Wednesday, October 7, 2009

...But Does it Fit Well?

In most murder mysteries, there’s a sleuth who investigates the crime. Sometimes the sleuth is “official;” other times the sleuth is an amateur. Either kind of sleuth can make for an exciting, well-written mystery. Whether or not the sleuth is “official” isn’t nearly as important to a good mystery as whether the sleuth’s methods are a good fit for the context of the story and for the sleuth him- or herself. In the best mysteries, the sleuth uses his or her particular talent, background knowledge, and sometimes, connections to solve the crime.

“Official” sleuths, such as Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford, have the force of law at their disposal. What separates those sleuths from “average” police investigating crimes (among other things) is that they have the ability to put together the “pieces of the puzzle,” too. They have quite different personalities, but they both use their skill at seeing patterns and putting together disparate clues.

Not all sleuths have “official” status. Amateur sleuths who don’t have the force of law at their disposal have to use other means to find out the truth, but those fits between a sleuth’s particular skills and the crime at hand can make for very effective mysteries. A classic example of this kind of fit is Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has made a careful study of many different kinds of physical evidence. For instance, he’s studied cigar and cigarette ash, different kinds of mud and the effects of different chemicals. He’s not a member of the police force (quite the contrary!), so he can’t use “official status” to investigate. He’s also not particularly skilled socially, although members of the highest social classes come to him for help. So he doesn’t ingratiate himself with people. What he uses – and it’s an effective fit for the kinds of mysteries Conan Doyle wrote – are his astounding observational skills and his deep knowledge.

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is also a very good example of a sleuth whose methods are a perfect fit for his personality, background and environment. Wimsey isn’t “official,” so, like Sherlock Holmes, he can’t use the force of law to solve crimes. However, Wimsey is “well-born,” so he moves in very high social circles. He uses this background in novels such as Clouds of Witness, where Wimsey’s brother is arrested for the murder of his sister’s fiancé. He uses his Oxford background in Gaudy Night, as he helps Harriet Vane find out who’s been sending her poison-pen letters and who’s been playing malicious pranks at her Oxford reunion.
Like Wimsey, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple has no “official” status. She uses her extensive knowledge of human nature to solve crimes. She’s learned about human nature from the people who live in her village of St. Mary Mead. Miss Marple is an elderly spinster who appears “fluffy” on the surface. She also uses that appearance – and quite adroitly - to find out information. In the same way, Christie’s other most famous sleuth, Hercule Poirot, uses his foreign-ness. Neither sleuth seems threatening, so suspects reveal much more in conversation than they think they do. In novels such as The Moving Finger (Miss Marple) and Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (Poirot), we see clear examples of how these sleuths put suspects at ease and then use their sharp intelligence and astute observation to solve the crime.

Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee, and to a lesser extent, Joe Leaphorn, are extremely interesting sleuths in terms of the methods they use to solve crimes. Both have “official” status as members of the Navajo Tribal Police. They use that status to get some information (e.g. background records on suspects). They are both also members of the Navajo Nation; Chee in particular feels this connection. They use that cultural knowledge, too, to find much of the information they need to solve cases. Skinwalkers, People of Darkness and Coyote Waits are solid examples of their use of Navajo tradition and lore and Navajo ways, especially when Chee and Leaphorn interview witnesses and suspects. Hillerman also created a semi-regular character in the series, Cowboy Dashee, who’s a member of the Hopi Nation. His Hopi background adds to Chee’s and Leaphorn’s cultural knowledge and gives them valuable information in novels such as The Dark Wind and, especially, Sacred Clowns.

Some sleuths, while they aren’t law enforcers, do have specialized knowledge that’s an effective fit for the kinds of mysteries they investigate. For instance, I’ve enjoyed reading the Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear Anasazi series, which features archeologist Dr. Maureen Cole. Cole uses her background in archeology and forensics to connect past crimes to current mysteries. She is also a member of the Seneca Nation, and her knowledge of that culture gives her insight into some Native American cultural practices; that knowledge helps her, too. In the early Cat Who… mysteries, Lilian Jackson Braun’s Jim Qwilleran uses his background and status as a reporter to put together the puzzle pieces. He’s skilled at finding out information and asking the right questions. Many people argue that that particular series has long since fallen apart; in the early novels, though, the reader can see clearly the fit between Qwilleran’s skills and background and the kinds of mysteries he investigates.

My own Joel Williams doesn’t have “official” status – any more. He’s a former police detective-turned professor who teaches at a university in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. Williams can’t use the force of law to find answers, although he works closely with the local police. What he can and does use is his knowledge of university life. He finds out information through his connections with various people at the university where he teaches. He also uses his background in law enforcement to observe closely, to make sense of what he learns, and to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

What about your favorite sleuth? What’s the fit between his or her particular knowledge or background and the kind of mysteries he or she investigates?


  1. I read a lot of police procedurals--mostly because they're different from my WIPs and I won't pick them apart as much when I read them. I love Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley. He, of course, does have help from the police lab, etc, but uses his brain to solve puzzles. I appreciate the dynamics between the well-bred Lynley, who inspires the trust of wealthy suspects, and his sergeant, Barbara Havers, who approaches puzzles from another perspective.

    Great post, Margot! Very thought-provoking.

    Mystery Writing is Murder

  2. Elizabeth - You make a good point about Inspector Lynley! I like it, too, when detectives work with people who have different skills and approaches. It makes for a broader perspective on the mystery and an interesting relationship between the sleuths. Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn and Sergeant Fox Fox are like that. So are Caroline Graham's Inspector Tom Barnaby and his Sergeant Troy.

  3. Another vote for Inspector Lynley; but I worship at Elizabeth George's alter. My poor detective has a background in Intelligence from his service in WWI. He is pressed into service when the murder occurs. He is a wonderful observer (he paints watercolours) and finds the foibles of human nature endlessly fascinating.


  4. typo....lovely. Ignore my humiliation.


  5. Elspeth - I know what you mean about typos. I've noticed more than one of them on my blog posts - *after* I've posted them *sigh*.

    I agree with you, too, that Elizabeth George's work is really fine. I'm glad you and Elizabeth brought her writing up, because Inspector Lynley is a great example of what I had in mind when I was thinking about how sleuths use their specific skills to suss out the truth.

    Your own sleuth sounds like an interesting character,, too! He sounds many-layered and as though he brings lots of interesting background to the cases he investigates. I like that.

  6. I find I like police procedurals more than the amateur sleuths - partly it's because I enjoy that sense of teamwork, I think. My favorites include P.D. James' Dalgliesh, Elizabeth George's Lynley, Rendall's Wexford and Reginald Hill's Dalziel and Pascoe. (I see there's a British theme gong on with my choices!)

    I also quite like Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe, too - and again, there's that sense of teamwork, because it's never just Wolfe, it's always Wolfe and Goodwin. And of course, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot are old favorites.

  7. Ms. Bookish - You mentioned a few of my favorite police sleuths! I, too, really enjoy Rendell's Wexford and Stout's Nero Wolfe. In those cases (thanks for bringing up teamwork, by the way!), each member of the sleuth pair relies on the other's skill. Nero and Goodwin is a really classic example of that. Wexford and Fox also rely on each other, and each has his own set of skills. The beauty of that is that the author can bring a wide set of skills to bear on a problem.