Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Whoops! When the Sleuth Slips Up...

The more that crime fiction reflects real life, the more that most mystery lovers enjoy it. We want to identify with the characters, and we want to believe that they could exist. In real life, people make mistakes and are wrong sometimes. It’s the same in well-written crime fiction. When the sleuth is sometimes wrong, and comes to the wrong conclusion, this makes the story that much more believable. It also makes the sleuth more human and therefore, more interesting and engaging. It can also add an interesting level of suspense as the sleuth realizes his or her mistake and at least tries to correct it before it’s too late.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not known for his humility about his deductive powers. Nonetheless, he’s sometimes led to the wrong conclusion – at least at first – and it makes him a more human character. Here are just a few examples. In The Mysterious Affair at Styles, in which Poirot makes his debut, his friend, Captain Hastings, is visiting an old friend, John Cavendish. While he’s there, Cavendish’s stepmother, Emily Inglethorp, is poisoned. Hastings unexpectedly runs into Hercule Poirot, and asks him to help investigate. Mrs. Inglethorp was a wealthy woman, so there are plenty of suspects, including her husband, her two stepsons, and her stepson’s wife. At first, all of the clues and all of the evidence lead Poirot towards a particular suspect. Then, Poirot realizes he’s made a mistake, and is soon on the track of the real killer. Two important plot twists later, Poirot reveals the killer in a dramatic dénouement.

In Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Jane Wilkinson, wife of the 4th Baron Edgware, asks Poirot to help her find a way to get rid of her husband, who refuses to give her divorce. Poirot isn’t sure how he can help, but he agrees to see Lord Edgware. During his visit, Lord Edgware claims that he has no objection to a divorce. Completely surprised, Poirot agrees to take this news to his client, who is elated at the outcome of Poirot’s visit. All seems well, but Poirot is suspicious that there’s more going on here than a misunderstanding about a divorce. His suspicions are justified the next day, when Lord Edgware is murdered. There are plenty of suspects, including Edgware’s daughter, whom he’s tyrannized; his nephew and heir to the title, who’s desperate for money; his wife, who wants to marry someone else; and Carlotta Adams, an American actress who may have reasons of her own for wanting to kill Lord Edgware. Poirot investigates each of the suspects, and comes to a conclusion, but he’s not satisfied, and he knows he must be wrong about at least something. In the meantime, one of the suspects is arrested for the murder, and Poirot reluctantly thinks this might be the killer. A chance remark that Poirot overhears, however, puts him on the right track at last, and he realizes who the killer must be – just in time to save the other suspect.

The Chocolate Box, a short story that appears in Christie’s Poirot’s Early Cases is perhaps the most famous example of Poirot being wrong. In that story, which takes place while Poirot is still on the Belgian police force, Paul Deroulard, a French deputy and widower who’s living in Belgium, dies suddenly one evening after dinner. At first, his death is put down to heart failure, but his wife’s cousin is convinced the death was not natural. She asks Poirot’s help, and he investigates. He finds out that one suspect, Deroulard’s friend and neighbor M. de Saint Alard has a motive (he and Deroulard are on opposite sides of a very controversial political issue regarding the separation of church and state). He had no opportunity, though, to poison Deroulard. John Wilson, another friend of Deroulard, had the opportunity, and evidence is found that he had access to the posion. He, however, has no motive. Thus matters stand as Poirot continues to investigate the case and the other suspects. In the end, he names the wrong killer. It’s then that the real killer confesses to the crime, and Poirot realizes the mistakes that he’s made. Later, he asks Hastings to mention the case if ever he believes that Poirot has gotten too conceited. Needless to say, Poirot does not appreciate it when Hastings takes him at his word.

In several Ellery Queen novels, we also see examples of stories where the sleuth is wrong. In The Fourth Side of the Triangle, for example, Queen and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, investigate the strangling death of Sheila Grey, a famous clothing designer. The major suspects are her lover, wealthy Ashton McKell, his wife Lutetia, who’s found out about her husband’s affair, and their son, Dane, who himself has fallen in love with Sheila. One by one, each of the three suspects’ alibis are found to be unreliable. Moreover, another suspect arises when the Queens discover that Sheila had another lover. The evidence leads Queen towards one of the suspects, and that person is arrested. Then, at the end of the novel, Queen looks at one of the clues again, with proverbial fresh eyes, and realizes he’s made a mistake. The real killer is then named, and confesses to the crime.

A similar thing happens in Ten Days’ Wonder, in which Queen tries to help his friend, Howard Van Horn, get to the bottom of some troubling blackouts he’s had, during which he may have been involved in some horrible crimes. As a part of his investigation, Queen travels to Van Horn’s hometown of Wrightsville, a small New England town. He stays with the Van Horn family, and begins to get to know Van Horn’s father, wealthy Diedrich Van Horn, and Diedrich’s wife Sally, Howard’s stepmother. There’s also Howard’s Uncle Wolfert Van Horn, who’s also involved in the family business. One night, Sally is strangled during one of Howard’s blackouts. Queen investigates the crime, and finds out that there were several suspects, including all of the members of the household. Queen comes to exactly the wrong conclusion about the murder, and that person is arrested. It’s only after a year that Queen realizes how wrong he was, and confronts the real killer.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series also features cases where the sleuth is wrong. In fact, in several Morse novels, he draws the wrong conclusion - at first. For instance, in The Jewel That Was Ours, Morse and Lewis investigate the theft of a famous jewel, the Wolvercote Tongue, and the murder of Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean Museum, who was scheduled to accept the jewel from its donor on behalf of the museum (my review of the book is here). Morse and Lewis find that there were several people who wanted Kemp dead, and Morse’s reasoning leads him in exactly the wrong direction. In fact, it’s not until Lewis ‘phones Morse with conclusive evidence that Morse accepts that he’s got the wrong suspect. Later, Morse re-thinks the case and realizes who the real killer is, and confronts the killer in an almost Christie-like revelation.

In Martin Edwards’ The Cipher Garden, Oxford history don Daniel Kind and DCI Hannah Scarlett, each in a different way, become involved in investigating the murder of landscaper Warren Howe. Howe’s wife, Tina, was originally suspected of the murder, but she had an alibi, so the police couldn’t make an arrest. Scarlett gets her Cold Case Review Team involved when the police receive an anonymous note years later that accuses Tina of the crime. Howe was an abusive and unpleasant philanderer, so there is a list of suspects. Scarlett and Kind piece together the past, and each comes up, at least at first, with the wrong solution to the crime. It’s a realization of Kind’s that finally puts the sleuths on the right track, but not before other deaths occur.

In M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Bore, Lochdubh Constable Hamish Macbeth investigates the murder of John Heppel, a successful television screenwriter who’s offered writing classes to the local residents. Heppel belittles and humiliates all of the members of the class, and each one’s furious with him. So when he’s murdered one night after the second class, Macbeth’s got more than one suspect to investigate. The forensic evidence points towards one of the suspects, and Macbeth tries unsuccessfully to get that person to confess to the crime. Then, he realizes that there’s a very important piece of evidence that’s been overlooked. Calling himself an idiot, he rectifies the error just in time to catch the real killer before there’s another death.

As always, I’ve only been able to mention a few examples of cases where the sleuth is wrong. What’s your view? Do you think this sort of scenario adds unnecessary twists to a story, or do you enjoy it when the sleuth blunders?


  1. I loved the television dramatization of the Chocolate Box with David Suchet as Poirot! I can remember the story and the motivation for the crime so clearly, as well as the beautifully decorated box of chocolates. I think that you are right, we expect our modern sleuths to be more believable and more human and making mistakes goes with the territory. As a reader I especially love it when the sleuth trips up but I am not fooled. I love feeling more clever than the great detective. Doesn't happen a lot...

  2. Bobbi - Wasn't that episode of Poirot terrific? To me, Suchet *is* Poirot, and the show's creators really did a fine job of evoking the period. You really make an interesting point that today's readers, more than readers of an earlier age, expect sleuths to act like humans, and that includes making mistakes. We don't feel a connection with a sleuth whose theories are always right. It's true, though, that the sleuth making a mistake doesn't always gull the reader, especially if that particular sleuth "gets his/her man" in the end.

  3. Nice way to make a red herring for the reader, I think, since we're usually making deductions along with the sleuth.

    Great post as usual, Margot!

    Elizabeth Mystery Writing is Murder

  4. Elizabeth - I agree completely! It really is a useful "red herring" approach if the sleuth is led "down the garden path." It's not easy to step back from the what the sleuth is doing and realize that s/he's making a mistake, so we tend to follow the sleuth's line of thinking - in the wrong direction.

  5. I have always regarded Morse´s blunders as one of his endearing sides. When he realizes he is not infallible and that Lewis may have noticed something important, he always admits it and remembers to give him his due.

  6. Dorte - How right you are! Morse's fallibility is one of his most appealing characteristics. And you're right; he's willing to admit when he's wrong, and he does have respect for Lewis underneath his crusty exterior. Of course, that doesn't often translate into him standing a round for Lewis at the nearest local, though ; ).

  7. If you go with the usual way of writing mysteries, most are written from the POV of the sleuth; therefore when they goof the reader goofs along with them. It's a nice way for the writer to trick people.

    On the other hand, I'd better understand why the sleuth is going down the path he's going. Is s/he motivated by jealousy? By pride? Any motivation like this is good because I will not tolerate a stupid sleuth. Excellent fun in movies, of course *remembering Stephen Fry's wonderful performance as the dim Inspector in Gosford Park* but I think a consistently careless sleuth in a book would make me want to hurl said book across the room.


  8. Elspeth - I had to laugh when I read your mention of Stephen Fry and Gosford Park. You're absolutely right that it's not realistic to expect that the sleuth would be stupid. As you say, it helps to understand why a sleuth might go down the wrong path. It might be an honest mistake, an ulterior motive, or something else, but it does need to be a believable scenario. Otherwise the whole story falls apart.

  9. I'd have to already like the sleuth and know that they are usually right to enjoy this and it would have to be done carefully. I think as long as the mystery was solved I would be happy and if the sleuth happened to be wrong and learn from this and develop as a character, that would be great. Thanks for sharing this post.

  10. I love it when a sleuth gets it wrong, I have to say! I'm desperately trying to think of examples, but it is quite common in crime fiction for the author to have thought of several solutions to the conundrum, and have the sleuth guess the wrong one (or in the case of a clever author, ones plural). Harry Bosch did this recently in Nine Dragons - he was so emotionally involved in one aspect of the case that he put two and two together, made six, went haring off all over the place. The whole book was one giant red herring, and the solution to the mystery he was trying to solve was right there in front of him all along.

    I have to say that I think Gosforth Park was OK up until the time Stephen Fry's character entered it, then plummeted. I just could not take it seriously after that point, ie. was it a bad film or was it a bad parody? So, perhaps we can respectfully agree to differ on that particular topic? ;-)

  11. Cassandra - I see exactly what you mean. A novel that portrays the sleuth as a fool isn't engaging and certainly there's little suspense. It works best if the reader knows that the sleuth is a basically smart, able character who, for whatever reason, goes off on the wrong scent, so to speak.

    Maxine - LOL! Fair enough about Gosford Park : ). You're by no means alone in your view, as I'm sure you know. Thanks for bringing up Nine Dragons. I've read other Bosch books, but not that one yet. It sounds like a terrific example of the kind of thing I mean, though. You make a good point that one thing that takes the otherwise capable sleuth down the wrong path is to get too emotionally involved or in some way too attached to one explanation for the crime. That, in itself, makes the sleuth human, too, and therefore, more appealing.