Prove My Hypotheses*

ResearchOne 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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Elly Griffiths, Ferdinand von Schirach, Mark Douglas-Home, Michael Palmer, Robin Cook

24 responses to “Prove My Hypotheses*

  1. I love to do research. When I was in college I worked for a professor doing research. Resarch was much different in those times.

    My first thought as far as mystery fiction was the research done by Inspector Alan Grant in Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, where he investigates the killing of the young princes by Richard the III. The Wench is Dead by Colin Dexter has a similar premise, where he investigates a murder of a woman on a canal boat from the 1800s. I haven’t read that one so I may be describing it wrongly

    • I like research, too, Tracy. You’re sure right that it’s changed – a lot! – over time. Today’s technology has made everything different, hasn’t it? And thanks for mentioning both the Tey and the Dexter. They really do have that plot point of doing historical research, don’t they? And I think that element adds to both stories. I’m very glad you included those examples, as I left a big gap there.

  2. I remember Ellery Queen’s THE MURDERER IS A FOX being rather good in this regard actually as our detective undergoes research into the past to solve a murder.

  3. Oh Margot, this post is timely for me. I am up to my eyeballs in PhD research — the academic kind, sadly, not the fun creative writing bit. So please excuse the silence in terms of comments on the blog. It’s not for lack of interest, but only time & energy.

  4. You are indeed right! Though sometimes Holmes’ research took strange forms – I’m thinking of that poor (dead) pig he used to research the strength required to harpoon a man. Peter May’s latest book, Coffin Road, involves the question of scientific research and how sometimes big business will attempt to suppress results that don’t suit them…

    • Thanks, FictionFan, for mentioning the May. It is a good example of research in the genre, and it is a great reminder that companies really can have a vested interest in the findings that researchers report. That’s why I’m always suspicious when X or Y drug manufacturing company produces results that show that their product is safe and effective. Doesn’t seem really independent to me…
      And yes, that poor pig…

  5. As you know, I love research and learning new things. I see research in play with most of the books I read, and it’s so fun to see how differently authors weave the research into their stories.

    • You’re so kind, too, Sue, about sharing the research you do and your findings. Folks, Sue’s blog is a treasure trove of good things for crime writers to know. I agree with you, too, that it’s nice to see what authors do about research, and how they work it into their stories.

  6. Of course you are quite right Margot in that the process for research (and presenting it) is pretty much the same whatever the field – my own job means that I carry out various types of research on a daily basis. Having read quite a bit about poisoners lately (haha cheery subject) it is interesting to compare the scientists in the nineteenth century testing their theories out for research purposes, their research subjects tended to be dogs rather than people.

    • I didn’t know that about Nineteenth Century scientists, Cleo! I suppose I can see why they worked that way, but still…. And it sounds as though you do some interesting research. The crime writer in me sat up and paid attention at the word ‘poison.’ 😉 It’s fascinating to see how different careers get you involved in different kinds of research.

  7. Margot, I’m not familiar with research in crime fiction, which is an interesting theme-post. However, among authors, I know the amount of time Frederick Forsyth, (the late) Tom Clancy, and John le Carre invest in research for their thrillers, as evident in nearly all their books.

    • Thank you, Prashant, for bringing another dimension to this discussion. You are right that crime and thriller writers (well, all thoughtful writers, actually) do research as they plan their books. That extra work makes the books all the more credible.

  8. Peter May’s Coffin Road is full of the scientific research into what’s killing European bees, and he’s turned that into a murder mystery by applying the results of the research to one of the researchers. I enjoyed it. Might be more because of my science background than my crime writing – but I doubt it.

    • I’m glad you mentioned Coffin Road, Peter. That is a really strong example of what I had in mind with this post. I’m glad you’ve filled in that gap. May is one of those people who can write about research, and still keep the focus on the mystery, and I really respect that about him.

  9. Col

    The Collini Case and The Sea Detective are on the pile to be read at some point. I think introducing “research” as a thread in crime fiction can be interesting, but sometimes (no examples I’m afraid) a bit too much technical information on a subject can be off-putting.

    • You have a point, Col. In a good story, the focus is on the plot and characters and so on. Too much distraction from that, including a lot of technical information, takes away from the story. I hope you’ll enjoy both The Collini Case and The Sea Detective. They’re very different to each other, but both solid stories.

  10. Prashant mentioned John le Carre – I had thought of his shocking thriller The Constant Gardener, with its plot about medical research and pharmaceutical companies. And le Carre is very firm that his plot is simple and innocent compared with the real-life goings on in those companies.

    • And he’s likely telling the truth about that, Moira. There’s a lot that goes on in those companies that we don’t know about. I’m really glad you reminded me of that story. It’s a good example of what I had in mind with this post.

  11. I enjoy the research very much, probably too much: it’s fun and eventually becomes an end in itself and conveniently allows me to procrastinate from writing the novel, which is more like real work…:-)

    • 😆 I know just what you mean, Bryan!! No doubt about it, research has its uses. And in all seriousness, it really is enjoyable to learn about new things, isn’t it? And it makes a story that much more credible.

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