Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid*

An interesting quote, attributed to Dennis Lehane, goes this way:

‘Maybe there are some things we were put on this earth not to know.’

And it’s got me thinking about whether there really are some things that people are better off not knowing. On the one hand, if someone finds out the truth later, this can wreak all sorts of havoc, to say nothing of the breach of trust. On the other hand, there may very well be some things that are best left alone. And it’s not always an easy call to make. Just a quick look at crime fiction is enough to show that.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow, for instance, Hercule Poirot gets involved in a murder investigation when he is invited for lunch at the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. He arrives just in time to see that Dr. John Christow, another guest, has been shot. The apparent shooter is standing near the body, holding the weapon. But soon enough, Poirot is left unsure of whether he has really seen what he thinks he saw. He and Inspector Grange investigate, and find that there are several possible suspects. At one point, Christow’s widow, Gerda, says this about their son, Terry:

‘‘Terry always has to know.’’

She’d rather keep Terry and his sister, Zena, as far away from the investigation as possible, but Terry isn’t that sort of child. And even Poirot hints, later in the story, that Terry will want to know the truth. And there’s a real question about whether children should be told the truth about a parent’s death.

Similar sorts of questions are addressed in Babs Horton’s A Jarful of Angels. In one plot thread of that novel, we are introduced to four children: Lawrence ‘Fatty’ Bevan, Elizabeth ‘Iffy’ Meredith, Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Tranter, and William ‘Billy’ Edwards.  They’re growing up in a small, isolated Welsh village in 1962. As their part of the story goes on, we slowly learn about some secrets that people in the village are keeping. Little by little, the children learn what some of them are. What’s more, they find that they’re woven into the web of some of those secrets in ways they didn’t know. And that causes its own trouble. In fact, it’s an interesting question whether it would have been better for them not to know. To say more would spoil the story, but Horton address the question in some interesting ways.

Pascal Garnier’s The Front Seat Passenger introduces us to Fabien Delorme. As the story begins, the police inform Delorme that his wife, Sylvie, has been killed in a car crash. What’s more, they tell him that Sylvie was not alone in the car. It seems that she had a lover, and the news takes Delorme by surprise. He can’t resist trying to find out the other man’s name, and he soon does: Martial Arnoult. Delorme also learns that Arnoult left a widow, Martine. Now he feels the need to know more about her; and before long, he’s stalking her. He even follows her and a friend as they take a holiday trip to Majorca, where he begins an affair with her. That relationship spins quickly out of control, and it’s not long before tragedy results. And you could argue that it all might have been prevented if Delorme hadn’t known the truth about his wife’s affair.

In Cara Black’s Murder in the Marais, we are introduced to Paris PI Aimée Leduc. Soli Hecht hires her on behalf of Temple Emmanuel to do some decoding, and deliver the results to one of the temple members, Lili Stein. By the time Leduc gets there, though, it’s too late: Lili Stein has been murdered, and a swastika marked on her forehead. Leduc is a ‘person of interest,’ since she was on the scene, but it’s soon clear that she’s not the murderer. She gets interested in the case, though, and investigates. The answers lie in the past, during and just after the Nazi occupation of France; and those events have repercussions in modern Paris. Leduc finds out what really happened, and we learn the truth. The question is, though, how much she will tell the victim’s son, Abraham:

‘‘Aimée,’ Réne[Leduc’s business partner] asked slowly, ‘Will you tell Abraham?’
‘If he asks. Otherwise, I’ll let the ghosts alone. All of them.’’  

In the end, it’s an interesting question whether Abraham Stein has the right to know everything about his mother’s death.

And then there’s Kalpana Swaminathan’s Greenlight, the sixth in her series featuring retired Mumbai police inspector Lalli. In this novel, parents living in the small slum of Kandewadi become terrified when some children begin to disappear from the slum and are later found dead. At first, the media and police don’t pay a lot of attention to what’s going on. But after several children have been killed, Inspector Savio is assigned to the case, and he consults with Lalli. Finding out the truth is a slow, painful process, some of that truth is truly brutal and ugly. So Lalli doesn’t tell everyone everything. There are some things she keeps private, even from her niece, Sita, who is part of the team that helps her. In this case, Lalli believes that more harm than good would come from saying too many things to people who don’t need to know them. I can’t say more without spoiling the story, but it’s interesting to see how that question of how much people need to know is addressed.

And it is a good question. Is Lehane right? Are there things we’re better off knowing?


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Daryl Hall and John Oates.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Babs Horton, Cara Black, Kalpana Swaminathan, Pascal Garnier

19 responses to “Some Things Are Better Left Unsaid*

  1. Oh what a great example The Front Seat Passenger is and what follows is quite something! And thank you for reminding me about A Jarful of Angels which is sitting patiently on my kindle

    • Oh, I do hope you’ll enjoy A Jarful of Angels, Cleo. I think it’s such an interesting picture of life in a small Welsh town of the time. And the story itself is fascinating, chiefly because it’s told through the eyes of the children. Really interesting! At any rate, you’re right; what happens in The Front Seat Passenger is something! And a lot could have been prevented if Delorme didn’t feel the need to know it all. But then, there wouldn’t be a story, and that’s something…

  2. I keep hearing about A Jarful of Angels – from you and a few others. Sometimes it is better off not knowing, but very hard to do in real life, or is that just nosey parker me? (Maybe that’s why we love reading crime fiction).

    • That very well could be, Marina Sofia. There is that human urge to find out – to know – that could drive at least part of our interest in a good crime novel. That said, though, I do think you’ve got a point that there are perhaps some things best left alone. That’s got a lot of consequences, but I can see why people say it.

  3. I often wonder about that question especially in connection with cold cases. The assumption, in fiction anyway, is always that the relatives of the victim will want the truth to come out however long after the crime it is. But I often think that if they’ve managed to grieve and move on in some way, that it must just bring it all back to the surface when a case is suddenly re-opened. I remember an episode of Waking the Dead where a sister of a victim became furious when they re-opened the case, since she’d spent years coming to terms with the whole thing and rebuilding her life, and that did seem like a credible reaction to me, though if I remember rightly, the investigators took it as a suspicious sign. I often think a Statute of Limitations might work for the victims and their families sometimes as much as for the criminals…

    • That’s an interesting point, FictionFan. Your comment reminds me of a few episodes of Cold Case I’ve watched, where relatives or friends didn’t want the team re-opening the case. And it wasn’t because they were guilty. I’d imagine it must be awful to try to move on from that sort of tragedy, only to have it brought up again. My guess is, that would especially be the case if people had gotten used to one explanation (e.g. the loved one died in a tragic accident) only to find that it was murder, or suicide. Hmmm…..a Statue of Limitations. I don’t know if that would pass into law, but I see your point.

  4. It’s a fascinating question, and one with several layers. On one hand, we sometimes need to know for safety purposes. On the other, with some things it’s better not to know. I can see what intrigued you about this, and your examples are flawless as usual, Margot.

    • Thanks, Sue. And you’re right; I was intrigued by the question. It’s got a lot of layers, as you say, and so much of it is contextual, and depends on the individuals and circumstances and so on. There are good reasons to argue either way, depending on, well, everything.

  5. Col

    Sometimes the truth causes more injury than ignorance. Love the Garnier book.

  6. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this interesting post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog. Are there some things that are better left unsaid?

  7. I definitely think there are some things not everyone should know. It would make a great story. Good post, Margot. 🙂 — Suzanne

    • Thanks very much, Patriciaruthsusan. I agree that that whole question of what people should know and what should be kept quiet is a fascinating one. Definitely fodder for a good story!

  8. kathy d.

    Aren’t secrets often at the heart of crime fiction? Lies, hidden information, the “sun” of omission. Detectives have to uncover the truth.
    Just read a hilarious book, “Collared,” by David Rosenfelt. Andy Carpenter, a “reluctant” defense attorney lies to a police officer, a friend of his, to get him to intervene in a criminal activity and stop another one from occurring. All with a lot of fun and wit.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed Collared, Kathy. I think Rosenfelt’s a talented writer, and wit is something he does very, very well. And you’re right; lies are at the heart of an awful lot of crime fiction…

  9. kathy d.

    Also, as I look back upon my teen-age years, I still think there were things my parents were better-off not knowing. Some things are better left unsaid.
    A Jar Full of Angels looks good, haven’t heard of it before.

    • A Jarful of Angels is a really interesting novel, Kathy. It’s got a real sense of a small Welsh town, too. And you have a good point. Perhaps some things are better left unsaid.

  10. Well, that quote by Lehan is really very interesting. Particularly for a storyteller 😉

    I’m particularly intrigued by A Jarful of Angels

    • I thought that was interesting, too, Jazzfeathers. And you’re right; it’s especially interesting coming from a writer/storyteller. But it is good ‘food for thought,’ I think. As to A Jarful of Angels, it’s got a strong sense of life in a small town at the time (the early 1960s). And there’s definitely a past/present connection in the novel, as well as a Welsh ‘feel’ to the story. If you do read it, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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