In yesterday’s post I mentioned just a few of the technological and other developments we owe to careful scientific research. Without rigourous and painstaking research we wouldn’t have even basics such as electric lights, let alone anything as complex as digital imaging and the geodosic dome. Who are the people who conduct this research? Quite often one doesn’t learn their names unless they win a Nobel prize (and sometimes, let’s face it, not even then). But even those who are more or less anonymous have been the driving force behind many of the things we take for granted. Whether they work in laboratories or in the field, scientists inform our knowledge. That’s one reason it’s refreshing to see them portrayed sympathetically in crime fiction. Oh, and you’ll notice in this post that I am not going to mention the many medical doctors, forensic specialists or computer scientists who play roles in the genre. That’d be too easy.
Two scientists prove to be very important to making a case in Agatha Christie’s Sad Cypress. In that novel Elinor Carlisle is charged with the poisoning death of Mary Gerrard, daughter of the lodgekeeper at the family home of Hunterbury. There’s plenty of evidence against Elinor too and she had at least two motives. For one thing there’s a question of inheritance. Elinor stands to inherit a great deal of money when her wealthy Aunt Laura dies, but Aunt Laura became quite fond of Mary and it was likely she’d leave a considerable amount of money to her instead of to Elinor. There’s also the fact that Elinor’s intended Roderick “Roddy” Welman has become infatuated with Mary. In fact, he and Elinor break up their engagement over the matter. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord is convinced that Elinor is innocent. And even if she’s guilty he wants her name cleared. So he appeals to Hercule Poirot to investigate. Poirot agrees and looks into the matter closely. He finds out who really killed Mary Gerrard and why but of course it requires more than just Poirot’s say-so to win a court case. In the end, testimony from a botanist and a chemist provide the evidence that solves the mystery.
Isaac Asimov’s stories frequently feature scientists as protagonists and/or major characters. I’ll just give one example. In his short story The Dying Night, three scientists Edward Talliaferro, Stanley Kaunas and Battersley Ryger meet at an astronomy conference after not having seen each other for some years. All of them carry a burden because they’ve been far more successful than the fourth member of their group of friends Romero Villers. Villiers’ health made it impossible for him to leave Earth as the other scientists did and build a reputation as a leading astronomer as his friends did. What makes matters even more awkward is that Villiers claims to have made a breakthrough discovery, and plans to present his findings at this conference. His former friends aren’t convinced he’s made the breakthrough he claims to have made and there’s bitterness on both sides. On the night before his scheduled presentation Villiers is killed and critical files relating to his research and discovery have disappeared. Rather than call in the police it’s decided to consult Dr. Wendell Urth, a noted expert on conditions on other planets. He’s also got an unofficial relationship with the police and has been of assistance to them before. He agrees to listen to each scientist’s account of the night of the murder, and from that information he’s able to deduce who the murderer is. And what’s fascinating about this story is that Urth solves the case through his knowledge of the atmosphere and other information about other planets.
Sarah Andrews, herself a geologist, has created a series that features forensic geologist Em Hansen. Hansen is originally from Wyoming and in Tensleep, the first in this series, she’s landed a job as a mudlogger for an oil company. Her job is to collect and analyze mud samples but her work’s complicated by the fact that a lot of her male colleagues don’t think that an oil drilling outfit is the right place for a woman. Then her mentor Bill Kretzmer is killed in what looks at first like a car accident. Everyone thinks Kretzmer’s death is accidental but then another co-worker Willie Sewell is killed, apparently crushed by horses. Hansen doesn’t believe the theory of accident and begins to investigate. As the series moves on, Hansen slowly moves up the ladder, so to speak, even taking a position with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
In Marilyn Victor’s and Michael Allan Mallory’s Killer Instinct, we meet Lavender “Snake” Jones, zookeeper and documentary host. Jones decides to feature the Minnesota Wolf Institute (MWI) for her show Zoofari. Her friend Gina Brown, a wolf biologist with the MWI, is eager both to spend time with Jones and to have her beloved wolves featured on Zoofari; she’s hoping that a better understanding of wolves will mean fewer people hunting them and needlessly fearing them. Then Brown gets into a conflict with anti-wolf leader Ivar Bjorkland. When Bjorkland is murdered, Brown is suspected of killing him. Even Jones wonders whether her friend might be guilty. But then there are other murders. Jones discovers who’s responsible but she’ll have to stop the killer if she’s to stay alive herself.
There’s also an interesting example of scientists being critical to solving murders in Peg Brantley’s Red Tide. In that novel, banker and rescue dog handler Jamie Taylor is called to a remote field near Aspen Falls, Colorado. There Taylor and her dog along with police authorities discover a set of long-buried remains that are the work of a killer who’s died recently. But when recent remains are also found, it’s clear that another killer is using the same area. The police can’t really make headway on the case because Jamie’s sister ME Jacqueline “Jax” Taylor can’t establish clearly what the cause of death is. That’s when veterinarian Scott Ortiz comes in handy. He’s noticed some unexplained deaths among local horses and does special experiments to find out what the cause of death is. His studies reveal the cause of death among the horses and gives Jax Taylor valuable information in her own search for answers.
And of course no post on scientists in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Theodore Horstmann, the botany expert who works with Nero Wolfe to raise and tend Wolfe’s beloved orchids.
See what I mean? Scientists are valuable folks. Despite the stereotypes you might have heard about “mad scientists” or cold and unfeeling “eggheads,” scientists are interesting and generally very good people. They’re also extremely informative and useful when it comes to crime-solving. Want some more ideas? Check out this post on science in crime fiction from Bernadette at Reactions to Reading, an excellent blog you should be following if you’re not already. Seriously.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Two Thousand Years.