The way we speak says a lot about us. That’s patently obvious, but it has a lot of implications for an author. Speaking patterns and interactions with others can give the reader information about a character’s age group, social class, level of education, and more. It can also reveal some interesting information about the relationship between characters. It’s little wonder, then, that the way characters speak to each other can show-not-tell what’s going on in a story. This is a crime fiction blog, so the examples I’ve thought of are all from crime novels. But it really does apply no matter what sort of fiction one reads.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing murder of the Fourth Baron Edgware. The victim’s wife, Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect for a number of reasons. But she says she was at a dinner party in another part of London on the night of the murder. And there are twelve people ready to swear that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the killer. Poirot has more than one conversation with Jane Wilkinson. Here’s a bit of one of them:
‘‘M. Poirot, I want to talk to you. I must talk to you.’
‘But certainly, Madame, will you not sit down?’
‘No, no, not here. I want to talk to you privately. We’ll go right upstairs to my suite.’’
Just from these few lines, it’s clear that Jane Wilkinson has a high social position, and is accustomed to getting her way. While she may not look down on Poirot, she certainly doesn’t see him as a social superior. By way of contrast, here’s a tiny bit of a conversation that Poirot has with Jane’s servant, Ellis.
‘‘Sit here, will you not, Mademoiselle – Ellis, I think?’
‘Yes, sir, Ellis.’’
‘To begin with, Miss Ellis, you have been with Lady Edgware how long?
‘Three years, sir.’’
Here, it’s clear that Ellis speaks to Poirot as a social superior. Christie fans know that Poirot has a way of making members of the ‘serving class’ comfortable, and that’s what happens here. It turns out Ellis provides very helpful information.
In Walther Mosley’s A Red Death, we are introduced to Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins. In this novel, we learn that he owns three apartment buildings, including the one in which he lives. He was able to purchase them with money from an investigation he did (see Devil in a Blue Dress for the details). For several reasons, he prefers to keep his identity as the owner of the building a secret, and masquerades as the maintenance man/janitor. The one man who does know Easy’s secret is the man who manages the building, a man named Mofass. He knows which side of his bread’s buttered, so to speak, so he speaks accordingly. Here’s the way he speaks to a tenant who’s late with the rent:
‘‘I’ll be back on Saturday, and if you ain’t got the money, you better be gone!’’
A moment later, he sees Easy, with whom he made plans to have lunch:
‘‘Are you ready to leave, Mr. Rawlins?’’
On the one hand, Mofass’ speech patterns consistently reflect his background, social class, and the like. But his interactions also show his relationship to the tenants and to Rawlins. These particular interactions aren’t, admittedly, closely related to the main plot. But they show the way that dialogue and interactions show character.
Fans of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Salvo Montalbano series will know that one of his friends is Nicolò Zito, a TV journalist who works at Vigatà’s Free Channel. The two help one another when the situation calls for it, and they have a comfortable relationship. This is clear from a conversation they have in The Shape of Water. In that novel, Montalbano is investigating the death of up-and-coming politician Silvio Luparello. Here’s just a bit of a conversation he has with Zito, during which he chides his friend for not being more hard-hitting in the station’s covering of Luparello’s death:
‘‘…and you guys, instead of seizing the moment for all it’s worth, you all toe the line and cast a veil of mercy over how he died.’
‘We’re not really in the habit of taking advantage of such things.’
Montalbano started laughing.
‘Would you do me a favor, Nicolò? Would you and everyone else at the Free Channel please go f*** yourselves?’
Zito started laughing in turn.’
It’s easy to see the two men have a comfortable relationship, and that they’ve known each other for some time.
Interactions can also be used to show age and generation differences. We see that, for instance, in James W. Fuerst’s Huge. In that novel, twelve-year-old Eugene ‘Huge’ Smalls is having trouble in school, although he’s extremely intelligent. He has difficulty with anger management, and he’s socially awkward. What he really wants is to be a detective, just like Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He gets his chance when his grandmother hires him to find out who defaced the sign at the elder care facility where she lives. Here’s jus a tiny bit of one of their conversations:
‘‘Of course…if you can’t give me your word that you’ll act like a professional and conduct yourself like a gentleman, then maybe you’re not ready yet.’’…
‘Okay, Toots, you got yourself a deal.’…
‘Christ, Lady, you win. I promise…But let’s get one thing straight: the name’s Huge.’
She started to laugh and then covered her mouth. ‘I beg your pardon, Huge. As for our arrangement, can I trust you to carry it out in the strictest confidence?’’
Here, we see the generational difference between Huge and his grandmother. We also see that they have a close relationship. Huge’s grandmother is one of the few people who understand his desire to be a detective.
And then there’s Harry Bingham’s Talking to the Dead, which introduces Cardiff Detective Constable (DC) Fiona Griffiths. Fiona has several personal and mental health issues she deals with, but she is, for the most part, functional. And she knows she has to function as part of a team if she’s going to do her job. Still, she can be prickly, and she affects a bad temper at times, mostly to keep people from getting too close. Here’s a bit of a conversation she has with a workmate, Detective Sergeant (DS) David Brydon. They’re talking about the eye-glazing task of compiling financial evidence against former police officer named Brian Penry, who’s suspected of illegal activity.
‘‘He’ll plead guilty’ [Brydon]
‘I know he’ll plead guilty.’
‘Got to be done, though.’
‘Ah, yes, forgot it was State the Obvious Day. Sorry.’’
This interaction shows both the camaraderie between the two, and the fact that Fiona prefers to keep people at a distance.
And that’s the thing about dialogue and interactions in stories. They can reveal an awful lot about characters, relationships, and more. Interactions can reveal clues, too, but that’s the topic for another post, I think…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Susie Q.