Most of us would probably say that we have private matters we don’t discuss with others. I know I would. And yet, it’s surprising how often people talk about sometimes very personal things with complete strangers. I don’t mean strangers such as doctors or attorneys, who need that personal information. Rather, I mean strangers such as someone in the same waiting room, or taking the same flight.
The thing is, though, that you never know where confiding in a stranger might lead. On the one hand, it might be perfectly harmless – even pleasant. On the other, it could be very dangerous. Just a quick look at crime fiction should show you what I mean.
In Agatha Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train, we are introduced to Katherine Grey. She’s served as a paid companion for ten years, but her employer has died. And she’s shocked to learn that she’s inherited her employer’s considerable fortune. She decides to use some of that money, and travel a bit. Her first stop will be Nice, where she has a distant relative, Lady Rosalie Tamplin. During her trip to Nice on the famous Blue Train, Katherine meets Ruth Van Aldin Kettering. They fall into conversation, as people do on a train, and before long, Ruth has confided some of her personal story to Katherine. The next morning, Ruth is found murdered in her compartment. Since Katherine is possibly the last person to speak with the victim, she is a ‘person of interest,’ although not a suspect. And before she knows it, she’s drawn into a mystery. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and works with the police to find out who killed Ruth Kettering and why.
There’s an interesting case of confiding in strangers in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Strong Poison. Mystery novelist Harriet Vane has been arrested for the murder of her former lover, Philip Boyes, and there is solid evidence against her. Lord Peter Wimsey attends the trial, and before long, he has fallen in love with the defendant, even though they have never been introduced. When the jury cannot reach a verdict, the judge has no choice but to schedule another trial, to be held in thirty days. Lord Peter decides that he will use the time to clear Harriet’s name, so that he can marry her. First, of course, he’s going to have to meet her, and get her to cooperate with him. Harriet isn’t accustomed to sharing her private life with strangers, but in this case, it’s the right choice, as Lord Peter finds out who really killed Boyes.
Insurance representative Walter Huff finds that confiding in a stranger can be dangerous in James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity. In that story, he happens to be near the home of one of his clients, H.S. Nirdlinger, and decides to stop in to see if he can get Nirdlinger to renew his policy. Nirdlinger isn’t there, but his wife, Phyllis is. She and Huff get to talking, and before long, they’ve slipped into a comfortable familiarity, although they are strangers. And it doesn’t take long for them to become involved romantically. Phyllis tells Huff that she wants to be rid of her husband; by this time, he’s so besotted that he falls in with her plan, even writing the sort of policy she’ll need to benefit as much as possible from her husband’s death. The murder is duly planned and carried out. Then it really hits Huff what he’s done. By this time, though, it’s too late, and things have already begun to spin completely out of control…
For many people, the classic example of this trope is Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. Guy Haines is on a cross-country train journey to visit his estranged wife, Marian. He meets Charles Anthony Bruno, who’s taking a journey of his own. The two fall into conversation, and Haines is happy to have a sympathetic listener. For his part, Bruno has a very dysfunctional relationship with his father, and finds Haines pleasant company. Bruno suggests that each man commit the other’s murder, so to speak. His point is that if he kills Haines’ wife, and Haines kills his father, neither will be suspected, because neither man will have a motive. Haines brushes off the idea, thinking that Bruno isn’t serious. But, as Haines finds out, Bruno is completely serious. And that pulls Haines into a dangerous trap.
Karin Alvtegen’s Betrayal begins when Eva Wirenström-Berg discovers that her husband, Henrik, has been unfaithful. Devastated at this news, she determines to find out who this other woman is. One night, she goes to a pub, where she happens to meet Jonas Hansson, a man with his own demons and tragedies to face. The two get to talking, and it’s not long before things spiral out of control for both of them. The end result is more tragedy for a lot of the characters.
And then there’s Apostolos Doxiadis’ Three Little Pigs. In it, an unnamed art restorer happens to be visiting a Swiss monastery, with an eye to restoring some of the frescoes in the chapel. One day, he happens to meet an old man who’s living in the elder care facility on the monastery property. The old man offers to tell the art restorer a story – ‘a good one’ – if it can be recorded. The art restorer agrees and buys some tapes (this part of the story takes place in 1975). Then, the old man proceeds to tell him the story of the Franco family, who immigrated from Italy to New York City at the turn of the 20th Century. Benvenuto ‘Ben’ Franco started out in a shoe repair shop, and ended up opening his own shoe and shoe repair company. The family prospered, and all seemed well. Then, Ben killed a man named Luigi Lupo in a bar fight. As it happened, the victim’s father is notorious gangster Tonio Lupo. When Lupo finds out who killed his son, he visits Franco in prison, and puts a curse on his three sons, saying that they will die at the age of forty-two, the age of his own son when he was killed. At this point, the old man tells the story of the three sons, and what happened to them. This story is involved, and includes more than one sudden death. And it all comes about because of sharing a confidence with a stranger.
And yet, private as we may be, it still happens sometimes that people tell personal things to strangers. Sometimes, it can be the right choice. But other times, at least in crime fiction, it’s a big mistake…
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Melissa Manchester and Stanley Schwartz.