In poker, it’s called a ‘tell.’ It’s a gesture or unconscious act (even, sometimes, a way of speaking) that betrays a person’s thoughts. In poker, specifically, it’s the way people give away the sort of cards they’ve been dealt. But the term’s used more widely to mean the non-verbal (and, actually, sometimes, verbal) signals that broadcast a person’s thoughts. Police use tells when they’re interviewing suspects and witnesses. Lawyers use them, too, when they’re working out who’s telling the truth or lying. Tells can be very important in communication, so it’s little wonder that we see them in crime fiction.
In Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral, for instance, we are introduced to Rosamund Shane. She and her husband, Michael ‘Mick,’ have recently inherited a considerable sum from Rosamund’s uncle, Richard Abernethie. When Rosamund’s aunt, Cora Lansquenet, suggests that the death was a murder, everyone secretly wonders whether she is right. It seems even more likely when Cora herself is murdered the day after making that comment. So, the family solicitor, Mr. Entwhistle, asks Hercule Poirot to look into the matter. Since Rosamund is one of the heirs, she and Michael both come under suspicion, and both are asked about their whereabouts at the time of the deaths. Here is what Rosamund says when she hears her husband’s alibi:
‘”He [Michael] thinks I don’t really know he went off to be with that woman that day.”
“How did you know?”
“It was obvious from the way he said he was going to lunch with Oscar. So frightfully casually, you know, and his nose twitching just a tiny bit like it always does when he tells lies.”’
As it turns out, Michael Shane isn’t the only one who has trouble finding an alibi for the times in question. It’s an interesting example of how spouses often know each other’s tells.
Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin knows his boss Nero Wolfe very well. He always knows when Wolfe is putting the pieces of a puzzle together and getting clues, because of Wolfe’s tells. One of them is Wolfe’s habit of moving his lips in a certain way. Here’s a description from Fer de Lance:
‘Wolfe looked up again, and his big thick lips pushed out a little, tight together, just a small movement, and back again, and then out and back again.’
In this case, Wolfe is working out who killed Peter Barstow, president of Holland University. He was murdered on a golf course, and it takes some doing for Wolfe and Goodwin to work out how it happened and why. And in the end, it turns out that Holland’s murder has to do with the past.
Geraldine Evans’ Joe Rafferty and Dafyd Llewellyn work closely together as a police duo. So, they’ve gotten to know one another well. That said, though, Rafferty often finds that his sergeant maintains an impassive expression, so that it’s hard to tell what he’s thinking. Every once in a while, though, Llewellyn gives away a hint. For example, in Down Among the Dead Men, the duo is investigating the murder of Barbara Longman. On the surface, she was a popular and successful woman, so there seems no reason anyone would want to kill her. But things aren’t always what they seem on the surface. Unlike his boss, Llewellyn has a university education, and sometimes quotes the classics as different phrases and sentences are relevant to an investigation. Here’s Rafferty’s reaction when Llewellyn does that in this novel:
‘Rafferty, noting the glint in the Welshman’s dark eye, wondered, not for the first time, if Llewellyn paraded his erudition out of sheer mischief.’
The two detectives are a good team, but they sometimes get in their digs about each other, so there’s a good chance Rafferty’s not far from the truth.
Cat Connor’s Nothing Happens Here is the first of her series featuring Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Tracey. She is a Wellington-based former New Zealand espionage agent who’s now a private investigator. One day, she gets a call from her former boss, who wants to recruit her for a new job. It seems that the US Department of Homeland Security wants help in locating someone, and that’s one of Ronnie Tracey’s specialties. She gets involved in the case, but it’s hardly the only thing she has to juggle in her life. In one sub-plot of the novel, we meet her grandmother, ‘Nana,’ who has her own strong personality. Nana and her friends are enough to manage under the best of circumstances, but when they take an interest in Ronnie’s case, things get even more challenging. Ronnie’s known Nana all her life, and knows her tells. Here, for instance, is one scene between them:
“That colour is pretty on you, Veronica,” Nana crooned. “You should wear red more often”
Often her compliments were thinly veiled snipes, or a tool she used to soften someone up before the axe fell.’
Ronnie knows that Nana doesn’t say nice things like that without a reason…
And then there’s Michael Connelly’s The Drop. In one plot line of the novel, LAPD detective Harry Bosch is working on the case of the death of George Irving, who happens to be the son of Bosch’s nemesis, Irvin Irving. It seems that George Irving committed suicide by jumping from the balcony of a posh hotel. But there is also the possibility that he was murdered. Irvin Irving knows that Bosch is a good cop with integrity, and will find out the truth, so he puts Bosch on the case. One day, Bosch is discussing the case with his daughter, Maddie, who wants to be a cop herself. He shows her the CCTV video of Irving checking into the hotel, and here’s what Maddie says:
Bosch looked from the screen to his daughter.
“Why do you say that?”
Manipulating the controls, she backed the video up to the point where Galvin slid the contract across the desk to Irving. She then hit play.
“Watch,” she said. “He doesn’t even look at it. He just signs where the guy tells him to sign.”
“This is when people check to see if they’re getting ripped off. You know, they check what they are getting charged, but he doesn’t even look. He doesn’t care because he knows he’ll never pay that bill.”’
Is it a tell? Did Irving really jump? Bosch has to uncover a lot of things about the victim’s life to find out the truth.
We all do have tells about things. And it’s surprising how aware people – especially those close to us – can be of those tells. They can be very useful when solving crimes, too…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Don Schlitz’ The Gambler.
11 thoughts on “And Knowin’ What the Cards Were By The Way They Held Their Eyes*”
Oh, that’s interesting Margot! Mr. K is a retired lawyer, and is very up on spotting tells (often from politicians…) I hadn’t realised quite how many detectives had them, or spotted them. And you remind me it’s about time I revisited Nero Wolfe!
Oh, KBR, I’ll bet Mr. K. could give lots of good examples of tells! I’m sure he’s seen his share (Why doesn’t it surprise me that a lot are from politicians….). And as for Nero Wolfe, I think those stories are always worth a re-read.
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Thanks for the reminder of Michael Connelly. It’s been a while …
I know what you mean, Col. There are so many authors I haven’t read in too long.
Most of your examples illustrate how real “tells” are dependent on long observation of a person. If you are meeting someone for the first time seeing “tells” is guesswork. With witnesses in Court or a police officer it is dangerous for a judge or officer to rely on “tells” from someone they are seeing for the first time. You do not know their behaviours. In a case I recently tried an officer reached conclusions because the accused “was not normal”. He struggled to answer when I asked what is normal for this person.
You’ve added a really important dimension to this discussion, Bill, so thanks. And you’re right, too, of course; unless you know a person well, you don’t know that ‘tells.’ I can well imagine that plenty of potentially disastrous mistakes are made when police officers or court officials make assumptions about ‘tells’ from people they’ve barely met. Thanks for your example from your own experience, too.
Interesting examples, Margot! I always feel dubious when impersonation forms part of a plot because even if you could make yourself look and sound like another person, I doubt if you could get those “tells” right, so I assume people who know the impersonated person well would spot an impersonator from those.
Thanks, FictionFan! And you know, you have an excellent point about impersonation. There are those little ‘tells’ that even a good impersonator couldn’t do. In fact, I’m thinking of an Agatha Christie novel where a character impersonates another and gets a ‘tell’ wrong. I’ll bet you know which one I mean…
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Interesting, Margot. A tell – a noun. 🙂
Thanks, Carol. And I agree; it’s interesting how words can change depending on how you use them.