In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest investigates the death of geologist and prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. She’s under the command of Bruce Cockburn, who has very different ideas about how to go about solving the murder. Cockburn wants solid evidence – proof that can be used in court. But that’s not how Tempest thinks. Here’s what she says about it:
‘It’s not the sort of thing you can prove – not by whitefeller standards, anyway, not yet. But sometimes you just have to trust your gut instincts. Even an instinct’s got a basis in fact; it’s just more subtle.’
It turns out that Tempest’s instincts are sound, but what makes this dynamic interesting is that Cockburn has a point. A well-conducted police investigation requires solid evidence. You can’t solve cases just on intuition or instinct, even if it’s keen intuition and well-honed instinct. Any fan of crime fiction can tell you that there are a number of killers who aren’t prosecuted because there isn’t solid evidence against them.
Crime fiction fans can also tell you how annoying it is when a fictional detective solves a case based entirely on intuition. It’s not realistic, really, and many readers think of it as not ‘playing fair.’ In a realistic, high quality crime fiction novel, the detective uses reason and evidence to solve the case. The sleuth may have a ‘gut feeling,’ but in the end, it’s always supported with something more tangible.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has been known to say that cases can be solved just by sitting on one’s chair and thinking. His point here is that chasing around after footprints, cigarette ash and so on doesn’t solve a case. And yet, he respects the need for real evidence. There’s an interesting example of the intuition/facts dynamic in The Clocks. In that novel, British agent Colin Lamb is in the town of Crowdean on his own business. He gets drawn into a case of murder when a young woman runs out of a house he’s passing, screaming that there’s a dead man in it. Lamb goes in to check and of course, she’s right. The case has enough unusual aspects that he thinks it may be of interest to his father’s friend Hercule Poirot. And he turns out to be correct, as Poirot begins to investigate from afar, as it were. On the one hand, Poirot doesn’t find physical clues. He doesn’t interview witnesses and so on; he deduces what happened. On the other hand, he depends on the clues and interview information that Lamb provides. And he knows that Inspector Richard Hardcastle, who is in charge of the police investigation, won’t be able to make a case against the murderer without evidence. His theory suggests where the evidence will be though, and in the end, Hardcastle finds what he needs to arrest the killer.
In Martin Walker’s Bruno, Chief of Police, the small French town of St. Denis is shaken when one of their own, Hamid Mustafa al-Bakr, is found murdered in his home on the outskirts of town. What makes this murder even more distressing is that al-Bakr had supported the French during the Algerian war, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. If the word gets out that a military hero was killed, it might look very bad for the town. So police chief Benoît ‘Bruno’ Courrèges works with Captain Duroc of the local gendarmerie, and with the Police Nationale, to find out who the killer is. There’s only one piece of solid evidence at first, and it leads towards the Front National (FN), a far-right political party. But given Bruno’s knowledge of the town and its people, that explanation doesn’t account for all of the facts. It takes more evidence, plus some intuition, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And in the end, Bruno finds out who murdered the victim and why. In this case, the solution comes from digging through evidence from the past.
In Jane Casey’s The Burning, DC Maeve Kerrigan and her colleagues at the Met investigate a series of killings. All of them have been committed by a murderer who’s been dubbed the Burning Man because he tries to destroy his victims’ bodies by fire. At one point, the police think they have the right person. But there isn’t solid evidence against this suspect, or at least not enough to make a strong case. So the cops’ intuition about the suspect hasn’t been correct. Then there’s a new murder, this one of PR specialist Rebecca Haworth. At first this looks like the work of the Burning Man. But some aspects of it are different enough that it could also be a ‘copycat killer.’ Kerrigan looks more deeply into the Haworth murder and finds that more than one person in Haworth’s life could easily have wanted her dead. In this case, solid evidence determines whether Haworth was a victim of the Burning Man or of someone else. It also clinches the case against the real Burning Man.
Lack of evidence presents a major problem at first in Frédérique Molay’s The 7th Woman. Nico Sirsky and his colleagues at Paris’ CID La Crim’ are faced with a series of killings. All of the victims are women at roughly the same time in their lives, but other than that, there’s not much they seem to have in common. And this killer has been careful to leave almost no physical evidence. Psychological profiler Dominique Kreiss offers insights into the type of person who’d commit such killings, but she can’t suggest one particular suspect. It’s not until the team gets actual evidence that Sirsky gets close to the truth about this case. Among other things, this novel shows how important things like forensics and physical evidence can be.
One reason the police place so much emphasis on scientific and physical evidence is that they know a case against the accused can’t be made without it. Any attorney will tell you that physical evidence (i.e. as opposed to witness testimony) plays a critical role in court cases. So a lot of legal novels hinge on getting and making sense of evidence.
Of course, physical evidence and scientific deduction can only go so far. Evidence can be manufactured, misunderstood, ‘planted’ or simply irrelevant. And tying pieces of evidence together takes a certain intuition, so evidence itself is not enough. But it plays a very important role in crime fiction.
Why? Well, part of the reason is that it’s realistic. But part of the reason is the work of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose birthday it would have been today. Conan Doyle created one of the most iconic of fictional detectives in Sherlock Holmes, and he had a very specific purpose in making Holmes the kind of person he is. Conan Doyle was said to be fed up with fictional detectives who arrived at their conclusions by what seemed to be almost guesswork, rather than logic or deduction based on evidence. Sherlock Holmes was his response to that, and crime fiction has never been the same.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from the Who’s 1921.