I am so honored to have Margot Kinberg on Listen to the Voices. She is one of the few daily stops on my blog list. I respect her knowledge of mystery writers, their books, and writing in general. Today, she talks about one of my favorite topics: Body Language.
One of the most important skills that a sleuth has to develop is the ability to “read” people. So I was very excited and flattered when Clarissa invited me to guest post on her excellent “Reading People” series. Thanks, Clarissa!!!
Since I have a background in linguistics, I’m always interested in the way that people use language (or don’t use it). And it’s things that people say that give sleuths clues about whether someone’s holding something back, being forthright, or outright lying. Lying doesn’t come naturally to most people; in fact, most people are not comfortable with lying. So our body language and use of words give away our discomfort. The smart sleuth notices those little clues and uses them to figure who’s telling the truth and who isn’t. A quick look at some crime fiction shows how people sometimes react when they are hiding something.
A hesitation is often a sign that someone is thinking consciously about what he or she is going to say. Sometimes, it’s a clue that someone is trying to come up with something plausible to hide something else. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Dumb Witness (AKA Poirot Loses a Client), Hercule Poirot investigates the poisoning death of Miss Emily Arundell, a wealthy woman whose relations are desperate for their share of her fortune. One of those relatives is Miss Arundell’s nephew Charles Arundell, who’s got a bit of a shady reputation. During one of their conversations, Poirot asks Charles about an argument he had with his aunt before her death, and gets him to admit that had an argument with his aunt and in fact, stole some money from her. When Poirot asks him if he would murder if it were made worth his while, Charles says:
"Thinking about a spot of blackmail, M. Poirot? Nothing doing. I can assure you that I didn't put" - he stopped suddenly and then went on - "strychnine in Aunt Emily's soup."
Poirot makes note of the pause and mentions that Charles spoke as though he were
“…thinking of something else and thought better of it.”
As it turns out, Poirot’s instincts are right. Charles was, indeed, thinking of something else. His hesitation is covering up something he knows, but doesn’t want to reveal.
Some witnesses and suspects try to avoid answering questions by blustering. They become defensive or they snap at the sleuth. Of course, most witnesses know that the more negatively they react to questions, the more likely they are to call attention to themselves. Still, a bluster can cover up nervousness at being questioned and the discomfort caused by lying.
For example, in Colin Dexter’s The Dead of Jericho, Inspector Morse meets Anne Scott at a party and becomes smitten with her. He’s called away on a case, though, so nothing comes of it. Then, six months later, he’s in Anne’s neighbourhood and decides to stop in. That’s when he discovers her body. It seems that Anne has hung herself, and Morse is determined to find out why. Even though DI Bell is officially on the case, Morse and Sergeant Lewis get involved and eventually, take over the case. In the course of their investigation, they find out that Anne Scott’s private life was complicated and that several people might have had a motive to kill her. Then, while they’re sorting out the clues, there’s another murder. When Morse figures out who the killer is, he has an interview with that person:
“You’ve been charged …and that charge still stands. So we’d better get back to think about where you were on the night when –“[Morse]
“I’ve told you – I don’t know! …there are millions of people who couldn’t prove where they were that night!”
“Well, why pick on me? What possible evidence-?”
“…give us a little credit.”
“You’ve got some evidence? Against me?”
“……yes, we’ve got some evidence. You see, there were several fingerprints…and as you know I asked my sergeant to take yours.”
“But he did. And I’ll tell you one thing, Inspector, my prints could quite definitely not have matched up with anything there because I’ve never been in the bloody house – never!”
The Prepared Story
Lying doesn’t come naturally to most people. So when some people think they’re going to be called on to lie, they prepare their stories carefully ahead of time. Good sleuths know that answers that are too “pat” and come to quickly could also be covering up a lie.
For example, in Andrea Camilleri’s The Snack Thief, Commissario Salvo Montalbano is investigating the murder of Aurelio Lapècora, a semi-retired businessman who was stabbed to death in the elevator of his apartment building. At one point, Montalbano is interviewing Lapècora’s widow:
“So this morning, today being a Thursday, your husband should have stayed home”[Montalbano]
“Instead he got dressed to go out.”
“Do you have any idea where he was going?’
“He didn’t tell me anything.”
“When you left the house, was your husband awake or asleep?”
“Don’t you think it’s strange that, as soon as you went out, your husband suddenly woke up, got dressed in a hurry and –“
“He might have got a phone call.”
A clear point in the widow’s favor.
As we find out later, Lapècora’s widow knows more than she is saying about her husband and his murder. She’s covering up what she knows with a story she’s rehearsed.
The Sympathetic Listener
One way to avoid being asked too many questions is to appear to be very helpful and sympathetic. So people with something to hide sometimes cover it up with offers to help and sympathy. They may say something like, “Oh, I wish I could help you, but……If I think of anything, I’ll sure let you know!” For instance, in Donna Leon’s Through a Glass, Darkly, Commissario Guido Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello are investigating the death of Giorgio Tassini, who worked nights at a glass factory. At first the death looks like an accident, but Brunetti isn’t convinced, and it’s not long before the evidence proves that Tassini was probably murdered. Brunetti interviews one of the people who knew Tassini:
“How may I help you?”
“I’d like to ask you about Giorgio Tassini, if I might,” Brunetti said.
“That poor devil who died over there…it’s the first time anyone’s been killed out here for as long as I can remember.”
Telling One Secret to Hide Another
This same novel offers an example of another strategy that people sometimes use to cover up something they are hiding: telling a small secret so as to hide a larger one.
In the next part of the conversation I mentioned just above, the same character seems to be hiding something and Brunetti asks about it, promising that he’s only interested in Tassini’s death, not any other illegal activities that may have been going on:
“He was working in nero [not officially – “under the table”], Commissario.”
“I’m not interested in how he was paid, only in what caused his death; nothing else.”
After a long pause, the character says:
“My guess is that he was making glass.”
As it turns out, this character is hiding something much more important, but covers it up by revealing a little secret.
As you can see, people who are hiding something have several tricks to keep the sleuth from finding out. I’ve only had space to mention a few. What do you think? Which are your favourite that people use to hide things?
Isn't she amazing! Seriously, I don't know anyone with more knowledge on the mystery genre than her. Thanks so much, Margot, for stopping by. If you haven't been to her blog, you're missing out! Go there at once!
She's a mystery novelist and professor, who loves to read and talk about mystery and crime fiction. Everyday, she takes a topic and analyzes how it's found in mystery fiction.
She written a book entitle Publish or Perish and another entitled B-Very Flat. Catch her on Facebook and Twitter as well.