And She Only Reveals What She Wants You to See*

Sleuths' ThoughtsOne of the major developments we’ve seen in crime fiction over the years has arguably been the move from the sleuth as a third person – as someone whose thoughts we don’t always know – to the sleuth as the first person. Of course, not all modern crime novels are written in the first person. But in many of them, the reader is privy to what’s going on in the sleuth’s mind. And that makes sense, since today’s crime fiction fans want their characters, by and large, to be well-developed.

But as those who’ve read classic and Golden Age crime fiction know, that hasn’t always been the style. Here are just a few examples; I know that those of you who’ve read classic and Golden Age detective fiction will be able to provide lots more than I could.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is (at least to me) an interesting case in point. He does let us know how he deduces things. He also occasionally gives his opinion about one thing or another. For instance, we know that he’s not much of a fan of the police (with one or two exceptions). But as a rule, readers aren’t privy to what he’s really thinking. Rather, we learn about Holmes ‘from the outside,’ mostly through Dr. Watson. On the one hand, this invites the reader to get caught up in the mystery and try to get to the solution of a case. On the other hand, we can often only speculate on what Holmes really thinks about it all. He keeps the cards, as the saying goes, close to his chest.

The same might be said of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown. We get a sense from things that he says that he has a philosophical side. And we also learn some of his views about religion and about what it means to be a good person. There are a few other things we learn about his thought processes too. But readers don’t really ‘get into his head.’ The Father Brown stories don’t, for instance, follow him home at night as he makes tea and thinks about whatever case he’s involved in at the moment. Readers also don’t learn what his opinions are about a given case. That’s not generally revealed until close to the end of the story, as Father Brown explains how he came to certain conclusions.

That’s also often the case with Patricia Wentworth’s Maude Silver. Readers follow along of course as Miss Silver meets new clients, discusses their cases and so on. We know a bit about Miss Silver’s background (former governess turned private investigator), and we know something of her methods too. But readers don’t know what she’s thinking as she puts the pieces of the puzzle together, so to speak. She has her ways of ‘saving the day,’ but we don’t know what she thinks about it all, except for what she says. In other words, readers don’t ‘get in her head.’

Several of Christianna Brand’s novels feature Inspector Cockrill of the Kent Police. He’s a police detective, so in that sense, we know the way he goes about solving crimes. He talks to witnesses and suspects, observes the evidence and so on. In fact, sometimes Brand lets the reader in on the main clues that Cockrill notices. Readers are also privy to certain thoughts Cockrill has (from Green For Danger):

‘Cockrill had been waiting for something, but not for this.’

But we don’t always know what he’s thinking as he investigates. The stories are told more or less ‘from the outside.’

And then there’s John Dickson Carr’s Dr. Gideon Fell. We know a few things about his personal life, and we do learn how he draws the conclusions he draws. He explains himself, so that the reader can see how he came to suspect the killer. But readers aren’t really privy to what he’s thinking as the case develops. We don’t ‘get in his head’ as he looks through the clues and listens to what people say, either. In fact, we don’t always know what he thinks of the various people with whom he interacts.

Agatha Christie lets us in on a few of Hercule Poirot’s and Miss Marple’s thoughts. For instance, readers know how Miss Marple feels about being ‘looked after’ by Miss Knight in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (AKA The Mirror Cracked). If you haven’t read that one, you can, I am sure, imagine how she might feel with an overzealous paid nurse/companion watching everything she does, eats, and so on. Readers are privy to Poirot’s feelings about things too. For example, we know Poirot is not fond of then-modern standards for beauty and dress. In several stories, Christie lets us in on his thinking about that topic. Poirot also often lets clues drop when he notices something. But he is notoriously close-mouthed about the theories he develops and his views about a given case. He says that it’s because he may be wrong and doesn’t want to influence anyone else’s thinking. But that strategy also serves to invite the reader to match wits with him.

One really can’t say that anything is true of all classic/Golden Age mysteries (or any other sub-genre, for the matter of that). There are well-written modern mysteries that don’t let readers in on much of the sleuth’s thinking. And there are well-written mysteries from earlier times in which we do know much of what the sleuth is thinking. That said though, as a general pattern, we see more crime fiction now where we ‘get into the sleuth’s head.’

A possible reason for that might be the larger, more general distinction between plot-driven and character-driven stories. Another might be the increasing interest over the years in psychology and psychological plot threads. There could well be other reasons too.

What do you think about all this? Do you see this pattern? If you do, do you have a preference as to whether you know what the sleuth’s thinking is? If you’re a writer, how do you decide how much to tell the reader about the sleuth’s thoughts?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Christianna Brand, G.K. Chesterton, John Dickson Carr, Patricia Wentworth

24 responses to “And She Only Reveals What She Wants You to See*

  1. Margot, this puts me in mind of Nero Wolfe. He usually does NOT speak openly about his deductions and logic (until, of course, the final confrontation at the end of the book), but Rex Stout gives us Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s right-hand person, as narrator. This allows us to see the action and the detection through Archie’s eyes, allowing Wolfe to keep some of his secrets from us – and even from Archie. It’s not just a “sidekick” here, not a Watson to reflect Holmes, but a singular look through the eyes of the detective’s partner in detection. It’s also a device that allows the author to give us “fair” clues while disguising their significance.

    • Les – I couldn’t agree more. In fact I’ve often thought that Wofe/Goodwin partnership was a real innovation at the time. As you say, Goodwin is not a sidekick or a reflection of Wolfe. Far from it. And that’s part of what makes series successful and engaging. That dynamic really adds to the novels. And you’re right; it also gave Stout the opportunity to give fair clues and still mislead…

  2. As you know Margot I particularly enjoy crime novels with a psychological bent which as you mention lean towards needing to be in the first person but I do enjoy a good mystery too. A mystery story where we get insight into the investigators mind has become more common but I wonder if that is because the sleuth often has much more of a back-story now rather than simply being a cipher for the mystery unfolding? These modern sleuths then tend to play out their theories in front of the reader rather than observing and asking the reader if they guessed correctly? Is this also why this genre of books have got so much longer too perhaps?

    • Cleo – I think you’re definitely on to something. In my opinion, today’s crime fiction fans want well-developed characters. This means that, as you say, the sleuth often has some backstory, even if it’s not a central theme of the novel. And that does affect the way the sleuth is drawn as a character. Today’s sleuths do, even in more traditional-style mysteries, tend to share their thoughts about a given case. And that could very well be in part because of the move towards more character-driven novels. And you know, I’d not thought about it before your comment, but I could certainly imagine a connection between that trend and the move towards longer novels. Hmm….that’s worth exploring more. Thanks for the ‘food for thought.’

  3. Very interesting Margot – and Holmes is a highly unusual example in that for two of the case he does in fact provide the narration in place of Watson: “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” and “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” (both from The Case-Book).

    • Good point, Sergio! And yet, Conan Doyle still managed to focus the reader on the story – on the mystery involved – rather than on what Holmes happens to be thinking.

  4. Of the Golden Age writers, I always think of Nicholas Blake – his books were quite varied, but in some of them we follow the thoughts of his detective Nigel Strangeways very closely: it’s third person narration but with 1st person style. I like it, I think it gives you a better idea of the detective.

    • That’s a well-taken point, Moira. And it’s a very timely reminder that I ought to put one of those novels in the spotlight. I feel badly that I’ve not yet done that…

  5. Clarissa Draper

    For me, it’s not really a mystery if there’s no mystery. I like solving the case along with either the narrator or the detective. Although I have read fiction where I know who the culprit is, I prefer not knowing until the end or having a surprise ending.

    • Clarissa – I know exactly what you mean. Even if we (readers) know what the sleuth is thinking and what her or his theories are, there can still be a compelling read, so long as there is some mystery. There needs to be something to keep the reader engaged and wanting to know more.

  6. I think you’re right (of course!) about the change, though I hadn’t really thought of it that way before. But in my opinion it’s not really a change for the better. Books are often now much more about the detective’s personal life than about the mystery, and for me that drags them almost out of the crime genre sometimes. As I read endlessly about their broken relationships, their fights with their bosses, their battles with the booze, etc etc, I long for the good old days of the detective without a personal life – Holmes, Poirot, Wolfe et al. It often feels as if I’m reading some kind of relationship novel that happens to have a crime hidden in it somewhere…and I’m sure Cleo’s right that that accounts for the often interminable length of the novels.

    • FictionFan – There’s definitely something to be said for a crime novel where the main focus is really on…the crime. Sometimes an author can do a great job giving a sleuth both backstory and personality without taking away from the central focus. But I think it’s certainly possible to go into so much detail about what the sleuth is thinking and feeling and going through personally that the main plot thread is lost. And that’s when a crime novel can lose its ‘punch.’ I think there has to be a balance between giving the reader a sense of how a sleuth thinks and what her or his personality is, and keeping the emphasis on the crime plot. And about the length of many modern novels? I couldn’t agree with you more. I need to think about it perhaps look at some data to make a really strong argument, but it makes sense.

  7. Margot: I am not that analytical in my crime fiction reading. I do not think about first or third or any other person in the telling of the story. I have liked and disliked them all.

    • Bill – That’s really the main point isn’t it? Is the story a good one? Does it keep you reading? If so, then first or third person is less important. If not, then neither person can salvage it. You’ve brought the heart of the matter, really. Whether or not a novel is excellent…or not depends on the writer’s skill, the interaction between writer and reader, and so on as much as it does anything else.

  8. I agree with what Bill says above. That with a story, if you’re drawn into it enough, it doesn’t really matter about the point of view. That said, I think I do prefer the third person mainly bacause it was the staple of my teenage reading.

    • Sarah – I know what you mean. I think that sense of familiarity brings with it a certain comfort. But as you and Bill say, that’s not nearly as important as a well-written story that draws the reader in.

  9. Okay you got me thinking. I grew up reading Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming but went on to write thrillers from a first person POV .
    My voice is stronger in first person, which is probably why I’ve stuck with it.
    I like being in Ellie’s head and showing the world through her eyes, it’s fun for me (also scarier) and I think works better for my readers. They have to use their brains too because they only know what Ellie knows – and sometimes she doesn’t let on what she knows!

    Interesting topic! 🙂

    • Thanks, Cat. And thanks for sharing what it’s like for you as an author. You do have a well-taken point that writing from the sleuth’s point of view is an interesting challenge for the reader. Since readers know only what Ellie knows, they have to work it all out, just as she does. And as you say, it can be fun to show what the world looks like through a character’s eyes. Folks, do try Cat Connor’s Ellie Conway novels!

  10. My understanding is that the Golden Age novels gave readers only what they could deal with following the trauma of the war years. Readers didn’t want psychology and emotion: they wanted diverting puzzles (it comes as no surprise to learn that Agatha Christie was a whiz at crosswords!).

    I am interested in the comments suggesting crime novels have become longer as they’ve become more character-driven and psychological. Also whether a novel can be said to be ‘crime fiction’ when the crime seems to take a back seat to character and setting — Burial Rites by Hannah Kent being a good case in point.

    Material for many posts here, I suspect, Margot…

    • I suspect you’re right, Angela. I don’t have the data (yet) – well, I haven’t really looked at it closely – but I really do think there might be a relationship between length of novel and today’s interest in character development and psychology. As you point out, those were things Golden Age authors arguably didn’t do as often; and that could very well be that the war years had given readers enough psychological (and physical) trauma in real life. Little wonder the interest turned to intellectual puzzles.

  11. kathy d.

    I like to know the sleuth’s evidence and thinking, but that considered, Nero Wolfe, as said above and Hercule Poirot don’t always let the readers know until the end how they arrived at their conclusions. It’s a big aha moment for us during the denouement. That’s how they are. And Perry Mason is like that, too. So there are exceptions.
    Also, if a mystery is told from another character’s point of view, then, of course, we don’t know what the detectives are finding.

    • Kathy – You make a well-taken point. There are some authors (Christie, Stout, and Gardner among them) who keep readers deeply engaged, even if we don’t know exactly what the sleuth is thinking. So long as we find out in the end what that thinking was, it can work well in skilled hands.

  12. Some very interesting comments here, Margot, both in your post and from others. A wonderful topic.

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