You Had to Open Up Your Mouth*

LooseLipsThere’s wisdom to the old wartime saying, ‘Loose lips sink ships.’ A person may mean well, and may even agree to keep quiet about something. But the right setting, the right atmosphere and the right confidant can get people to say things they otherwise might not. And there are those who enjoy the feeling of seeming important – to whom boasting might come naturally.

In crime fiction, anyway, saying too much can get a person into real trouble. For the police, it can put an investigation in jeopardy. For a criminal, it can lead to getting caught. And in any case, it can lead to murder.

For example, in Agatha Christie’s Hallowe’en Party, we are introduced to twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds. She and several other people are at the home of Rowena Drake one afternoon, getting ready for a Hallowe’en party to be held there that night. One of the others at that gathering is detective story writer Ariadne Oliver, who’s staying locally with a friend. When Joyce finds out who Mrs. Oliver is, she boasts that she herself saw a murder. Nobody believes her, and at first everyone hushes her up. But Joyce continues to insist that she’s telling the truth. Many people there put those remarks down to the efforts of a young girl to get the attention of a famous writer. But that evening, during the party, Joyce is murdered. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter, and he travels to the village of Woodleigh Common to do so. It now seems clear that what Joyce said got someone frightened enough to kill, and that the peaceful town may very well be hiding a murderer.

In Arnaldur Indriðason’s Jar City, Reykjavík police inspector Erlendur and his team investigate the murder of a seemingly harmless older man named Holberg. At first, the case looks like a home invasion gone very wrong. But a few clues suggest that this was a deliberate killing. If that’s the case, then the more the team members know about Holberg, the more likely they are to find his killer. So they start to dig into the victim’s past. What they find is not at all pleasant, either. It turns out that Holberg has a history that includes multiple rapes. To check up on this, they have a conversation with a man named Ellidi, who’s been in regular trouble with the law and is currently in prison. Ellidi has this to say about Holberg:

‘Holberg liked talking about it [one particular rape incident]. Boasted. Got away with it.’

It soon turns out that more than one person could easily have wanted Holberg dead.

Gail Bowen’s A Killing Spring features her sleuth, Joanne Kilbourn, who is an academician and political scientist. In one plot thread of this novel, she is concerned about a student of hers, Kellee Savage, who has missed several classes lately. The last time anyone saw Kellee was one night when several students were at a local bar. The evening ended in disaster when someone noticed that Kellee had secretly been recording everyone’s conversation. Kilbourn follows up on what happened that night, and what was said. It turns out that Kellee had been drinking heavily, and said some things that would have been far better left unsaid. Later, those comments have their consequences.

Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas concerns Fred and Maggie Blake and their two children, ex-pat Americans who have moved to a small town in Normandy. As we learn, though, the Blakes are not the people they seem. Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, a former member of the New Jersey Mafia. In return for testifying against his fellow gangsters, Manzoni was placed in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, along with the members of his family. Because of the sensitive and dangerous nature of what’s happened, it’s vital that all of the ‘Blakes’ keep quiet about everything related to that part of their lives. And at first, all goes well enough, although there’s plenty of ‘culture shock’ as they get used to living in Normandy. Then, the ‘rule of silence’ is broken, and word of the family’s whereabouts gets back to New Jersey. Now, getting along in a different country is the least of the family’s troubles.

In Donna Malane’s Surrender, missing person expert Diane Rowe learns of the murder of James Patrick ‘Snow’ Wilson. This death has special significance for her, because it’s suspected that Snow killed Rowe’s sister Niki a year earlier. Before his death, that suspicion was confirmed. Snow confessed that he’d been hired to commit that murder; he even boasted of his skill. Now he’s been killed in the same way. Rowe reasons that if she can find out who hired (and, presumably, killed) Snow, she’ll also learn who paid Snow to kill her sister.

And then there’s David Whish-Wilson’s Zero At the Bone, the second of his novels featuring former Perth Police Superintendent Frank Swann. It’s the late 1970’s, and Swann is dealing with the fallout from events in the first novel (Line of Sight  – recommended, by the way). One of the consequences of that fallout is that he’s not working as a copper. In one plot thread of this novel, another former police officer, Percy Dickson, hires Swann to help him get to the truth about a series of robberies. Dickson is head of security at one local department store, and consults with several others, and with some local jewelers. So for him, a series of robberies like this will mean the end of his job. Swann agrees to look into the matter, and in fact, finds out the truth about the thieves. This particular truth is very dangerous, though, and Dickson is under strict orders not to say anything to anyone about how the stolen merchandise was recovered, or even that the case has been solved. Unfortunately for both Dickson and Swann, Dickson makes mention of it to the wrong people…

And that’s the problem with unguarded words, whether they’re casual comments, boasts, drunken remarks, or things said in anger. They can get people in a lot of trouble. These are only a few examples; over to you.



*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Big Shot.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arnaldur Indriðason, David Whish-Wilson, Donna Malane, Gail Bowen, Tonino Benacquista

22 responses to “You Had to Open Up Your Mouth*

  1. Keishon

    I actually love learning significant details through conversations. You really have to pay attention to it and it’s rather difficult device to pull off I would think because you have to set up the scene and circumstances. Or maybe not but when I was reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the details of the crime were told through the uncle at a lunch or dinner forget which to a stranger and I remember my mouth dropping while reading it. The story centered around two sisters living in isolation with their uncle where one of them was acquitted from poisoning the entire family and the uncle survived. It was a great scene! Or like in The Godfather II (ahaha) when Fredo gives himself away to his brother, classic loose lips scene right there in a movie but still. I love this device! Great post.

    • Thank you, Keishon. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. And I’m very glad you mentioned that scene from The Godfather II. It really is a classic ‘loose lips’ scene, isn’t it? And that’s one of the few sequels that’s at least as well done as the original is. That’s saying something! You’re right in your larger point, too, that conversation can be a very effective tool for sharing information with the reader. It can be tricky to pull off, but when it works, it can be very successful.

  2. This reminds me of a true crime story where a husband killed his wife. For 10 years he never said a word to anyone, and there was no evidence. One day she just disappeared. Then, the police nabbed him with an undercover sting. Once he started talking, they couldn’t shut him up.

    • Oh, now that’s a great real-life example of what I had in mind with this post, Sue. And it’s probably not particularly odd that once the man started talking, he kept going. I think at some level, people want that release, if that makes any sense.

  3. Another great plot device and one I’m fond of especially if it is done with some subtlety.

  4. In an Agatha Christie novel (no spoilers) a woman tells a harmless story about her own past, burbling on in an apparently cheery social situation. She has no idea that her story is of enormous significance to a listener, and portentous events will result…

    • Ah, yes, I know exactly what you mean, Moira! And you’re right; it’s a fabulous example of the person who simply goes on about something without thinking. I thought of using that one, but as you can guess, it would’ve been hard without spoilers.

  5. It’s all these people who make revealing phonecalls without checking to see if there’s a murderer concealed in the next room that I don’t understand – don’t they read crime fiction? Or the ones who leave their cellphones lying around so their spouse can spot the texts from their lover…

    Jar City hasn’t quite made it on to the TBR yet, but it’s on the supplementary wishlist… I think you’ve probably just pushed it up a place or two…

    • Whoops! Did I move that book up a place or two? Sorry! (Bwahahahaha… 😉 ).

      You make a good point, boo, about characters who make calls without checking they’re alone. Or they leave their email open or their ‘phones out. All very bad ideas if you want to keep something private. I don’t understand that, either, FirctionFan, I really don’t. That’s Crime Fiction 101, really, isn’t it?

  6. Margot: In real life lawyers appreciate talkative people. I tell witnesses I will be calling to give evidence that lawyers, contrary to TV, movies and books appreciate witnesses who ramble on and will not interrupt for witnesses who do not know how to end an answer often end up saying something they did not intend as they babble on and on.

    • I would imagine, Bill, that those witnesses – the ones who talk more – often give valuable information that they might not be aware they give. And I would guess, too, that part of the key to getting such a witness to talk is making that person feel comfortable enough to just start going. Sounds like a very effective strategy.

  7. Col

    No examples to add, but I do like book with the witness protection theme. I’ll get around to reading Badfellas and Zero at the Bone soon, I hope!

  8. I remember that character Joyce from Halloween Party! I thought Agatha Christie did a great job of sketching out that character and helping us understand why Joyce was a victim.

    Gossips are especially important in cozy mysteries.

    • Oh, they really are, Elizabeth! Since amateur sleuths can’t compel people to talk (as police can), you have to have some way for the sleuth to find things out. And I agree about the character of Joyce; Christie did a fine job of creating her.

  9. I have not read any of these books, Margot. And they all sound good. I will be getting to the Gail Bowen book sometime soon (I have to read the fourth one first). I have not even heard of Tonino Benacquista’s Badfellas, and that topic (witness protection) is especially interesting.

    • I think it’s interesting, too, Tracy. And it’s an interesting look at ‘culture clash,’ too, as the ‘Blakes’ settle into Normandy. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Gail Bowen novels; it’s a terrific series, in my opinion.

  10. It’s going to be Gail Bowen this year, no doubt. Thanks, Margot.

  11. I’m reading Lisa Jackson’s “You Don’t Want to Know,” a psychological suspense that has several instances of loose lips, idle comments, and slips of the tongue that propel the plot forward. When you throw a couple of unreliable characters into the mix, it makes for a very satisfying and complicated plot.

    • It certainly does, Pat. And the Jackson sounds like a very good example of that. What’s interesting in a mix like that, too, is that one doesn’t know whether those loose lips and slips of the tongue are genuine (i.e. the information is accurate), or contrived, or something else.

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