Non-verbals play a very important role in Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). When wealthy Richard Abernethie dies, his relations gather for the funeral and reading of his will. At the gathering, Abernethie’s younger sister Cora Lansquenet says that he was murdered. Everyone protests, and Cora retracts what she said. But privately, everyone wonders whether Cora might have been right. When Cora herself is brutally murdered the next day, it seems clear that she was. Mr. Entwhistle, the family attorney, visits Hercule Poirot and shares his suspicions that the deaths of Cora Lansquenet and her brother are connected and Poirot agrees to investigate. He pays a visit to the family home under the guise of a representative of a United Nations organization that wants to purchase the home. While he’s there, he gets a chance to observe everyone and hears quite a lot of unguarded conversation. But one of the most important clues isn’t verbal at all; it’s a non-verbal that another character notices without really being aware of it. When Poirot puts the pieces of the puzzle together, he knows what that non-verbal was, and how it points to the killer.
A non-verbal proves to be an important clue in Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Pretty is as Pretty Dies, too. In that novel, retired schoolteacher and advice columnist Myrtle Clover wants to prove to everyone (especially her police chief son) that she’s not ready to be “put out to pasture” yet. So she decides to investigate the murder of beautiful and malicious real-estate developer Parke Stockard, whose body is found in a local church in the small town of Bradley, North Carolina. There are plenty of suspects, too, since Parke had alienated nearly everyone in town. One of the most important clues that Myrtle discovers is a non-verbal that’s a dead (pun intended ; ) ) giveaway to the murderer. In fact, it’s the one clue that the murderer can’t really explain away.
Gestures, eye contact and other non-verbals are so important that the FBI and other law enforcement agencies make use of experts in the field of kinesics to help determine whether or not suspects are telling the truth. That’s what Jeffery Deaver’s Kathryn Dance does. She’s an expert interrogator with the California Bureau of Investigation. Her specialty is kinesics, so she’s particularly adept at observing the differences between the way suspects act and the words they use. We first meet Dance in The Cold Moon, in which she works with Deaver’s other sleuths, forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme and his partner Amelia Sachs, to stop a serial killer known as The Watchman. At first, the two don’t trust each other’s approach to solving cases. As they slowly learn to work together, they also learn that the murders they’re investigating are related to something much bigger than anyone thought. In the end, both of their skills are needed in order to figure out the connections among the various threads of the case.
Non-verbals are especially noticeable when they’re not consistent with what a person says. For instance, in Agatha Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Hercule Poirot visits Nasse House, the home of Sir George Stubbs and his wife, Hattie. Poirot’s been invited to help give away the prizes for a Murder Hunt (akin to a scavenger hunt) at an upcoming fête. When Poirot arrives at Nasse House, he’s told right away that Lady Stubbs is “simple-minded” and of subnormal intelligence, and that’s the way she appears in speech and mannerisms when he meets her himself. But on the morning of the fête, Poirot notices something quite different. For one brief moment, he notices Lady Stubbs giving a swift, shrewd glance – not the eye contact of a person of subnormal intelligence – at the other members of the house party. That one gesture immediately makes him wonder about Lady Stubbs since it’s so uncharacteristic. Later, during the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is found strangled. Then, Hattie Stubbs disappears and the hat she was wearing is found floating in the nearby river. Now it looks as though a killer has targeted people at the fête. As Poirot and Inspector Bland sift through the clues, they find that the events at the fête are tied in with someone’s hidden secret. That one look that Poirot witnessed turns out to be a clue to that secret.
Kinesics and other non-verbals aren’t just important as clues. They also give characters realism. They add levels to characters, and give them individuality, too. For instance, Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee is a member of the Navajo Tribal Police, and also a member of the Navajo Nation. He follows many of the traditional Navajo ways, and his use of gestures, eye contact and other non-verbals reflects his identity. For example, among the Navajo, touching is reserved for family members and very close friends one’s known for a long time. When Chee greets people, especially other Navajos, he doesn’t shake hands, as many other people do. Silence, too, is an important part of Navajo culture. In that culture, when one person is speaking, the other remains silent and waits until he or she is sure the speaker is finished. Only then does the other person respond. Chee tends to follow that cultural “rule,” too. Because of his understanding of Navajo culture and non-verbals, Chee is often able to get information about the cases he’s working on that other people wouldn’t be able to get. In this series, the Navajo sense of non-verbals is woven through the novels, and adds a real layer of interest and authenticity to the books.
Non-verbal communication is so essential to the way we use language that it’s hard to imagine what it would be like if we couldn’t make use of a person’s gestures, facial expressions and so on. That’s what fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone is faced with in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher has Autism, which impairs his ability to interpret facial expressions and gestures, among other things. In fact, he and his teacher Siobhan work on identifying which facial expressions indicate which emotion. So when Chistopher finds that his neighbor’s dog’s been killed, he can’t rely on non-verbals to help him find out who’s responsible. Yet, he wants to solve the case and be a detective like Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles. So he begins to look for clues and ask questions and in the end, he finds out the truth about the dog. Throughout the novel, we see the story from Christopher’s point of view and it’s very interesting to take the perspective of someone who can’t use non-verbals to draw any conclusions about a crime.
We all use eye contact, gestures, hesitation and other non-verbals when we communicate – often without being aware of what we’re doing. Those non-verbals can be so automatic that they reveal more than we may think they do, and that’s why detectives find them so useful. Have you noticed this in the crime fiction you read? Which novels have you read where kinesics plays a role?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Eagles’ Lyin’ Eyes.
The wonderful models in the 'photo, by the way, are totally honest all the time. I just couldn't resist those eyes... ; ).
**If you’re a writer, you may be interested in Clarissa Draper’s excellent post on using non-verbals to write honesty and dishonesty.