And I Have My Say and I Draw Conclusions*

Conclusions and EvidenceMost of us make sense of what we see and draw conclusions from it without even being aware of what we’re doing. For instance, suppose you don’t see your car keys where you usually leave them. You look out the window and your car’s still there, so you conclude that no-one stole your car, and your keys must be in the house somewhere. Then you use evidence (e.g. what rooms you were in the last time you had your keys, which trousers you were wearing), and usually, you track them down. You may not be consciously aware that you’re drawing conclusions as you go, but you are.

Evidence and conclusions play huge roles in crime fiction for obvious reasons. Skilled sleuths pay attention to the evidence and use it as best they can to draw reasonable conclusions. Even more skilled sleuths know that evidence can be faked, so they look for more than just what’s obvious. And one of the biggest mistakes sleuths make is to draw conclusions that are too hasty, because they haven’t paid attention to the evidence.

The way sleuths draw conclusions is central to court cases too, since evidence is key to either prosecuting or defending an accused person. ‘S/he did it – I know it!’ simply isn’t enough for a conviction. And there are a lot of crime novels where original investigators didn’t do a good job with the evidence, so the case is re-opened.

Using that connection between evidence and conclusions as a plot point can be risky. A sleuth who doesn’t pay attention to the evidence or who draws all of the wrong conclusions can come off as bumbling, and that’s off-putting. On the other hand, a sleuth who never has to puzzle over what conclusions to draw can come off as not very credible.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous fictional users of evidence to draw conclusions and make deductions. Here, for instance, is his commentary on Dr. Watson when they first meet in A Study in Scarlet:

‘I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind, that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran, ‘Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor, then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardship and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan.’ The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished.’

In fact, Holmes and his creator had little patience for sudden flashes of intuition.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is very interested in psychology, and draws conclusions from psychological evidence as well as physical evidence. And it’s interesting to see how he draws conclusions when the physical and psychological evidence are at odds. That’s what happens, for instance in Dead Man’s Mirror. Poirot is summoned to the home of Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore, who believes he’s being cheated by someone in his inner circle. Very shortly after Poirot arrives, Chevenix-Gore is dead, apparently by suicide (there’s even a suicide note). And at first, that’s what everyone believes, since the physical evidence (locked study door, etc.) suggest it. But to Poirot, someone as self-important as Gervase Chevenix-Gore would simply not believe that the world could get along without him. He wouldn’t commit suicide. So Poirot looks more carefully at the physical evidence and discovers that there are some pieces that don’t add up to suicide either. And that’s how he draws the conclusion that Chevenix-Gore was murdered.

In Adrian Hyland’s Gunshot Road, Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest is part of a team that investigates the murder of geologist/prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins. He was stabbed in his hut not very long after a drunken pub quarrel with John ‘Wireless’ Petherbridge. And the obvious evidence is very strong that Wireless is the killer. So Tempest’s boss Bruce Cockburn draws the very reasonable conclusion that Wireless is the man they want, and is ready to wrap up the case quickly. Tempest notices other evidence though – evidence from nature – and begins to suspect that Wireless may be innocent. So she begins to ask questions. In this novel, there’s an interesting debate between the evidence that comes from things such as bloodstains, wounds and so on, and the evidence that’s more psychological and intuitive. And as it turns out, depending on just the one or the other leads to the wrong conclusions. Fans of Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte will know that he too relies on ‘the Book of the Bush’ – evidence from nature – to draw conclusions, and that he often looks beyond the actual physical evidence that he sees.

Sometimes, it’s hard to draw solid conclusions at first, because a fictional death looks so much like a suicide or accident. For example, in Angela Savage’s The Dying Beach, Bangkok-based PI Jayne Keeney and her partner Rajiv Patel are taking a much-needed getaway break at Krabi, on the Thai coast. During their visit, they take a tour that’s led by a guide named Pla. That personal connection is one reason why both are very upset when they learn that Pla’s body has been found washed up in a cave. They decide to take a few extra days to see if they can find out what happened to her. The police report suggests that the victim died by accident or perhaps committed suicide by drowning. It’s not an unreasonable conclusion, and there isn’t very much physical evidence to suggest otherwise. But Keeney isn’t so sure. For one thing, she knows that Pla was an expert swimmer. So although it’s not impossible, an accident is unlikely. And nothing she learns suggests that Pla was despondent enough to kill herself. So Keeney starts asking questions. In the end, she finds that the truth is very different to what it seems on the surface. But at the same time, it’s easy to see why the police would draw the conclusions they did. If you don’t pay attention to those small bits of evidence, it’s very hard to work out whether someone drowned by accident, suicide or murder.

In Helene Tursten’s Detective Inspector Huss, Göteborg police inspector Irene Huss and the other members of the Violent Crimes Unit are faced with a puzzling case. Successful entrepreneur Richard von Knecht jumps from the balcony of the penthouse where he and his wife Sylvia live. At first the case looks very much like a suicide. It’s a reasonable conclusion, and anyone might have a hidden motive for that. But the police pay attention to other pieces of evidence that suggest otherwise. For one thing, the victim had acrophobia. If he was going to kill himself, it seems odd that he’d have chosen that method. For another, there is some forensic evidence that points to murder. So the team has to look at this case in an entirely new way.

And that’s the thing about drawing crime-fictional conclusions. It’s natural and human to draw conclusions from what we see. That’s how we make sense of our world. And those details and pieces of evidence that sleuths see are critical to drawing conclusions. That’s not always as easy to do as it seems, but the way sleuths go from details/evidence to conclusions is an important part of an investigation.

ps. Just to see how this works, what conclusions do you draw from the evidence in the ‘photo? 😉


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Blonde Over Blue.


Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Angela Savage, Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Upfield, Helene Tursten

30 responses to “And I Have My Say and I Draw Conclusions*

  1. Erm – a dog has been playing on the bed?
    Great post, as usual, some excellent reminders that you need to be very careful when jumping to conclusions – which is exactly what Sherlock seems to be doing most of the time.

    • Marina Sofia – I see you have solid powers of observation! 😉 – And what’s interesting is that both my dogs know they’re not supposed to be on the furniture… Thanks for the kind words, and you’re right: it’s never a good idea to draw conclusions if you don’t have the details and evidence to support them.

  2. tracybham

    This post reminds me of authors I need to continue reading … I have so many of those. I haven’t read anything by Adrian Hyland but that series is definitely on my “get to someday soon” list.

  3. Margot: I would say it is a couch, too narrow for a comfortable bed for an adult, that has been assembled from a kit by the home owner. The covering and cushions reflect a woman of refined taste, a man is unlikely to put the effort into the combination of colour, design and texture. The carefully co-ordinated couch looks intended for adult use. However, someone has been sleeping there, probably a child or a dog, and has risen suddenly leaving a cushion on the floor. The red objects could be weights but are more likely toys. I think the photo was taken in late morning because of the limited shadows.

    • Bill – You’ve used the evidence quite effectively! I’m impressed with the way you’ve noted so many of the details. You’re right, by the way, about the time of day and the size of the day bed. An adult who’s not too tall or very overweight could sleep there well enough, but it’s more comfortable for a child; and my dogs find it more comfortable than I wish they did, too. Somehow they don’t think I’ll notice when I leave the room for a moment and come back to find one of them on it. I also notice the legal caution with which you don’t draw conclusions that aren’t solidly supported by the evidence. Those are dog toys, but as you say, the picture isn’t clear enough that one could be 100% sure. I think that’s actually an important aspect of drawing effective conclusions: not concluding more than the evidence warrants.

  4. Kathy D.

    Having known a sneaky neighboring dachshund for nearly 15 years, I would say that the photo shows a comfortable bed which has been taken over by dogs who bring their toys onto it to chew on. It’s not clear that they do this in spite of the house rules or when their pet parents aren’t looking.
    It’s just clear that they are on that couch and leave the evidence.
    I don’t think it’s possible to keep dogs off furniture unless a door is closed, but even then they will wait for the first opportunity to run in and jump up on it. They may even wag their tails when caught at a favorite pastime, as
    they are so happy to be sitting/lying down on the furniture, chewing away..
    And you have two dogs, so they are “partners in crime,” aiding and abetting each other.
    Too cute a scene for me to imagine without smiling.

    • Kathy – Ah, yes, you’re familiar with doggie tricks, aren’t you? Yes, my dogs are fully aware that they’re not supposed to be on the furniture. But they do enjoy trying. And you’re right; whenever they’re ‘busted,’ they look up as though nothing was wrong. What’s funny is, they are either unaware that I know when they’ve been there, or they don’t care. They’re lucky they’re as cute and fun as they are… 😉

  5. I suspect the villain is a cat who was trying to ‘fit up’ a poor innocent dog for the crime of illicit lolling about on the furniture. The cushion on the floor is clearly the weapon that was hurled at the cat by the enraged furniture owner, probably because she was frightened the cat was about to make off with the dish of chocolate almonds that is doubtless just out of shot on the table…

    • FictionFan – How did you know about the chocolate almonds?! And you know, that cat did eye that dish in a most possessive and threatening way! What else was there to do – erm, hypothetically speaking, of course… 😉 – And although you can’t see it in the ‘photo,’ there was a suspicious-looking shredded paper in one corner of the room. I think it was in retaliation for not getting those sweets.

  6. I agree with FF I think it was a set up …by the cat 🙂

  7. Kathy D.

    When in doubt, always blame the cat! This is a dog’s motto!
    I wonder what the Great Detective Holmes would have said about
    that photograph; he would have seen a lot more than we did. He
    would have identified where the couch’s material came from, who
    made it and in what country. He would have figured out its age
    and that of the wood used in the couch and table.
    And he would have deduced a lot about the human to whom
    the couch — and the dogs — belong.

    • Kathy – I’ve no doubt you’re absolutely right, and that Holmses would have been able to deduce an awful lot, just from the ‘photo. And as far as doges and cats go, my dogs would love to be able to blame a cat for things they do!

  8. I remember quite a complicated bit of business about footprints and a bicycle in Sayers UNNATURAL DEATH and was impressed because as that didn’t really seem her style, but it is always impressive to me as I am useless at that sort of thing – with Holmes, no matter how implausible, it is always a bit like being at a magic act (in the best possible way)

    • Sergio – Oh, I know just what you mean! It always seemed amazing to me that Holmes was able to learn so much from so little. And yes, Unnatural Death has elements of that too. I’m glad you filled in that gap, because it’s definitely a good example of what I had in mind with this post. I think one of the balances that has to be struck in a good evidence-based, ‘whodunit’ kind of novel is how to make everything plausible (i.e., the sleuth really can’t magically come to the right conclusions), without being off-puttingly obvious.

  9. Col

    Conclusions – a pet lover with a dog who may be spoiled. That’s a very fancy dog bed!

    • Col – My dogs wish they were spoiled like that. That’s a day bed intended for humans. Our dogs just prefer to ignore that fact if they think they can get away with it.

  10. I think Puppy was on the bed…and perhaps, Puppy wasn’t *allowed* on the bed, since he or she seemed to have left in a hurry, knocking a pillow to the floor. 🙂

    I agree with Cavershamragu…Holmes’s deductions were like magic, but I loved the wizardry.

    • Elizabeth – Ah, yes, you have experience at being owned by a dog, so this scene may seem familiar to you. Both of our dogs know very well that they’re not supposed to be on furniture. That doesn’t stop them, though, when they think they can get a way with it ;-). And I’m right there with you about Holmes. I always liked the way his explanations were perfectly logical, yet seemed like magic.

  11. I love good clues and bits of evidence. Doesn’t Sherlock Holmes get something wrong somewhere, claiming you can tell which way a bicycle went by the tracks, which I believe isn’t true? Nice try though, in general I would always believe what Holmes told me.

    • Moira – Oh, good memory! Yes, even Holmes doesn’t know everything. Sometimes the author has to sort of make things happen… Still, I loved the way Holmes was able to marshal so much information and bring it to bear on cases. I wouldn’t want to go up against his knowledge of tobacco ash…

  12. That a dog was playing on the bed.

    I love to do this in my work, show one or two pieces of evidence that would lead detectives to believe one way when it really means another. I had a lot of fun with MARRED in this respect, and I’m doing the same with Heartless, my WIP. When done right, which I hope I’ve done, it can add so much mystery and intrigue. Another great topic, Margot!

    • I’m sure you have done it right, Sue. It does take some thought and planning, that’s for sure. The author has to decide how much information to give, without either giving it all away or ‘not playing fair.’ And then there’s the skill of misleading the reader – in that fun, ‘mystery’ way – without sacrificing plot and character integrity.

  13. Just reading over the comments– they are LOL! What great fun!

  14. Kathy D.

    You probably have a lot of dog lovers in your coterie of blog followers, so we’re interested in what they do, especially if they’re not supposed to do it.
    And you have a lot of folks interested in deduction of “crimes.”
    I would say that as a matter of teenage development, my father introduced me to Sherlock Holmes when I was about 15. He enjoyed the Great Detective, and wanted me to appreciate and be entertained by the stories.
    But he did it for another reason: He wanted to develop my skills of thinking in a logical and scientific way in order to understand real life developments.
    So Holmes and Dr. Watson had a lot to do with my teenage education, and their investigatory and scientific knowledge and skills have stayed with me.
    When someone presents me with an unfathomable event, I immediately
    start looking at the evidence, the clues, to see if it was feasible and if so, how it happened.
    I don’t know if young folks today read about these detectives; I hope so.
    Or perhaps they have their own sleuths.

    • Kathy – I think young people still do read Conan Doyle’s work, but they also have their own sleuths. There are lots of YA authors and fictional sleuths, and plenty that are intended for the younger market too. And it is a terrific way to help young people develop their skills of paying attention to evidence, making sense of what they learn, drawing appropriate conclusions, and so on. And let’s face it: the stories are good!
      And about the dogs? They would be mortally offended if I didn’t share their adventures now and again, just to remind everyone who’s really in charge around here… 😉

  15. I liked that Dead Man’s Mirror – that was a clever line of deduction. Watching David Suchet play that role always makes me smile, i.e., you can just see Poirot THINKING… 🙂

    You know, what I like about Holmes? He made a comment once that he shouldn’t tell HOW he comes to his conclusions, i.e., Watson always goes, “Oh, that’s so simple…” Watson said he wouldn’t say that, then Holmes told him how he deduced what he did. And sure enough, Watson said it. The whole scene was brilliant!

    • I liked that episode of Poirot, too, and the story itself is also quite good I think. And you’re right; Holmes certainly predicted quite well how Watson would react. And it’s interesting to see how Holmes has a sneaking liking for impressing Watson…

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