One of the many reasons people enjoy crime fiction is that they like to imagine themselves as the sleuth. It’s fun (and for the matter of that, a good intellectual “stretch”) to try to follow the clues and “catch the bad guy.” That’s especially true since reading a crime fiction novel isn’t usually nearly as dangerous as actually solving a murder case can be. And one can learn a lot about sleuthing from reading how the experts do it. So I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the lessons about sleuthing that “armchair sleuths” can learn from the fictional experts. Here are just few things I’ve learned:
Pay Attention to Everything
If you’ve ever wanted to kick yourself for missing a small clue when you were reading a novel, you know what I mean. And some sleuths seem to be geniuses at observation. One of the classic examples is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. As any Holmes reader knows, he makes a host of deductions just from one look at a person’s appearance or a crime scene, and those observations lead him to the solution. He misses almost nothing. For instance, in The Adventure of the Red-Headed League, Holmes gets a visit from Mr. Jabez Wilson, who’s concerned about some bizarre events at his new place of employment. When Watson meets Wilson, he tries to emulate Holmes’ ability to draw conclusions from someone’s appearance but can’t find anything unusual. Holmes notices Watson’s reaction and says,
“Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”
Wilson, especially, is startled by Holmes’ knowledge. But when Holmes explains how he knew, it’s clear that it was simply a matter of noticing lots of details and drawing conclusions from them.
Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache also learns an awful lot from observing. In Still Life, for instance, he’s called to the small, rural Québec village of Three Pines when Jane Neal, a beloved retired teacher, is killed in what looks like a terrible bow-hunting accident. Gamache soon establishes, though, that Neal was murdered. So he and his team begin the process of finding out who would want to kill Neal and why. For Gamache, an important part of that investigation is carefully observing the people in the village, and watching who says what, how it’s said, how everyone reacts both to the murder and to everyone else, and so on. So he spends his share of time sitting on a bench in the village Common and at the local bistro, just watching people. That observation gives Gamache some of the background he needs to get to the truth of this murder.
Talk to People and Learn From What They Say
Sometimes, paying close attention to what people do and don’t say in a conversation can point the reader in the right direction. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is a genius at learning all sorts of crucial things from casual conversation. As he himself says, people love to talk. Sooner or later, if you have enough conversations with people, you learn what you want to know. That’s what happens, for instance, in Cards on the Table. In that novel, Poirot and three other sleuths are invited to a dinner party at the home of the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. Also invited are four other guests who Mr. Shaitana hints have gotten away with murder. After dinner, everyone settles down to play bridge except for Mr. Shaitana, who spends the evening in a chair by the fire. At one point in the evening, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. Only four people could have committed the crime, and each of them had a motive. So Poirot and the other sleuths have to sift through everyone’s background and find out who would have committed this sort of crime. Instead of simply asking direct questions of the suspects, Poirot asks each suspect seemingly unrelated questions about the bridge game they were playing. Those conversations, and some other casual conversations, put Poirot on the right track.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe also learns quite a lot from just having conversations. She makes people feel comfortable talking with her, and that’s often how she finds out information. In Morality for Beautiful Girls, for instance, she is hired by an important Government Man to help solve a difficult family situation. The Government Man believes that his new sister-in-law is trying to poison his brother, and he wants Mma. Ramotswe to find out the truth. She agrees and pays a visit to the Government Man’s home village. She’s invited to stay in the Government Man’s home and begins to settle in. After lunch one day, everyone is sickened, including Mma. Ramotswe, and it’s soon proven that this was deliberate. Mma. Ramotswe has conversations with the people involved, and is able to find out how and by whom the poisoning occurred. It’s those conversations that lead her to the surprising truth about the Government Man’s household.
Trust Your Instincts
No-one is perfect, and no-one is right all the time. But the best sleuths know how to pay attention to their own gut reactions and instincts. So do astute readers. Just ask Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck how important instinct is. In Roseanna, he and his team have a very difficult case to solve. An unidentified woman’s body has been found in Lake Vättern, and no-one has reported a missing person who matches the description. After a lot of careful police work, Beck and his team discover that the missing woman is Roseanna McGraw, an American who was on a cruise tour of Sweden when she was murdered. More painstaking police work narrows the list of suspects, and Beck has an instinct about which one is guilty. He doesn’t have clear proof, so he can’t make an arrest; however, Beck follows his instinct and he and his team set up a “sting.” In the end, the plan works and the killer is caught.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest pays attention to her instincts, too. In Gunshot Road, for instance, she’s just become an Aboriginal Community Police Officer. On her first day on the job, she and her new team are called to the scene of a murder near the Green Swamp Well Roadhouse. Albert “Doc” Ozolins and John “Wireless” Petherbridge had had a loud quarrel in the roadhouse, so when Ozolins’ body is found in his shack, it seems clear that Petherbridge is the killer. Tempest isn’t so sure, though. And when she finds some evidence on the hill above the shack, her instinct is to look elsewhere for the killer. Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn insists that they’ve got the right man and tells Tempest to “back off.” She listens to her instinct, though, and in the end, it leads her to the truth about the murder.
What about you? Have learned something about “armchair sleuthing” from the experts? What have you learned?