In many cultures, it isn’t the custom for people to come right out and say certain things. To do so is considered abrupt, even rude. So, members of those cultures have developed subtler ways to say what they want to say. That can be a challenge to understand if you’re someone from a culture where directness is valued. But it’s an important form of communication.
In real life and in crime fiction, police need to understand this kind of subtle communication. Otherwise, they may miss out on important information. The same is true of PIs and other professional investigators. Not only do such people need to pay attention to what’s really being said, but also, they need to learn how to communicate in subtle ways themselves. Otherwise, they risk alienating the very people whose information they need.
There are plenty of examples of this kind of subtlety in crime fiction; space only permits a few of them. I know you’ll be able to come up with plenty of instances yourself, anyway.
In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell host a weekend gathering. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and is invited to the house for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he finds what looks like a macabre tableau set up for his ‘amusement.’ Christow has been shot, and his body is lying by the pool. It only takes a moment for Poirot to see that this scene is all too real. Once it’s clear that Christow has been murdered, Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. One of the important sets of clues in this novel comes from very subtle communication. Christie ‘plays fair’ with the reader, but it’s easy to miss on first reading.
In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, Commissario Guido Brunetti has to use and understand subtlety to solve the murder of an unidentified Senegalese man who is killed, execution-style, in an open-air market. The victim was in Venice illegally, so it’s going to be enough of a challenge to find out who he was, let alone who killed him. Brunetti guesses that the man might have been helped by Don Alvise Perale, a former Jesuit priest who is very active in the community. Brunetti knows that asking Don Alvise outright for the name of the victim will be pointless. Either he won’t know the name, or he won’t tell, at least at first. Saying too much could be dangerous for other people who are in the country illegally. So Brunetti settles for asking Don Alvise to find out whatever he can and let Brunetti know. This Don Alvise agrees to do, after he gets Brunetti’s assurance that the Immigration police won’t be involved. It turns out that Don Alvise’s cooperation is very useful as Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate.
In Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinju, we meet Sano Ichirō, a police investigator in 1687 Edo (Tokyo). When the bodies of Niu Yukikko and Noriyoshi are discovered in a river, it’s assumed that they committed suicide by drowning. That’s not an uncommon choice in the case of a forbidden love affair, and that’s what everyone wants to believe. But Sano begins to wonder whether the two actually did commit suicide. Little by little, evidence suggest that at Noriyushi was murdered. If so, perhaps Yukiko was as well. But the Niu family is powerful and influential, and Sano’s supervisor, Magistrate Ogyu, doesn’t want the police to do anything to offend them. So he makes it clear to Sano that the investigation is not to proceed. At one point, Sano tries to persuade him otherwise. Here is Ogyu’s response:
‘Instead of replying to Sano’s impassioned speech, Ogyu changed the subject. ‘I am sorry to hear that your father is unwell,’ he said….
‘A man of his age deserves a peaceful retirement and the respect of those closest to him. It would be a pity if a family disgrace were to worsen his illness.’’
It doesn’t take much skill to understand that Ogyu is threatening Sano’s employment if he disobeys orders and continues to investigate.
In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. The police report is that she committed suicide, but her father believes otherwise. He wants Keeney to find out what really happened to his daughter, and Keeney agrees. To do that, though, she’ll need some support. She knows she can’t just show up in Pattaya, asking questions, without cooperation. So she asks for help from Police Major General Wichit, who has family connections there. Wichit owes Keeney a large debt, but it’s as important for her not be direct about that debt as it is for him to remember it. So when they meet, they simply greet each other. She does ask after his family, but,
‘Wichit assumed this was just politeness on her part and not a subtle reminder of the debt he owed her.’
He’s right, as Keeney understands the need for circumspection. It’s an interesting exchange which acknowledges their history without actually referring to it.
And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his team are assigned to investigate the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official police theory is that he committed suicide after becoming the subject of a corruption investigation. But Chen suspects he may have been murdered. Either way, the case will have to be handled delicately. Zhou’s corruption was brought to light by an online group that posted pictures of expensive items he owned, so Chen wants to find out more from that group. But the government has an interest in severely restricting who gets to post online and about what. So the group is extremely wary about interacting with anyone official. Chen knows this, and has a very careful and subtle conversation with one of the group’s leaders. He begins with a reassurance:
‘‘Once the case is solved and everything comes out, I don’t think the netcops or any of the others will waste their time on you.’
The hint was unmistakable. Given Chen’s position and connections, it wasn’t impossible for the chief inspector to help.’
That subtle reassurance goes a long way towards building the rapport Chen needs to get the information he wants.
And that’s the thing about subtlety. When you know how to be subtle and respond to others’ subtlety, you can often get useful information.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Say.