Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Straight Shooters"

Each sleuth has his or her own personality and his or her way of going about the job. Sometimes, sleuths get the results they want from using diplomacy and tact, winning trust and then getting answers from witnesses and suspects. Other sleuths take a more – er – direct approach. They speak bluntly, they don’t mince words, and while they may not win any awards for diplomacy, they do often get results. They’re what you might call “straight shooters,” and they get directly to the point at hand with little regard for tact. Sometimes, that get-to-the-point, blunt approach gets people to open up, so to speak, and tell what they know. Of course, being too brusque and abrasive can backfire, but it’s surprising how often it can be successful.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot isn’t usually a blunt, abrasive person; in fact, he often finds tactful conversation very productive. But there are times when he’s quite direct – even blunt. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot investigates the stabbing death of retired manufacturing tycoon Roger Ackroyd. Since Ackroyd had a large fortune to leave, there are several suspects. At one point, Poirot arranges for what he calls, “a little reunion” of the members of Ackroyd’s household. During the reunion, which also includes a few suspects who aren’t members of the household, Poirot says that he will find out the truth about Ackroyd’s murder, “In spite of you all.” When he’s questioned about what he means, Poirot says,

“…Every one of you in this room is concealing something from me.”

Poirot’s bluntness soon bears fruit, as several of the suspects are rattled by what he’s said. Within a short time, he’s been able to clear away some side issues that allow him to get to the truth about this killing .

Unlike Poirot, Reginald Hill’s Detective Superintendent Andy Dalziel is not known for being tactful or diplomatic. He gets right to the point, says what he wants to say and is often blunt and sarcastic. For instance, here’s an example from Good Morning, Midnight, in which Dalziel and his partner, Peter Pascoe, are investigating the apparent suicide of successful businessman Pal Maciver. What’s interesting about his death is that it mimics his father’s death ten years earlier. What makes this particular case even more complicated is that Dalziel investigated the earlier case, and seems to have a non-professional relationship with Kay Kafta, the dead man’s stepmother and widow of his father. So Dalziel and Pascoe have to deal not only with the particulars of the case, but also their own strained relationship as Pascoe wants to pursue the case doggedly while Dalziel seems to covering something up.

Pascoe happens to get to the scene of Pal Maciver’s death before Dalziel. He’s just arrived when he sees a man trying to get past PC Bonnick, who’s guarding the door. Before Pascoe can take charge of the situation, the young man and Bonnick get involved in a wrestling match as the man tries to get into the house and Bonnick tries to prevent him. It’s just then that Dalziel arrives and says to Pascoe:

“Evening, Chief Inspector. I’m glad to see you’ve got everything here under control.”

A few moments later, Dalziel checks with both Bonnick and Jason Dunn, the other man involved in the fisticuffs, asking if both are all right. Dunn stammers out his reply (which includes an apology) with difficulty. Dalziel’s response is:

“What’s your problem, lad?” inquired Dalziel. “Apart from not being able to finish sentences…”

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is also brusque and sometimes tactless. But, like Dalziel, he gets results. For instance, in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Morse and Lewis are investigating the poisoning murder of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of the Foreign Examinations Board at Oxford. Quinn wasn’t a unanimous choice, so his appointment stirs up already-simmering resentments among the various members of the Syndicate. Then, Quinn is poisoned with cyanide, and Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in. As they investigate the case, Morse finds out that several members of the Syndicate are hiding secrets, and guesses that Quinn had found out something he shouldn’t have found out. So Morse looks more deeply into the relationships among the members of the syndicate. He also looks into what each of the members was doing when Quinn was murdered. One of the suspects is Monica Height, one of the examiners, who’s been involved with more than one of the other members of the Syndicate. Her alibi is that she was with her current lover, Donald Martin. Morse is trying to get to the truth of what happened on the afternoon of Quinn’s death, and says:

“Would Mr. Martin back you up?”
“Yes, if you explained to him why –“
“You mean you haven’t done that already?”…
“Don’t you think we ought to ask him?”
“No I don’t! You’ve got him round your little finger, woman! Anyone can see that. I’m not interested in your web of lies. I want the truth! We’re investigating a murder – not a bloody parking offence!
“Look, inspector, I can’t do much more than tell you – ”
“Of course you can. You can tell me the truth.”

In the end, and after several wrong turns and another death, Morse and Lewis find out what Quinn learned, and who killed him.

Ian Rankin’s Inspector John Rebus is also not renowned for his diplomacy. That’s part of what tends to get him in trouble with the police establishment. But Rebus, too, gets results. For example, in Exit Music, he and Siobhan Clarke are investigating the murder of Alexander Todorov, a dissident Russian poet. Todorov’s poems have not exactly won him friends among the elite Russian businessmen who’ve established themselves in Edinburgh. So when Todorov is brutally killed one night, it looks as though one of the Russians may have been responsible, especially since one of them, Sergei Andropov, was heard saying that he wished Todorov were dead. The more that Rebus and Clarke investigate, though, the more they realize that Todorov’s death might have been more complicated that just a case of keeping a dissident quiet. In the end, though, they find out they were wrong. Alexander Todorov was killed for a simple, but completely different reason from what it seems on the surface.

At one point, Rebus is questioning a young man who was on duty at the parking garage where Todorov was beaten before he was killed. He says:

“And you didn’t see anything?”
“Didn’t hear anything, either.”
“There would have been blood on the ground.”
A shrug
“You like your music, Mr. Walsh?”
“Love it.”
“Lie back in your chair, feet up, headphones on, eyes shut…some security guard you make.”

And then there’s Andrea Camilleri’s sleuth, the irascible Salvo Montalbano. He has little patience, and is absolutely unafraid to say exactly what he thinks. For instance, in The Terra-Cotta Dog, Montalbano is summoned to a meeting with a well-known gangster, Gaetano Bennici, who makes a very strange request. He wants Montalbano to arrange for his arrest. Montalbano says:

“I need medical care. I’m sick.”
“…Since you think you know me well, you probably also know that I’m not someone you can f- with.”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Then why not show me some respect and stop feeding me bulls_?”
“You don’t believe I’m sick?”
“I do. But don’t try to make me swallow this bulls- that you need to be arrested to get medical help.”

Montalbano agrees to help, but his involvement with the gangster leads him right into two more mysteries: the looting of a grocery store in which the loot is found the next day, and the discovery of two long-dead bodies in an abandoned cave. At first, the mysteries seem completely unrelated, but in the end, Montalbano discovers the threads that tie the cases together.

Tact and diplomacy certainly have their place, but sometimes, a “straight shooter” can get very useful information, too. Which are your favorite “straight shooters?”


  1. Both. Chase will try to avoid conflict like a good martial arts student would. However, back him in a corner and he'll break half the bones in your body.

    Stephen Tremp

  2. I like the bluntness in Montalbano and it is sometimes more subtle than what it seems at first sight. Besides one cannot forget he's speaking with a gangster.

  3. Stephen - That's an interesting point. I think there are several sleuths who start out being tactful. It's only if thy are threatened, or lied to, etc., that they become sarcastic, even mean.

    Jose Ignacio - You've got a well-taken point. In the scene I mention, Montalbano is talking to a gangster, and that does make a big difference. And even when he's not, Montalbano can be subtle, even as he's getting right to the point. That's one thing I like about Camilleri's style.

  4. Morse will always be my favorite detective and Lewis follows in his path.

  5. Always enjoy your post even when I can't think of a single book title. LOL This is an interesting look at how sleuths work and how sometimes their methods may change and they become 'harder.'

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Patti - Oh, I like Morse so very much, too! He's just a wonderful character. And Lewis definitely has his own appeal.

    Mason - Thanks : ). You're right; sometimes sleuths find that being tactful and diplomatic don't serve their purposes. Then they have to be "harder-edged." Of course, plenty of sleuths have that hard edge naturally.

  7. I like them both. Often, cozy mysteries have protagonist who use their words and intuition to solve the case. Thriller protags are more direct and prone to action. Each method seems to suit the pace of the book.

    Straight From Hel

  8. Helen - You make a very good point; it's very often the kind of mystery it is that determines the sort of protagonist you've got. That makes sense, too. One of the hallmarks of a well-written novel is one in which the protagonist and her or his style fits the kind of crime, the setting, and so on.

  9. I have this idea that if the sleuth is "too" straight talking, he or she will give away too much of what he/she knows. Perhaps inadvertently. I think Rebus did this a few times, whereas the more circumspect Clarke did not? So maybe silence is a better strategy?

  10. Maxine - Oh, interesting point! I think you've got it exactly right with Rebus and Clarke. Funny, as I was re-reading Exit Music, I was thinking about how Clarke became so much a better interrogator/interviewer as the series went on. She certainly came into her own, in my opinion.

  11. Morse is my favourite.

    You could say that my current read is also about a straight shooter - literally! But then in Brazil you may have to shoot first and ask later.

  12. Dorte - Isn't Morse great!? I admit I don't tire of him. And in some parts of Brazil, yes, you shoot first, and then sort things out. I look forward to learning what you think of your current read...

  13. Oh, Morse is my favorite straight-shooter. :) He's sort of the Dr. House of the detective world.

  14. Elizabeth - I love the way you put that! The Dr. House of the detective world. That's classic! And I agree with you, too.

  15. I don't really have a favourite Straight Shooter because I tend to find them very abrasive people. Even in real life people who just launch questions at me, I find off-putting. The Straight Shooter is an interesting character however and can be very useful in the plot, plus it is interesting seeing how other characters deal with them.
    Thanks for another informative read.

  16. Cassandra - Glad you enjoyed the post : ). You do have a point. When the sleuth is too abrasive and fires too many questions, that can be off-putting and in fact, that's happened in several mysteries I've read. On the other hand, as you say, that can be interesting in itself as we see how different characters react to being put on the spot.

  17. I love straight shooters! I find them so much more interesting to read. Sherlock Holmes is very blunt in my opinion. I don't think he really considers the case or those who have suffered as important as an interesting case.

    I'm so glad to be reading your posts again.