There are a number of ways that an author can ‘stir the pot,’ and add tension to a story. One of them is when a character deliberately says something provocative. It might be a veiled (or not-so-veiled) insult. Or it might be an accusation. Sometimes it’s just a remark intended to get a rise out of others. Whatever the reason for it, those comments can make a fictional atmosphere all the more charged. There are plenty of examples of this sort of character and remark in the genre. Here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (AKA A Holiday For Murder and Murder For Christmas), wealthy patriarch Simeon Lee invites his relations to the family home, Gorston Hall, for Christmas. Lee holds the proverbial purse strings; so, although he’s an unpleasant person whom no-one likes, everyone accepts the invitation. When the family members gather, Lee says that he wants them all to join him in his private rooms, as he wants to talk to them. Then, he makes sure that they all hear a telephone call he makes regarding his will. As if that’s not enough, he insults all of them, and makes several remarks about cutting their allowances and shares of the family fortune. It’s a provocative series of comments designed to upset everyone, and it succeeds. Then, on Christmas Eve, Lee is murdered in his room. Hercule Poirot is staying in the area, and he works with the local police to find out who the killer is. I know, fans of After the Funeral, of Murder in Mesopotamia and of Hickory, Dickory Dock.
Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce is a pre-teenager, who lives in the English village of Bishop’s Lacey. She’s passionate about science, especially chemistry, and quite skilled at it, particularly for one as young as she is. She’s also intensely curious about nearly everything, so she’s a natural sleuth. Flavia lives in a large house, Buckshaw, with her father, Colonel de Luce, and wo sisters Ophelia ‘Feely’ and Daphne ‘Daffy.’ As you can imagine, Flavia and her sisters don’t always have what you’d call a harmonious relationship. In fact, they fight frequently. When they do, Flavia shows that she’s a match for her older sisters when it comes to making remarks and saying things that get a rise out of them. It doesn’t always make for a peaceful home, but it does add some wit and some realism to the stories.
In Shadaab Amjad Khan’s Murder in Bollywood, we are introduced to famous Bollywood director Nikhil Kapoor and his wife, famous actress Mallika Kappor. One night, they invite a few people to an ultra-exclusive party. During the party, Kapoor makes the very provocative statement that someone in the room has committed murder and will do so again. Everyone’s shocked, but Kapoor doesn’t name the person he has in mind. Not long afterwards, he is found dead in his studio, of what looks like a terrible accident. Later that night, Mallika also dies, of what looks like an accidental drug overdose. Mumbai Senior Inspector Hoshiyar Khan sees little pieces of evidence that aren’t consistent with accidents, and he gets clearance to investigate more thoroughly. When he finds out about the party and about Kapoor’s remarks, he now has a new pool of suspects, any one of whom might have wanted to commit murder.
Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood is the story of a hen weekend hosted by Florence ‘Flo’ Clay. Her friend, Clare Cavendish, is getting married, and Flo invites several people who’ve known the bride-to-be for a long time. The group of people gather at a summer home owned by Flo’s aunt, and the weekend begins. It’s not really celebratory, though. Clare hasn’t seen several of her guests for a long time, and there’s good reason for that. As the story goes on, we learn that there’s been an estrangement, and that there’s plenty of awkwardness. Then, one night, someone starts a game of ‘Never Have I Ever.’ Some of the remarks are provocative and specifically designed to get a reaction. And that adds greatly to the tension. As the weekend goes on, things get more and more tense and begin to spin out of control, and the end result is tragedy.
And then there’s Paul Levine’s Steve Solomon. He’s an attorney in the Coconut Grove area of Miami. His style, though, isn’t the staid, all-business sort of approach that some lawyers use. Instead, he’s quite comfortable using all sorts of what you might call courtroom antics to win his cases. Much to the chagrin of his more strait-laced legal (and life) partner, Victoria Lord, Solomon isn’t afraid to say very provocative things in a purposeful way. He says things to get a reaction from opposing counsel, from witnesses, and sometimes even from judges if he thinks that his comments will get him a win. For example, in Habeus Porpoise, Solomon and Lord find themselves on opposite sides of a case. Solomon’s defending an animal activist, Gerald Nash, in a case of murder; Lord is prosecuting. Here’s an exchange between them in the courtroom:
‘‘Your Honor, Mr. Solomon can’t be both a witness and defense counsel.’
‘Bogus argument, judge. We’ll stipulate to my client’s presence at the scene.’
‘Don’t call my arguments bogus,’ Victoria snapped.
‘Bogus, bogus. Hocus-pocus.’ …
(A bit later, when the judge discovers that Solomon and Lord are partners in life as well as in law…)
‘You two aren’t going to be playing footsie under the table, are you?’
‘Certainly not,’ Victoria said.
‘Not till after court,’ Steve said.’
Solomon’s provocative remarks sometimes get him into trouble. But they add to the tension (and sometimes, the wit), and they are surprisingly effective at times.
And that’s the thing about those sorts of remarks. They’re designed to get reactions from people, and they often do. But who knows where those reactions can lead…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from So They Say’s A Beautiful Reaction.