Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Sleuthing 101

Alexander McCall Smith’s sleuth, Precious Ramotswe, starts her detective agency with a great deal of help from The Principles of Private Detection, by Clovis Anderson. She often turns to this book for lessons in successful sleuthing, although she sometimes finds that the book doesn’t answer all of her questions. Most sleuths, though, don’t have a book to help them learn. Most of the time, they learn from their own experience or the experiences of others. Fictional sleuths can teach us a lot about mysteries and sleuthing, so I thought it might be interesting to take a look at some of the lessons they can offer.

1. Suspect everyone.

That’s one of the maxims by which Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot lives, and he finds it to be most useful. One reason this is such a useful lesson is that, as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, anyone might be a killer, and therefore, no-one is above suspicion. For example, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot investigates the stabbing death of wealthy Roger Ackroyd. All of the members of his household come under suspicion, and it’s only because Poirot doesn’t assume that anyone is telling him the full truth that he’s able to find out who the real killer is.

An open mind is also the reason that Ellery Queen is able to find out who killed John Levering Benedict III, a wealthy playboy whose home he visits in The Last Woman in His Life. Benedict is murdered one night by a blow to the head, and there are several suspects. His three ex-wives, his attorney, and his attorney’s secretary are staying with him, and all of them have motives. Queen doesn’t depend on what everyone says to him; he depends on what the clues tell him and that’s the reason he’s able to figure out who killed Benedict.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse almost makes the mistake of forgetting this lesson occasionally, but he remembers it in time to close his cases. For instance, in The Jewel That Was Ours, Morse and Lewis investigate the murder of Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean Museum, and the theft of the Wolvercote Tongue, part of a priceless Saxon belt buckle that was to be donated to the Ashmolean. At first, Morse draws the wrong conclusion about who’s responsible for Kemp’s murder, but in the end, because he doesn’t assume that anyone’s been telling him the truth, he’s willing to believe new evidence that Sergeant Lewis. That new evidence leads Morse to the real killer.

2. Appearances are deceiving

Of course it’s important to pay attention to the evidence, and not necessarily to believe what people say. Especially in today’s world, forensic and other evidence can be very helpful in identifying killers. But successful sleuths also know that evidence can be manufactured and that very often, things are not what they seem.

Precious Ramotswe finds this out in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. One of the cases she’s asked to investigate is the case of Dr. Komoti, who works at the local hospital. The problem with Dr. Komoti is that he’s extremely inconsistent. Sometimes, he shows remarkable skill at what he does. At other times, he borders on dangerous. When a supervisor at the hospital asks Mma. Ramotswe to find out what’s behind the doctor’s odd behavior, she discovers that the solution lies in deceptive appearances.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot tries to teach this lesson to Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté in The Murder on the Links, in which they investigate the stabbing death of Paul Renauld, a Canadian who’s emigrated to the French village of Merlinville. Early in the investigation, Poirot finds a rusty-looking metal pipe to which he calls Giraud’s attention. Giraud completely dismisses this vital evidence because it doesn’t fit his theory. Poirot tries to tell Giraud that a clue of that size is as important as a much tinier clue, but Giraud doesn’t listen, and draws exactly the wrong conclusion about who killed Paul Renauld.

Deceptive appearances are also behind the arrest of Steven Pengelly in Carole Sutton’s Ferryman. Pengelly was involved with Angela Dupont, a beautiful young woman through whom he found and bought his beloved sailboat. One day, Angela disappears. Although her body isn’t found, there’s blood on Steven’s boat, and that, plus other evidence, gets him arrested and convicted of her murder. Two years later, Angela’s body washes up in Cornwall’s Fal Estuary. An autopsy shows that she’s only been dead a few week; what’s more, it’s shown that she was killed while Pengelly was in prison, so he couldn’t have killed her. It’s now clear that the evidence that convicted Pengelly was manufactured to frame him for her murder.

3. Everyone has something to hide.

Agatha Christie’s Poirot states exactly this in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Shortly after Ackroyd is murdered, Poirot gathers everyone concerned in the murder and asks them if there’s anything they want to tell him. When no-one responds, he takes this as a tacit agreement that he’s right, and everyone is hiding something. As it turns out, he is correct; everyone concerned in this case has at least one secret, and Poirot ends up finding out all of them. We find this same theme in many other Christie novels as well.

Everyone also has things to hide in K.C. Constantine’s The Blank Page, his first Mario Balzic mystery. In that novel, Balzic, chief of the local police in Rocksburg, Pennsylvania, investigates the murder of Janet Pisula, a student at the local community college. As he interviews Janet’s fellow students, family members and professors, he finds out that practically everyone (including Janet herself) is hiding something. As it turns out, Janet’s murderer is hiding more than just the fact of being a killer.

Sometimes, secrets are the reason the victim is killed. That’s what happens in Tony Hillerman’s Dance Hall of the Dead, in which Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn investigates the disappearance of George Bowlegs, a Navajo teen who’s suspected of killing his friend Ernesto Cata. When Bowlegs is found murdered, it’s clear that this is much more than a case of an argument gone horribly wrong. Leaphorn finds out that most of the people involved in the case aren’t telling everything they know. In fact, it’s precisely because the two teens discovered someone’s secret that they are killed.

4. Sleuthing can be dangerous.

Just ask the many fictional sleuths who are nearly killed as they investigate murders. Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum, for instance, is a bounty hunter. She’s often pursuing people who are willing to do nearly anything – including killing Stephanie – to avoid getting caught. For instance, in To The Nines, Plum’s assigned to find Samuel Singh, an Indian who disappeared after Plum’s cousin Vinnie signed a visa bond for him. Plum and her team, Ranger and Lula, go after Singh and find out that he’s involved in a much more tangled plot than anyone imagined. As Stephanie tracks Singh down, she’s shot at by a poisoned dart, threatened with sinister flowers and nasty Emails, and captured by the killer, who’s closer to insanity than anyone realized.

Rita Mae Brown’s Mary Minor “Harry” Haristeen also has a habit of getting herself into real trouble as she investigates, and that’s a constant problem for Sheriff Rick Shaw and Deputy Cynthia Cooper, who try to protect Harry from herself. For instance, in Wish You Were Here, Harry is on the trail of a murderer who’s killed two very successful businessmen. The closer she gets to the connection between the deaths (and thus, the killer), the more dangerous life becomes for her. In the end, Harry is trapped with Deputy Cooper in a cave where they’ve found concrete evidence of the killer’s identity, and it’s only through a few strokes of luck and Harry and Cooper’s quick-wittedness that they escape.

Even Hercule Poirot, who typically eschews chasing after criminals in the stereotypical way, gets himself in trouble now and again. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Poirot and the local police investigate the strangling murder of Arlena Stuart Marshall, a beautiful actress with a notorious reputation. Towards the end of the novel, Poirot identifies the killer, who’s among other people in the room when Poirot explains how the murder was accomplished. Unexpectedly, the killer lunges for Poirot and almost strangles him as well. In The Big Four, Poirot and Hastings uncover a sinister plot by four master-criminals. Once the group realizes that Poirot is close to the truth, he becomes a target; only his disappearance and supposed death save him. Hastings himself is kidnapped and only escapes with Poirot’s help because he’s able to warn Poirot of the danger to them both.

These are, of course, only a few examples of the lessons that fictional sleuths can teach us about the art of detection. What lessons have your favorite sleuths taught you?


  1. I like the third rule - everyone has something to hide. I really think that is true in real life and in most books. People don't like to be open pages even if what they are hiding is for the most part benign.
    Thanks for sharing this post.

  2. Cassandra - You have a well-taken point. Most of us keep things to ourselves, and it's perfectly natural that fictional characters would, too. As you say, what a character hides may have nothing to do with the murder, and in fact, may be something silly and embarrassing. Still, we all keep certain things private, and so do many characters.

  3. This was absolutely wonderful! You made such excellent points. Poor old Morse, his downfall is often a woman. And it's funny because really he couldn't be married or live with anyone. :<) You might add Hathaway to your assistants, though he isn't in a book, just in the television Inspector Lewis series. He'd get my vote.

  4. Nan - Thanks so much for the kind words : ). You are right that Morse is often side-tracked by a woman. It is ironic, isn't it, given that even he knows he's not exactly prime "husand" material. It certainly makes him more human : ).

    Thanks, also, for the comment about Hathaway. I usually think in terms of books rather than television series, but he would no doubt be a very popular choice for assistant!