Research on thinking and knowing has shown us for a long time that humans like things to make sense. When we encounter something that doesn’t fit our mental picture of what ought to be, we mentally wrestle with it until either our mental picture adapts or we learn more about the something we encounter. That’s arguably why so many people love crime fiction. It’s an opportunity to impose some order (who/why/howdunit) on chaos (a murder or murders and the aftermath). Even in crime novels that don’t have a happy ending, we want to know how the pieces all fit together and how it all makes sense. And readers can get very cranky if there doesn’t seem to be any order in a plot.
The drive to impose order on what seems to be chaos is also a motivator for detectives. They want the puzzle pieces to fit together. Of course there are other motivators too; murders are very human events that affect people on many levels. They’re far more than just intellectual puzzles. But at the same time, detectives still want the puzzle to fit together and make sense. Definitely fictional sleuths do. It’s the way we humans seem to be made.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes sees virtually all of his cases as opportunities to impose some sort of order on what seems like chaos. Take for instance The Adventure of the Dancing Men. Hilton Cubitt is worried about his wife Elsie. She’s never told him everything about her past, although she claims that she’s done nothing of which she need be ashamed. But she has had some dubious associations and now the past seems to be catching up with her. She’s been getting some cryptic notes that at first make no sense at all. They’re simply drawings that look like childish scrawls. But it’s precisely because they don’t make sense that Holmes is interested in them. But before he can figure out what the drawings mean, there’s a tragedy at the Cubitt home. Hilton Cubitt is killed and his wife badly wounded. Now it’s more important than ever that Holmes make sense of the drawings. Once he does, he’s able to find out the truth about the murder.
We also see this same drive for things to make sense in Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. As Poirot fans know, his watchwords are order and method. And he’s not satisfied until every unexplained detail makes sense. That, for instance, is why he doesn’t ‘buy’ the police theory in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. When retired manufacturing magnate Roger Ackroyd is stabbed in his study one night, the most likely suspect seems to be his stepson Captain Ralph Paton. The two had quarreled violently and what’s more, Paton was known to be in desperate need of the money he would inherit at Ackroyd’s death. But Paton’s fiancée Flora Ackroyd doesn’t believe he’s guilty. She asks Poirot to look into the matter and at first he agrees to do so for her sake. But then he begins to have questions himself about Paton’s guilt. Those questions arise mostly from small things that can’t be explained by the police theory. That desire to have all of the details cleared up help lead Poirot to the truth about the murder.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also likes the pieces of a puzzle to all make sense. That’s in part why he perseveres in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn. Quinn is the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. That group is responsible for overseeing examinations given in non-UK countries with a British education tradition. Membership in the Syndicate is prestigious and select, and Quinn was by no means the universal choice. But he settles in and starts his work. Then one day he is killed by what turns out to be poison. Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the death and discover that all sorts of secrets are being hidden by Syndicate members, and that Quinn could easily have discovered one of them. Morse thinks he’s found out the truth, but then when something he learns won’t quite fit in with the rest, he completely re-thinks what happened and that leads him to the real killer.
Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest likes things to make sense, too. In Gunshot Road for instance, she’s assigned to help investigate the murder of Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins at Green Swamp Well. The killing looks like a case of a drunken quarrel that ended tragically. But for Tempest the pieces don’t fit together. That explanation doesn’t account for what she knows about the man accused of Ozolins’ murder. It also doesn’t account for some physical evidence that she spots not very far from Ozolins’ cabin, where the murder took place. That urge for things to make sense is partly what drives Tempest to chart her own course in the investigation and find out the truth.
In The Twelfth Department, William Ryan’s Moscow CID Captain Alexei Korolev and his partner Sergeant Nadezhda Slivka are assigned to find the murderer of noted scientist Boris Azarov. Azarov’s work was highly classified, so the investigation has to be carefully conducted. They’ve just about settled on a suspect when that person is murdered too. The much-feared NKVD (this series takes place in pre-World War II Stalinist Moscow) has a theory about the crimes. And Korolev and Slivka have every reason to ‘rubber stamp’ that theory. It’s not implausible either. But both detectives know that it doesn’t explain everything. They want the truth about the case, and any truthful explanation has to account for everything. So despite the danger of going up against the NKVD, the two continue their investigation.
Not all fictional detectives see the process of imposing order on chaos as a completely intellectual matter. For Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, making sense of it all is a matter of restoring hozro – balance and beauty – to the world. Murder throws things out of balance and Chee wants to set things right and restore the balance by finding out the truth. There are several instances in the novels featuring him where he also acknowledges the sense of chaos in himself that comes from being involved in murders. He’s certainly intellectually curious but for him, it’s just as important to solve crimes to impose what you might call a spiritual order. That’s how he makes meaning.
Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe also wants to make sense of it all, even though he knows that the answers he gets won’t always be pleasant. He’s got a sense of what ‘counts’ as ‘right’ and ‘just.’ Of course, those are risky words because everyone has a different definition of what ‘the right thing’ to do is, or what’s ‘just.’ That’s the stuff of a separate post in and of itself. But for Marlowe, making sense of the world and imposing some sort of mental order on it is a matter of righting injustices if I can put it like that. It’s that way for John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, too.
We can say that it must be an important personality trait in detectives to want to restore order – for things to make sense. But really, that’s true of all of us. We all seem to want things to make sense. Little wonder that so many of us love solving crime-fictional mysteries.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kansas’ Chasing Shadows.