One of the things that academic types do is research. Even if you’re not an academic, I’ll bet you’ve had your own experience with research. Writers do it when they’re planning books. Attorneys do it when they’re mapping out their strategies. Medical people, of course, do it, too. Chefs, accountants, and teachers research as well. Almost whatever profession you’re in, you sometimes need to do research.
There are, of course, lots of different kinds of research, and the kind one chooses depends on one’s field, one’s question and so on. But basically, research is a matter of observing something, asking a question about it, forming a hypothesis, and gathering and making sense of relevant data. Not everyone uses those terms, but it’s a very similar process no matter what you want to know.
Research plays an important role in crime fiction, too. And that shouldn’t be surprising, since it’s an important part of learning new things in real life. You could even argue that sleuths are researchers.
But even if you don’t accept that argument, there’s plenty of research underway in the genre. For example, one of the characters in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours) is Harley Street specialist Dr. John Christow. He has a devoted wife, Gerda, and two healthy children. He has plenty of patients and is well-respected. He has a mistress, Henrietta Savarnake, who, in her own way, loves him. And yet, his main focus in life isn’t really any of that. He is passionate about understanding and finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease. For Christow, finding the right combination of drugs to combat the illness is much more important than just about anything else. It’s not because he’s particularly noble, either, or that he’s bent on achieving glory. He just wants to have the answer. One weekend, he and Gerda, among other guests, are invited to visit the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. Hercule Poirot has taken a getaway cottage nearby, and is invited for lunch on the Sunday. When he arrives, he sees what he things is a tableau set up for his ‘amusement’ – Christow has been shot and is lying by the pool. But it only takes a moment to see that it’s all too real. At first, the case looks very clear-cut, but as Poirot and Inspector Grange soon discover, it’s both simpler and more complex than they think.
If you read medical mysteries and thrillers such as those by Michael Palmer and Robin Cook, you’ll know that many of them feature characters who are engaged in medical research. And sometimes, the research raises some really important ethical questions (e.g. just because we can do something, does that mean we should?). Cook has also explored questions of whether certain research should be conducted.
Legal research is no less demanding, and is an essential when one’s working on a case. And it’s surprising what a legal researcher can sometimes find. For instance, in Ferdinand von Schirach’s The Collini Case (Der Call Colliini), we are introduced to a young Berlin attorney, Caspar Leinen. He’s taking his turn on standby duty for legal aid when he gets a call from the local examining magistrate. Fabrizio Collini has been arrested for murder. He went to the Hotel Adon where he shot one of the guests, Jean-Baptiste Meyer. Collini has said almost nothing since the incident, and makes no attempt to defend himself. So if he’s to do his job defending his client, Leinen will have to do some research. In the weeks and months that follow, Leinen looks into the background of both the accused and the victim. That research pays off when he discovers that this whole case turns on an obscure point of German law. In this case, the legal research Leinen turns out to be immeasurably valuable.
In Elly Griffith’s The House at Seas End, a team of archaeologists is doing a study of coastal erosion near the village of Broughton Seas End. In the course of their work, the team members find six skeletons. Ruth Galloway, forensic anthropologist at North Norfolk University, is called in to help learn as much as possible about the remains. It turns out that the skeletons all belong to murder victims. What’s more, they aren’t English murder victims. Now Galloway gets involved in the process of finding out who the victims were, when they died, and how they ended up at Broughton Seas End.
And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective, in which we are introduced to Edinburgh Ph.D. candidate Caladh ‘Cal’ McGill. He’s an oceanographer and an expert on wave patterns. In one plot thread of this novel, he’s using both his connections with fellow oceanographers and his expertise to find out what happened to his grandfather Uilliam. Years earlier, Uilliam was on a fishing trip when he disappeared. It was always said he was washed overboard, and Cal wants to find out the truth about it. So he researches the tidal patterns in the area as well as what he learns about his grandfather’s past to trace Uilliam’s probable location when he went missing, and to find out what happened to his body.
There are a lot of other examples of ways in which research plays a part in crime fiction The process of noticing something, asking a question, forming hypotheses about it, and testing them is a natural for the genre. Am I right, fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Death Cab For Cutie.