Searching For the Truth*

Any writer will tell you that research plays a role (and sometimes a very important role) in creating a quality novel, story, or article. Research can take a person in any number of directions, too; and I’m sure that, if you’re a writer, you’ve got plenty of good ‘research stories’ to share. I know I do.

Research plays a role in crime fiction, too. After all, you never know what research might turn up. And if it’s something that people would rather keep secret, anything might happen.

For instance, in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night, mystery novelist Harriet Vane returns to her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, to participate in the school’s Gaudy Dinner and the accompanying festivities. A few months later, she’s asked to go back to Shrewsbury. It seems that several distressing things have been going on at the school, and the administrators don’t want the police involved, if that’s possible. There’ve been anonymous threatening notes, vandalism, and more. Vane agrees, and goes under the guise of doing research for a new novel. In the process, she turns up some things that someone does not want revealed; and it nearly costs her her life. Lord Peter Wimsey joins Vane to help find out the truth, and, together, they discover who and what are behind the disturbing occurrences.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse gets involved in some research in The Wench is Dead. In that novel, he’s laid up with a bleeding ulcer. With not much else to do, he reads a book he’s been given, Murder on the Oxford Canal, about the 1859 murder of Joanna Franks on a canal boat. At the time, two men were arrested, convicted, and executed. But, as Morse reads and considers the case, he begins to believe that those men were not guilty. With help from Sergeant Lewis and Bodleian librarian Christine Greenaway, Morse looks into the case again, and finds out the truth about the long-ago murder.  You’re absolutely right, fans of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time.

Deadly Appearances is the first in Gail Bowen’s series featuring Joanne Kilbourn Shreve. As the series begins, she is an academician and political scientist. So, she’s well aware of the importance and value of research. One afternoon, she attends a community picnic at which her friend, Androu ‘Andy’ Boychuk, is to make an important speech. He’s been selected to lead Saskatchewan’s provincial Official Opposition Party, and has a bright political future ahead of him. Tragically, he collapses and dies just after beginning his speech. It’s soon shown that he was poisoned. Kilbourn grieves the loss of her friend and political ally, and decides to write his biography. The more she researches for the book, the more she learns about Boychuk. And that knowledge leads her to the truth about his murder – and to some real personal danger.

Paddy Richardson’s Rebecca Thorne is a Wellington-based journalist. Her career, of course, involves quite a lot of background research, as any credible story has to be supported. In Cross Fingers, Thorne is working on an exposé documentary about dubious land developer Denny Graham. She’s lined up interviews with people who claim he’s duped them, and she’s been trying to get information from Graham’s people, too, to be as fair as she can. Then, her boss asks her to change her focus, and do a story on the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Springboks’ 1981 tour of New Zealand. At the time, apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa, and a lot of New Zealanders protested the government’s decision to invite the Springboks. On the other hand, the police needed to keep order, and rugby fans just wanted to see some good matches. The result was a set of violent clashes between protestors and police. Thorne is reluctant to do that story. For one thing, she wants to do her interviews for the Graham story before his victims lose their nerve. For another, she doesn’t see that there’s any new angle on the rugby tour story. Still, her boss insists, and Thorne gets to work. Then, as she does research on the tour, she finds a story of interest. It seems that two dancers dressed as lambs went to several of the games and entertained the fans. Then, they stopped attending. Thorne wants to know what happened to The Lambs, so she starts researching. She learns that one of them was murdered one night, and his killer never caught. The case nags at her, especially when it becomes clear that several people do not want her to find out the truth.

And then there’s Martin Edwards’ Daniel Kind. He’s an Oxford historian whose work gained him not just academic plaudits but also a lot of popular appeal. Burnt out from being a well-known TV personality, Kind moved to the Lake District and more or less dropped out of media sight. He still writes, gives lectures, and so on, though. And he’s still interested in research. His research findings are often very helpful to the Cumbria Constabulary’s Cold Case Review Team, led by DCI Hannah Scarlett. Since her team’s focus is on older cases that are re-opened, she finds Kind’s historical perspective useful and informative. For example, Kind’s research on Thomas de Quincey proves to be key in both The Serpent Pool and The Hanging Wood.

There are other fictional sleuths, too, such as Christine Poulson’s Cassandra James, and Sarah R. Shaber’s Simon Shaw, who do research as a part of their lives. Those skills serve them very well when it comes to sleuthing, too (right, fans of Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway?).

Research skills – knowing how to pose questions, look for information, weigh its value, and come to conclusions – are important in a lot of professions. And they can certainly add to a crime novel.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Edwyn Collins.


Filed under Christine Poulson, Colin Dexter, Dorothy L. Sayers, Elly Griffiths, Gail Bowen, Josephine Tey, Martin Edwards, Paddy Richardson, Sarah R. Shaber

14 responses to “Searching For the Truth*

  1. I feel I should be able to think of tons of examples for this subject but my mind appears to have turned to mush – well, it’s the weekend. Never mind – I enjoyed your examples anyway! 😀

  2. In Catriona McPherson’s The Child Garden, the heroine works as a Registrar of Births Marriages and Deaths. She uses the resources of her post to find out what happened to a group of people whose fate she is tracking. It’s a great way to research that, and there are all kinds of possibilities where crime stories are concerned – I’m hoping McPherson might bring back the character!

    • Oh, that’s a great example of exactly what I had in mind with this post, Moira. Thanks for that. And thanks for reminding me of McPherson’s work. She is talented.

  3. A great mixture here Margot and one that brings us armchair detectives closer together 😀 I remember really liking that aspect of Ellery Queen’ s THE MURDERER IS A FOX.

  4. Margot: Every lawyer who goes to court is researching every day with regard to the evidence to be presented and the law to be applied. Most often the research is used in some form of brilliant cross-examination made most famous in the Perry Mason. More realistic are the cases where diligent research provides a pivotal argument. An example involves lawyer Nancy Parrish in Stray Bullets by Robert Rotenberg. She carefully examines the forensic evidence to prove the Crown’s theory of how and where bullets were fired is wrong.

    • Thanks, Bill, both for the examples and for the legal perspective. You’re absolutely right, of course, about the vital importance of research in making any legal case hold up. And that research figures in novels like the Rotenberg as well as others (I’m thinking, for instance, of Ferdinand con Schirach’s The Collini Case). No doubt about it: research can make or break a legal case.

  5. Margot, this was an interesting theme and I enjoyed reading your examples of research in crime fiction. As a former journalist, I have spent more time doing research for an article than actually sitting down and typing it out. Even now, I do a lot of research (even when it’s not required) for content I write for PR clients; more out of habit, I guess. The problem with research is not knowing when to stop reading up, for the more you read up, the more you’re likely to be overwhelmed by all that information.

    • Thank you, Prashant, for the kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You’re right, too, about how much research it takes to do a project well, whether it’s a news story, a PR campaign, an academic article, or something else. Sometimes that background information does get overwhelming, doesn’t it? I’ve also found that it can be difficult to decide what’s important (and therefore, needs to be followed up), and what’s, perhaps, merely interesting (and might catch your eye, but isn’t necessarily relevant).

  6. Research as an element in crime novels is interesting when done well. Sometimes it can be tedious. One book that I remember having that element is The Mask of Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler, where Charles Latimer is researching the career of Dimitrios.

    • I’m glad you mentioned that one, Tracy I keep meaning to spotlight an Eric Ambler novel, and haven’t yet. Thanks for jogging my memory about that. In the meantime, you’re absolutely right that the research element in novels has to be done effectively, or it can get tiresome.

  7. Col

    Brain freeze here, though Moira reminds me of a book I only read a few months back! I’ll read Gaudy Night one day!

    • There are so many good books I’ve yet to read, Col, I know just exactly what you mean! If you do get the chance to read Gaudy Night, I hope you’ll enjoy it.

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