One of the skills most of us have to learn as adults is how to mingle and make small talk. Whether it’s at a conference, a company cocktail party, or a university’s department mixer, it often serves a person well to be able to chat with strangers and fit in at a gathering. Some people loathe those events, and others enjoy them. Either way, they’re part of many of our lives, so it’s often an advantage to be able to negotiate them.
For an author, a mixer or cocktail party offers all sorts of possibilities. Any number of things can happen, which can add tension and suspense to a story. A character’s way of handling mixers and cocktail parties can also show-not-tell quite a lot about that person. And, in whodunits, cocktail parties and mixers can be very good places to find out information, especially as alcohol starts to loosen people’s tongues.
Agatha Christie makes use of these sorts of events in several of her stories. In Mrs. McGinty’s Dead, for instance, detective story writer Ariadne Oliver is staying in the village of Broadhinny, visiting up-and-coming playwright Robin Upward. They’re collaborating on an adaptation of one of her novels for the stage, and, to say the least, they have different visions of what the play ought to be like. Hercule Poirot, as it happens, is also staying in Broadhinny. He’s there investigating the murder of a charwoman who was killed, so everyone says, by her lodger, James Bentley. The evidence is very much against him, too. But Superintendent Albert ‘Bert’ Spence doesn’t think he’s guilty. So, he’s asked Poirot to look into the matter again. One night, both Poirot and Mrs. Oliver are invited to a cocktail party. Mrs. Oliver isn’t much for such events, but Poirot has told her why he’s there, and she knows that mixers like this are good places to learn things. And, as it turns out, they do find out something important. Not long afterwards, Upward takes Mrs. Oliver to a play to ‘vet’ an actor he’s considering for the lead role in their collaboration. Afterwards, there’s a cast party, which Mrs. Oliver doesn’t enjoy at all:
‘The play itself she had enjoyed, but the ordeal of “going round afterwards” was fraught with its usual terrors.’
Still, Mrs. Oliver hears something interesting at the party that proves to be a clue to Mrs. McGinty’s murder and another that occurs.
In Robert Barnard’s Death of an Old Goat, Professor Belville-Smith, a noted Oxford academic, is scheduled to do a tour of Australia, and is including the University of Drummondale in his itinerary. Professor Bobby Wickham and the rest of the English faculty are to play host, and everyone’s hoping the events will go well. But, right from the start, things go wrong. First, Professor Belville-Smith is condescending, even contemptuous, which endears him to no-one. As if that weren’t enough, his lectures are dry and very boring. He’s given the same lectures so many times that he drones, rather than interacts with the audience. Still, he is a noted scholar, so Wickham and his staff do their best to put out the proverbial red carpet. That includes a cocktail party at which he’s to meet the staff. The party isn’t much of a success; certainly Belville-Smith doesn’t make any new friends. Later that night, he is stabbed in his hotel room. Inspector Bert Royle has never investigated a murder before, but he’s called to do so now. And it’s interesting how different people have different memories of the ‘greet-the-guest’ event.
In Anthony Bidulka’s Flight of Aquavit, Saskatoon PI Russell Quant gets a new client, Daniel Guest. It seems that Guest, who is a ‘closeted,’ married, gay man, is getting blackmailed over trysts he had with other men. He wants Quant to find the blackmailer and get that person to stop. Quant tells Guest that he’d be far better off simply coming out as gay, but Guest won’t consider it. So, Quant begins asking questions. The trail leads to New York and back to Saskatchewan, but after that journey, and a murder, Quant gets to the truth. At one point, Guest arranges for Quant to attend his accounting firm’s Christmas party, so that Quant can ‘vet’ some of the people who work there. Quant is, fortunately, not bad at small talk and mingling. But Guest is nervous about the whole thing. It’s very important to him that no-one know why Quant’s really there (he’s being passed off as a potential client). What’s more, he doesn’t want anyone to know that Quant’s gay. So, he refers to the friend Quant’s brought as his ‘girlfriend,’ which leads to the inevitable, ‘So how long have you two been together?’ sort of question. It all ends up being awkward for Guest, for Quant, and for Quant’s friend.
Teresa Solana’s A Shortcut to Paradise begins just after an Barcelona awards gathering, where famous novelist Marina Dolç is awarded the Golden Apple prize for her latest novel. There’s lots of mixing and mingling, and Dolç doesn’t get back to her hotel room until just after two. The party’s still going on when, less than an hour later, a friend stops by Dolç’s ‘s hotel room and discovers her body. The police soon arrest Amadeu Cabestany, Dolç’s top rival for the Golden Apple prize. The two were at odds, and it doesn’t help matters that Cabestany’s hotel room is right next to Dolç’s. But he claims he wasn’t at the hotel at the time of the murder, and that he left the party early and went elsewhere. But no-one can corroborate his story. There was so much mixing, mingling, and drinking that no-one remembers when he left. Cabestany’s literary agent hires PIs Josep ‘Pep’ Martínez and his brother Eduard to find out who killed the victim.
And then there’s Sinéad Crowley’s Can Anybody Help Me? In that novel, we are introduced to Yvonne and Gerry Mulhern, who’ve just moved from London to Dublin, so that Gerry can take advantage of an attractive job opportunity. The move goes smoothly enough, but Gerry spends a lot of time at work, which means Yvonne is left alone much of the time to care for their newborn daughter, Róisín. She doesn’t really know anyone in Dublin, and she’s overwhelmed with the demands of taking care of a newborn. So, she joins an online group called Netmammy. There, she finds answers, support, and friendship. All goes well until one of her new online friends goes ‘off the grid.’ And then a body is found in an abandoned apartment – a body that matches what Yvonne knows about her friend’s description. If the body is the same person, then what does that mean for Netmammy? And for Yvonne? At one point in the novel, Gerry persuades Yvonne to go with him to a cocktail party for people at his work. She doesn’t want to be there, doesn’t know anyone there, and Gerry spends almost no time with her. So, as you can imagine, she’s miserable. Her saving grace? She’s brought her ‘phone, and logs onto Netmammy from the party.
Some people really do enjoy mixing, mingling and exchanging small talk. Others do everything possible to avoid it. Either way, those events crop up in crime fiction, just as they do in real life.
*Note: The title of this post is a line from Jona Lewie’s You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties.