Agatha Christie’s novels often feature make deft use of distinctive ways of speaking. Her sleuth Hercule Poirot, for instance, is not a native speaker of English, so especially in the first few novels that feature him, he’s got a non-native way of speaking. For instance, in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Poirot makes his debut, he and several fellow Belgians are living in a house in the village of Styles St. Mary. They’re war refugees, settled in a new place by their benefactor Emily Inglethorp. As it happens, Captain Arthur Hastings is staying at the Inglethorp home while he’s visiting John Cavendish, Mrs. Inglethorp’s stepson. When Mrs. Inglethorp is poisoned one night, Hastings asks Poirot’s help in the investigation. Here’s Poirot's response after Hastings has finished telling him the circumstances of the murder:
“‘The mind is confused? Is it not so? Take time, mon ami. You are agitated; you are excited-it is but natural. Presently, when we are calmer, we will arrange the facts neatly, each in his proper place. We will examine-and reject. Those of importance we will put on one side; those of no importance, pouf!’-he screwed up his cherub-like face, and puffed comically enough-‘blow them away.’”
What’s interesting about Poirot’s way of speaking is that he sometimes uses it very deliberately. In Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), Poirot investigates the poisoning murder of the Reverend Stephen Babbington. In the course of his investigation, he connects Babbington’s death with two other murders and finds out who committed the killings and why. Towards the end of the novel, Mr. Satterthwaite, who’s also involved in the investigation, asks Poirot to explain why sometimes, he speaks idiomatic English, and sometimes does not. Poirot answers:
“‘Ah, I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say, ‘A foreigner; he can’t even speak English properly.’ It is not my policy to terrify people; instead, I invite their gentle ridicule…’”
Poirot uses his speech patterns to put people off their guard, and quite often, it works.
Sometimes, authors use speech patterns to show class differences among people. For example, in Ngaio Marsh’s Enter a Murderer, Inspector Roderick Alleyn is investigating the shooting death of Arthur Surbonadier, who was murdered on stage with a gun that was supposed to have been a stage prop loaded with blanks. Alleyn interviews members of the cast and the staff of the Unicorn Theatre to find out who could have switched the blank bullets for real ones. At one point, he’s interviewing footman Joseph Mincing, who tells Alleyn of an incident he heard between Surbonadier and Mincing’s employer Jacob Saint. Mincing’s speech patterns reflect his “serving class” roots and his “servant’s training.”:
“‘It took place a month before this play come on. The twenty-fifth of May to be exact. I took special notice. It was in the afternoon. Mr. Surbonadier came to see Mr. Saint. I showed him into the library and waited outside in the ‘all. Angry words passed, of which I heard many.’”
Mincing goes on to describe the argument he heard, and from that, Alleyn is able to get some important information about who shot Surbonadier and why.
Sometimes, authors use speech and language patterns to evoke a particular place or culture. For instance, James Lee Burke uses the distinct patterns of the Cajun dialect in his Dave Robicheaux novels. The use of the Cajun dialect does much to place the reader in the setting and give the reader a sense of the culture. In Black Cherry Blues, for instance, an old friend, Dixie Lee Pugh, asks Robicheaux to help clear his name in the disappearance of two Native American activists trying to prevent the use of Blackfoot Reservation land for oil drilling and other commercial uses. Robicheaux reluctantly agrees and ends up accused of murder himself when he goes up against mobsters and shady land dealers. As the novel opens, he’s just recovering from the death of his wife, and trying to put his life back together. Here’s a bit of a conversation that Robicheaux has with his housekeeper about Tripod, his pet raccoon:
"'Ax him what he done, him,' she said.
‘Go look my wash basket. Go look your shirts. They blue yesterday. They brown now. Go smell, you.’
‘I'll take him down to the dock.’
‘Tell Batist not to bring him back, no.’
Riley Adams (AKA Elizabeth Spann Craig) makes use of the characters’ speech patterns to place readers in the American South in her Delicious and Suspicious, which takes place in Memphis. In that novel, Rebecca Adrian, a scout for the Cooking Channel, is poisoned shortly after eating at Aunt Pat’s Barbecue. Lulu Taylor, who owns the restaurant, is determined to clear her family’s and restaurant’s reputation, so she decides to find out who the killer is. At one point, she’s talking with her granddaughter Ella Beth about the poisoning:
“Ella Beth finally said, ‘Miss Adrian wasn’t very old, was she?’
“No, sweetie, she sure wasn’t.’
‘And she didn’t seem at all sick yesterday. She felt well enough to be mean as a snake. I didn’t hear a single cough out of her.’…
Ella Beth looked at her grandmother sternly. ‘Did somebody do her in?’…
‘Mercy, Ella Beth! Whatever gave you an idea like that?’”
In this exchange we can see how the American South is reflected in the speech patterns without it overtaking the conversation.
Some authors use culture- or region-specific vocabulary words in their dialogue. That, too, can place the reader in a particular place or in a particular culture. For instance, in Adrian Hyland’s Moonlight Downs (AKA Diamond Dove), Emily Tempest returns to the Aboriginal Outback camp of Moonlight Downs in Central Australia after a time away. Shortly after her return, Lincoln Flinders, a respected member of the Aboriginal community, is murdered. At first, it’s believed that local sorcerer Blakie Japanangka was responsible. Emily has her doubts though and begins to investigate. Here’s just a bit of a conversation Emily has with Lincoln Flinders just after her return to Moonlight Downs:
“‘I shoulda knowed you straightaway from that old red blanket’ [Flinders]…
‘I’ve been out the Jenny, Lincoln. Visiting Dad. He’s been keeping it clean for me.’ [Tempest]
‘Mmmm,’ he nodded. ‘I see. Your Moonlight blanket, looks like.’
He turned around and yelled to the milling masses, ‘Hey, you mob o’ lazy myalls, come say ‘ello to li’l h’Emily….. That Nangali belong ol Motor Jack. Get over an’ make er welcome! She come home.’”
Alan Orloff also uses distinctive vocabulary and speech patterns in his Diamonds for the Dead. That’s the story of Josh Handleman’s return to his native Northern Virginia. Josh’s father Abe Handleman has just died of what seems at first to be a tragic fall down a flight of stairs. It soon turns out to be murder, though, and Josh determines to find out who and what are behind his father’s death – and the missing fortune in diamonds that he didn’t know his father had. Here’s a bit of the conversation Josh has with his father’s sister Shelley “Aunt Shel” after he’s found his fathers safety deposit box empty:
‘Of course I’m sure. I know empty and that box was empty.’
“Oy vey,’ Aunt Shel said. “Oy vey iz mir.’
“What happened to his collection?’ she asked.
‘His diamond collection.’”
The Jewish culture figures into the plot of this novel, and Orloff uses Yiddish expressions in this novel to place the reader within that culture
Linda Castillo does a very similar thing in Sworn to Silence. In that novel, Kate Burkholder, police chief of Painter’s Mill, Ohio, investigates a series of brutal murders in that rural community. Painter’s Mill has a strong Amish community; in fact, Kate is a former member of that community. Castillo gives the reader a sense of the Amish culture in the speech patterns and expressions several of the characters use. For instance, at one point, Kate is interviewing Isaak and Anna Stutz, on whose farm one of the bodies is found:
“‘We found the body of a young woman in your field last night.’
Across the room, Anna gasps. ‘Mein gott! …
‘Was it an accident? Did she succumb to the cold?’
‘She was murdered.’
He leans back in the chair as if pushed by some invisible force. ’Ach! Yammer.’”
There are many other examples of novels that use distinctive speech patterns and dialect. I’ve only had space to mention a few. What’s your view of the use of dialect? Do you enjoy it? Does it distract you? If you’re a writer, do you use different sorts of speech patterns?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Tears for Fears’ Shout.