Many people in the world speak more than one language. In fact, millions of people speak several different languages. Multilingualism has been an important social reality for thousands of years and with the relative ease of modern travel and technology, it's arguably even more important now. So it's not surprising that we'd find a lot of multilingualism in crime fiction, too. It can be very helpful to a sleuth to be multilingual; not only is it useful when it comes to talking to witnesses and suspects, but also, it's helpful in terms of understanding how members of other cultures think and communicate. It also adds a real layer of interest to a sleuth's character if she or he is multilingual.
Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, for instance, speaks several languages, including his native Belgian French and English. He finds that multilingualism useful in more than one way. In some cases, for instance, he's best able to communicate with witnesses and suspects in French. For example, in Death in The Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), Poirot works with Inspector James "Jimmy" Japp and the French authorities to solve the poisoning murder of well-known Parisian moneylender Marie Marisot, also known as Madame Giselle. One of the characters who provides Poirot with useful information is Madame Giselle's maid Elise Grandier. She doesn't speak English, so Poirot conducts his conversations with her in French, as he does with several other Parisian characters involved in that novel. There are several other novels, too, in which Poirot conducts conversations and interviews in French.
Many of Poirot's cases, though, take place in England and in those cases Poirot uses English. In fact, as he himself says, he can speak
"…the exact, the idiomatic English."
But sometimes, Poirot finds that it serves his purposes better to give the impression that his English is very limited. In After the Funeral (AKA Funerals Are Fatal), for instance, Poirot investigates the death of wealthy patriarch Richard Abernethie and the murder of Abernethie's youngest sister Cora Lansquenet. The two deaths seem to be connected, since Cora is murdered the day after she claims that her brother's death was not natural. So Poirot visits the Abernethie family home Enderby Hall during a week-end when all of the relatives (i.e. suspects) are there to choose family possessions they would like to keep before the property is sold. Poirot pretends to be a representative for a fictitious United Nations organisation looking for a property to convert to a home for aged war refugees. Since he apparently speaks very little English, everyone promptly forgets about him and assumes he can't understand anything they're saying. This is exactly what Poirot wants, since it gives him an opportunity to observe the family without drawing attention to himself. His strategy's successful, too; he hears more than one bit of useful information, including a very important clue that the murderer lets drop.
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö's Stockholm detective Martin Beck is also blilingual. Besides his native Swedish, he also speaks some English. This proves to be useful in Roseanna, where Beck and his team solve the murder of Roseanna McGraw, an American who was taking a cruise tour of Sweden when she was raped and killed. When the team finally establishes Roseanna's identity, they communicate with Lincoln, Nebraska detective Elmer Kafka, who's been searching for the victim since she was reported missing. The international telephone connection isn't clear, and Beck and Kafka have some miscommunication which at first hampers the investigation. Soon enough, though, they are able to work together and in the end, Beck's bilingualism proves useful as he gathers information about Roseanna McGraw's background.
Tony Hillerman's Jim Chee speaks his native Navajo as well as English, and he finds his multilingualism very useful as he investigates. For instance, in Skinwalkers, Chee works with Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn to solve a mysterious group of murders that seem to be connected with the Yellow Horse Clinic. Since the investigation crosses state lines, the FBI gets involved in the person of Agent Jay Kennedy. So Chee and Kennedy work together to interview witnesses. At one point, they interview a witness whose father may have seen one of the murders. She doesn't want to get mixed up in the investigation and in any case, she doesn't trust Whites, especially not those in law enforcement. So she pretends she only speaks Navajo. Chee's able to use his own Navajo to put her slightly at ease so that he can ask her for the information he needs. There are several other novels, too, where Chee's ability to speak Navajo and his knowledge of the Navajo culture are useful as he puts clues together.
Dicey Deere's sleuth Torrey Tunet is an interpreter, so her strength is languages. She uses this skill as she investigates cases like the shooting death of historian John Gwathney in The Irish Village Murder. Gwathney's housekeeper and lover Megan O'Faolain is the most likely suspect, since she stands to inherit quite a bit of money by the terms of Gwathney's will. There's also the fact that Megan's taken up lately with local potter Liam Caffey, and could have shot Gwathney to get his money and be with the man she wants. Tunet doesn't believe Megan O'Faolain's guilty, though, and begins to look for other suspects, of whom there are several. Gwathney left a journal that Tunet thinks may hold clues to what happened to him. So she manages to "borrow" it to see what she can find out. Gwathney wrote in Greek, though, so Tunet has to use her language abilities to read it. When she does, she finds out that Gwathney had discovered an old and shocking secret and had planned to include it in a manuscript he was preparing. This discovery adds a fascinating and suspenseful layer to this novel as Tunet tries to find Gwathney's killer before Megan O'Faolain is jailed for a crime she didn't commit.
Donna Leon's Commissario Guido Brunetti usually speaks his own beloved Veneziano, although he also speaks standard Italian. He also speaks English, and finds that useful in Blood From a Stone, when he and Ispettore Vianello investigate the execution-style shooting of an illegal immigrant from Senegal. The victim was selling handbags in an open-air market when he was shot, but no-one seems to have seen exactly what happened nor who the killer was. Brunetti eventually discovers that two American tourists, Fred and Martha Crowley, might have witnessed what happens, so he arranges to meet them at a café, and uses English for the interview. It turns out that although neither can identify the shooter, they do give Brunetti useful information that eventually helps him find the killer. What's also interesting about this novel is that the victim, who's considered a lower-class vu cumprá, is also multilingual. He's learned that to sell his wares he has to speak more than one language; so besides his own language, he speaks Italian and English.
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir's sleuth, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, is also multilingual. In fact, that's what gets her involved in the murder of Harald Guntlieb in Last Rituals. Guntlieb was a German student studying at the university in Reykjavík when he was murdered, and at first, the police arrest his former friend and room-mate Hugi Thórisson for the crime. Guntlieb's family doesn't think that Thórisson is guilty, though, and they hire Thóra to look into the murder. The main reason for which Thóra's hired is that she speaks German, so she'll be able to work with the Guntliebs' banker Matthew Reich. Reich travels to Reykjavík, and he and Thóra investigate the murder. Throughout the novel, Thóra often serves as interpreter for Matthew, who doesn't speak Icelandic.
There are, of course, lots of other sleuths I could mention who benefit greatly from being able to speak more than one language. Which ones do you enjoy? Does it bother you when words and phrases from other languages (especially ones that you don't speak) are used in novels you read?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' Michelle.