the comment just made. One of those moments where, it’s said, you can hear a pin drop. Those moments can be challenging if you’re the host or if you’re the one facilitating the meeting. In fiction, though, they can add some real tension, even conflict, to a story. And they can show important information or layers of character.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Taken at the Flood (AKA There is a Tide…), the Cloade family is shocked when the wealthy family patriarch, Gordon Cloade, marries. His new bride, Rosaleen, was a widow Cloade met on a ship, and the romance was what people used to call whirlwind. As if that’s not enough, Cloade is tragically killed by an enemy bomb (the novel takes place just after World War II) shortly after his wedding. He’d always promised his family he would take care of them financially, but as it happens, he’s died intestate. So Rosaleen is set to inherit everything. Against this backdrop of financial discomfort, Katherine ‘Aunt Kathie’ Cloade invites everyone to dinner at her home. The various members of the Cloade family attend, as do Rosaleen and her brother, David Hunter. It’s soon clear how Hunter feels about the Cloades. While everyone is greeting each other and being polite, one of the Cloades asks Rosaleen how she likes Furrowbank, the Cloade family home. Here’s what Hunter says:
‘’Poor old Gordon did himself well,’ he said. ‘No expense spared.’’
That moment passes, and everyone goes into the dining room to eat. A little later, Hunter is talking with Cloade’s niece Lynn Marchmont:
‘‘With all the ill will in the world you and your family can’t do much about Rosaleen and myself, can you?’’
Lynn herself takes the comment in stride, but it certainly does nothing to lighten the dinner conversation. I see you, fans of After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal)!
In Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring, academician and political scientist Joanne Kilbourn is as shaken as the rest of her colleagues are when Reed Gallagher, head of the Department of Journalism, is found dead. As if that’s not enough, she’s concerned about one of her students, Kellee Savage. Kellee is emotionally very fragile, and now she’s been making accusations of inappropriate conduct against a fellow student. Then, Kellee disappears. The last time anyone saw her was during an evening at a bar called the Owl. And as it turns out, that was a very awkward evening. As another student tells the story, several of them, including Kellee, were in the bar. Then, the student Kellee had been accusing walked in, and Kellee had an outburst. It was uncomfortable for everyone, and it’s only been made worse by the fact that someone found out Kellee had tape recorded the group’s conversation without anyone knowing. The tape recording doesn’t solve the mystery of Reed Gallagher’s death or Kellee’s disappearance (they are connected). But it does give Joanne Kilbourn an interesting perspective on her students’ opinions of her.
In Wendy James’ The Mistake, we are introduced to Jodie Evans Garrow. From the outside, it seems as though she has the perfect life. She’s married to a successful attorney, she has two healthy children, and she herself is healthy, attractive, and well-regarded. Then her daughter Hannah is involved in an accident and rushed to the same Sydney hospital where, years before, Jodie gave birth to another child. No-one knows about the child, not even Jodie’s husband. But a nurse at the hospital remembers Jodie and asks about the baby. Jodie says that she gave the baby up for adoption, but the over-curious nurse can’t find any formal records. Now questions begin to arise, first privately and then quite publicly. What happened to the baby? If she’s alive, where is she? If she is dead, did Jodie have something to do with it? Soon, Jodie becomes a social pariah. So she’s grateful when one night, she’s invited to a meeting of a local book club. The meeting starts out well enough, but then, one of the members of the club makes it clear that Jodie’s been invited because of her notoriety. They want her ‘expertise’ as they discuss a book about then famous Lindy Chamberlain case.
‘The room is silent. All Jodie can hear is her own harsh and ragged breathing.’
Jodie quickly makes her escape from the meeting, feeling more like a specimen in a jar than a human being.
Peter May’s The Blackhouse is the first of a trilogy featuring Fionnlagh ‘Fin’ Macleod. In that novel, he’s seconded from Edinburgh, where he’s a police officer, to his home on the Isle of Lewis. A murder there bears a strong resemblance to a murder Macleod is investigating, and it’s hoped that he can get closer to finding the killer if he works with the local Lewis police. Lewis is a small place, so Macleod knows just about everyone, including the victim, Angel Macritchie. So one element in the novel is the network of past and present relationships on the island. In fact, Macleod meets up again with his old flame, Marsaili, who’s married another old friend, Artair Macinnes. One night, Artair insists on Macleod staying for dinner with him and Marsaili. It’s all very awkward, as you can imagine, but at first everyone tries to be polite. Then, Macinnes insists that Macleod stay overnight. That adds to the awkwardness, which gets worse after Marsaili leaves to get the spare room ready. Then, her husband says:
‘‘You know, I’d never have f-ing married her if it hadn’t been for you.’’
That comment in and of itself is uncomfortable enough. But it’s followed by even more vitriol, until finally,
‘Fin was shocked. He had no idea what to say. So he just sat, clutching his watered-down whisky, feeling the glass warm in his hands, watching the peat embers dying in the hearth. The air in the room seemed suddenly to have chilled…’
It’s certainly not an easy exchange between two old friends.
And then there’s Aditya Sudarshan’s A Nice, Quiet Holiday. Justice Harish Shinde and his law clerk Anant travel from Delhi to Bhairavgarh, in the Indian state of Rajasthan. They’ve been invited for a stay with Shinde’s old friend Shikhar Pant. Pant has other houseguests, too, including another old friend Pravin Anand, and Anand’s son Avinash. Also invited are Ronit and Kamini Mittal, who own a controversial NGO. It’s raised people’s hackles, so to speak, because one of the Mittals’ goals is to educate people in the rural parts of India about AIDS. Many people think that’s obscene as it is; others take it as personally offensive. Pant’s guests include people on both sides of this issue, so as you can guess, it all gets a bit awkward. Still, people do try to observe the social niceties. Then, the news comes of a protest against a pamphlet that the Mittals have published. That sets Aviansh Anand off, and he rails against the ‘filthy language and filthy pictures’ in the pamphlet. His father asks him to calm down, which he does at first. Everyone goes in to lunch and things are a bit less charged. But then the discussion starts up again, with Avinash speaking up strongly about his feelings. That makes everything difficult, and it’s made no easier when there’s a murder among the group…
There are a lot of other ‘pin drop’ awkward moments in crime fiction; one post couldn’t possibly do justice to them all. They serve some useful purposes, too. They can add character layers, suspense, and motivation.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Ben Folds’ Tom and Mary.