In real life and in crime fiction, sleuths can only find out so much from physical evidence. Even somewhat reliable evidence such as DNA doesn’t always tell the whole story of a murder. So sleuths also rely on what they hear, either through gossip or through what people directly say to them. Of course, witnesses and suspects do lie, so sleuths also have to sift through what they hear. Still, as Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot often says, it’s in conversations that we can learn a great deal. It’s for that reason that sleuths spend so much time talking to neighbors, friends, co-workers and relatives of a murder victim.
Poirot uses what he learns from conversations extremely adroitly. Interestingly enough, his status as a foreigner often induces people to say things to him and around him that they wouldn’t otherwise say. For example, in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal), Poirot investigates the death of Richard Abernethie, a wealthy patriarch whose relatives are all eager for their shares of his fortune. When Abernethie’s sister, Cora Lansquenet, speculates aloud that he was murdered, everyone protests vehemently. When Cora herself is murdered the next day, though, the family attorney enlists Poirot’s help in finding out whether Cora was right. Poriot visits the Abernethie family home during a week-end when everyone has gathered to choose from among the household goods before the property is sold. He adopts his most “foreign” guise and listens to everything that he hears. Those conversations serve him well, as he gets a very important clue to the murderer.
Poirot’s not above eavesdropping, too, to get information from conversations. In several novels, he overhears important information that way. For instance, in Murder on the Orient Express, Poirot is traveling from Syria to Calais on the famous Orient Express. On the first night of his trip, he overhears a conversation between two other characters who are traveling on the same train. Two nights later, Samuel Ratchett, an American businessman, is stabbed to death. Since Poirot is traveling on the train, he’s asked to investigate the murder. It turns out that the conversation he overheard (as well as several others in which he directly engages) offer valuable clues to the motive for Ratchett’s murder as well as the identity of the murderer.
We also see an example of conversations yielding clues in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies. In that novel, octogenarian Myrtle Clover decides to investigate the death of Parke Stockard, a greedy and rapacious land developer who’s recently arrived in Myrtle’s home town of Bradley, North Carolina. Since Bradley is a small town, gossip is an important part of life there, and Myrtle Clover takes advantage of that fact as she searches for the truth about Parke’s death. Myrtle also takes advantage of the fact that she’s an elderly lady who’s not an official detective. Most people are happy to accept her interest in the case as the innocent interest of an old lady who wants to hear the latest gossip. Myrtle learns quite a lot from her conversations, too. For instance, at one point in the novel, she follows what turns out to be a false lead and takes a trip to the outskirts of town to visit Crazy Dan, who owns a ramshackle business. Although Crazy Dan has earned his nickname, Myrtle learns some interesting things from him and his wife. She also gets a clue about one of the suspects in the case, and the motive that suspect might have had to kill Parke Stockard.
Like Myrtle Clover, Lilian Jackson Braun’s sleuth, Jim Qwilleran, lives in a small town. In his case, it’s Pickax, located “400 miles north of nowhere.” Qwilleran’s a newspaper columnist, so he’s a naturally curious person. Many of the locals are flattered, too, at his interest in their lives and hobbies. So Qwilleran often finds that people are happy to answer his questions about what they do. In fact, when he’s solving mysteries, he very often uses his weekly column, Straight from the Qwill Pen, as a “cover” to find out local gossip and local perspectives on the crime he’s investigating.
Charlotte MacLeod’s The Withdrawing Room also has some fascinating examples of things the sleuth learns from conversations. Sarah Kelling has been forced to turn her beloved Boston brownstone into a rooming house, and she soon acquires a motley crew of boarders, including the obnoxious and nosy Augustus Quiffen. One day, Quiffen is killed when he falls under a train. No-one in the boarding house mourns his loss, and Sarah is prepared to put the death out of her mind, but the next day, she finds out through a conversation with an eyewitness that Quiffen was pushed under the train. Now, Sarah and friend and lodger, Max Bittersohn, try to find out who pushed Quiffen under the train. Since he hadn’t exactly endeared himself to the residents, there’s more than one suspect, and it’s partly through conversations that Sarah has and hears, especially with two of the boarders, that help her and Max discover the killer.
Tony Hillerman’s sleuth, Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee, knows that the locals on the Reservation he helps patrol are loath to speak frankly to outsiders, especially about gossip. So he’s learned that his most valuable information doesn’t always come from directly questioning people. Instead, he uses what he learns through conversations he overhears. For example, in The Dark Wind, Chee is investigating vandalism at a local water tower. While he’s finding out what he can, he comes upon the wreckage of a plane crash and the bodies of two victims. So he begins to try to find out the story behind the crash. In the course his investigation, Chee visits a small store to get some information from its owner. While he’s waiting, he overhears three local Navajos discussing what they believe is a witchcraft-related murder. Chee believes that that story might be connected to his investigation, but he knows that if he directly asks anyone about it, he won’t learn anything. So he simply listens to the conversation and learns more from it than he would have otherwise. Interestingly, it’s right after he overhears this conversation that Chee has a productive conversation with Jake West, the owner of the store Chee’s visiting. West frequently hears local gossip in his role as the store’s proprietor, and he often shares what he learns with the police. In this case, West is able to give Chee a lead on a local man who may have been involved in the plane crash.
It’s not always the sleuth who gets important clues from conversations. Sometimes, other characters get information that way, too. Of course, finding out important clues can be a very dangerous undertaking, so sometimes, when other characters learn something important, they risk their lives. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Clocks, Hercule Poirot helps to investigate the murder of an unidentified man whose body is found in the home of Millicent Pebmarsh, a blind schoolteacher who lives in the village of Crowdean. The body is discovered by Sheila Webb, a typist who thinks she’s been hired by Miss Pebmarsh to do some work for her. At the coroner’s inquest, one of Sheila Webb’s co-workers, Edna Brent, hears something that she knows cannot have happened. She tries to talk to the Inspector in charge of the case, but isn’t able to. Before she has a chance to pass along what she knows, Edna herself becomes a victim.
A similar thing happens to Donald Ross, an up-and-coming actor who overhears an important clue in Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner). In that novel, Poirot is on the trail of the killer of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. Edgware’s wife, actress Jane Wilkinson, is the prime suspect – except that she’s got a perfect alibi. She was seen by twelve other people at a dinner party at the time of the murder. Ross is also a guest at the dinner, during which he hears a conversation that doesn’t resonate with him until a luncheon party later in the novel. During the luncheon, he hears something else and makes an important connection that turns out to be a clue to the murderer. He tries to get word to Poirot about his deduction, but the killer strikes again before he’s able to share his knowledge.
Gossip, idle conversation and information one overhears can be as useful to a sleuth as anything else is. They can also offer an interesting intellectual challenge to the reader, who has to pay attention to those little bits of information. On the other hand, those conversations can also be distracting. What do you think? Do you like your fictional sleuths to pick up clues through conversations and gossip, or do you prefer more direct evidence?