Don’t Ask Too Many Questions*

Las Vegas is the sort of place where it’s very easy to be whatever you want, so to speak. People don’t ask a lot of questions; hence, the iconic Vegas catchphrase: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.

Las Vegas, of course, isn’t the only place or context where people don’t ask questions. There are plenty of places where asking too many questions is considered at best, bad form, and at worst, dangerous. This sort of context – where curiosity is not welcomed – can be a very effective backdrop for a crime novel. We all have secrets that we’d rather no-one ask about, and criminals in particular have things to hide. So it makes sense that they would prefer a context where no-one asks too many questions.

Kate Grenville’s The Secret River isn’t, admittedly, a crime novel per se. But crimes are definitely committed in it. Beginning in 1806, the novel tells the story of William Thornhill, his wife, Sal, and their children. Thornhill is a London bargeman who’s sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing a load of valuable wood. The family lands in Sydney, which is at the time very much a frontier. It’s the sort of place where questions are discouraged. Most people are trying to start over, and don’t want a lot of discussion about what brought them there and what they’re doing. Thornhill gets a job delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. As time goes by, Thornhill finds a piece of land that he finds irresistible, and decides to claim it for his own. And he’s not alone. Plenty of other new arrivals want land, too. This leads inevitably to conflict and worse with the people who have always been on that land. Some brutal and bloody crimes are committed, and Thornhill wants no part of it, especially at first. But he also comes to see that he’ll have to get his hands dirty, too, if he wants to build the sort of life he wants.

In Megan Abbott’s Die a Little, we are introduced to Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. She’s particularly close to her older brother, Bill, so she’s concerned when he meets and falls in love with former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant, Alice Steele. At first, Lora puts her misgivings down to human enough, if not exactly productive, feelings of jealousy and protectiveness, since she is close to her brother. Bill and Alice marry, and Lora tries to be friends with her new sister-in-law. But as time goes by, she gets more and more worried about Alice, and what she finds out repels her. Alice’s former world – or is it really former? – is seamy and dangerous. She knows a lot of the sort of people who don’t welcome questions, and they certainly don’t welcome questions from Lora. At the same time as Lora is repulsed by Alice’s world, she is also drawn to it, though, and this has a real impact on her feelings and choices. Then, there’s a murder. Alice could very well be mixed up in it, too, so Lora decides to protect Bill (or so she tells herself) and find out the truth about what happened. The closer she gets to the truth, the closer she also gets to Alice’s life.

Eva Dolan’s Long Way Home introduces her protagonists, DI Dushan Zigic, and DS Mel Ferreira. They work with the Peterborough Police Hate Crimes Unit, so they’re called in when the body of man is found in a burned-out shed belonging to Paul and Gemma Barlow. The man is identified as an Estonian named Jaan Stepulov, and there’s a good possibility that his murder might be a hate crime. It’s going to be very hard to get answers, though. The immigrant community within which the victim moved is the sort of culture in which no-one asks questions. People often come, work for a while, and leave. Or, they stay longer, have their family join them, and move on. Or, they disappear for whatever reason. But no close ties are formed, and people such as landlords and moneylenders don’t ask any questions. In the end, Zigic and Ferreira find out who killed the victim and why. But they get very little willing help from anyone with whom he interacted.

Malcolm Mackay’s Glasgow trilogy is set mostly in Glasgow’s criminal underworld. It tells the stories of men who kill for hire, and of the people who hire them. It also tells the stories of the victims, and how they get themselves into trouble. One of the important rules among these people is that you don’t ask a lot of questions. You buy your weapons, for instance, from people who won’t ask where the money came from, or how the weapon will be used. You borrow a car from someone who won’t ask why you need it. The more reliable you are at keeping your mouth shut and your curiosity under control, the more you’ll be trusted.

Even between people who are married, there are instances where it’s expected that you don’t ask a lot of questions. For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Hilton Cubitt. It seems that Cubitt’s wife, Elsie, has been acting strangely lately. She’s been getting some cryptic letters lately from America, where she was born, and they have upset her greatly. She won’t tell her husband what the problem is, though, so he’s quite worried about her. They’ve always had the agreement that he would ask her nothing about her life in the US, because she had some unpleasant associations there. As she puts it, she has,

‘‘…nothing she need be personally ashamed of,’’

but she insists that her past be kept strictly private. And Cubitt has always respected that. But now he’s worried. Then, the same cryptic figures that appeared on the letters begin appearing in chalk on the ledges of the Cubitt home. Holmes works out that the drawings are a code, and that Elsie is being stalked. Then, one night, Cubitt is murdered. Holmes uses the code in the letters to lure the killer and learn the truth.

There are times and places where people don’t welcome a lot of questions. Asking them can get you in a lot of trouble – or worse. Especially in crime fiction.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Turin Brakes’ Last Chance.


Filed under Arthur Conan Doyle, Eva Dolan, Kate Grenville, Malcolm Mackay, Megan Abbott

24 responses to “Don’t Ask Too Many Questions*

  1. Thanks, Margot. You’ve primed the pump here for a bit of a Sherlock Holmes excursion. I’ve read almost all of the stories and novels in the past, but I have forgotten almost everything about all of them, so I will succumb to your provocation by beginning my reading reunion with the dancing men story.

  2. mudpuddle

    they say, “you are what you eat”, but i think it’s also true of individuals in society; the latter determines, to a growing extent, the character and behavior of it’s constituents, so that even when a person believes he’s operating in an independent manner, he’s actually just following the dictates of the society he lives in… it seems to me… S knew that, too: “there is a tide in the affairs of man, when taken at the flood…”

    • You make a good point about the Bard, Mudpuddle. Society certainly impacts – and in many cases determines – what people believe is right and wrong, and ‘normal’ or ‘not normal.’ That’s an interesting context within which we can look at human interaction and thinking.

  3. The question is… what are you getting up to in Las Vegas you don’t want us asking questions about, eh?? I thought the conference cover story was a bit thin… 😉

  4. Col

    Time I read something else from Malcolm Mackay!

  5. Good link Margot! An example of where privacy is guarded to the upmost level is on the London tube where you don’t make eye contact let alone ask questions

    • Thanks, Cleo. And you’re absolutely right about the London tube. You don’t make eye contact, or speak to other passengers unless it’s necessary. And you certainly don’t ask any questions. I wonder if those unwritten rules are there because there are just so many people? Not making eye contact or asking questions is a way of giving everyone just a bit of privacy.

  6. To me it’s funny to think about asking questions can sometimes lead you into trouble or worse, yet that’s the thing that drives us to ask questions.

  7. The Megan Abbott book was a good exercise in psychological suspense just because of the reluctance to ask questions. That cultural norm is what keeps people from getting too nosy about what’s going on when a hotel guest hauls all sorts of luggage and boxes to his room over a period of days. It’s hard to know when to draw the line on good manners and be nosy anyway.

    • It really is, isn’t it, Pat? And I think that’s why so many people are reluctant to ask questions. I agree with you, too, that Die a Little shows what happens when people’s natural reluctance to pry comes up against their discomfort when they see things that unsettle them.

  8. Kathy D.

    How many mysteries are based on old secrets that no one dare question? This occurs in Jane Harper’s Australian mystery, “The Dry.” It’s such a common theme.
    This is true of so many books with family secrets. No one asks, no one talks.
    In my city, it’s amazing what people ignore. Some could literally step over a dead body and keep walking. This happens with homeless and hungry people. It is so sad to see.
    It’s hard to think about Las Vegas without thinking about the poor people who lost their lives in a brutal, senseless murder spree recently. And still, no motive. Not meaning to be funny about this, but I think we need a Sherlock Holmes-type detective involved in this case.

    • I’ll bet Holmes could do some good, Kathy. And you’re right about secrets. In so many cases, both real and fictional, there are those hidden secrets that no-one dares to ask about. That can be the basis for some great crime fiction.

  9. Margot, authors Megan Abbott and Eva Dolan are on my TBR list. Question is when.

  10. Kathy D.

    Personal secrets are at play in the murder spree in Las Vegas. Who knew? Who knows why?

  11. Thanks for writing another thought provoking post. I identify with this theme of a hostility to questions. This certainly sets up, singular or multiple, secret backstory. Certainly, it drives present time action with deeply held secrets.

    This appears as a theme in literary fiction. The reader encounters characters, families, businesses, historical periods, and communities, where characters must not ask questions. I think this is often the psychological theme of many families. Sometimes funny? Often tragic.

    • You’re right, DLM. The theme of ‘don’t ask questions,’ especially when it comes to family dynamics, can be tragic. Or funny. Or even poignant. And, yes, it does show up in literary fiction as well as genre fiction.

      One reason, in my opinion, that this theme shows up so much is that it really is true-to-life. There certainly are plenty of situations where questions are strongly discouraged. Sometimes the reason for that makes a lot of sense; sometimes it doesn’t at all, and it can lead to very dark places. Either way, it seems to be human, if I can put it that way.

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