Saturday, March 27, 2010

I'm Aware of What You've Heard, Every Terrible Word*

A quick look at any tabloid or television lineup is enough to remind us of how much people seem to enjoy gossip and gossiping. At the office water cooler, over dinner, on social networking sites and in the grocery store, we seem to love to talk about other people. Sometimes people gossip because they’re genuinely interested in other people. At other times, people gossip out of spite or malice. Schadenfreude, or getting enjoyment from others’ troubles, may also play a role in why people gossip. Whatever the reason, gossip’s an important part of social interaction and for many of us, a guilty pleasure. It also plays a very important role in crime fiction. Sometimes, authors use gossip to give the sleuth – and the reader – valuable cues (and “red herrings”). Gossip can also give readers background information on characters or on the murder that’s at the core of the story. Gossip can also be used to add to a story’s setting. When it’s used in a planful way (so as not to take away from the central focus of the story), gossip can add an interesting layer of authenticity to a story, as well as provide lots of clues and background.

Many of Agatha Christie’s novels make skillful use of gossip. I’ll just mention two of them. In The Murder at the Vicarage, Inspector Slack investigates the shooting death of the much-disliked local magistrate of St. Mary Mead, Colonel Protheroe. Chief among the suspects is Andrew Redding, an artist who’s recently arrived in town. Protheroe’s daughter, Lettice, has been posing for Redding even though Protheroe had forbidden it. What’s more, Protheroe’s much-younger wife, Annie, has been having an affair with Redding. So it seems quite clear that Redding’s the guilty party. All is not as it seems, though. Miss Jane Marple lives near the vicarage and is well aware of all of the village gossip. In fact, in this novel, she comes across as being quite “gossipy,” herself. That gossip turns out to be very useful, though as it offers important clues to the village’s history and background. That gives Slack very helpful information about who really killed Protheroe and why.

Gossip also figures heavily in Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, in which Hercule Poirot investigates the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. The story is told from the point of view of Dr. James Sheppard, who lives next door to the small house that Poirot has taken in the village of King’s Abbott. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, is proud of her ability to get and spread all sorts of gossip, often without having to leave the home. In fact, she claims that “people ought to know things.” When Roger Ackroyd’s niece, Flora, begs Poirot to find out who killed her uncle, Poirot makes considerable use of what Caroline Sheppard knows and is able to find out. That gossip gives Poirot very helpful information about the motive for Ackroyd’s murder. It also offers some tempting “red herrings.”

Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town also features an important role for gossip. In that novel, Queen visits Wrightsville, a small New England town, to get some peace and quiet and to do some writing. When he arrives, he’s advised to stay at the guesthouse belonging to the wealthy and powerful Wright family. In fact, it’s local gossip that lets Queen know the guesthouse is available. Queen finds out through the local “grapevine” that the guesthouse had originally been intended as a wedding present for the Wright’s second daughter, Nora, and her fiancĂ©, Jim Haight. But just before the wedding, Haight disappeared, and for three years, the house has remained empty. Local gossip is that the house is “unlucky.” Queen takes the guesthouse anyway, and is soon embroiled in the Wrights’ family drama when Jim Haight suddenly returns and he and Nora rekindle their relationship. They marry, but shortly afterwards, Nora falls ill, and people begin to suspect that Haight is trying to kill his wife to get access to her inheritance. Nora and Jim aren’t the only subjects of gossip, either. Lola, the oldest Wright daughter, has been a target of quite a lot of spiteful gossip ever since she returned to town a disgraced divorcĂ©e. The gossip only gets more spiteful when Jim Haight’s sister, Rosemary, comes to stay with the Haights and is poisoned on New Year’s Eve. In fact, it’s local opinion that nearly gets Jim Haight convicted of murder. Still, Queen finds the local gossip useful, as it gives him important background information and clues as to who really killed Rosemary Haight.

Gossip is at the center of M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Gossip. Wealthy widow Lady Jane Winters, who’s a gossip columnist, joins a class at the Lochdubh School of Casting: Salmon and Trout Fishing, run by John and Heather Cartwright. Soon after the class begins, Lady Jane begins to indulge in her favorite occupation and drops strong hints that she knows damaging gossip about everyone else in the class. As if that’s not enough, Lady Jane has an obnoxious personality. So it’s not really a shock when she’s found strangled with a casting line. Inspector Blair is called in to investigate the murder, and he finds plenty of suspects, since just about everyone in the class has been hiding something. It’s Constable Hamish Macbeth, though (who makes his debut in this story), who knows enough of the town gossip already and finds out the rest. Macbeth isn’t what you’d call ambitious, but he doesn’t care much for Blair, and is motivated to solve the case before Blair does.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn often rely on local gossip as they investigate their cases. Hillerman uses gossip quite skillfully and authentically, too. Many members of the Navajo Nation, of which both Chee and Leaphorn are members, don’t have telephones. There isn’t much reliance, either, on television or newspapers. So, upcoming local events are often publicized by word of mouth. So is talk about local people and their doings. In fact, Chee and Leaphorn learn important information about suspects, witnesses and crimes through gossip that’s spread in restaurants, gas stations, stores and community events. They certainly learn more this way than they do in more “official” interviews.

Most of us associate gossip with villages and small towns, and certainly there’s plenty of gossip in those places. But it’s not confined to those settings. There’s also plenty of gossip spread in cities, too. For example, in Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Plum is a bounty hunter whose job is to find and bring back fugitives. Very often, she relies on the local “grapevine” of Trention, New Jersey, to help her do her job. In Two for the Dough, for instance, Plum’s looking for Kenny Mancuso, who’s been charged with shooting his friend. In order to find Mancuso, Plum uses what she knows about Mancuso from local gossip about him. Local gossip also gives Plum information about an arms smuggling ring, and she soon finds out what Mancuso’s involvement with that ring is, and how that relates to the shooting.

Many police procedurals – especially those with a great deal of focus on “station house” scenes, include gossip among the police officers That gossip, too, can be both authentic and helpful, both to the sleuth and the reader. Dell Shannon’s Luis Mendoza series, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series and K.C. Constantine’s Mario Balzic series are just three examples.

Gossip comes naturally in many human interactions, and it certainly plays an important role in crime fiction. It can be distracting, though, if it focuses the reader away from the central point of the novel – the crime under investigation. What do you think? Do you find that using gossip makes the characters more real, or do you find it too distracting?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Careless Talking.


  1. Gossip is GREAT for mysteries. How else would Miss Marple have gotten any info? And MC Beaton's series, especially her Hamish Macbeth, depend a lot on gossip too. It can be a beautiful thing for a writer! :)

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. I think gossip is a fun and often necessary part of whodunits. However, when taken too far (the nosy neighbour sees justa bit too much, knows just a bit too much, etc.) then it becomes hard to swallow.

  3. Elizabeth - Oh, isn't gossip *great?* And I have to say, I really like the way you use gossip in your Myrtle Clover novels. Myrtle just finds out so much that way, and nobody suspects what she's doing : ). Gotta love it!

    Deadly Leters GTA - I agree completely. There is such a thing as too many convenient clues. Readers want a believable mystery, and it really isn't believable that someone would conveniently see everything or hear everything. And if someone did happen to see or hear everything, it isn't believable that that person wouldn't go to the police. So yes, gossip has to be realistic.

  4. When "sharing gossip" is worked into a story as it would be in real life, then I think it adds to the plot. We are creatures of habit and gossip is a habit so it's only nature to be involved in a murder mystery. If the "gossip" becomes the main focus of the plot, then that takes away from it

  5. Mason - I like your way of putting that. The main focus of a well-written crime novel is the crime and its investigation (and, of course, the characters). Gossip is a part of those characters' interaction, and in that way, it can add to the plot. If it takes the reader's attention away from the plot, though, that weakens the story.

  6. You've just given me a way out of a problem in the mystery I'm working on. I can use gossip to toss in a red herring. Thanks.

    In Martha Grimes' Richard Jury series, Melrose Plant is the one who sniffs out the local gossip very effectively and amusingly to help Jury solve the crime.

  7. Barbara - Thanks for the reminder about Melrose Plant : ). He certainly does get access to all of the local talk and gossip and uses that very effectively to help Jury. I especially like that aspect of his personality in The Man With a Load of Mischief, since it takes place in Long Piddlington, which is more or less where Plant lives.

    And I'm glad that you've found a way out of your writing dilemma - those are frustrating, and I'm happy for you that you've figured out what to do : ).