Category Archives: Adrian Hyland

Speak Your Mind*

Political DissentEven the best-intentioned people don’t always agree on the choices their countries should make. There are a lot of issues, too, that don’t have easy solutions. That’s part of the reason for which there is political dissent. That dissent takes different forms, depending on the kind of government that’s in power, and the issue. But whatever form it takes, political dissent and debate can move a society forward when it’s productive.  That aspect of it is essential. And of course, political dissent can make for a very effective context for crime fiction; after all, there’s plenty of conflict and tension to be had in political debates and dissent.

In Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, Sir Derek O’Callaghan has written an Anarchy Bill, specifically directed against leftist revolutionaries and their activities. It’s not a settled matter whether the Bill will be accepted, and it’s interesting to consider the question of whether such legislation squelches freedom of expression or keeps society safer. One day during a speech in the House, Sir Derek collapses due to a ruptured appendix and is rushed to a nearby nursing home run by his longtime physician Sir John Phillips. He survives the surgery, but dies later of what turns out to be an overdose of hyoscine. Chief Detective Inspector Roderick Alleyn and Inspector Fox investigate and soon determine that this death was not accidental. As they sift through the evidence and consider all the possibilities, they certainly can’t ignore the fact that the victim had written a controversial bill…

Agatha Christie’s short story The Kidnapped Prime Minister begins when Hercule Poirot gets a visit from the Leader of the House of Commons and a member of the War Cabinet. Prime Minister David MacAdam was on his way to Paris to make an important speech when he was apparently abducted. At this time, World War II is imminent, and there’s a real question as to what Britain’s stance out to be. You’ll know from your history that there was a debate between those who wanted to avoid war, even if it meant appeasement, and those who wanted to oppose Hitler, although it would mean war. MacAdam’s speech is crucial in this debate. He intends a ‘rally the troops’ speech in the hope of cementing support for his anti-Hitler stance. But plenty of his political opponents want to move the country in the other direction. Poirot and Captain Hastings get to work right away; in the end, they find out exactly what happened to MacAdam.

Sulari Gentill’s A Few Right Thinking Men is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression. Millions of people are out of work, and times are desperate. The question of what to do is not an easy one, and there’s a lot of debate. There’s also a lot of interest in political factions that promise solutions. Rowland ‘Rowly’ Sinclair and his brother Wilfred are members of a wealthy ‘blueblood’ New South Wales family, so they haven’t personally suffered as a result of the Depression. But they’re certainly aware of it. When their uncle is murdered, Rowly gets involved in the political dissent about what Australia’s future should be. He comes to suspect that an ultra-Right group called The New Guard might be responsible for his uncle’s death. This group, led by Colonel Eric Campbell, believes that Australia will do best with a government run by ‘right thinking men’ who maintain traditional ways of life and the current class order. Rowly infiltrates this group, hoping to find out who, exactly, committed the murder. This puts him in real danger from the Left (among which group he has friends), who will consider him a traitor if they find out he’s joined the New Guard. At the same time as he’s trying to find out who killed his uncle, Rowly also has to negotiate the various political factions who want to further their causes.

Gail Bowen’s Joanne Kilbourn Shreve is a political scientist and, before retiring, an academician. So she’s no stranger to political debate, and steps into the political fray more than once in the series. She’s frequently involved in Saskatchewan (and national) politics. In fact, in one story arc in this series, she becomes a panelist on a NationTV show called Canada Today. The show features debate on current issues, and includes commentators from across the political spectrum. It figures in a few novels in this series.

Alan Orloff’s Deadly Campaign has as its backdrop Edward Wong’s campaign for a seat in the U.S. Congress. His opponent in the upcoming election will be the incumbent, Sanford Korbell. One evening, a group of thugs disrupts a celebration event at a restaurant owned by one of Wong’s uncles, Thomas Lee. Rather than call in the police, Lee asks his friend Channing Hayes, co-owner of a nearby comedy club, to ask a few questions and find out if anyone local is responsible. When other members of Wong’s family find out about this, they warn Hayes to leave the matter alone. But Lee is determined to find out what happened, and Hayes feels he has little choice to go along. One distinct possibility is that Korbell arranged the attack at the celebration, so Hayes visits Korbell’s headquarters as a part of his search for the truth, and we learn a bit about his political positions as opposed to Wong’s. I can say without spoiling the story that the answer to what is right for Northern Virginia (which is where the novel takes place) isn’t the reason for the attack, or for the murders that take place later in the novel. But it does form an interesting thread of tension in the novel.

And then there’s Ian Rankin’s Saints of the Shadow Bible, which takes place during the debate leading up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Rebus fans will know that he’s not at all a political animal. In fact, in one funny scene, he turns off his car radio during a broadcast about the Yes/No debate, preferring to listen to a CD of the band Spooky Tooth. But the debate is woven throughout the story. In one plot thread, for instance, Justice Minister Patrick McCusky, ‘the face of the Yes movement,’ faces embarrassment as his son may have been responsible for a car crash from which he later fled. Matters get worse when the Justice Minister is found dead, apparently as the result of a housebreaking gone wrong. The ‘No’ campaign is facing its own problems. Prominent business leader and ‘No’ advocate Stefan Gilmour could very well have been involved in obstructing a murder investigation against Billy Saunders. That case is more than thirty years old, but it could still come back to haunt Gilmour. It will if internal affairs copper Malcolm Fox has his way. He wants to re-open that case, and he won’t lose any sleep if Rebus, who was a young constable at the time, gets caught in the net. The debate about independence certainly isn’t Rebus’ focus, but it forms a fascinating backdrop to the novel.

Political debate and dissent aren’t always pleasant. In fact, they can be polemical. But that clash of ideas can be the basis from which we move forward.

 

On Another Note…

I’d like to wish a Happy Canada Day to all Canadians. Erm – sorry if there’s extra noise from down here. We’re gearing up for a major election next year, and the rhetoric/polemic/name-calling/mudslinging debate has already started…

 

 
 

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

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Agatha Christie, Alan Orloff, Gail Bowen, Ngaio Marsh, Sulari Gentill

A Matter of Trust*

Rebuilding TrustOne of the most difficult things to do, especially for people who’ve been betrayed, is to learn to trust (or trust again). After all, why should you trust if you’ve already seen what can happen? The tension caused by the instinct not to trust, whether or not it’s warranted, can add an awful lot to a novel. And it is a natural human reaction, so it can also add a layer of credibility to a character. There are myriad novels that make use of this plot thread; I’ll just mention a few.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson, who is Black, is accused of raping Mayella Ewell, who is White. He says that he is innocent, but that doesn’t count for much in the small-town Alabama community where he lives. Robinson has no reason at all to trust his lawyer Atticus Finch, if you think about it. Finch is White, and Robinson has learned the hard way to be wary of Whites. What’s more, Finch is well-connected in the town. If he takes up an unpopular cause like Robinson’s, and gives it more than ‘lip service,’ his law practice (and perhaps much more) is at risk. And yet, the only way to go about this case is for Finch and Robinson to trust each other. It’s awkward at times, but once each man is able to have some faith in the other, the case moves forward.

Malla Nunn’s work discusses similar issues of trust. This series ‘stars’ Emmanuel Cooper, who lives and works in 1950s South Africa, when apartheid was strictly enforced. Even before those laws, there was mistrust among the different ethnic groups in that country; in this series, we see how that mistrust has hardened as a result of the laws. Cooper is White, and a police officer. So it’s easy to see why non-Whites don’t trust him at all, at least at first. Why should they? He is also not completely trusted by the Afrikaners he encounters, because his background is English. As he investigates cases, Cooper has to work very hard to negotiate the deep layers of mistrust he encounters. It takes time, but he demonstrates that he can be trusted. And slowly, he develops contacts in several different ethnic groups. He’s able to penetrate the superficial ‘face’ that people put on in the presence of those they cannot trust.

We also see the slow development of a kind of trust in Giles Blunt’s Forty Words For Sorrow. When a body is discovered in an abandoned mine on Windigo Island, John Cardinal of the Algonquin Bay (Ontario) Police investigates. To his dismay, the body is identified as thirteen-year-old Katie Pine, who disappeared five months earlier. Cardinal took the lead in searching for her, but wasn’t able to find her. Now he has the thankless job of informing her mother Dorothy that her body has been discovered. His task is made all the more difficult because he wasn’t able to find her daughter until it was far too late. As if that wasn’t enough to make Dorothy mistrust him, there’s another barrier. Cardinal is White, and the Pines are Ojibwa. So Dorothy has very little reason to trust that he will make her case a priority, or that he can be taken at his word. In the end, Cardinal does find out what happened to Katie. It doesn’t make things all fine again, but it justifies some trust in him.

Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest is half White/half Aboriginal. She is trusted and accepted among her mother’s people at the Moonlight Downs encampment, and that helps to give her a place to belong. That matters, too, because in Diamond Dove (AKA Moonlight Downs) and Gunshot Road, we see that she is not trusted, and certainly not respected, amongst several members of the White community. The feeling is most definitely mutual, as Tempest has seen little reason to trust any of the ‘whitefellers.’ In both novels, members of both groups have to learn to trust each other in order to get cases solved. Tempest has to learn that there are some Whites, including her boss Tom McGillivray, who are trustworthy and in whom she can have faith. In turn, her White counterparts have to learn that Tempest can be trusted to do her job as an ACPO (Aboriginal Community Police Officer).

And then there’s Mark Douglas-Home’s The Sea Detective. In one plot thread of that novel, Preeti and Basanti, two young girls from India’s Bedia community, embark on what they hope will be a lucrative adventure. Their families have been paid considerable money, in exchange for which they’ve agreed to become part of the dhanda, one name given to India’s sex trade. They’re both hoping that if they can earn enough from a few years in the trade, they’ll be able to return to their villages and support their families. Things go very, very wrong when they are sent to Scotland, where their services are bought by dangerous people. Once they arrive, they are separated. Basanti manages to escape, and goes looking for her friend, but Preeti has disappeared. Basanti learns that the body of a young woman has been discovered in the sea, and that the victim is most likely Preeti. Basanti’s search for answers leads her to oceanographer Calladh ‘Cal’ McGill, who is an expert on tide patterns. He, too, is interested in the discovery of the body and has gathered a great deal of information about it. In order to trace Preeti’s murder back to her killers, Basanti is going to have to learn to trust Cal, something that’s not easy for her, given what she’s been through. And Cal is going to have to trust this enigmatic young woman. In the end, they are able to work together and get some answers.

In all of these examples, there is every good reason for lack of trust. The only way for these characters to get beyond that barrier is to demonstrate – not just with words, but with sincere action – that they are trustworthy.

The terrible murders in Charleston, South Carolina have got me thinking about this issue of trust and mistrust. The murders themselves are of course, horrible. There is no justification for them, and there are no words, even for a writer, to adequately capture the awful reality of what happened. I hope that the victims’ families and friends are at least a bit comforted by the fact that millions of people, including me, stand with them at this time.

Along with standing by those who mourn, I think we need to consider where we go from here. Tears and sorrow are a part of it all, and they are important. But they are not enough. An already-fragile trust was shattered. Now, at least in my opinion, we need to take proactive, meaningful steps – steps that go beyond rhetoric – to deserve trust again. It will be awkward, difficult and painful. It will require soul-searching that will hurt. But in the end, it may spare us something else like this. I hope so.

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Billy Joel song.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Giles Blunt, Harper Lee, Malla Nunn, Mark Douglas-Home

But the Cowboy and the Rancher Knew His Name*

WesternsMany people find a real appeal in what I’ll call Westerns, whether books, film or television. Even if you don’t care for them yourself, you no doubt know that they have a strong following. There are arguably several reasons so many people love Westerns, just as there are a lot of reasons for which people have moved to ‘the wide open spaces.’

One of the allures of Westerns and their settings is the chance to start over in beautiful, open land. We see that, for instance, in Kate Grenville’s The Secret River. It’s 1806, and William Thornhill, his wife Sal and their children have just arrived in Sydney Cove, Sydney, to start their lives over. Thornhill is a former London bargeman who was sentenced to transportation to Australia for stealing wood. He and his family have experienced real poverty in London, so even though transportation is nerve-wracking, it’s also a chance to build new lives. Before very long, Thornhill finds work delivering goods up and down the local waterways; his wife opens a makeshift pub. One day, Thornhill finds a piece of irresistibly beautiful land, and sets about to claim it. And therein lies the problem. People have been living in what is to become New South Wales for many thousands of years, and it’s not long before there are serious, even bloody and brutal, conflicts between the two groups. Grenville doesn’t make light of the crimes committed in the name of new land and new opportunities. At the same time, we see just how tempting that land can be.

Even today, people are drawn to the prospects of open land, the chance to put the past behind, and the opportunity to start all over. That’s arguably part of what makes Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire series popular. It’s also, of course, highly regarded as a well-written set of novels. But as we learn about the characters, we see a pattern of people who’ve chosen to live in Absaroka County, Wyoming because it’s beautiful, because it gives them a chance to build their own kinds of lives, and because the open land appeals to them. For instance, Longmire’s deputy Victoria ‘Vic’ Moretti is originally from Philadelphia, where she served as a police officer. She’s had her share of ups and downs in life, but she’s found a certain kind of contentment if you will in Absaroka County. Philadelphia may at times offer more conveniences, but Moretti has chosen to start over in the west. I know, I know, fans of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett series and of Margaret Coel’s Wind River series…

‘Going West’ offers other kinds of opportunities too. As you’ll no doubt know, many people have taken the risks involved in starting over because of the discovery of gold and other precious metals. Vicki Delany’s historical Klondike series, set during the Klondike Gold Rush, has this theme as a backdrop. These novels feature Savoy Dance Hall owner Fiona MacGillivray, who’s originally from Scotland. She’s got a past that she’d just as well leave behind, and a teenage son Angus. Together, they’ve started over in Dawson, Yukon, just as the area is feeling the full effects of the gold rush. She herself isn’t in search of gold, but she knows that there are a lot of other ways to profit from the surge of newcomers. Taverns, restaurants, food and supply purveyors, dance halls, and of course assayers are all benefiting from the search for riches.

Patricia Stoltey’s Sylvia Thorn isn’t really a westerner. She’s a retired judge who lives in Florida. But in The Desert Hedge Murders, she certainly gets a taste of the Old West. She travels with her mother’s traveling club, the Florida Flippers, on a sightseeing tour to Laughlin, Nevada. The group gets caught up in a case of murder when the body of a dead man is found in the bathroom of one of hotel rooms the club is using. Then, one of the members disappears and is later found dead in an old mine now used as a tourist attraction. As Thorn helps her mother and the rest of the group, she also experiences ghost towns, information about mining and prospecting, and legends. And burros.

For some people, the appeal of Westerns also comes from the ‘good guys v bad guys’ tension. Cattle rustlers, sheriffs, posses, outlaws and so on can tap the desire a lot of us have to see the ‘good guys’ win and the ‘bad guys’ get their due. Of course, it certainly wasn’t that simple; a quick glance at history makes that clear. But for a lot of readers and viewers, there’s a real appeal to following the adventures of ‘larger than life’ characters.

And it’s that sense of adventure that also draws many people to the Western. A lot of series and novels feature the sort of cliffhangers that you might see in old-style Western serials; one of them is Stark Holborn’s Nunslinger series. The protagonist in these stories is Sister Thomas Josephine, a Roman Catholic Vistitandine nun from St. Louis, Missouri. As the series begins, she is making her way to start a new life in Sacramento. Everything changes when the wagon train she’s on is attacked in Wyoming. Left stranded there, Sr. Josephine ends up being falsely accused of murder. She goes on the run and is drawn into all sorts of dangerous situations. Sr. Josephine is definitely not your ‘garden variety’ nun…  I admit I’ve not (yet) read these stories. But I’ve already gotten a solid sense of them from the terrific Col, who blogs at Col’s Criminal Library. You’ll want to check out his great blog and see for yourself why it’s one of my must-visits.

There are also plenty of readers/viewers who are interested in Westerns because they want to know more about the people who have always lived in those areas. Novels that depict the lives of Indigenous people in the West can give readers a window on a fascinating perspective on life. And they fulfil the important role of sharing information that doesn’t always make it to the textbooks. Fans of Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn/Jim Chee series, for instance, will know that those novels depict life in the modern US West/Southwest, often from the point of view of members of the Navajo Nation. Those stories give an important perspective on aspects of Western life such as mining, oil prospecting, and land and water rights. They also share the culture and lifestyle of the people who’ve lived in that area for a very long time.

We also see that perspective in Arthur Upfield’s Napoleon ‘Bony’ Bonaparte novels. Those stories give readers a look at mining, ranching and prospecting in Australia. Very often they feature the point of view of Bony, who is half White/half Aboriginal. So we see several ways of looking at the same places and events. Adrian Hyland’s books feature Emily Tempest, who’s an Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) in Australia’s Northern Territory. Those novels give readers a look at modern life in the ‘great wide open’ parts of Australia.

Whether it’s the myths of the Western or the actual history of settlement, there’s something about the Western in all its forms that can draw people in. Does it have that effect on you? If so, what appeals to you about the Western? If not, what puts you off?

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s The Ballad of Billy the Kid, a song he refers to as ‘completely historically inaccurate.’ Still, for my money, it captures all of the adventure, danger and myth of the Western.

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Arthur Upfield, C.J. Box, Craig Johnson, Kate Grenville, Margaret Coel, Patricia Stoltey, Stark Holborn, Tony Hillerman, Vicki Delany

Same as the Old Boss*

Bad BossesAs I mentioned yesterday, having a supportive, competent boss can make all the difference in your professional world. But not everyone is so fortunate. If you’ve ever had a terrible boss, you know what a nightmare that can be. That kind of work stress can be intolerable.

There are of course plenty of crime-fictional examples of incompetent, non-supportive and even downright malicious, sadistic bosses. Creating these characters can be tricky, since most crime fiction fans don’t want unidimensional characters. Most people, even awful bosses, have at least some redeeming quality. But an annoying (or worse) boss can give the author lots of opportunity for conflict, sub-plots and so on.

Michael Connelly’s LAPD cop Harry Bosch has a boss who certainly makes his life difficult. In The Black Echo, we are introduced to Irvin Irving, then a Deputy Chief. In more than one of the books in this series, Irving shows that he’s self-protective and highly political. He’s also not in the least bit above squelching any honest investigation that may make him or the department look bad. So even those not deeply familiar with this series will be able to guess that he makes life very difficult for Bosch and sometimes represents a real threat to him. Connelly doesn’t give Irving’s character only one facet though. He is competent, and people loyal to him will tell you that he stands up for the police force. But to Bosch, for whom integrity is essential, Irving is part of what’s wrong with the department.

Fans of Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series will know that he is saddled with a dreadful boss, Vice Questore Giuseppe Patta. Patta is a toady to the rich and well-connected. More than that, he’s an ambitious man who’s not above ‘glory-grabbing’ to make his mark. In several novels he interferes with investigations, pulls Brunetti from cases, and in other ways impedes work. Most of the time it’s because he’s being protective both of his own reputation and of those of the rich, powerful people he thinks can do him some good. Brunetti is no fool, though; more than once, he and Patta’s assistant, Signorina Elettra Zorzi, use Patta’s vanity, arrogance and ambition against him.

Martin Edwards’ DCI Hannah Scarlett has a boss, ACC Lauren Self, who isn’t much better. Self is also ambitious, and well aware that moving up into the higher echelons of police power is still easier for men than for women. So she does everything she can to improve her political position. Even Scarlett, who has little but contempt for Self, admits that her boss is very good at getting influential people on her side. She manages the social aspect of police politics quite well. But underneath that exterior, Self can be very malicious, even backstabbing. Certainly she’s not respectful of the people who work for her; nor does she listen to what they tell her about what’s really going on as they investigate. Again, Edwards doesn’t depict Self as one-sided. She does have skills. But she certainly hasn’t endeared herself to her team members.

Sometimes, even when you have a boss you like and respect, things can change if that boss leaves, transfers or is temporarily away. That’s what happens in Katherine Howell’s Web of Deceit. New South Wales Police Detective Ella Marconi likes and respects her usual boss Dennis Orchard. But he’s on a temporary assignment elsewhere, so Brad Langley steps in as acting head of homicide. On the one hand, he knows and follows police procedure, and is competent at what he does. It’s no surprise that he’s been tapped to head this team. On the other hand, he is, as Howell tells us,
 

‘…a numbers man.’
 

He doesn’t use department resources wisely, and he doesn’t listen to the people who work for him. What’s more, he can be publicly rude to his team members, especially when they suggest anything other than what he outlines for them. It’s little wonder Marconi misses Orchard.

Adrian Hyland’s Aboriginal Community Police Officer (ACPO) Emily Tempest also has a very bad experience with a temporary boss. In Gunshot Road, we learn that she’s just begun her duties as an ACPO, and is hoping to work with Tom McGillivray, whom she likes and respects. But when he is badly injured, Tempest is assigned to work with Bruce Cockburn. From the very first, they dislike each other. Cockburn is brusque and disrespectful. He’s sometimes rude and not one to pay much attention to what Tempest says. For his part, Cockburn finds Tempest too much of a maverick and too tactless. So when they investigate the shooting death of former prospector Albert ‘Doc’ Ozolins, they butt heads almost immediately. Matters worsen between them as the novel goes on. Hyland doesn’t depict Cockburn as all bad. Some of the things he says are right, and the points he makes well-taken. He’s not completely incompetent, and Tempest makes her share of mistakes. But Cockburn is certainly not skilled at supervising with any kind of respect.

Camilla Läckberg’s Fjällbacka police detective Patrik Hedström also has an insufferable boss. Bertil Mellberg. Especially in the earlier novels in the series, he is rude, lazy and disrespectful. He is also ambitious, and considers his current assignment to be a ‘backwater.’ His only goal is to be transferred ‘up the pole’ to the bigger and more prestigious police department in Göteborg. Admittedly, as the series evolves, it becomes a little easier to work with Mellberg. He gets a little more responsive to his team and actually does some work on his own. But he’s hardly ‘boss of the year’ material.

If you’ve ever had a ‘nightmare boss,’ you know what an impediment it is. But perhaps some of the really unpleasant fictional bosses will make the ones you’ve had seem a bit better by comparison…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. I couldn’t resist the symmetry…

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Filed under Adrian Hyland, Camilla Läckberg, Donna Leon, Katherine Howell, Martin Edwards, Michael Connelly

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.

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