Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Learning the Ropes

Solving crimes isn’t easy. Besides the obvious fact that most criminals don’t want to be caught (and so, hide their involvement), there are lots of skills that sleuths need that don’t necessarily come naturally. In real life, police detectives go through police academy training, and then spend time on the police force (and often, take exams) before they become detectives. Even then, they often spend time working with seasoned veterans before they do a lot of detection on their own. Private investigators, too, need to get licenses, and they often go through training as well. In other words, the process of learning to be a detective takes time and a certain amount of formal preparation. So it’s realistic to expect that to be the case in crime fiction, too. In fact, one criticism of the amateur sleuth in crime fiction is that it’s not a realistic depiction of what it takes to “learn the ropes” of solving crimes.

Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is, of course, a self-taught detective. When Watson meets Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, we find that Holmes has been teaching himself chemistry, among other things, because he wants to pursue detection, and he knows that chemistry is an important part of detection. Holmes’ brilliance, and his knowledge about so many different fields, isn’t realistic by today’s standards, but he mentions in more than one case that he’s made special studies of one or another area. For instance, in The Sign of the Four, Watson asks Holmes about his specialized knowledge. Holmes repiles:

“Yes, I have been guilty of several monographs. They are all upon technical subjects. Here, for example, is one 'Upon the Distinction between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccos.' In it I enumerate a hundred and forty forms of cigar, cigarette, and pipe tobacco, with coloured plates illustrating the difference in the ash.”

Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey is also what you might call “self-taught.” Investigation and detection are his hobbies, so he learns some of his skills through reading up on the topic. Wimsey also benefits greatly from his friendship with Inspector Parker, who of course, has had police training. Some people have criticized Sayers for attributing too much knowledge and skill to Wimsey, considering his lack of formal preparation in detection, but what’s interesting about the Wimsey stories is that many of the mysteries center on topics on which Wimsey or one of his friends does have some background.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poriot started his career as a member of the Belgian police force, which is where he was taught about crimes and criminals. While Christie’s novels don’t focus on his career in Belgium, there are several references to Poirot’s career as a police detective. One of Christie’s short stories, The Chocolate Box, which appears in Poirot’s Early Cases, actually takes place during Poirot’s years on the police force. In that story, Poirot is asked to investigate the death of French deputy Paul Deroulard, who’s living in Belgium. Suspicions fall between Deroulard’s neighbor, M. de Saint Alard, who’s on the opposite side from Deroulard on a controversial political issue, and Deroulard’s neighbor, John Wilson. Wilson has no motive for the murder, but the poison used as the murder weapon was found in his possession. Poirot names the wrong killer, and that person is arrested. It’s not until then that the real killer summons Poirot and tells him exactly how and why Deroulard was killed. Since this is not one of Poirot’s successes, we can only assume that it took place during Poirot’s early years on the force ; ).

We do get some interesting insights into how police sleuths “learn the ropes” in Carol O’Connell’s Mallory’s Oracle, in which we meet Detective Kathleen “Kathy” Mallory. She was taken in at the age of eleven by N.Y.P.D. Detective Louis Markowitz after a traumatic childhood. As the years go by, she decides to follow in his footsteps. When Markowitz is murdered, Mallory, by then a police officer herself, decides to investigate the death. What’s interesting in this novel is the way Mallory is mentored by Detective Riker, Markowitz’ former partner. Riker is a jaded, seasoned veteran with his own “ghosts,” and he’s got his hands full, so to speak, helping Mallory channel her energy and intelligence, and helping her cope with her own childhood “ghosts.” Mallory learns a great deal from Riker, and as the series moves on, we see how she depends on him in a lot of ways.

Ian Rankin’s Detective Sergeant Siobahn Clarke learns a great deal from her mentor, John Rebus, too. Clarke and Rebus first work together in The Black Book, where she gets an object lesson in getting things done in unconventional ways. In that novel, Rebus searches for the truth behind a five-year-old fatal fire that turns out to be related to a “sting” operation he’s involved in against a local moneylender. As the years go by, Clarke learns more and becomes a stronger character in her own right, as we see in novels such as The Falls and Exit Music.

Police detectives go through careful preparation; so do FBI and CIA operatives. We see that in Thomas Harris’ The Silence of the Lambs, in which FBI trainee Clarice Starling is assigned to the case of a brutal serial killer known as “Buffalo Bill.” He was a patient of Dr. Hannibal Lecter, who’s now confined to the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and Starling’s task is to get as much information about “Buffalo Bill” as she can from Lecter, without letting down her own guard. Lecter agrees to help, on one condition. For each piece of information he gives Starling, she has to reveal a personal secret. Throughout the novel, their battle of wits provides an important and suspenseful undertone. While Starling’s training itself is not the main focus of the book, it does add an interesting layer to the plot. So does the natural resentment of more seasoned FBI operatives when Starling, who hasn’t even finished her training, is assigned to this case.

Dorothy Gilman’s Emily Pollifax doesn’t get any preparation for her first CIA mission. With no real idea of what she’s getting into (or, perhaps more than we think), Mrs. Pollifax decides to answer an ad and apply for work as a CIA operative. Through a case of mistaken identity, she’s given her first case – a seemingly risk-free trip to Mexico, where she’s simply supposed to make a delivery. Of course, the case turns into much more than that, and Mrs. Pollifax ends up in an Algerian prison. Throughout the story, there are scenes where her naiveté and lack of preparation get Mrs. Pollifax into real trouble, and it takes all of her natural wit to extricate herself. Quite unexpectedly, Mrs. Pollifax gets what you might call on-the-job training.

So does Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum. Plum is a bounty hunter who works for her cousin’s bail bond agency. She’s never been formally prepared to do the work though. In fact, she “falls into” the job when she gets laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer and finds her husband in bed with another woman. With all of her sources of income taken from her, Plum’s got to do something for a living, and the quickest solution seems to be working for her cousin. We see Plum’s lack of formal preparation quite clearly in the first few Plum novels. In fact, her occasional bumbling adds welcome humor to the stories, and it’s realistic. She’s had no preparation, so it makes sense that she would make mistakes and not “know the ropes.”

Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe has an interesting way of preparing herself to become a private detective. She gets a copy of Clovis Anderson’s Principles of Detection, and reads it thoroughly. When we first meet Mma. Ramotswe in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, she relies completely on the book to answer all of her questions about detection. Every time she’s faced with a situation, whether it’s a stakeout, an interview or something else, she reads the book before she does anything else if she can. As the series moves on, Mma. Ramotswe relies less and less on the book, and sometimes even finds that Clovis Anderson is wrong.

One of the more interesting stories of learning to be a sleuth is told in Pablo De Santis’ The Paris Enigma. In that novel, Sigmundo Salvatrio, the son of a shoemaker, is delighted to be selected as a student of Buenos Aires’ Academy for Detectives, run by world-famous Renato Craig. Craig has some very unconventional methods of teaching his students, but at first, all of the students are eager to become detectives. One by one, though, they all leave the academy until only Salvatrio is left. When Craig is hospitalized, Salvatrio is sent in his place to a meeting of twelve world famous detectives in Paris. At first, Salvatrio doesn’t want to go; Craig had founded The Twelve, as the group is called, and Salvatrio feels that Craig should go. Finally, though, Salvatrio is persuaded to go, and he soon embarks on his adventure. The Twelve had been scheduled to give a presentation at the World’s Fair in Paris. Instead, one of their number is murdered. Now, Salvatrio must put his untested skills to work with the Twelve’s co-founder, Viktor Arzaky. Then, more murders occur, and the two are in a proverbial race against time to find out who the murderer is before even more deaths take place.

Like everyone else, sleuths have to learn their work, and it’s interesting to see how they do so. Which are your favorite novels in which sleuths “learn the ropes?”


  1. Another great post - your posts always discuss authors and books I have not heard of, thanks for the suggestions!

    I am reminded of William Monk, Anne Perry's detective in Victorian England. Monk is a police detective who loses his memory in an accident and finds that he has to re-learn a lot of skills involved in detection. He is eventually forced to become a private detective. Memory loss has not changed his natural acumen, but has robbed him of the ability to draw from experience which is so important to a detective.

    I was also wondering about where Miss Marple will fit in - she is not formally trained but seems to use her extraordinary ability to make connections to understand human nature and solve problems.

  2. Book Mole - Thank you : ). You actually bring up an interesting sleuth in William Monk. I haven't read a lot of Perry, to be honest, but Monk certainly is a fascinating detective. In a way, he has to "learn the ropes" all over again. It's a good example that shows how important not just preparation is, but experience, also.

    Interesting question about Miss Marple. She herself says that living in St. Mary Mead has given her a solid preparation in human nature and in that sense, I suppose she's right. Christie really shows her skill with Miss Marple, actually, in that Miss Marple is believable as a sleuth, even with no formal preparation. In part, it may be because she "partners," if you will, with other characters such as Inspector Craddock, who does have formal prepraration. In part, it may be that the kind of sleuthing she does makes sense, given her nature: that gossipy/overhearing/making connections kind of sleuthing. She is a well-drawn character, isn't she?

  3. I agree with you on Miss Marple - and she is a very well-drawn character! Also, her ability to draw parallels in her own world is similar to how a detective draws on past experience. Her success is indeed a reflection on Chrstie's great talent!

  4. Can´t come up with any examples right now, but when writers research properly, it is very interesting to read about these little lessons.

  5. Dorte - You make a well-taken point. When authors do their homework, so to speak, about how sleuths learn their jobs, those little details do become lots more authentic and therefore, engaging for the reader.

  6. What a fascinating question, Margot - how did the sleuth get to be so good? I've usually taken it for granted since the character is the one solving the crime, obviously they know what they're doing. This got me really thinking about my sleuth - since he's not a policeman or had any formal training in detection. He is, however, a very astute observer and has a rather good rein on what makes people tick.

  7. Elspeth - It is an interesting question, isn't it? Some sleuths just do seem to be naturally astute observers, and I think it can be perfectly plausible that a sleuth uses his or her natural abilities and interests to solve crimes. That's how Miss Marple is, and that's also how Lord Peter Wimsey is. I really do look forward to "meeting" your sleuth : ).

  8. I immensely enjoy your essays. It's very nice of you to write it in your blog. Why don't you publish it in a book. When I look you up on Amazon.UK or Amazon.com I can only find PUBLISH OR PERISH. On the latter there is a reference to your blog but it would be more profitable to publish it as a book. All the best

  9. Palle - Thank you so much for your kind words, and your idea. Right now, I'm working on my third Joel Williams novel, and when that's done (hopefully later this year), I actually will be putting these blog posts together in book form. I appreciate that you think they're worth being published : ).

  10. Another wonderfully evocative and provocative post. As I was reading, I thought first of Emily Pollifax, then Stephanie Plum, then Precious Ramotswe--all covered seconds later in this post. My next thoughts turned to Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware, Rita Mae Brown's Harry Haristeen, and Diane Mott Davidson's Goldy Schulz. While each of these sleuths have police assistance in their immediate circles, these authors don't have their characters rely much on these officials for their "education". They're written more to be very intuitive and probative amateur detectives than students of the craft.

  11. Bob - Thank you : ). You're right about Alex Deleaware and "Harry" Haristeen. I'm less familiar with Goldy Shulz, but from what I have read, she, too, fits into that category. One could argue that some folks just tend to be intuitive, and have strong powers of observation. Then, too, there's the necessary ingredient of curiosity. It's harder, one could argue, to make such sleuths believable, since they don't have formal preparation. What I like about the examples you've given is that these sleuths often work with members of the police force, so we get see the distinction between what police are prepared to do, and what amateurs feel competent in doing. It's a fine line, actually.

  12. I found the Mallory novels curiously unappealing and hard work - strange given that "on paper" I should like them a lot for several reasons.

    To take a (series of) novel(s) that have been compared to Mallory, Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, one of the many fascinating aspects of these books was just this aspect - what Mikael taught Lisbeth and what Lisbeth taught Mikael. I really liked this switching back and forth of roles, depending on the area of expertise.

    Harry Bosch (Michael Connelly) has had some good mentees, some of whom have not worked out but some have been intriguing characters in their own right, particularly Kismet (though that can't have been her name!) Rider whose relationship with Harry went through several phases.

    And the other Harry, Hole, had an interesting mentee in Katrine, in The Snowman (Jo Nesbo).

  13. Very interesting post, as ever. You have encouraged me to look at The Paris Enigma,which features on my TBR pile.

  14. Maxine - Isn't it interesting how some novels or series just simply don't "grab" one, even if the synopsis is appealing, or for whatever reason, one ought to be interested. I've read series like that, too....

    Also, thanks for mentioning the Millenium series. You're absolutely right that Salander and Blomqvist teach each other. It's not really a one-way mentorship, is it? In a way, that makes their partnership even more interesting. I'm glad you mentioned Kismet, too : ). That really is a good example of a mentorship that was interesting.

    I confess, I haven't read The Snowman yet, although it's well up on my TBR list. I'll have to move it up, because it'll be interesting to see how that mentorshp plays out.

    Martin - Thank you : ). I actually found The Paris Enigma to be very interesting and enjoyable. Of course, I like historical mysteries, so the fact that it takes place during the Paris World's Fair was a "plus" in my book. It's a creative twist on the detective novel, so on that score, I think you'll find it worth a read.