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?