Real and fictional sleuths know that people aren’t always comfortable giving them information. In some cultures, it can be dangerous to be seen talking to the police. In other cases, a person doesn’t want to be seen as an informant. There are other reasons, too, for which a person might not want a meeting with the police to be public. So, there are plenty of clandestine meetings, especially in crime fiction.
There are several, for instance, in Agatha Christie’s Passenger to Frankfurt. Sir Stafford Nye is a low-level British diplomat who gets drawn into a web of international intrigue, murder, and more. He’s in an airport in Malaya, waiting for his flight back to the UK, when he is approached in an airport by a young woman. She tells him that her life is in danger, and that she needs to get out of the country. He lends her his passport and diplomatic credentials (much easier to do when this book was published than it is now!), and she leaves. His things are returned to him, and he soon learns that she is mixed up in a major plot. They have a few clandestine meetings, including one on a bridge, and one at an opera. She also whisks him away from an embassy party. In the end, we find out what’s behind all of the secrecy, and a major international plot is exposed.
William Ryan’s Captain Alexei Korolev series takes place mostly in Moscow, during the last years before WWII. Korolev is a police detective with the Moscow CID at a time when that can be a very dangerous occupation. Stalin is firmly in charge, and any hint of disagreement or dissent can get a person exiled or worse. So, there is a lot of pressure for Korolev to follow the ‘Party line’ when it comes to the cases he investigates. At the same time, he is a dedicated cop who wants to solve crimes, and who is under pressure to show that the police are doing their jobs, and that, basically, there is no crime. So, he has to work very quietly and delicately. He is helped sometimes by an enigmatic man named Kolya, who is a leader of the Moscow Thieves. Kolya has his own agenda, but when it suits that agenda to work with Korolev, he does. And they do have a sort of respect for each other. They can’t meet in any obvious way, because that would mean disaster for both of them. But Kolya finds ways to meet with Korolev in very discreet places, so that they can work together unobtrusively.
David Whish-Wilson’s Line of Sight introduces his protagonist, Superintendent Frank Swann. In the novel, he’s recently returned to his ‘home base’ in Perth after an absence, mostly because he’s learned of the murder of a friend of his, Ruby Devine. Swann believes that a group of corrupt police called the purple circle are responsible for her death. He can’t prove it, though; and, in any case, he’s not going to get much help. He called for a Royal Commission hearing into corruption on the force, so he’s a ‘dead man walking’ as far as many people are concerned. Still, there are a few people who will tell what they know. But they don’t want to be seen obviously cooperating with Swann. So, there are several meetings in out-of-the-way places, and more than one secret conversation.
In John Clarkson’s Among Thieves, we are introduced to James Beck, who owns a bar in Red Hook, New Jersey, just outside New York City. What few people know is that he also owns the building next door. He bought it after a successful wrongful-conviction lawsuit (he served eight years for a crime he didn’t commit). His fellow owners are all people he met in prison, who are now getting their lives together, trying to work legitimate jobs, and so on. Then, one of those people, Emmanual ‘Manny’ Guzman, gets a visit from his cousin, Olivia Sanchez. She claims that she’s been sexually harassed and hounded out of her position at an upmarket investment firm. What’s more, she claims that Alan Crane, whom she says harassed her, has gotten blacklisted from the other New York investment firms. He’s also threatened her, because she’s planning to file a lawsuit. Manny wants to take care of this in his own way, but Beck convinces him to hold off, and see if there’s a more legitimate way to handle the matter. Beck and his friends soon find themselves mired in a much bigger situation than a ‘he said/she said’ dispute. And there are very dangerous people who are determined to support Crane. There’s a lot at stake, and Beck and his friends are up against some powerful people. So, there are several clandestine meetings. Beck meets secretly with a gang-banger, a dubious Russian businessman whose wealth Crane is managing, and other people, too.
In Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, which takes place in 1919, Captain Sam Wyndham of the Kolkata/Calcutta police investigates the murder of Alexander MacAuley, head of Indian Civil Service (ICS) finance for Bengal. It’s a delicate case, because of MacAuley’s position, and because a note found at the body suggests that the killers might be pro-independence terrorists. Several people don’t want to be seen as talking to the police. And, there are those who are afraid (and with good reason) of talking about MacAuley. There’s also the fact that anyone seen as working with the British may be targeted by terrorists. So, Wyndham sometimes has to arrange clandestine conversations with people who have information he needs. It’s a very difficult business, and it’s not made any easier by the victim’s status.
Clandestine meetings can add tension to a story (Will someone overhear the conversation? Can the person be trusted?). If they’re not overdone or melodramatic, they can add to a plot, too. And did you notice? They’re not just in espionage stories…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Parlor’s Secret Conversations.