Science and scientists have a particular way of thinking about their professions. Reputable scientists develop theories and hypotheses about the way something works. As best they can, they put those hypotheses to the test and accept what the data tell them. They don’t make too many assumptions, they don’t rely only on their own opinions, and they do their best (they are humans, after all) not to be too vested in one or another outcome. That’s how scientific research goes forward.
If you think about it, that’s exactly the kind of thinking that helps in detection too. The sleuth considers what the evidence suggests, forms a theory, tests that theory and accepts what the data say. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, because sleuths deal with the complexity that is human life and human thinking. And that can muddy the proverbial waters considerably. Still, it’s little wonder that we see so many scientists in crime fiction.
In fact, there are so many fictional scientists out there that there’s only space in this one post for a few examples. You’ll notice, for instance, that I won’t be mentioning the myriad forensic scientists, medical examiners, pathologists, archaeologists, or physical anthropologists there are in the genre. Too easy! And too many! You’ll also notice that I won’t be mentioning the many social and psychological scientists (e.g. psychologists, educators, criminal law scientists, political scientists). Again – too many! But they’re out there.
There is, as you can imagine, quite a lot of chemistry involved in crime detection. Agatha Christie fans, for instance, will know that she had a background in chemistry, and it shows in her work. Poisoning plays a role in several of her stories, and quite often, chemistry provides the solution (yes, pun intended ;-) ) to the puzzle. Of course, Christie didn’t ignore other branches of science. In Sad Cypress, for instance, botany plays an important role in solving the murder of Mary Gerrard. Elinor Carlisle is charged with the murder, and she had motive, too. But local GP Dr. Peter Lord is smitten with her and wants her name cleared. So he asks Hercule Poirot to investigate. Chemistry and botany both help Poirot find out who the killer is.
Anyone who’s made wine knows that science is key to producing a delicious vintage. And no-one knows that better than Benjamin Cooker, noted oenologist and ‘star’ of Jean-Pierre Alaux and Nöel Balen’s Winemaker Detective series. Cooker is an expert on wine, so in Treachery in Bordeaux, he’s the first one Denis Massepain calls when he discovers that four barrels of his wine have been sabotaged. Massepain owns Château Les Moniales Haut-Brion, a very highly-regarded vineyard. If his winery turns out poor product, he’ll lose that all-important reputation. Cooker and his new assistant Virgile Lanssien agree to look into the matter. For help in this investigation, they turn to biologist and biological testing expert Alexandrine de la Palussière. With her expertise, they discover that the wine has been contaminated with brettanomyces, a yeast-like spore that can quickly ruin wine. What’s worse, this particular spore is highly contagious, so Massepain’s entire output is at risk. Cooker and Lanssien investigate to find out who would have wanted the winery to be ruined. And in the end, they discover the culprit.
Mining and oil drilling companies rely heavily on the work of geologists to help them take decisions about their businesses. For example, in Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins has used his background in geology for a long time both as an independent prospector and for various companies. But he has his own ideas and theories about the land, and it’s gotten him into trouble more than once. One night after a drunken quarrel at a pub, he returns to his shack, where he is found murdered. At first, the police assume the murder is the result of that quarrel. But Emily Tempest, who’s just become an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) isn’t so sure. Her temporary boss Bruce Cockburn warns her to ‘fall in line’ with the police account, but Tempest continues to ask questions. It turns out that Ozolins’ geological knowledge was dangerous for him.
In S.J. (now writing as Sharon) Bolton’s Awakening, we are introduced to wildlife veterinarian Clara Benning. She works at a wildlife hospital, and has particular expertise with all sorts of species of snakes. Her scientific knowledge proves to be of real value when snakes begin to cause a threat to the village where she lives. First, a mother discovers a deadly adder in her child’s crib. Then, another villager dies of an adder bite. But forensics reports show that there was much more venom in his blood than would be caused by one snake. Now, ACC Matt Hoare, who also lives locally, taps Benning’s expertise to get to the truth about this case.
Keigo Higashino’s series features Tokyo physics professor Manabu ‘Galileo’ Yukawa. In Salvation of a Saint, for instance, his knowledge proves to be extremely valuable when Junior Detective Kishitani and Junior Detective Kaoru Utsumi are faced with what looks like a suicide. Yoshitaka Mashabi seems to have killed himself with a cup of coffee laced with arsenous acid. Bit by bit though, the evidence begins to suggest that he was murdered. What the police find hard to prove is how he got the poison. They have some suspects in mind, including the victim’s wife Ayane Mita and her assistant/apprentice Hiromi Wakayama. But for different reasons, it’s not easy to show who actually committed the crime. That’s where Galileo’s expertise turns out to be useful. He is able to demonstrate exactly how the poison could have been administered and when it happened.
And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. This novel introduces readers to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He is an oceanographer and an expert in wave patterns, and wants to use those skills for personal as well as professional goals. He’s hoping to find out the truth about his grandfather Uilliam, who disappeared during a fishing trip years earlier. With his own expertise, as well as help from other oceanographers, he eventually finds out the truth. He also uses his knowledge in another case. Basanti and her friend Preeti were taken from their homes in India to Scotland as a part of the international sex trade. There, they were separated. Basanti has managed to escape the people who held her, but she hasn’t been able to find Preeti. Her search leads her to McGill, who is able to use what she remembers to find out what happened to Preeti and to go after the people who involved in Scotland’s human trafficking trade.
As you can see, natural science is a big part of crime fiction. I think Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation Sherlock Holmes would approve…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from They Might Be Giants’ Science is Real.