Nobody Shows You What They’re Thinking*

Different ViewsIt’s always interesting to see the world – even the same event – from different perspectives. Have you ever wondered, for instance, what the person ringing up your grocery order might be thinking? Or what the person who changes your oil and fixes your brakes might think? Or perhaps the members of the band whose concert you’re attending?

Including those different perspectives in a story can add a layer of interest. And in a crime novel, they can also add clues and other information. But even if the author doesn’t choose to do that, those different perspectives can add some texture and character development.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, Hercule Poirot works with Superintendent Battle, Colonel Race, and detective story writer Ariadne Oliver to solve the murder of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. In one scene in that novel, Poirot goes to a women’s clothing store to buy stockings. After ordering quite a number of pairs of expensive stockings, he completes the purchase and leaves. Now, the hitherto professional, polished young women behind the counter share their true feelings:

‘As Poirot departed with his purchase, the next girl at the counter said, ‘Wonder who the lucky girl is? Must be a nasty old man. Oh, well, she seems to be stringing him along good and proper. Stockings at thirty-seven and sixpence indeed!’’

Unaware of the low estimate formed by the young ladies of Messrs Harvey Robinson’s upon his character, Poirot was trotting homewards.’

Those who know Poirot will know that his purchase has nothing to do with his personal life. It’s related to the case. But it’s interesting to get that different perspective on what he does.

Chris Gragenstein’s John Ceepak/Danny Boyle mysteries take place mostly in and around the small town of Sea Haven, New Jersey. It’s a summer tourist destination, complete with tasteless souvenir shops, a boardwalk, and overpriced restaurants. As the series begins, Boyle is a ‘summer cop,’ hired to help deal with the influx of tourists during the season. Here’s a bit of what he thinks of them (from Tilt a Whirl):

‘Saturday is changeover day. People who rented last week are leaving; people renting this week will show up later, after the maid brigades have vacuumed the sandy floors and tossed out the abandoned seashell collections. This morning, I see mostly locals eating sensible stuff like eggs and toast, cereal and muffins. It’s the tourists and day-trippers who go for the specials – chocolate chip French toast, Coco-Loco Pancakes, and a little something I like to call The Heart Stopper: a waffle, with crispy bits of bacon baked right into the batter, topped with two scoops of butter and a fluffy igloo of whipped cream.’

Boyle is just as, well, observant about the tourists’ children, who

‘…fling their forks at each other, and topple sippy cups and steal their sisters’ crayons so they can color in the maze on the Kidz Menu…’

What’s interesting is the difference between what the tourists think of themselves and their children, and what the locals think.

John Burdett’s Sonchai Jitpleecheep series takes places mostly in Bangkok, and features Sonchai, who is a member of the Royal Thai Police, and a devout Buddhist. His mother, Nong, is a former bar girl, so Sonchai knows many of the people in that business. He uses his contacts with them when he needs information on a case, and it’s very interesting to get their perceptions about their clients. Here, for instance, is one scene from Bangkok 8. In this part of the novel, Sonchai is looking for someone who can translate a bit of Lao for him, and he knows just where to go: the entertainment district, where many of the bar girls are Laotian:

‘A few girls were already hanging out at the street-level bars, chatting about the night before, comparing stories of the men who paid their bar fines and took them back to their rooms, moaning about the ones who just flirted and groped, then disappeared without buying them a drink…I knew how they liked to talk about the quirks of farangs [foreigners] whose preferences can be so different from our own.’

Fans of Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty series will know he also depicts what the bar girls and their employers think of their clients. So does Angela Savage in her Jayne Keeney novels.

In Maureen Carter’s Working Girls, Birmingham DS Beverly ‘Bev’ Morriss and her team investigate the murder of fifteen-year-old Michelle Lucas. They discover that she was a sex worker, so Morriss gets clearance to start with the other sex workers who do their business in the area where the body was found. Morriss gets the opportunity to spend some time with some of the young women in the trade, including an evening of pizza, beer and videos at the home of Big Val, their unofficial leader. Part of the evening involves swapping stories about their customers:

‘There were one or two well-known men in town that Bev would never look in the face again. The girls were rolling around in hysterics on the carpet.’

It’s an enlightening look at the way that sex workers sometimes think about their clients.

There’s another kind of illuminating perspective offered in Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring. Bowen’s series features Joanne Kilbourn, who is a political scientist and academician. In this novel, she gets involved in the investigation when a university colleague, Reed Gallagher, is found murdered. At the same time, in a related plot thread, she is concerned when a troubled student, Kellee Savage, seems to have disappeared. She was last seen at a bar with a group of other students. As it happened, she was recording their conversation, and the recording is discovered. On the recording, Kilbourn picks up the voice of one of her students, Jeannine. In person, Jeannine has twice said that Kilbourn is a role model. But here’s what she really seems to think:

‘‘If I’d known Kilbourn was such a bitch about not letting people express their own opinions, I wouldn’t have taken her…course. You know what she gave me on my last paper? Fifty-eight percent! Just because I didn’t use secondary sources! I showed that paper to my boyfriend and a lot of other people. Everybody says I should’ve got an A.’

Unexpectedly it was Jumbo Hryniuk who jumped to my defence. ‘Kilbourn’s all right,’ he said. ‘She’s kinda like my coach – tough but generally pretty fair.’’

It’s probably just as well that I don’t get to hear my students’ unadulterated perspectives on me…

But those different perspectives and view can be really helpful and interesting in crime fiction. They add character development, texture and sometimes, clues.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Jackson Browne’s Boulevard.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Chris Grabenstein, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Maureen Carter, Timothy Hallinan

18 responses to “Nobody Shows You What They’re Thinking*

  1. Nice post, Margot. It’s probably no surprise, but I like reading as well as writing stories told from multiple points of view. The best are those where I grieve the change in point of view, having to temporarily leave a character’s perspective behind, only to soon be caught up in another.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Angela. And I know exactly what you mean about having to change perspectives. On the one hand, you do have to temporarily set aside a character you might really enjoy writing. On the other, there’s another great character waiting to tell her or his story. And that can be terrific whether one’s reading or writing.

  2. Ha! I’ve never been convinced that Burns was right with his “O, wad some power the giftie gie us tae see oursels as ithers see us!” I’m fairly confident we’d all see some things about ourselves we’d rather not… 😉

  3. Ha, that example from Gail Bowen sounds very familiar. As you say, Margot, I’m not sure I want to hear what my students think of me… at least not all the time. Although some of them are more than happy to share their grievances on the feedback forms after a course (do they think I do not read those. I sometimes wonder?). Still, all very good for self-improvement and humility and the like!
    I do enjoy those contrasts in perspective, especially when one protagonist’s voice has been very persuasive, you accepted their version of events unquestioningly, and then you suddenly see them in a different light.

    • You’re quite right, Marina Sofia. Those feedback/evaluation forms are very helpful for improvement and so on, even if some of the comments aren’t exactly flattering. You ask an interesting question, too, about whether they think we don’t read them. Sometimes I wonder, myself.
      And yes, it’s always fascinating in a novel to hear one protagonist’s voice, believe what they are saying and accept it, and then suddenly see everything differently. It certainly adds quite a twist to a story. And when an author does it well, it can add to the suspense.

  4. Margot, I have read so much about Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn series that I’m waiting to read a book or two early this year. Besides, I have never read contemporary Canadian fiction and that’s a big gap in my reading.

  5. I was recently reacquainted with “Cards on the Table”–such a great story! I frequently have my sleuth hear gossip, but I rarely have my sleuth gossiped *about*. Maybe I should change that. 🙂

    • I ought to think about that, myself, Elizabeth. It really can be an interesting way to show a character to readers. And yes, Cards on the Table is a great read. I think it’s one of Christie’s better novels.

  6. Oh, I’m quite sure I wouldn’t want to hear people’s unvarnished opinions on me – yikes! Although in Kilbourn’s case that snippet says so much more about her student than her! So interesting what folks think and what they base those opinions on.

    • You’re absolutely right, Jan. That scene really does reveal quite a lot about that student, doesn’t it? I wonder if she’s aware of that… As you say, it’s really, really interesting to see how people form their opinions, and on what basis. And I agree; I sure wouldn’t want to hear everyone’s unvarnished opinion of me.,,

  7. Hahahaha. I’m sure your students don’t feel this way about you. 😉 This was a really fun post with all the excerpts.

  8. I liked the way some of the Golden Age books set amongst the upmarket English occasionally show the servants’ point of view – and those maids and cooks and housekeepers aren’t always as faithful and adoring as their employers would like to think.

    • That’s quite true, Moira. Little wonder that the police always want to talk to those staff members. You can learn all kinds of things from them; and, as you say, they don’t always always have the most positive views of their employers…

  9. I still haven’t read anything by John Burdett or Timothy Hallinan, but I do have them on my shelves. This post was filled with good suggestions, Margot.

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