I’ll bet that, when you were a child, you were taught to be tactful. And most people do try not to be too blunt when they speak. Things just seem to go more smoothly when we temper what we say. And yet, sometimes people say things in a very forthright way. In a sense, it’s refreshing; you know where you are with such folks. At the same time, though, too much bluntness can make for awkwardness or worse. My guess is, you’ve had that experience in real life. And it’s certainly there in crime fiction.
The interesting thing about blunt statements is that they can reveal a lot about a character without the author having to go into too much detail. And bluntness can give clues to a story, too.
Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal) introduces us to the Abernethie family. Patriarch Richard Abernethie has just died of what seems like natural causes, and his relatives have gathered for his funeral. Family attorney Mr. Entwhistle also intends to use the occasion to share the terms of Abernethie’s will. During the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet blurts out that her brother was murdered. Everyone hushes her up; she herself tells the family not to pay any attention to what she’s said. But privately, everyone thinks she may be right. And when she is murdered the next day, it seems clear that what she said is true. Entwhistle visits Hercule Poirot and asks him to look into the matter, and Poirot agrees. One thing that’s interesting about Cora’s character is that she’s always been prone to what Entwhistle calls, ‘awkward statements.’ It makes for an interesting layer to that character. I completely agree, fans of The ABC Murders.
Stuart Palmer’s Hildegarde Withers can also be quite blunt. In The Penguin Pool Murder, in which she makes her debut, Miss Withers is escorting her fourth-grade class on a trip to the New York Aquarium. They’re at the penguin pool exhibit, getting ready to leave, when they see a man’s body slide into the pool. He’s been murdered, so homicide detective Oscar Piper is called in to investigate. In the course of his work, he interviews Miss Withers. She tells him that she’s a teacher, and how she came to be at the aquarium. Later, he says:
‘At present, answering foolish questions. Young man, I told you I was a teacher.’’
Interestingly, Piper isn’t permanently put off by Miss Withers’ bluntness, as fans of this series will know…
Any fan of Reginald Hill’s Andy Dalziel will tell you that he is not exactly known for his tact or verbal restraint. It’s very much part of his character to be blunt. For instance, in Good Morning, Midnight, he and Peter Pascoe investigate the supposed suicide of Pal Maciver. What’s odd about this death is that it eerily mirrors the death of his father, ten years earlier. When he arrives at the scene, Dalziel finds a bit of chaos. Among other things, one of the people in the house at the time of the death has tried to leave, and gotten into an altercation with PC Bonnick, who’s trying to keep everything secured. Dalziel tries to get some answers from this man:
‘‘Look, I’m sorry – I was out of…but I was worried – we’d heard that…and he didn’t show, so I thought that…that…that…’
‘What’s your problem, lad,’ enquired Dalziel. ‘Apart from not being able to finish sentences?’’
Later, Dalziel finds out that the man is a PE teacher. Here’s his response:
‘‘PE, eh? That explains about the sentences. Pity but.’’
Anyone familiar with Dalziel will know that this is quite typical of his way of speaking.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time introduces fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone. He has autism, although he’s high-functioning, and that impacts his interactions with others. He’s not skilled at understanding social cues, so he says exactly what’s on his mind. One day, Christopher comes upon the dog that belongs to the people next door. The animal’s been killed, and he’s curious as to how it happened. The dog’s owners think Christopher might be responsible, but he knows he’s innocent. So he decides to be a detective, just like Sherlock Holmes, and find out the truth. In the course of his search for answers, Christopher finds out some important truths about himself. And as he interacts with others, we see that he is at times very blunt indeed. It’s not to be unkind; he simply doesn’t understand the social skill of choosing one’s words and one’s approach.
And then there’s Virginia Duigan’s Thea Farmer, a former school principal whom we meet in The Precipice. At the beginning of the novel, we learn that she had bought a piece of property in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains, and had a home built there. But bad luck and poor financial decisions meant that she wasn’t able to move in. Instead, she’s had to sell the house and settle for the house next door, a home she calls ‘the hovel.’ When Frank Campbell and Ellice Carrington buy Thea’s dream home (which she still considers hers), matters get even worse. Then, Frank’s niece Kim comes to live with him and Ellice. At first, Thea is prepared to have as much contempt for Kim as she does for Frank and Ellice. But after a bit, she forms an awkward friendship with the girl, and sees real promise in her. That’s why she’s especially concerned when she begins to believe that Frank is not providing an appropriate home for Kim. When the police won’t take any action, Thea makes plans of her own. Throughout the novel, Thea is blunt – sometimes very unkind – in the journal she keeps. She’s not quite as blunt in her interactions, but she certainly has her say.
And that’s the thing about bluntness. Forthright people certainly put things in perspective. Case in point: a conversation I had with my granddaughter:
Miss Five: What kind of books do you write?
Me: I write mystery books.
Miss Five: Can I read them?
Me: Well, they’re for grownups. They aren’t really for kids.
Miss Five: Oh, so they’re boring?
There is nothing like a conversation with a five-year-old to put everything in perspective. Just in case I ever get full of myself… 😉
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Rubens’ Lay it Down.