I Heard it Through the Grapevine*

How do you decide which mechanic to use? Where to bank? Where to go to eat? You can’t rely completely on advertisements, of course. Even if you could, it wouldn’t be possible to absorb every ad from every company. So, many people depend on what they hear from friends, colleagues and acquaintances.

Today’s word of mouth is often online, through sites such as Yelp and other rating services. But even in the days before such options, people used word of mouth to find out about other people and about businesses. Businesses depend on it, too (how often have you been asked to rate a business’ service, or ‘like’ it on Facebook?).

Word of mouth plays important roles in crime fiction, too. That’s how many fictional PIs develop a reputation. For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot had a distinguished career with the Belgian police. And he’s solved any number of difficult cases since then. But it’s still word of mouth that opens doors for him. In stories such as Death on the Nile, Evil Under the Sun, and Five Little Pigs (AKA Murder in Retrospect), he is deemed ‘one of us’ because his reputation precedes him. People in high places talk to their friends, who are also in high places. Those people talk to others, and so it goes. He’s even ‘forgiven’ for being a foreigner because of that word of mouth.

Walter Mosley’s Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins isn’t, at least at first, a licensed PI. But he knows a lot of people in the Los Angeles area where he lives. And he fits in there; he’s part of the fabric of the area, so to speak. And people have learned that he’s the man to go to if you want to find someone who doesn’t want to be found. He doesn’t put ads in newspapers, or put up flyers. Rather, people hear about him from friends who know friends who know…

The same is true, really, for other ‘unofficial’ PIs. For instance, Timothy Hallinan’s Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty is an ex-pat American who lives and works in Bangkok. By profession he’s a ‘rough travel’ writer. But he also has a knack for finding people who don’t want to be found. And he speaks both Thai and English. Word about him has gotten about, so that sometimes, complete strangers start asking around for him. And I’m sure you can think of other ‘unofficial’ PIs, too, where this happens.

Word of mouth works especially well when what you do can’t be easily described. For example, Anya Lipska’s Janusz Kiszka is a Polish émigré to London. He does have a ‘day job,’ but more than that, he’s known in the Polish community as a ‘fixer’ – a man who can get things done. That might include helping with complicated paperwork, getting someone a job, finding someone who’s gone missing, ‘making arrangements’ with people who owe money, and so on. He’s earned respect in his community, and he knows most of the members of it. But there really isn’t a job description or official title that accurately describes what he does. People know about him because he’s helped a cousin. Or a friend. Or…

Anthony Bidulka’s Russell Quant is actually a licensed PI. So, in that sense, it’s not that hard for him to advertise his business. He also happens to be gay, and is an active part of Saskatoon’s gay community. And, in Tapas on the Ramblas, that’s exactly why he is hired. Wealthy business tycoon Charity Wiser is convinced that someone in her family is trying to kill her. So, she hires Quant to find out who that person is. She invites Quant to accompany the family on a cruise, so that he can ‘vet’ the various family members; he soon discovers that this is a gay cruise, and that his client hired him because he’s gay. Quant goes along with her plan, only to find that there’s much more to this than he thought. What’s supposed to be a sort of work/vacation cruise turns out to be fraught with danger – and ends up in murder. Quant doesn’t specifically advertise his orientation. Instead, word gets around that he’s gay.

People also use word of mouth when what they want to get or do isn’t exactly legal. For example, in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw is faced with a horrible case. Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson has been raped and murdered, and her body found in Kelvingrove Park. There’s very little evidence to go on, and there aren’t any obvious suspects. But Laidlaw knows that, in most murder cases, someone has seen something. It’s a matter of finding out who saw what. The problem is that there are plenty of people who do not want to talk to the police. Laidlaw finds a way around that, though. He and his assistant, DC Brian Harkness, track down a man named John Rhodes. He’s unofficially in charge of the part of Glasgow where the murder occurred, and he wields quite a lot of power there. If he wants something to happen, it happens. And he’s not afraid to get violent if that’s what it takes. He’s not any happier about Jennifer Lawson’s murder than the police are, and he certainly didn’t sanction it. To Rhodes, women and children are strictly off-limits when it comes to ‘conducting business.’ So, he puts the word out, and his assistance proves to be very helpful. Fans of Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy will know that word of mouth plays a big role in those novels, too. After all, you can’t really easily advertise your services as a professional killer…

Whatever one’s selling, word of mouth is often an effective way to get the word out. It certainly is in real life. And it is in crime fiction, too. Now, if you enjoyed this post, please feel free to ‘like’ it on Facebook, mention it on Yelp…


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Anthony Bidulka, Anya Lipska, Hilary Mantel, Malcolm Mackay, Timothy Hallinan, Walter Mosley, William McIlvanney

16 responses to “I Heard it Through the Grapevine*

  1. I’m not sure if this is what you mean by ‘word of mouth’, but Maigret relies heavily on just sitting around in bars and chatting to people and hearing what they have to say about certain crimes or suspects.

    • He does that very well, doesn’t he, Marina Sofia? And to me, it’s interesting how much more he learns that way than he would if he ‘officially’ questioned everyone. It shows, too, how people do talk about things. And that talk spreads. Thanks for filling in that gap.

  2. ‘I heard it through the grapevine.’ Ah, Margot, how that brings back memories of teenage romance and heartbreak . . . sigh. . .
    But back to the topic in hand. I think I am right in saying that Matt Scudder in the Lawrence Block series isn’t a registered P.I.? His cases usually come about through a friend of a friend.

    • Some of those great songs are like that, aren’t they, Christine? Full of those memories… At any rate, right you are about Matthew Scudder. At least at first, he’s not a licensed PI. SO people find out about him through word of mouth. Thanks for adding that one in.

  3. Col

    Got to love Malcolm Mackay’s work and time to get back to McIlvanney’s books as well.

  4. Word of mouth just adds more realism to a story for me. Enjoyed the post, Margot.

  5. Some songs bring back so many nice memories.

    Sorry I don’t have any examples to add. I’m neck-deep in a project and can think of little else at the moment. Sigh.

    • No need for apologies, Sue. You’re welcome here any time, examples or not. And you’re right about music. Sometimes it just works ‘memory magic,’ doesn’t it? Hope your project goes really well!

  6. You have mentioned several authors that I want to read but haven’t yet: McIlvanney, Mackay, and Hallinan. And I want to read more Walter Mosley. There is never enough time.

    • I know what you mean, Tracy. I don’t think I’ll ever have enough time to read everything I want to read. Both McIlvanney and Mackay have written solid noir; if you read them, I hope you’ll enjoy them.

  7. kathy d.

    I must try McIlvanney whose books I have wanted to tackle, as well as Walter Mosley’s. Where does one start with either one of them? They are both so prolific.
    I think most information today is gotten through social media: Facebook, Twitter, and then there are websites where people can post comments like Reddit. I stay a way as that one is too overwhelming.
    It was said recently that 40% of the U.S. population gets its news from Facebook. Wild!

    • You’re right, Kathy, about the way people get their news. I think it’s one reason that it’s so important to be a critical consumer of information. And part of that is understanding one’s source and determining whether that source is trustworthy.
      As to McIllvanney, I recommend Laidlaw, which is a powerful tartan noir. It’s the first in a trilogy, so it’s not a very long series. As for Mosley, I really like his Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins series, which begins with Devil in a Blue Dress.

  8. Not a PI, but Lucy Eylesbarrow in Agatha Christie’s 4.50 from Paddington never has to advertise her services – she has all the work she can handle. She is a housekeeper extraordinaire, and Miss Marple sends her in to check out the situation at Murder Towers! Many many of us fans have felt it was a great shame Christie never used her again. (Obv, Lucy was too busy with her endless high-paying clients…)

    • Ha! I’m sure that must have been it, Moira! What a great character she is, too, isn’t she? I’d have loved to see her again – I really would have. And you’re right; she doesn’t need to advertise her services. Word of mouth gives her more work than she can possibly handle.

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