I’m sure you’ve heard the old expression, ‘When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.’ It comes from the medical field, and refers to an approach to diagnosis. The idea is that the doctor should link symptoms to the most likely diagnosis, rather than look for a very rare diagnosis. Of course, there are people who have rare illnesses, so it’s wise for the doctor to keep an open mind. But looking for the most straightforward explanation can oten be useful.
It’s that way in crime fiction, too. Sometimes, crimes that look very complex really aren’t. So, the wise crime-fictional sleuth keeps an open mind, but tries to focus on the simplest, most straightforward explanation for a crime. It doesn’t always work as a strategy, but it’s generally a solid starting point.
A few of Agatha Christie’s plots focus on murders that are a lot simpler than they seem to be on the surface. In The Clocks, for instance, we meet Colin Lamb, a British agent who’s been tracking a spy ring that may be based in the town of Crowdean. He gets drawn into a case of murder when the body of an unknown man is discovered in a house on a block he’s checking. On the surface of it, the murder looks very complex. The dead man had no connection to the woman who owns the home, and there are four clocks, all set to the wrong time, in the room. None of the clocks belongs to the homeowner, either. Here, though, is what Poirot says about the murder when Lamb brings the case to him:
‘He reflected a moment. ‘One thing is certain,’ he pronounced. ‘It must be a very simple crime.’
‘Simple?’ I demanded in some astonishment.
‘Why must it be simple?’
‘Because it appears so complex.’’
And so it turns out to be. The murder is a simple crime, committed for a simple reason.
In Dorothy L. Sayers’ Have His Carcase, mystery novelist Harriet Vane takes a hiking holiday near the village of Wolvercombe. She gets involved in a case of murder when she discovers the body of an unknown man lying by the sea. He turns out to be Paul Alexis, a professional dancer at a nearby hotel. At first, his murder seems to be quite a complex matter. There’s even a possibility that he might have been mixed up in a Russian political plot, since that’s his background. But in the end, this turns out to be a very simple case. With help from Lord Peter Wimsey, Vane discovers that the killer had a simple motive, and made the death look more complicated than it was. Once that simple motive is found out, so is the murderer.
Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers introduces readers to Ystad detective Kurt Wallander. Late one night, Johannes Lövgren and his wife, Maria, are brutally attacked in their home. Wallander and his team are called in quickly, but not quickly enough to save Johannes. Maria, though, is still alive. She’s rushed to the nearest hospital, where she survives for a short time. Just before she dies, she says the word ‘foreign.’ There’s already anti-immigrant sentiment in the area, and this terrible pair of murders, ostensibly committed by foreigners, only makes matters worse. So, Wallander and his team have to work quickly to find the killer or killers. The only problem is, there seems to be no motive. The victims weren’t wealthy, there was no history of family rancor or dark secrets, and neither victim was mixed up in criminal activity. It seems very complicated on the surface, but in the end, and thanks to a chance discovery, Wallander learns that it’s a very simple crime.
Kel Robertson’s Smoke and Mirrors is the second of his novels to feature Australian Federal Police (AFP) detective Bradman ‘Brad’ Chen. In this story, Chen is taking some time off from work after the incidents of Dead Set. He’s pulled back on duty when the bodies of Alec Dennet and Lorraine Starke are discovered at a Canberra writers’ retreat called Uriarra. Dennet was a member of the 1972-75 Gough Whitlam government, and was at the retreat to work on his memoirs; Starke was his editor. When it’s discovered that the manuscript is missing, Chen and his team immediately suspect that the victims were killed because of what was in it. And that’s not a crazy assumption, since it was said that Dennet was going to share a lot of things that some very highly-placed people don’t want revealed. And, there are other governments involved, too – governments that might find it very useful to have that memoir. It takes a while, but Chen and his team work through all of those layers and get to the very simple truth about the murder.
And then there’s Alexander McCall Smith’s The Good Husband of Zebra Drive. In it, Mma Precious Ramotswe is faced with a difficult case. Her cousin, Tati Monyena, is facing real trouble at the hospital where he works. There’ve been three deaths, all on the same day of the week (during different weeks). And all three patients were on the same bed in the Intensive Care ward when they died. It seems a very complex case (perhaps some airborne pathogen, or contaminated equipment, or….). Monyena is very concerned about the hospital’s reputation, and wants Mma Ramotswe to solve the case as quickly and quietly as she can. She agrees, and looks into the matter. And it turns out that the solution is very simple.
And that’s the thing about some cases. They look very complicated on the surface, and sometimes that’s done on purpose. But underneath, they’re very simple indeed. Which ones have stayed with you?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Paul Simon’s 50 Ways to Leave Your Lover.