Sunday, May 2, 2010

It's Hip To Be Square*

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.


  1. What I like is when the expert and the detective disagree, but both of them are wrong in terms of their first conclusions. The detective has more insight into the situation, but has to accept the expert's findings to see the truth.

    It's like the perfect red herring - it leads astray at first, but in the the end, the information is what leads to the truth.

  2. Daring Novelist - You're right; when both the sleuth and the expert are wrong at first, that does work out to be a terrific "red herring." I think it also lends some authenticity to the story. Of course, experts are experts because, presumably, they know what they're doing. Still, anyone can be wrong. The same is true of the sleuth. So it's believable that both the sleuth and the expert could be wrong, and could disagree, and only then find out the truth.

  3. Some of the pathologists and crime scene officers in police procedurals are strong characters - like Myles Kynaston in the Adam Dalgliesh series. And didn't Richard Jury even have a romantic relationship with Phyllis Nancy, the pathologist?

    In recent years, detectives seem to be enlisting the help of computer experts to trace vehicles etc. I recall Rebus using some help in this area, and there are probably other examples I can't recall.

  4. Book Mole - That's a well-taken point; some of the pathologists and other crime scene experts do turn out to be strong characters. Kynaston is a good example of that. I'd argue that Elizabeth George's Simon St. James and Donna Leon's Ettore Rizzardi are other examples. And right you are: Jury and Nancy have been involved romantically.

    I've noticed, too, that today's police procedurals involve more computer experts. Rebus uses that assistance sometimes (although Siobhan Clarke is a force to be reckoned with herself on the computer). And in Mark Richard Zubro's Another Dead Teenager Detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick depend on the help of the Rapid Response computer team led by Jack Blessing. That development makes sense, when you think of how much we use computers these days.

  5. Scientific experts do add another layer to the story when well written. It adds interest and intrigue. However, there are a few books where the scientific elements seem to overtake the plot. That becomes the focus and murder is almost a secondary event.

    Thoughts in Progress

  6. Mason - I couldn't agree with you more. Getting help from experts can be a fascinating part of a book. However, when that expertise takes over the plot, so that the reader is distracted, then that expertise detracts from the plot. Then, as you say, the murder that's supposed to be the center of the plot ends up being almost an afterthought.

  7. I like to read some "expert" stuff in a novel, and learn things. However, I don't like one cliche which is the "computer whizz kid" (usually a teenage male) who comes in and magically finds out info to move the plot along, etc, without any explanation at all. That's just lazy. I do recall some of the earlier Rebus novels where Siobhan Clarke had to do all the computer/internet stuff because Rebus didn't know anytyhing about it, which was quite funny. I never knew whether this was because the author didn't know either, so had to have a "non-protag" doing this work so he didn't have to describe it; or whether he did it deliberately to show us an aspect of Rebus's character.....

  8. Maxine - I agree; the "computer whiz kid who saves the day" is both cliche and annoying. I've read a few novels where the expert is a computer whiz who is actually interesting, but not too many. And I always thought it was interesting, too, that at least at first, Clarke had to do all of the computer work. I don't know, either, why Rankin chose to do things that way. It's funny; Donna Leon's Guido Brunetti sometimes pretends not to know anything about computers when he needs to, and even in reality, he's not a whiz. In one case, he does that to protect some vital information that's stored, and that he doesn't want anyone finding. And, of course, Signorina Elettra is very savvy about them; in a way, she's an expert. That makes for an interesting dynamic, I think.

  9. Margot- Salvo Montalbano knows even less about computers than Rebus and uses Catarella, not the sharpest pencil in the box usually, as his computer expert.
    Mind you Rebus wasn't very good at typing either as I remember his problems with a "serial kilter" in one story.

  10. Norman - Thanks for mentioning Catarella : ). What a deliciously oddball character, isn't he? And I had to laugh when you mentioned Rebus and his typing that in The Naming of the Dead. What a funny way to add that touch to Rebus' character : ).

  11. I enjoy reading books that call in the experts, but the thought of writing an expert has me quaking in my boots. I don't feel I'm naturally an expert on anything, so massive research or interviews would be involved. I can easily picture some expert wanting to pull their hair out or hit me with a sturdy ladle as I ask for them to explain it all again and again and again...

  12. Elspeth - LOL! I know exactly what you mean! I worry about that "expert" thing, too, as a writer. Of course, you have quite a lot of expertise in mystery game design and theatre; you could have your expert be an actor, director, playwright, something like that.... It's a tough decision, though, isn't it? How to integrate an expert without going "out of one's depth."

  13. I was once on a jury in a real trial. None of the witnesses seemed very credible but when the forensic guy came on it was very funny. He was inarticulate and unglamorous in the extreme (typical scientist!) but when we got into the room where you have to decide, everyone totally believed all he said - amazing! Such faith in science, it was so heartening.

  14. Maxine - Oh, that's interesting that you bring up how credible experts can seem. I think lots of people put their faith in those experts. In a way, as you say, that's a very good thing. It can be troubling, though, when the expert is credible but is wrong (or in crime fiction, is deliberately lying). I think it puts a lot of pressure on those experts to "do their homework." As you say, though, it is quite heartening when juries pay attention to those scientific (and, presumably, "provable") details rather than just emotional appeal.

  15. My favourite experts? Well, I like them all as long as they are not too full of themselves :D

    And I enjoyed Maxine´s comment about Siobhan and the computers. Whether Rankin is an expert or not, I think it is a good idea not to stuff a crime novel with computer lore. There are so many areas of expertise that are more interesting.

  16. Dorte - LOL! I agree with you that it's very easy for experts to begin to think too much of themselves. That can be interesting in crime fiction if they're murder victims ; ), but otherwise? No.

    You make an interesting point, too, about computer lore. Some of it is inevitable; it is, after all the 21st Century, so computers are an integral part of life for many people. But too much "tech-talk" is off-putting.

  17. I particularly liked Elspeth Antonelli's candor in the comment above. You almost always find the expert's ability, especially the computer experts, to be arcane and somewhat "hocus pocus." Not much in the way of explanation is given as to how the expert managed to turn-off all the security cameras or create the rush-hour traffic jam. He just "did his thing." I think authors tread a fine line with these scenarios. While it surely maximizes the plot, it must not be too much to be believable; and since the author isn't the computer whiz, that line is often ambiguous.

    Another reference to "experts" appears in courtroom mysteries. It's de rigueur for the prosecution and defense to each have experts that countermand the other's experts. It always seems that the protagonist's expert is always a step-ahead, more believable, and even more comely than the other side's, too. I don't believe I've read a courtroom mystery where the other sides' expert got the best of our hero's.

  18. Bob - I agree with you about Elspeth's comment. I also think you have a well-taken point about how much detail is or isn't given about what experts do. Many authors have expertise in certain areas, but not in all of them. So there are bound to be some areas that are either a little improbable or ambiguous. It's probably a an "easy out," but when I write, I tend to paint with broad brushstrokes, so to speak, in areas where I'm not an expert. For instance, if I want to prove that X is the killer, I might simply say that the forensics lab reported that X's clothes had fibers from the victim's house, or car, or something like that. I don't go into technical detail, because I don't have that expertise. I tend to focus more on the plot itself. It's just my way of avoiding that problem as much as possible.

    You also make a good point about experts in courtroom mysteries and legal thrillers. There are many areas where experts disagree, anyway. As a matter of fact, in Agatha Christie's The Mysterious Affair at Styles, various handwriting experts disagree as to whether some important samples of handwriting do or don't belong to one of the characters who's accused of murder. In the end, there really isn't any strong conclusion. Fortunately, Poirot's got other kinds of evidence to show whodunnit...