In real life, and in crime fiction, solving a murder is more than just a matter of finding out obvious things such as who was last seen with the victim. It takes, sometimes, a lot of expertise in different areas to figure out who committed a crime and why. That’s why wise sleuths rely on academic, scientific and other experts to help solve their cases. Far from being proverbial “nerds,” these people are skilled professionals who often have very sophisticated knowledge and expertise, and without them, lots of cases would go unsolved.
In some crime fiction, of course, the sleuth him or herself is an expert in one or another area; that’s how she or he first encounters the case. For example, Simon Beckett’s David Hunter and Kathy Reichs’ Temperance “Tempe” Brennan are forensic anthropologists. They have deep backgrounds in that branch of science, and they use that knowledge and expertise to solve cases. Very often, they’re called in for exactly that reason. That’s also the case with Ellis Peters’ Cadfael. He’s an herbalist, and his thorough knowledge of herbs and other plants often proves to be crucial in solving the cases he encounters.
In Debra Purdy Kong’s Fatal Encryption, we meet computer expert Alex Bellamy. Bellamy’s hired by McKinley’s Department Store to stop a computer hacker who’s been stalking the company’s system. Bellamy takes the job gladly, since he’s out of work at the moment, but he soon finds out that this is far more than a simple case of a prankster at work. Bellamy finds out that his opponent has encrypted some vital company files and has threatened to encrypt all of the rest of the company’s files unless he is paid one million dollars. Bellamy isn’t sure at first who’s doing the hacking, but, since one of the suspects is the brother of a recent murder victim, he suspects that the murder and the computer hijacking may be related. It takes all of Bellamy’s expertise to identify and stop the computer hacker in time to save the company – and himself.
Just as interesting (and quite realistic, actually) is crime fiction where the sleuth calls in the expert. Very often in these novels, the sleuth is a detective who runs into a case that’s not what you’d call “run of the mill.” In those cases, the wise detective gets insight and information from someone who’s an authority in a particular field. That’s what often happens in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. Very often, Commissario Brunetti relies on expertise from several people. For instance, Bocchese, the chief lab technician, often gives Brunetti very useful information. So does Dr. Ettore Rizzardi, the chief medical examiner of Venice. In Blood From a Stone, Bocchese and Rizzardi give Brunetti valuable information on fingerprints and forensic evidence that help him identify a murdered Senegalese immigrant. As it turns out, the man’s death is connected to a fortune in diamonds and a government cover-up. In that same novel, Brunetti gets expert input on African cultures from an academic colleague of his wife, Paola, who’s a university professor. Brunetti finds that it’s prudent to cultivate good relationships with these experts, because very often, the official channels he’s supposed to use aren’t very informative. Brunetti also finds that the police brass are often not interested in hearing what the experts have to say. That highlights an important aspect of working with experts: they don’t always agree with the police. More about that in a moment.
Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has a very high opinion of his deductive abilities and his “little grey cells,” but he, too, calls in experts to help him solve cases. One of his experts, for instance, is theatrical agent Joseph Aarons, who knows everything there is to know about the theatre and performance world. Aarons appears in several Christie novels. For instance, in The Murder on the Links, Aarons helps track down some key witnesses in the murder of Paul Renauld, a Canadian émigré to France. In The Mystery of the Blue Train, Aarons helps Poirot confirm one of his theories about the murder of wealthy heiress Ruth Van Aldin Kettering while she’s on board the famous Blue Train. Aaron’s information gives Poirot the lead he needs to find out who killed Ruth, and how the killer escaped the train without being seen.
Poirot gets help from art dealer and expert Alexander Guthrie in After the Funeral (AKA Funerals are Fatal). In that novel, wealthy Richard Abernethie, patriarch of the Abernethie family has died suddenly. After the funeral, his sister, Cora Lansquenet, hints that Abernethie was murdered. The next day, she herself is brutally killed. So the Abernethie family lawyer asks Poirot to investigate both deaths. Guthrie’s art expertise gives Poirot the clue he needs to establish who would have wanted to kill Cora Lansquenet, and why she would have said that her brother was murdered.
Tony Hillerman’s Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee rely on valuable information that they get from experts, too. For instance, Leaphorn’s friend, Dr. Louisa Bourbonette, is an anthropologist who’s made a special study of the lore of some of the different Native American peoples in the area. Leaphorn himself is a Navajo, but not especially traditional, and he’s not an expert on other Native cultures. So he often gets useful information from Bourbonette, who’s been accepted among several groups of people in ways that Leaphorn has not. As Bourbonette goes about her research, getting interviews and interacting with people, she often learns things that help Leaphorn.
In Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear’s The Visitant, forensic anthropologist Maureen Cole is called in when archeologist William “Dusty” Stewart and his team unexpectedly find several sets of human remains in the Sonoran Desert of New Mexico. Cole uses her knowledge and expertise to find out who was killed and how. As she works with the team, though, it’s obvious that she and Stewart aren’t in agreement. She believes in using modern science to solve life’s mysteries. Stewart, who’s lived all his life in the area, believes that there are some questions that science can’t answer. It’s an interesting underlying debate in this novel.
That debate highlights the important fact that relying on an expert’s input isn’t always a smooth process. After all, the expert’s priority is to report her or his findings, regardless of where they lead. If the expert’s findings don’t agree with the police theory on a crime or with the expert's supervisors, this can lead to conflict. For instance, in Kathy Reichs’ Déjà Dead, Brennan is called in to help find the killer of twenty-three-year-old Isabelle Gagnon, who’s been brutally murdered and dismembered. When Brennan begins to work with the body, she senses that this death is extremely similar to another killing, that of sixteen-year-old Chantale Trottier, who died a year ago. The forensic evidence convinces Brennan that the two young women were murdered by a serial killer who’s still on the loose. The police, on the other hand, don’t agree, and insist that the two deaths are not connected. So Brennan continues the investigation on her own. In the end, and after more deaths occur, it’s clear that Brennan was right.
There’s a related kind of conflict in many of Robin Cook’s novels. For instance, in Godplayer, psychiatry resident Dr. Cassandra “Cassi” Kingsley and her friend, pathologist Dr. Robert Seibert, uncover the truth behind a series of unexplained deaths at Boston Memorial Hospital. Seibert has noticed a pattern of deaths following cardiac surgery, and that many of the victims are terminally ill, homosexual or mentally challenged patients. When he and Cassi try to convince the hospital brass that something terrible is going on at the hospital, no-one wants to believe either of them. It’s not until Cassi is nearly killed when she tries to alert the hospital’s chief administrator of what’s going on that anyone believes her.
Scientific, academic and other experts play an important role in crime fiction, and when their roles are well-written, they can add interesting information and solid layers to the story. Who are your favorite experts?
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a Huey Lewis & The News song.