Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot says more than once that one way to find out the truth about a case is through conversation. He’s right. Most people are not fond of lying, and have trouble covering up lies and secrets for very long. Sooner or later, most people will say more than they had intended, and that can lead to a case being solved. That’s especially true when people are off their guard, but it happens even if they’re not. Certainly it happens in crime fiction.
For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies, famous actress Jane Wilkinson hires Hercule Poirot to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to grant her a divorce, so that she can marry again. At first, Poirot is reluctant to take the case, but he’s finally persuaded. To his surprise, Edgware tells him that he has withdrawn his objection to the divorce. It’s an unusual ending to such a case, but Poirot thinks the matter is over. That night, though, Edgware’s killed. The first suspect is, of course, his wife. But she claims she was at a dinner party in another part of London at the time of the murder, and there are twelve people who are prepared to swear in court that she was there. So, Poirot and Chief Inspector Japp have to look elsewhere for the murderer. Then, there’s another murder. And another. In the end, one thing that gives the killer away is a casual comment that person makes during a luncheon. Even the killer isn’t aware of how telling that comment really is.
Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger features Kent County Police Inspector Cockrill. He is sent to Heron Park Hospital to oversee the paperwork when Joseph Higgins dies during an operation. On the surface, it seems like a tragic, but accidental, death. Higgins’ widow, though, insists that he was murdered. She wants Cockrill to investigate the death, and he begins to ask questions. Before long, he begins to wonder whether Mrs. Higgins was right. Then, one of the nurses present at the operation, Sister Marion Bates, has too much to drink at a party. She blurts out that she knows that Higgins was murdered, and what’s more, she knows how it was done. Sister Bates hadn’t planned to say that much, but it slips out, and she pays for that mistake with her life. The next morning, she is found dead in the same operating room where Higgins died. Now Cockrill is sure that someone is covering up two murders, and he slowly gets the information he needs to find out who that person is.
Mistakenly in Mallorca is the first of Roderic Jeffries’ Inspector Enrique Alvarez series. In it, Alvarez investigates the death of Elvira Woods, an English ex-pat living in Mallorca. On the surface of it, it looks like a sad accident in which she fell from the balcony of her home. But little pieces of the story don’t quite add up, and Alvarez continues to ask questions. His main ‘person of interest’ is the victim’s great-nephew, John Tatham. It’s a strange case, though. On the one hand, he does have a financial motive, since his great-aunt had promised to leave him her fortune. On the other, there’s no evidence that Tatham was present at the time of the death. Alvarez is convinced, though, that Tatham knows more than he’s saying about his great-aunt’s death. The reader is privy to the truth from very early in the story, and the suspense comes as Alvarez slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together. He does that in part by looking for evidence. He also has several conversations with Tatham, during which Tatham makes several comments that reveal more than he’d intended to reveal. This back-and-forth between Alvarez and Tatham makes for some interesting tension in the story.
Ruth Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone is the story of the wealthy and educated Coverdale family. They decide to hire a housekeeper, and soon settle on Eunice Parchman. She takes the position, and at first, seems like a fit. She’s a little eccentric, but she does the job. What the Coverdales don’t know, though, is that Eunice has a secret – one she is determined not to reveal. For a time, all’s well enough. But then, Eunice lets one or two little mistakes slip, and someone in the family accidentally discovers her secret. When Eunice sees that she’s been found out, it’s not too melodramatic to say that that incident seals the Coverdales’ death warrants.
And then there’s H.R.F. Keating,’s Inspector Ghote’s First Case, a prequel to his popular Inspector Ghote series. As the story begins, Ganesh Ghote has just been promoted from Assistant Inspector to Inspector in the Bombay police force. He’s excited about the new opportunity, but he doesn’t get much time to celebrate. Almost immediately, he’s sent to Mahableshwar to investigate the death of Iris Dawkins, who, so the police report says, committed suicide. Her widower, Robert, wants to know what led her to that drastic decision. Ghote begins to ask some questions, and soon begins to believe that Iris Dawkins was murdered. He doesn’t have a lot of evidence at first, but little by little, he notices things that don’t make sense. He continues to have conversations with Dawkins and with Dawkins’ household staff, and he listens carefully to what they say. In more than one instance, they say more than was intended, and Ghote is able to piece together what really happened to Iris Dawkins.
It’s not easy for people to keep things back or hide things. So, when people make the decision to lie, or to keep things to themselves, they sometimes make slips and say more than they’d intended. And in crime fiction, that can have all sorts of consequences.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby.
8 thoughts on “I Guess I Should Have Kept My Mouth Shut*”
Margot: Thanks for an interesting post. I liked your examples. When I am preparing witnesses for Court I advise them to answer questions directly and not feel compelled to fill silence. Lawyers are quite happy, most of the time, to let witnesses ramble on for such witnesses are prone to saying something they did not intend to say. Sometimes a lawyer will not snap a question as an answer ends but just wait to see if a witness keeps talking. On the other side of the spectrum when a witness has a hard question that they either do not want to answer or do not have a good answer for I have just waited and waited and waited in the growing tension and even waited some more. That silence can be eloquent.
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Thanks, Bill – I’m glad you enjoyed the examples. And thanks for sharing the way this plays out in Court. I’ve often heard that lawyers advise their clients and witnesses to use quick, direct, ‘Yes/No’ types of answers to questions as much as they can. It sounds as though that is what’s usually advised. And I can well imagine that simply being quiet and waiting can be powerful. It works in the classroom, too, actually. I’ve often suggested to the teachers I work with to use wait time as a tool to help students collect their thoughts and participate in the discussion.
Interesting post, Margot. I remember a Ngaio Marsh in which the murderer was caught because he was so verbose that he let slip out some details. The post also made me reflect that I too become a little too talkative in an uncomfortable/ awkward situation while others maintain a superior silence:)
Thanks for the kind words, Neeru. Your comment about the Ngaio Marsh novel makes me think about GA novels in general, and how often they have characters who say more than they intend like that. Hmmm… I appreciate the ‘food for thought.’ And you’re not the only one who tends to fill awkward silences with words. I think a lot of people do that.
Great post, Margot. Will have to watch what we say over the lunch table!!! And a fascinating comment from Bill. The pressures of silence…
Thanks, Mrs. P! And, yes, we do have to be careful what we say! I thought Bill’s comment was really interesting, too. It’s fascinating to see how silence plays out, isn’t it?
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Not too familiar with your examples Margot. Yet again I’m amazed about how much you remember about your reading. Hoping to read the Rendell book you’ve highlighted one day!
Thanks for the kind words, Col. I do hope you read the Rendell. In my opinion, it’s excellent – really worth the read.