Category Archives: Angela Savage

Lighten Up While You Still Can*

Light MomentsWit is a funny thing (pun intended😉 ). The thing about it is that what’s funny to some people isn’t to others. And what ‘counts’ as a lighter moment to some people isn’t funny at all to others. So even among members of the same culture, there might not be agreement about whether something is funny or it isn’t.

Because of that, it can be difficult to add in just the right light touch to a crime novel. I’m not talking here of comic caper novels, where the author deliberately adds in absurdity and funny dialogue. Rather, I mean crime novels in which those funny moments add a welcome light touch. It’s not easy to do that and still maintain the tenor of a story. But it can add interest, keep readers engaged, and keep up a certain energy level in a novel. We see it all through crime fiction, too, so there won’t be space in this one post for all of the examples out there. Here are just a few.

The main plot of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton concerns a notorious blackmailer who’s gotten hold of an indiscreet letter written by one of Sherlock Holmes’ clients. She’s hired Holmes to get the letter and stop Milverton sending it to her fiancé. Holmes meets with Milverton, who refuses to part with the letter unless he gets an outrageous sum of money. So Holmes decides to take matters into his own hands and get the letter back another way. He learns the layout of Milverton’s home, and the household’s habits. Then he and Watson actually break into the house. Holmes knows he needs ‘inside information,’ so he takes on a disguise, and starts ‘walking out with’ one of Milverton’s housemaids. There’s a very funny scene where he tells Watson that he is engaged:
 

“You’ll be interested to hear that I am engaged.’
‘My dear fellow! I congrat—
‘To Milverton’s housemaid.’
‘Good heavens, Holmes!’
‘I wanted information, Watson.’…
‘But the girl, Holmes?’
He shrugged his shoulders.
‘You can’t help it, my dear Watson. You must play your cards as best you can when such a stake is on the table. However, I rejoice to say that I have a hated rival who will certainly cut me out the instant that my back is turned. What a splendid night it is!’’
 

In the end, the information Holmes gets turns out to be very useful.

In Robert Crais’ Lullaby Town, famous director Peter Alan Nelson wants to hire Los Angeles PI Elivs Cole to find his ex-wife, Karen, and son, Toby. After years of not being involved with Toby, Nelson has decided he wants to be a part of the boy’s life. Cole tries to tell him that it’s not that simple, but Nelson insists. And a fee is a fee. So Cole reluctantly starts trying to trace Karen and Toby. When he finds them, he soon learns that his troubles have really just begun. It turns out that Karen has been working for some very nasty people, and now wants to be free of them. That doesn’t sit well with her ‘business associates,’ so Cole and his partner Joe Pike find themselves in a dangerous situation. At one point, Cole and Karen are in her house. Pike has just arrived, and the first thing he does is check the house carefully to ensure the safety of its occupants. He says nothing as he does so, though, so at first, Karen thinks it’s quite odd. It’s a funny scene as she watches Pike go through his security check as Cole tries to explain his rather unusual partner. She gets used to Pike, though, and he turns out to be very useful.

The beginning of Gail Bowen’s The Gifted takes place at Hallowe’en. So political scientist/academician Joanne Kilbourn Shreve and her attorney husband Zack are planning to go to a costume party. It’s a light, funny moment as Zack makes the scene in yellow silk pyjamas and sporting an orchid. If you’re a crime fiction fan, that should be enough to tell you which character he’s portraying. And for her part, Joanne dresses in a
 

‘slick vintage suit’
 

to complete the picture. The novel itself isn’t what you’d call a light crime novel. The main plot concerns their daughter, Taylor, who is a gifted artist. In fact, although she’s only fourteen at the time of this novel, two pieces of her art have been included in an upcoming charity auction. She shares one of her pieces with her parents. But she keeps the other hidden until the auction. When it’s revealed, it turns out to have tragic consequences. That light moment at the beginning is an effective counterpoint.

Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. Several of the novels have quite a lot of sadness in them, and the stories really aren’t what you’d call light, fun novels. At the same time, they are not unrelentingly bleak. And one of the reasons for that is the set of relationships among the characters. For example, the local B&B/bistro is owned by Olivier Brulé and his partner Gabriel Dubeau. It’s a social hub, so everyone spends at least some time there. One of the regular denizens is poet Ruth Zardo. Ruth has a very acerbic exterior, and never wastes an opportunity to make a snide remark or toss off an insult. But Olivier and Gabri know that underneath that surface, Ruth cares about them and considers them friends. And as far as insults go, they give as good as they get. Those interactions not only lighten the tone of the novels, but they also add a layer of character development.

In Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel investigate the death of Chanida Manakit, who went by the nickname of Pla. Part of the trail leads to the offices of a development company, and Keeney and Patel want to find out more about it. But they know that they won’t learn much by just walking in and introducing themselves as detectives. So they go in the guise of a wealthy investor (played by Patel) and his secretary/assistant (played by Keeney). The funny part about this scene (at least for me; your mileage may vary, as the saying goes) is that in actuality, their relationship is nothing like that. Neither is their style of dress. It lightens up what is in some places a very sad story.

And then there’s Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. In that novel, eleven-year-old Flavia de Luce discovers the body of an unknown man in the cucumber patch of the family garden. She doesn’t know who the victim is, but she does know he visited the house the night before. She also knows he had an argument with her father. The police learn that, too, and before very long, Flavia’s father is arrested. She doesn’t believe he’s a killer, so she decides to find out the truth. Flavia is a budding detective, and very knowledgeable about chemistry. But she is also an eleven-year-old child with two older sisters. She decides to get back at one of them by distilling the irritant in poison ivy, and putting it on her sister’s lipstick. That in itself is rather funny; so, in its way, is the eventual outcome.

Those lighter moments and funny scenes don’t always have to do with the actual investigation in a crime novel. And they can be tricky. But when they’re handled well, they can lighten up an otherwise very sad story.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Take it Easy.

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Filed under Alan Bradley, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Gail Bowen, Louise Penny, Robert Crais

Sends Shivers Down My Spine*

Reactions to Taking a LifeCommitting murder isn’t easy for most people. In fact, in real life, most of us would be horrified, or at least badly affected, by having taken a life. That’s arguably one reason for which returning soldiers have so much difficulty after they’ve fought in a war. And it’s part of why stories about people who kill in a cold-blooded, unfeeling way make the news. That uncaring reaction seems so alien to most people.

There are, of course, all sorts of different types of killers in crime fiction. Some of them (a post in and of itself, actually) are hardened and unfeeling. Or they completely justify the taking of a life in some way, so that it doesn’t really affect them. But many, many killers are devastated when they take a life.

In Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia, for instance, we are introduced to Louise Leidner. She’s accompanied her husband, noted archaeologist Eric Leidner, on a dig at a site a few hours from Baghdad. One afternoon, she is bludgeoned in her room at the expedition house. Hercule Poirot is in the area, and is persuaded to take a few days and investigate the murder. It’s very unlikely (‘though not impossible) that an outsider committed the murder, so the pool of suspects is somewhat limited. Still, as Poirot learns more about the victim, he discovers that more than one person might have wanted to kill her. It’s not spoiling the story to say that murderer intended to kill. But that doesn’t mean that person was left unaffected by taking life. Here’s what the murderer says:
 

‘‘I think – really – I am rather glad  [at being found out]…I’m so tired…’’
 

Even the narrator of the story feels a sort of pity for the killer.

In James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity, insurance sales representative Walter Huff meets Phyllis Nirdlinger, the wife of one of his clients. He’s immediately besotted, and she seems to reciprocate. Soon enough, they begin an affair, and she persuades him to help her plot to kill her husband for the life insurance money. He’s so much under her spell that he goes along with her plan. Then, once the deed is done, it starts to sink what he’s really done:
 

‘I knew then what I had done. I had killed a man to get a woman. I had put myself in her power, so there was one person in the world that could point a finger at me, and I would have to die.’ 
 

The problem is, of course, that he can’t confess his guilt without risking everything. There are other reasons, too, for which it won’t be as easy as it may seem to simply go to the police and tell them what he’s done. So Huff decides he’ll have to take other action.

In Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery investigate the murder of fashion designer Sheila Grey. After a bit of digging, they settle on Ashton McKell as the chief suspect. He was in the victim’s apartment on the night of the murder, and was known to be in a relationship with her. When McKell’s name is cleared, both his wife, Lutetia, and his son, Dane, fall in for their share of suspicion, and there are reasonable cases against them. But the McKells aren’t the only possibilities by any means. In the end, the Queens get to the truth about the matter. And we discover that the murderer has been badly affected by killing Sheila Grey. Here’s what the killer says:
 

“…I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there’s something wrong inside me, there always has been since I was a kid. Everything went wrong.”
 

It’s clear that this person is not left untouched.

Neither is the killer in William McIlvanney’s Laidlaw. In that novel, Glasgow DI Jack Laidlaw investigates the rape and murder of eighteen-year-old Jennifer Lawson. Although there’s a great deal of sympathy for the Lawson family, the case is not an easy one to solve. For one thing, the victim wasn’t mixed up with drugs or prostitution, so there is no ‘criminal involvement’ lead to follow. What’s more, nobody really knows what Jennifer did or where she went at the time of the murder. People really weren’t paying attention. So nobody can say who might have been with her. What’s more, the people who live in the area where the girl was found are not exactly fond of talking to the police. So even if someone saw something or knows something, it’s not likely to be reported. Still, Laidlaw and his team persist, and in the end, they find out the truth. In this case, the killer is consumed by guilt about the crime, and knows full well exactly how horrible a crime it was. That sense of horror and guilt play a major role in what that person does.

Geoffrey McGeachin’s The Diggers Rest Hotel introduces Melbourne copper Charlie Berlin. It’s 1947, and Berlin has recently returned from WWII service in Europe. He’s still dealing with the trauma of that experience, but is also trying to get on with his life. He’s seconded to Wodonga to help investigate a series of robberies in the area, and catch the motorcycle gang that’s responsible. Berlin’s in the middle of that investigation when the body of sixteen-year-old Jenny Lee is found in an alley. At first, there’s a suspicion that the motorcycle gang was involved, but Berlin soon learns that’s not true. So he begins to look elsewhere for the person responsible. In the end, he finds out the truth, part of which is that the killer is devastated by what’s happened. This is no case of a cold-blooded psychopath, and McGeachin makes it clear that taking lives exacts a real toll from the people who take them.

And then there’s Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach. Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking some time off at Krabi. They enjoy their holiday until they find out about the death of Chanida Manakit, who went by the nickname of Pla. Miss Pla was an expert swimmer, who actually guided a tour that Keeney and Patel took, so they feel a personal sense of loss when her body washes up in a cave. It’s very hard to tell exactly how she died, but Keeney doesn’t immediately accept the police theory that this was an accident; Miss Pla was too good a swimmer for that. She and Patel agree to stay in Krabi for a few extra days to look into the matter. And when they find out the truth, we learn that Pla’s death was not a case of falling into the water and drowning. The person responsible for her death is both fearful and horrified by what’s happened, and Savage makes that clear. That horror turns out to have consequences, too.

There are of course killers who aren’t affected by taking a life. But many real-life killers are. So it makes sense that fictional ones would be, too.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Ellery Queen, Geoffrey McGeachin, James M. Cain, William McIlvanney

My Dear, We All Must Stay Alive*

Maslow's HierarchyNo one psychological theory explains why people do what they do. People are too complex for one theory to account for everything, and all sorts of factors impact what we do. That said, though, there are some really interesting ways of looking at the choices humans make, and putting them into perspective.

One of those theories is Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow’s theory was that some of our needs are more important than others, and that we will meet those basic, lower-level needs before trying to meet higher-level needs. In the world of education, for instance, it implies that students aren’t going to be able to concentrate on learning if they haven’t eaten or if they’re being abused. Students from stable, loving homes, where they don’t have to worry about physical safety or being unloved, will be better able to concentrate on higher-level needs like cognitive development.

We see this hierarchy all through crime fiction, too. And although it certainly doesn’t explain everything characters do, I think it adds an interesting perspective. And it can help readers understand why a character might behave in a certain way.

The most basic needs we have, according to Maslow, are our ‘survival’ needs, like food, water, and shelter. They have to be met first, if a person is to meet other needs. In Angela Savage’s Behind the Night Bazaar, for instance, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney works to clear the name of her friend Didier ‘Didi’ de Montpasse. When his partner, Nou, is killed, the police settle on Didi as the murderer. Later, he himself is killed in what police say was the tragic consequence of resisting arrest and threatening the officers who’d come to arrest him. Keeney doesn’t believe that explanation and goes in search of the truth. The truth about the murders has to do with the business of child trafficking and the sex trade, and Savage makes it clear that there are no easy answers to this problem. For many desperately poor rural families, this trade represents food in their stomachs and a place to live. Simply telling them how wrong it is to send their children to be trafficked isn’t going to feed them.

We also see this in one plot thread of Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. Two young girls, Preeti and Basanti, join India’s sex trade in exchange for money given to their families. The idea is that they’ll work in the trade for a few years, sending money back to their families, and then return to their villages. For those families, this represents a way to put food on the table, take care of sick children and so on. For the young girls, it’s even a sort of source of pride, since they are helping to feed their families. But things go horribly wrong when they are taken to Scotland and sold to some very dangerous people. When Basanti manages to escape the people holding her, she goes in search of Preeti, only to discover that her friend has disappeared and may be dead. So she asks for help from oceanographer Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who just may have the skills needed to find Preeti.

Timothy Hallinan addresses similar issues in his Philip ‘Poke’ Rafferty novels. Rafferty is an ex-pat American who now lives in Bangkok with his wife, Rose and their adopted daughter, Miaow. Rose is a former bar girl who’s set up her own apartment-cleaning company; Miaow is a former street child. Both know all too well about being desperate for food and shelter. In fact, in The Queen of Patpong, we learn something about Rose’s personal history. At one point, there’s an interaction between her teacher, Teacher Suttikul, and her father. The teacher is trying to convince Rose’s father to let her stay in school, rather than leave school and get work:
 

‘‘You know, you have a very smart daughter.’
‘So what?’ her father says… ‘She’s a girl.’
‘There are lots of good jobs for girls these days. She’ll earn plenty of money if she stays in school.’
‘What good does that do anybody? If she makes any money, it’ll go to her husband’s parents, not us.’
… ‘She’ll always take care of you. And I know she can get a good job. Someday she – ’
‘Someday,’ her father says heavily, as though the words are in a foreign language. ‘Someday. My children need food now. The roof needs to be fixed before the next rain comes. We need money now.’’ 

 

That drive to meet the most important, basic needs leads those who have nothing to make choices that those of us with plenty can’t always understand.

Maslow believed that once those very basic needs are met, we move on to meeting our needs for safety and security. And we certainly see that in crime fiction! I’m sure I don’t have to list the many novels in which characters won’t talk to the police, for fear of what will happen if they do. And then there are characters who know about terrible crimes, even murder, but turn a blind eye. It’s not that they like the idea of murder, but they fear for their own safety and that of their families.

We see that need for safety come out in other ways, too. For example, Jassy Mackenzie’s Random Violence takes place in Johannesburg, where many people are concerned for their own physical safety. In that atmosphere, Superintendent David Patel of the Johannesburg Police investigates the murder of Annette Botha, whose death looks like a carjacking gone horribly wrong. But soon, little bits of evidence suggest that her murder might have been deliberate. Then, private investigator Dean Grobbelar is murdered. Then there’s a third murder. Now Patel has the task of linking these crimes to see who is responsible. In the meantime, PI Jade de Jong, the daughter of Patel’s former mentor, has returned to Johannesburg after a ten-year absence. Patel is glad for her help as the investigation gets both wider and deeper, but she has an agenda of her own. Throughout this novel, there’s a pervasive sense of fear, as ordinary people take extraordinary security measures:
 

‘Jade turned on all the lights and checked the cottage thoroughly. The front door was secure. The alarm was armed. The battery box that fed the electric fence was beeping quietly, its green light flashing.’
 

People hire personal bodyguards, live in tightly gated communities, and so on. There’s a real sense that everyone’s safety is at risk.

There’s also Camilla Grebe and Åsa Träff’s Some Kind of Peace, which introduces Stockholm psychologist Siri Bergman. She’s dealing with the loss of her beloved husband Stefan, so although she’s functioning, she’s not exactly functional. Still, she’s making some progress. Then, she gets a letter that makes it clear that she’s being stalked. As if that’s not enough, someone seems to have gotten access to her private client information. Then, the body of one of those clients, Sara Matteus, is found in the water in Bergman’s property. There’s a suicide note that blames Bergman for the victim’s decision to kill herself. When the death is proved to be a murder, Berman is suspected, briefly, until it’s proven she is innocent. But having her name cleared isn’t enough to keep her safe. Bergman will have to find out who’s responsible for targeting her if she’s to stay alive. And it’s interesting to see how her focus changes from the higher-level need to succeed professionally and help her clients to the basic need to stay safe as the story goes on.

If Maslow was right (and I’ve not read any credible evidence that he wasn’t), then our needs are hierarchical. We have to satisfy our basic needs before we move on to higher-level needs like the need to be loved and to belong. And those needs drive quite a bit of what we do.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Claude Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer’s Lovely Ladies.

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Filed under Angela Savage, Åsa Träff, Camilla Grebe, Jassy Mackenzie, Mark Douglas-Home, Timothy Hallinan

You Get to Meet All Sorts in This Line of Work*

PI InterviewsNot long ago, Angela Savage suggested that I do a post on crime-fictional PI interviews with their clients. It’s really a fascinating topic, if you think about it. PIs have to make a living, so they want to make a positive impression. On the other hand, the client, too, has to convince the PI to take the job. There are, after all, things that PIs are and aren’t allowed to do, and things that one or another PI will or won’t do. And, since fictional PIs are an important part of crime fiction, it really is interesting to see how they do what they do.

Savage’s own creation is Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney (a series, by the way, that I recommend highly). In The Half Child, Jim Delbeck decides that Keeney is the best choice for what he wants to accomplish. Delbeck is an Australian, whose daughter Maryanne served as a volunteer at New Life Children’s Centre in Pattaya. Tragically, she died in a fall from the roof of the building where she was living. The police report indicates that she committed suicide, but Delbeck doesn’t believe it. So he wants to find out what really happened. Keeney appeals to him as a PI because, being an ex-pat Australian, she can communicate easily with him. At the same time, she is fluent in Thai and very much accustomed to the local ways. On the one hand, she’s a bit put off by Delbeck’s apparent attitude towards the Thais. On the other, she can see that he’s a distraught parent. Maryanne Delbeck might not have been a perfect angel, but here’s a man who’s lost his child. Keeney agrees to take the case, and travels to Pattaya, where she goes undercover as a volunteer at New Life. In the end, she finds out what really happened on the day the victim died. She also finds out about some things that have been going on at New Life.

One of the iconic PIs of the Golden Age is Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe. He’s the essential ‘good guy trying to negotiate a very messy world.’ In The Big Sleep, he is more or less summoned to the home of wealthy General Guy Sternwood, who has a commission for him. Sternwood has received an extortion letter that makes reference to his daughter Carmen. The blackmailer is book dealer Arthur Geiger, and Sternwood wants Marlowe to find Geiger and stop him. Marlowe is, to say the least, not impressed with Sternwood. In fact, here’s how Sternwood himself describes both Carmen and her sister Vivian:
 

‘‘Neither of them has any more moral sense than a cat. Neither have I. No Sternwood ever had.’’
 

Marlowe has a sense already of the decadence and cynicism of this family. But he agrees to take the case and tracks down Geiger. By the time he does, though, Geiger is dead – murdered in his shop. Carmen is a witness, but she’s either been drugged or had a mental breakdown, so she can’t tell Marlowe much. He gets her to safety and with that, thinks that the case is over. After all, Geiger has been stopped. But then there’s another death. And despite his desire to be well and truly rid of the Sternwoods, Marlowe finds himself involved in the investigations.

In Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs, we are introduced to Dobbs, who has just hung out her PI shingle. One of her first clients is Christopher Davenham, who wants her to investigate whether his wife is having an affair. She isn’t overly eager to do so, for as she puts it,
 

‘‘To follow a person is an invasion of the right of that person to privacy. I If I take on this case – and I do have a choice in the matter – I am taking on more than the question of who did what and when. I am taking on a responsibility for both you and your wife in a way that you may not have considered.’’
 

She takes the consequences of what she does very seriously, and at first, Davenham is put off. But he finally agrees to her terms, and she begins work on the case. And in the end, she finds that the solution is quite different to what Davenham had thought.

Anthony Bidulka’s Saskatoon PI Russell Quant has a rather awkward interview with a client in Date With a Sheesha. In that novel, Pranav Gupta wants to hire Quant to find out what happened to his son Nayan ‘Neil.’ According to Gupta, Neil was in Dubai giving a set of guest lectures, as well as researching antique carpets. He was killed in an open-air market in what police claim was an attack by thugs. Gupta doesn’t believe that, though, and wants Quant to find out the truth. What makes this interview awkward is that Gupta’s wife Unnati most emphatically does not agree. As she puts it, her husband wants revenge, not peace. It makes for a few tense moments, but Quant agrees to take the case. And in the end, he finds that Neil Gupta’s death was much more than a chance mugging gone wrong.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has had his share of awkward interviews, too. For example, in Third Girl, he gets a visit from a young woman who tells him that she may have committed a murder. But after a moment or two, she blurts out that he isn’t at all what she had imagined. In fact, he’s too old. Then she leaves without even giving her name. Not surprisingly, Poirot is not too happy about that, and he tells his friend Ariadne Oliver about it when he speaks to her shortly thereafter. As it turns out, Mrs. Oliver has met the young woman, and dredges up her name: Norma Restarick. By the time Poirot finds out who Norma is, though, she has disappeared. Her father and stepmother say she’s in London, but her London roommates say that she hasn’t returned from a weekend away. Now Poirot and Mrs. Oliver face not just the question of whether there’s been a murder, but also, what happened to the possible killer. I know, I know, fans of Murder on the Orient Express.

A PI never knows what a prospective client is really going to be like. And a person in need of PI never knows exactly what that PI will be like at first. So it can make for a very interesting dynamic when they first meet. Thanks, Angela, for the inspiration.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Dire Straits’ Private Investigations.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Anthony Bidulka, Jacqueline Winspear, Raymond Chandler

Say What You Need to Say*

SubtletyIn many cultures, it isn’t the custom for people to come right out and say certain things. To do so is considered abrupt, even rude. So, members of those cultures have developed subtler ways to say what they want to say. That can be a challenge to understand if you’re someone from a culture where directness is valued. But it’s an important form of communication.

In real life and in crime fiction, police need to understand this kind of subtle communication. Otherwise, they may miss out on important information. The same is true of PIs and other professional investigators. Not only do such people need to pay attention to what’s really being said, but also, they need to learn how to communicate in subtle ways themselves. Otherwise, they risk alienating the very people whose information they need.

There are plenty of examples of this kind of subtlety in crime fiction; space only permits a few of them. I know you’ll be able to come up with plenty of instances yourself, anyway.

In Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell host a weekend gathering. Two of the guests are Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow and his wife, Gerda. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and is invited to the house for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he finds what looks like a macabre tableau set up for his ‘amusement.’ Christow has been shot, and his body is lying by the pool. It only takes a moment for Poirot to see that this scene is all too real. Once it’s clear that Christow has been murdered, Poirot works with Inspector Grange to find out who the killer is. One of the important sets of clues in this novel comes from very subtle communication. Christie ‘plays fair’ with the reader, but it’s easy to miss on first reading.

In Donna Leon’s Blood From a Stone, Commissario Guido Brunetti has to use and understand subtlety to solve the murder of an unidentified Senegalese man who is killed, execution-style, in an open-air market. The victim was in Venice illegally, so it’s going to be enough of a challenge to find out who he was, let alone who killed him. Brunetti guesses that the man might have been helped by Don Alvise Perale, a former Jesuit priest who is very active in the community. Brunetti knows that asking Don Alvise outright for the name of the victim will be pointless. Either he won’t know the name, or he won’t tell, at least at first. Saying too much could be dangerous for other people who are in the country illegally. So Brunetti settles for asking Don Alvise to find out whatever he can and let Brunetti know. This Don Alvise agrees to do, after he gets Brunetti’s assurance that the Immigration police won’t be involved. It turns out that Don Alvise’s cooperation is very useful as Brunetti and Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello investigate.

In Laura Joh Rowland’s Shinju, we meet Sano Ichirō, a police investigator in 1687 Edo (Tokyo). When the bodies of Niu Yukikko and Noriyoshi are discovered in a river, it’s assumed that they committed suicide by drowning. That’s not an uncommon choice in the case of a forbidden love affair, and that’s what everyone wants to believe. But Sano begins to wonder whether the two actually did commit suicide. Little by little, evidence suggest that at Noriyushi was murdered. If so, perhaps Yukiko was as well. But the Niu family is powerful and influential, and Sano’s supervisor, Magistrate Ogyu, doesn’t want the police to do anything to offend them. So he makes it clear to Sano that the investigation is not to proceed. At one point, Sano tries to persuade him otherwise. Here is Ogyu’s response:
 

‘Instead of replying to Sano’s impassioned speech, Ogyu changed the subject. ‘I am sorry to hear that your father is unwell,’ he said….
‘A man of his age deserves a peaceful retirement and the respect of those closest to him. It would be a pity if a family disgrace were to worsen his illness.’’
 

It doesn’t take much skill to understand that Ogyu is threatening Sano’s employment if he disobeys orders and continues to investigate.

In Angela Savage’s The Half Child, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney travels to Pattaya to investigate the death of Maryanne Delbeck. The police report is that she committed suicide, but her father believes otherwise. He wants Keeney to find out what really happened to his daughter, and Keeney agrees. To do that, though, she’ll need some support. She knows she can’t just show up in Pattaya, asking questions, without cooperation. So she asks for help from Police Major General Wichit, who has family connections there. Wichit owes Keeney a large debt, but it’s as important for her not be direct about that debt as it is for him to remember it. So when they meet, they simply greet each other. She does ask after his family, but,
 

‘Wichit assumed this was just politeness on her part and not a subtle reminder of the debt he owed her.’
 

He’s right, as Keeney understands the need for circumspection. It’s an interesting exchange which acknowledges their history without actually referring to it.

And then there’s Qiu Xiaolong’s Enigma of China. In that novel, Shanghai Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his team are assigned to investigate the death of Zhou Keng, head of Shanghai’s Housing Development Committee. The official police theory is that he committed suicide after becoming the subject of a corruption investigation. But Chen suspects he may have been murdered. Either way, the case will have to be handled delicately. Zhou’s corruption was brought to light by an online group that posted pictures of expensive items he owned, so Chen wants to find out more from that group. But the government has an interest in severely restricting who gets to post online and about what. So the group is extremely wary about interacting with anyone official. Chen knows this, and has a very careful and subtle conversation with one of the group’s leaders. He begins with a reassurance:
 

‘‘Once the case is solved and everything comes out, I don’t think the netcops or any of the others will waste their time on you.’
The hint was unmistakable. Given Chen’s position and connections, it wasn’t impossible for the chief inspector to help.’
 

That subtle reassurance goes a long way towards building the rapport Chen needs to get the information he wants.

And that’s the thing about subtlety. When you know how to be subtle and respond to others’ subtlety, you can often get useful information.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from John Mayer’s Say.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Donna Leon, Laura Joh Rowland, Qiu Xiaolong