Friday, February 5, 2010

Little Things Mean a Lot...

Good sleuthing requires several different skills, among them keen observation. It’s often in little details that the sleuth finds important clues to a crime. That’s why so many fictional sleuths seem to be focused on what seem like minor idiosyncrasies, small details and slight changes of wording. Very often, it’s those seemingly trivial things that put the sleuth on the right trail. Of course, like anything else in crime fiction, it’s quite possible to overdo the details, but in a well-written mystery novel, they often provide the most important clues.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is the quintessential observer of physical details. It is nearly always those little details, too, that lead him to his famous deductions. There are myriad examples in the Holmes novels and stories; I’ll just offer one. In The Adventure of the Dancing Men, Holmes is asked to solve the mystery of some cryptic messages that Hilton Cubitt’s American wife, Elsie, has been receiving. As the story begins, Holmes and Watson are sitting nearly silently in their parlor when Holmes says, “So Watson… You do not propose to invest in South African securities?” Watson is dumbfounded at how Holmes could know something like that, until Holmes explains that it’s some stray chalk between Watson’s left forefinger and thumb that has led to that conclusion. Holmes then proceeds to explain that the chalk implies that Watson was playing billiards, which he never does except with one particular person. That person had wanted Watson to invest in South African securities. Since Watson didn’t ask for his check book (which is locked away in Holmes’ private drawer), Holmes infers that Watson doesn’t plan on investing.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is also a keen observer. He often says that “the little grey cells” are more important in detection than things like cigarette ash and mud splatters. Yet, he, too, notices when something is out of place or amiss. If that oddity doesn’t have an explanation, Poirot knows that it’s probably an important clue. For instance, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Poirot investigates the stabbing death of a wealthy retired magnate. Early in the investigation, he’s looking around the room where the murder occurred, and asks the butler if everything is as it was when the body was found. The butler mentions that one chair was slightly pulled out of place. That one, seemingly inconsequential, point is an important clue that eventually leads Poirot to the killer.

We see a similar small, seemingly meaningless detail in Christie’s Sad Cypress, in which Poirot finds the killer of Mary Gerrard, protégée of wealthy Laura Welman. Mrs. Welman’s niece, Elinor Carlisle, is arrested for the murder, and Poirot is called in to clear her name if he can. As he interviews the witnesses, one of them tells an apparently pointless, meaningless lie about something that has nothing to do with the murder. That lie calls Poirot’s attention to that person and immediately creates suspicion. In the end, it’s that silly little lie that puts Poirot on the right track.

Tony Hillerman’s sleuth, Jim Chee, is a member of the Navajo Nation. He’s been raised to notice minor details and pay attention to them, so he’s quick to notice tracks, unusual animal behavior and other inconsistencies. Those clues often give him valuable information. For example, in The Dark Wind, Chee’s investigating vandalism to a local windmill. In the process, he finds the wreckage of a plane crash and two bodies. Before long, Chee’s convinced that there’s a relationship between the crash and the damaged windmill, and he sets out to find out what’s behind the plane crash. As Chee searches for information about both the crash and the windmill, he’s able to trace faint tire tracks he finds to a truck that ties the cases together.

In Hillmeran’s The Ghostway, Chee searches for the killer of Albert Gorman, a Los Angeles Navajo who’s in hiding on the Reservation. He comes upon Gorman’s body, and finds that it’s been prepared for burial in the traditional Navajo way. However, there are a few, seemingly inconsequential details that show Chee that this body was not prepared by a Navajo. There are just a few things that are “off” about the way the body is prepared, and those small details are enough to give Chee some helpful information about who prepared the body and who killed Albert Gorman.

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe is also an observant person, and the details that she notices often help her in her cases. For example, in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma. Ramotswe uncovers an interesting case of insurance fraud. She’s engaged by Hector Lepodise to find out whether an insurance claim one of his employees made is false. The employee, Mr. Moretsi, claims that he lost a finger in a work-related accident, so he deserves generous compensation. His lawyer enthusiastically agrees and shows Mma. Ramotswe the documentation to prove the case. When Mma. Ramotswe notices oddities about the accident and the documents, she uses those small inconsistencies to prove the fraud.

Ellery Queen notices small details, too. In several of the Queen novels, it’s those little, seemingly minor details that point the way to the murderer. I’ll just mention one example. In The Last Woman in His Life, Queen is spending a few days in the guesthouse of wealthy jet-setter John Levering Benedict III. While Queen is there, Benedict is killed by a heavy statuette one night. The only clues in the room are an evening gown, a wig and a pair of evening gloves, each of which belongs to a different one of Benedict’s three ex-wives. As Queen looks more deeply into the murder, he notices that one of Levering’s suits is missing. That small detail – something that doesn’t seem to have much to do with the murder – gives Queen the final clue he needs to find the murderer.

My own Joel Wililams notices small details, too, as he investigates. In Publish or Perish, for instance, Williams helps the Tilton, Pennsylvania police find the murderer of graduate student Nick Merrill. There are several suspects, and more than one of them had both the opportunity and a strong motive for the murder. In the end, one of the things that gives Williams and the police the clue they need is a spot of paint on a jump drive. That little detail might easily go un-noticed, but it’s an important clue.

Of course, it’s not always the sleuth who notices the tiny details that can lead to a killer. For example, in Emma Lathan’s Going for the Gold, it’s actually one of the suspects who notices an odd detail. In that novel, French ski jumper Yves Bisson is shot by a sniper while he’s in the middle of a practice jump. At first, everyone thinks that it’s a case of terrorism. Before long, though, it’s discovered that Bisson was passing counterfeit travelers’ checks. Now it’s clear that he was deliberately killed as a result of his involvement with a counterfeit operation. John Putnam Thatcher, vice president for the Sloan Guaranty Bank, investigates the operation and its connection to Bisson’s death. In tracing the counterfeit checks, he finds that several other athletes seem to have been passing counterfeits, too. One of the athletes, Swiss skier Tilly Lowengard, works in a bank, so she knows the details of how travelers’ checks work. It’s not long before she begins to see how the counterfeiting must have been done. The details that give her that information also make her the murderer’s next target – unless Thatcher can catch the murderer first.

When they’re well-placed and well-written, those inconsequential details can prove to be interesting and challenging clues – or tempting “red herrings.” On the other hand, they can overburden a story and distract from the plot. What do you think? Do you enjoy novels that hinge on that one little detail? Which are your favorites?


  1. Little clues are great. The ones I don't like, however, are ones that I don't understand; for example Agatha Christie's love of bridge score sheets. I've never played bridge and it seems that each time the sleuth explains how they arrived at their conclusion I find my eyes glazing over.

  2. Bobbi - You put your finger on an important challenge about little clues: how to make them accessible to readers. At the time that Christie wrote, possibly more people played bridge than play now (I have no hard information on that one), and she might have assumed the reader's knowledge. What's interesting about that novel (for those of you to whom this isn't familiar, it's from Christie's Cards on the Table) is that the bridge scores aren't used as scores per se. Rather, they're used as little glimpses into the psychology of the people who kept the scores. Still, it does make a lot more sense if one understands something about bridge.

  3. Little clues are great for mysteries. It's a great way to see if the reader is really paying attention and can follow the clues to the killer before the end of the book.

    Always enjoy your post Margot. Please stop by Thoughts in Progress when you have a chance, I have an award for you. :)

  4. Mason - Thank you so much : ). You're very, very kind, and I appreciate it. You're right, too, about little clues. They really are very useful little tools to keep the reader paying attention : ).

  5. Once I wrote a manuscript where a towel and some underwear were important clues. One of my beta-readers specifically mentioned the towel, because he thought it was a great clue!

    I think small clues which you can almost overlook are really great. And in some real crime cases, murderers have been caught just because they forgot that tiny detail ...

  6. Dorte - Just your description of that manuscript is intriguing : ). You're right, too, that those little, easily overlooked clues are fun, intellectually challenging and add a solid layer to a story. And, of course, they are often the murderer's downfall...