From Astrophysics to Biology*

ScienceScience 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.




Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jean-Pierre Alaux, Keigo Higashino, Mark Douglas-Home, Nöel Balen, S.J. Bolton, Sharon Bolton

24 responses to “From Astrophysics to Biology*

  1. As you rightly say Margot practitioners of science feature heavily in crime detection but you have surpassed yourself to find so many out of the normal fields that you rightly say feature most often. Once again I’m really impressed!

  2. I never thought about how much natural science was involved in crime fiction. Quite intriguing. Thanks, Margot.

  3. Margot: David Hunter is a forensic anthropologist turned general practitioner who is called upon for his forensic skills in The Chemistry of Death by Simon Beckett. I know he is not a pure scientist but I loved the title for the subject matter of this post.

    • Bill – That Beckett series sheds a lot of light on the way science is used in solving crime. And The Chemistry of Death is a great title. Folks, it’s a good series if you’ve not tried it.

  4. kathy d

    Science does go hand in hand with detection. So much of an investigation is based on science, especially nowadays with forensics and DNA. But I think Sherlock Holmes really set off the use of science in investigating murders. When I was a teen, my father steered me to read the Great Detective’s books, and I think one reason is the science involved.
    Salvation of a Saint uses Holmesian investigatory methods based on science. (I have to say though that a few earlier clues let me know what happened, but now how.)
    Awakening is a book I don’t think I can read. Snakes: Brrr. No way.
    Sitting here reading into the wee hours — don’t want to think about snakes.
    Nowadays, if a sleuth doesn’t use the scientific method — and most do, like Commissaire Adamsberg and Commissario Brunetti, in one way or another, then it seems as if a solution would be bogus. Even if someone isn’t in a lab or a morgue, there are just certain steps that must be taken to find out a culprit, starting with evidence at a murder scene. Now, no one can disturb anything until a forensics team takes samples and photos of everything.

    • Kathy – I think you’re absolutely right that today’s sleuths need to be very much aware of the science involved in detection. Certainly they need to rely at times on scientists for helpful information and clues, And yes, today it’s well known that nothing about a murder scene should be moved or touched until the forensics team does their work. That’s standard procedure now.

  5. I love the Elly Griffiths series about Ruth Galloway, the forensic archaeologist. I’m working my way through the series. It fascinates me and does add that extra interesting layer to the story.

  6. Good examples, here. I think the instances you’ve mentioned where a scientist was also the sleuth are particularly interesting. The scientific mind would be an asset in an investigation, for sure.

    • Elizabeth – Thank you. I think you’re absolutely right, too, that ‘thinking like a scientist,’ even if you aren’t one, is a really helpful approach to solving a crime.

  7. While Doyle’s Sherlock certainly got there first (with early examination of tobacco ash, mud stains, etc.), the real founder of “scientific” detection fiction is generally considered to be R. Austin Freeman, whose main character, Dr. Thorndyke, first appearing in book form in 1907, combined early forensic science with serious study of stains, blood, etc., as evidence. Freeman is also credited with inventing the “inverted” detective story, where the reader knows the identity of the criminal from the start and watches the cat-and-mouse game between criminal and detective – think “Columbo,” for example. For more on Freeman, the page on the Golden Age of Detection wiki has a lot of detail.

  8. There’s that very weird Dorothy L Sayers book, The Documents in the Case. It’s my least favourite of her books, and there is a very complicated plot concerning the scientific structure of mushrooms, and the question of whether someone accidentally ate poisonous ones, or was murdered. She co-wrote it with someone else, Robert Eustace, so as to get the science right.

    • Oh, yes! I’d honestly forgotten that one, Moira, so I’m glad you mentioned it. It is odd, isn’t it? You’re quite right about the science angle in it, though. No, not, in my opinion, her best. But Sayers at her weakest is better than a lot of people at their best…

  9. Science is an interesting one as it’s a subject that doesn’t take long to lose me. Christie, of course, had such a light touch it was never a problem. But I hate those long scientifc explanations you sometimes get.

    • Sarah – I’m with you on that. I find science interesting, ‘though it wasn’t my strongest suit as a student. And I like it when you can learn just a bit about it as you read. But too much gets tiresome and tedious.

  10. kathy d

    We love Ruth Galloway around here, too. She does use scientific deduction and clues. Also, no gory autopsies, which make me avoid some series. With Ruth everything is upfront, honest, found with hard work and science, with a dollop of fun thrown in.

    • Kathy – There are so many reasons to like that Elly Griffiths series aren’t there? I like the characters, the plots, and the pitch-perfect description of the setting.

  11. kathy d

    Harry Nelson isn’t too shabby either.

  12. I was surprised to find that none of the books I have read in the past year have a connection to science (as far as detection). However, I do have plans to read a series that my husband found. It features epidemic investigator Zol Szabo, and there are three books, starting with TAINTED. The author, Ross Pennie, is Canadian. I will let you know what I think… when I get to them.

    • Oh, thanks, Tracy. I’ve heard of that series, but haven’t (yet) tried any of the books. I’ll be really interested in your view. And I know all about getting to books, even books one really wants to read, when one can…

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