Yesterday I mentioned concrete evidence such as footprints and DNA; today, I'm focusing more on what people say. Witnesses and suspects add spice to a good mystery. They can be fascinating characters, and their interactions and inter-relationships can form a gripping undercurrent to a novel. In Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer stories and some of the other hardboiled detective stories, the sleuth often gets the truth from suspects and witnesses either through intimidation or threats. Ellery Queen has more finesse; he observes, asks questions and makes deductions based on what people say. When witnesses are wrong or lie, he figures that out because what he's told doesn't fit in with the rest of the pattern. A classic example of Ellery Queen's combination of logic, finesse and the testimony of witnesses is in The Last Woman in His Life. In the novel, Queen investigates the death of John Levering Benedict III, who's apparently been murdered by one of his three ex-wives. Each of the three suspects asserts her innocence and blames another, and Queen has to sift through what they say and the scant physical evidence. I won't spoil the novel if you haven't read it; suffice it to say that the physical evidence is deceptive, and Queen has to make use of what he's told as much as anything else to solve the murder.
What sort of mystery do you prefer? Do you find yourself engaged in novels where the evidence comes mostly from talking to suspects and witnesses? Do you think it's more important to have physical evidence? What should the balance be?