Tuesday, September 29, 2009

It's Not What You Said...

A day or two ago, I had a very helpful and interesting comment exchange with Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise. In her review of Keating's A Small Case for Inspector Ghote, Kerrie made a well-taken point about the use of dialogue.

Dialogue is a critical part of a good mystery/crime fiction novel. In many series, the sleuth learns facts and gets evidence from what people say, so dialogue very often gives the reader important information. Rex Stout's novels are like that. His Archie Goodwin finds out as much from what people say as he does from any other source. In fact, that's one of his important roles in the Nero Wolfe series. I use dialogue that way, too. In my Joel Williams series, people involved in a case often tell Williams important facts that he later pieces together; he also sometimes hears people's conversations with other people, and that helps him. The beauty of using dialogue to give the reader clues is that it's very efficient. It can also be much more engaging to have a character talk about a piece of evidence than it is to describe it.

Because language is such an important part of a person's identity, dialogue in a good mystery novel also tells the reader a lot about the characters (for example, social class, education level and background). Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels, for instance, are laced with U.S. East Coast, working-class dialogue. The reader really gets a feel for the Trenton, New Jersey setting of most of the novels because the dialogue is so authentic. The same is true of Rita Mae Brown's Mrs. Murphy series. Brown captures beautifully the Southern U.S. flavor of Virginia in her dialogue.

Agatha Christie's dialogue also reveals much about the characters in her novels. One of the most important thing Christie's dialogue shows is social class distinctions. In novels such as Sad Cypress, The ABC Murders, The Clocks, and Murder in the Mews, the dialogue is finely tuned to the characters' social classes. It's immediately obvious, just from the dialogue, which characters are "well-born," and which are from the working class and the "in-service" class. Ngaio Marsh also had a fine ear for dialogue. In her Roderick Alleyn novels, for instance, the reader can almost hear the fine social-class distnictions between Alleyn's higher-status way of speaking and that of Inspector Fox, his middle-class next-in-command.

Sometimes, dialogue reveals the cultural/ethnic background of characters, too. For instance, Alexander McCall Smith's dialogue is a perfect fit for the Botswana setting and cultural backgrounds of the characters of his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Roderic Jeffries' Insepctor Alvarez series also has culturally authentic dialogue. Authentic dialogue can be very tricky, especially if the author isn't a member of the culture about which he or she is writing. If the author isn't very careful, dialogue spoken by members of other ethnic or language groups can sound patronizing (Thanks, Kerrie, for making me think about that!).

What about dialogue in other languages? Some authors write in one language, but include scraps of dialogue in other languages. Dan Brown does that very effectively in The Da Vinci Code. In that novel, which was originally written in English, there's also some very efffective dialogue in French (part of the novel takes place in Paris). The French isn't translated into English, but that doesn't distract. In fact, it adds to the atmosphere. Agatha Christie sometimes used other languages in her work, as well. For instance in Black Coffee, some of the dialogue is in Italian and French as well as English. Christie's Hercule Poirot often uses French idioms in his dialogue, and his syntax is sometimes quite "un-English." Poirot's way of speaking adds to his unique character and is as distinctive as his moustache is.

What do you think about dialogue? In your favorite series, how does the author use dialogue? Does the author give clues through the dialogue? Does dialogue in other languages (especially languages you don't speak) detract from a mystery?


  1. I come from many years in the theatre, so dialogue is a thing I cherish. I try to think about vocabulary - the character's not mine! Not everyone uses the same words; this character is a reader, this character has a high level of education, etc. I also try to remember that sometimes it's what a character hasn't said that's important - especially when writing mysteries!

    Reading snippets of other languages? Doesn't bother me. I think it adds to the flavour of the book but too many bits can be distracting. I always try to translate it which gets me out of the plot. In my WIP my detective is Venetian (never call him Italian!) and I did have small bits of Italian in his dialogue. It left as it was too distracting and since I had established he was completely fluent in English it made no sense.

  2. Elspeth,
    You put your finger on one of the most important aspects of good mystery-novel dialogue (or any genre, for that matter): having a sense for how the character would speak. I think it's important that the author speak in the character's voice, so to say, when he or she is writing.
    It's also interesting that you mention what characters don't say, and how they use dialogue to skirt around things. That, too, can give the sleuth valuable clues, and I'm glad you brought it up.... and I agree with you about too much dialoguein other languages. Dialogue should enhance the plot, not distract from it.

  3. The reader may not realize how important credible dialogue is - as long as it works well. But if the writer uses words or grammar which are not ´in character´, many readers DO notice. I participated in an online writer´s course this spring, and sometimes writers tried to write from the perspective of a little child. That is an excellent exercise, but it is quite difficult to hit the correct level.

  4. Dorte, I think you're right; dialogue is one of those things that one only notices when it doesn't "fit." I know I certainly do! Thanks for sharing your workshop experience, too. I'll have to try that :).

  5. I am afraid I cannot call any precise details to mind, but I love Peter Temple's ear for dialogue, particularly among the Fitzroy footy supporters. It is sheer poetry, right down to little phrases like "Satdee arvo" (Saturday afternoon). I just adore it...

  6. Maxine,
    Thank you so much for reminding me of Peter Temple :). That's the wonderful thing about having people be kind enough to leave comments; it reminds one of great examples, authors, etc. that one would otherwise forget about. Temple's dialogue is lyrical, isn't it?

  7. It's not my favourite series but I think Reginald Hill does dialogue beautifully in the Dalziel and Pascoe series - perfect for both characters and locality. I was reminded of this recently when I listened to an audio book version of one of his books.

    Denise Mina is another author who I thought did a marvellous job with depicting Scottish society through brilliant dialogue.

    And yes I think Dorte is right - the dialogue is most noticeable when it's not well done.

    On the issue of 'speaking' in the language of other cultures I recently read the first of Colin Cotterill's Dr Siri series and I was struck by how much it DIDN'T sound like a patronising westerner.

  8. Bernadette,
    First, thanks for mentioning the Dr. Siri series. I've heard of it, but it's new for me as a reader; amazing how many series and novels one *doesn't* get the chance to read...
    I agree with you about Hill, too. His dialogue is exactly the right match with the Yorkshire setting; it's also natural and so believable! Thanks for reminding me :).

  9. Many thanks for making MYSTERIES IN PARADISE your featured blog Margot.
    I read a book last year that didn't use quotation marks for dialogue and that threw me completely. Trying to distinguish the dialogue from description wasn't easy.

  10. Kerrie - No need to thank me; your blog is a fabulous (and fun!) resource for crime fiction readers. I learn from it every time I click.

    It's interesting that you mention the use of quotation marks. I think we really do depend on them to focus us on what's dialogue and what's not. I've read some things without quotation marks, myself, and it is really confusing.