Privacy matters to a lot of people. And that includes their conversations. It’s unsettling to imagine that anyone might be able to hear what you think is a private conversation. And yet, sometimes we don’t have as much privacy as we’d like to think we have. As uncomfortable as it may make us feel in real life, the plot point of someone listening in on a conversation can add real tension and suspense to a crime novel. There are lots of examples of this in the genre; here are just a few.
In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), Hercule Poirot is asked to investigate the death of family patriarch Richard Abernethie. When the members of his family gather for his funeral, his younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. At first, everyone dismisses what she’s said. Even she tells everyone not to pay attention to her. But when Cora herself is murdered the next day, everyone begins to believe that she was probably right. In the course of the story, one of the characters remembers a vital clue. When that person follows the family attorney’s instructions and telephones him about it, someone listens in on that conversation, and it has real consequences.
Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series takes place mostly in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. At that time and in that place, having someone listen in on a private conversation was not trivial. Anything might be reported to the Nazi authorities, and the consequences of that were often hideous. In the series, Vogel is a journalist who often has to be careful of every word she says. On one level, she investigates stories that the Nazi authorities do not want reported. For instance, in A Game of Lies, she’s reporting on the Berlin Olympic Games of 1936. The authorities want to present a peaceful, pleasant face to the world. But the reality is quite different, and as Vogel gets closer to the truth, she has to be extremely careful of what she says, when and to whom. She has to be careful at another level too. The people she loves and cares about most are at as much risk as she is, and to protect them and herself, she has to avoid being listened in on by the wrong people. That plot point adds a thread of real suspense to this series.
William Ryan’s Alexei Korolev series also depicts a society in which listening in on conversations is a regular occurrence. These novels take place mostly in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow. Any conversation one has may be overheard and used as ‘ammunition’ in a denunciation. And being branded as disloyal to the Party means at the very least prison and/or banishment, with serious consequences for one’s family too. What’s more, when a person is suspected of disloyalty, the authorities have no qualms about installing listening devices to make it even easier to overhear everything. So conversations have to be conducted carefully and private conversations even more so. In this atmosphere, Captain Alexei Korolev works for the Moscow CID, where his job is to catch criminals and support the Party’s vision of a crime-free ‘worker’s paradise.’ But he is keenly aware of the power of the NKVD and other Party authorities. So when the trail leads to highly placed people, as it does in The Darkening Field (AKA The Bloody Meadow), he has to move with extreme caution. Privacy isn’t easy to obtain, and the possibility that someone may be listening in adds suspense to this series.
In Paddy Richardson’s Swimming in the Dark, we meet secondary school teacher Ilsa Klein and her mother Gerda. They emigrated from what was then East Germany during the height of the Soviet Era. Gerda in particular remembers clearly how careful people had to be of everything they said and did. The Stasi – the secret police – had spies everywhere who reported any conversation that might be considered traitorous. And once suspected of disloyal activity, people were subjected to even more listening in. For example, telephones were bugged and tiny holes drilled in walls and ceilings so that ‘neighbours’ could overhear everything. For Gerda, New Zealand has been a welcome haven. Ilsa sees things differently because she was just a child when the family left Leipzig, but she too has settled into life on the South Island. Both women’s lives are changed when Ilsa begins to be concerned about one of her students Serena Freeman. Formerly a top achiever with academic ambitions, Serena has lost interest in school. When Ilsa decides to intervene, she finds herself drawn into something much more than she imagined.
And then there’s Kishwar Desai’s Witness the Night. Social worker Simran Singh has made a life for herself in Delhi and has little motivation to return to her home town of Jullundur, in the state of Punjab. But she agrees to do just that when she gets a call from a former friend who is now Inspector General for Punjab. He wants Singh’s assistance with a difficult case. Fourteen-year-old Durga Atwal is believed to be responsible for the deaths of thirteen members of her family, and for a fire that burned the family home. At the same time, there is some evidence that she may have been a victim herself, who just happened to survive the incident. Durga isn’t talking though, so the police can’t move on the case. It’s hoped that if Singh can get Durga to talk about what happened that night, the authorities can get to the truth. There are several influential people though who do not want certain facts about the Atwal family to come out. So Singh finds that her telephone calls are monitored and her things searched. She does find out what really happened, but she also learns that a lot of people cannot be trusted, and that her private conversations have to be planned.
Sometimes the people listening in are the supposed ‘good guys,’ who aren’t so good. In David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Fire, Perth cop Frank Swann returns to his ‘home patch’ after being away for a few years. He’s learned that a friend of his Ruby Devine has been murdered and he wants to find out what happened. He soon discovers that he’s up against ‘the purple circle,’ a group of corrupt cops who are already against him because he’s reported them for corruption. ‘The purple circle’ may have been responsible for Ruby’s death though, so Swann perseveres. In the course of his investigation, he finds that ‘the walls have ears,’ as the saying goes, and he has to be very careful what he says and to whom. And several people he talks to are reluctant to say anything for exactly the same reason. That plot point adds a solid layer of suspense to this story.
Listening in on conversations is also of course, a major plot thread in espionage fiction. There are lots of spy thrillers (you could probably list more than I could) in which the plot is moved along through bugged telephones and other listening devices. That’s why there are a lot of ‘walks in parks’ where spies discuss things they don’t want overheard.
That possibility – that a private conversation is being overheard – is a creepy one. It’s little wonder we see it so often in crime fiction.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Undertones’ Listening In.