Of course, there are lots of crime fiction series, such as Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series, where the sleuth’s special skill is at the center of a mystery, and those stories can be engaging. Many cosy series are like that. But what can be even more intriguing is to find out other skills or interests that the sleuth has.
For instance, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is an accomplished break-in artist. We find that out in Dead Man’s Mirror, which appears in Murder in the Mews. In that story, Poirot is summoned by Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore when Sir Gervase believes he is being financially cheated. Poirot visits the Chevenix-Gore home, but no sooner has he arrived than Chevenix-Gore’s body is found in his locked study. On the surface, it seems that Sir Gervase has committed suicide. But Poirot isn’t sure it’s that simple. In the first place, Sir Gervase was very full of a sense of his own importance. So it doesn’t make sense that a man like that would commit suicide. There are a few other clues, too, that make Poirot suspicious of the “suicide” explanation. The problem is that Sir Gervase was found in his locked study, and there seems no way that a killer could enter and leave again. In the end, Poirot is able to demonstrate how the French windows in the study could have been manipulated so that the killer could escape and make the crime scene look as though the French windows had been locked the whole time. It’s a neat example of his burgling skills.
We also see this in The Adventure of the Cheap Flat, which appears in Poirot Investigates. In that story, Hastings attends a party where he meets a young woman who tells him that she and her husband have just had a real stroke of luck in renting a beautiful flat for a ridiculously low rent. When Hastings tells Poirot about the woman’s story, Poirot becomes suspicious that something more is going on than just a piece of good fortune. So he begins to investigate the apartment building. Poirot finds that the young couple have inadvertently been drawn into a complicated plot involving international espionage and stolen Naval plans. One Poirot figures out who the people are who have engineered the plot, he lays a trap for them. This trap involves breaking into the cheap flat, and that’s exactly what he and Hastings do. In fact, they use a coal lift that goes to all of the flats to move from the flat Poirot has rented in the building to the flat that Hastings described. Poirot’s ability to break in to the flat allows him to catch the culprit.
Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse is also multi-talented. Not only does he have a brilliant investigative mind, but he’s also quite skilled with words and language. In fact, he studied at Oxford before joining the police force and is always quick to correct anything he sees as not “proper” grammar. Morse is an avid crossword puzzle fan, and sometimes, his crossword habit plays a role in the story. For instance, in The Daughters of Cain, Morse and Sergeant Lewis investigate the murder of former Oxford don Felix McClure and the disappearance (and later murder) of his former scout, Ted Brooks. It turns out that the two deaths are connected in more than one way and slowly, Morse finds out the network of relationships and past history that have played a role in the murders. At one point, he’s doing a crossword puzzle with the clue:
And then there's Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey, who shows off his athletic ability during a cricket match in Murder Must Advertise. In that novel, Wimsey investigates the murder of copywriter Victor Dean, who fell to his death down the spiral staircase at Pym's Publicity, Ltd., where he worked. At first, his death looks like an accident, but Dean left a half-finished letter behind, in which he mentioned that someone at the company was involved in illegal activities. Wimsey goes undercover at the agency to find out the truth behind Dean's death, and discovers who in the firm was guilty. At a crucial point in the story, the company is involved in a cricket match, and Lord Peter's skill comes in very handy. So does the skill he shows at creating successful advertising.
A kick in the pants: __ __ __ - __ __ __ __ __
The answer, as we find out later, turns out to be hip-flask. What’s interesting about this particular clue is that a hip-flask figures in Morse’s complex relationship with Ellie Smith, a prostitute who turns out to be a suspect in both murders.
Tony Hillerman’s Jim Chee also has skills besides his ability to solve crimes. He’s a member of the Navajo Nation, and has been taught from early childhood to “read” signs that he sees around him. So he’s quite good at tracking and drawing conclusions from what he’s seen. For example, in The Dark Wind, Chee is on the trail of someone who’s been vandalizing a water tower. He’s also on the case of an unidentified dead man found in the area, and the remains of a plane crash. In the end, the three cases are all connected, and Chee’s able to uncover the mystery. One of the things that adds interest to this story is the way in which Chee uses his tracking skills. For instance, at one point, Chee finds the wreckage of the plane, and finds tread marks of a vehicle that was at the scene. Later, he finds exactly the same tread patterns in an arroyo, and is able to find the car. That discovery helps Chee to connect the various threads of this mystery and solve the case.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma. Precious Ramotswe is a successful detective. In part, it’s because of her insights into human nature. But she’s also very much aware of the natural forces around her, and she’s got a good knowledge of cattle. Mma. Ramotswe’s father, Obed Ramotswe, had been a an excellent judge of cattle and he taught his daughter to also make wise judgments. That special knowledge of cattle doesn’t always help Mma. Ramotswe solve her cases – not directly, anyway. However, her insights into how the world works, and how nature works, also give her insight into how humans interact. That insight turns out to be very helpful as she solves her cases.
Even though Caroline Graham’s Inspector Tom Barnaby doesn’t rely heavily on his “green thumb” to solve cases, he’s an avid gardener. Barnaby often spends his free time doing battle with weeds and trying to improve the quality of what he’s growing. There are frequent references in the series to Barnaby’s love of gardening and in fact, in A Place of Safety, Barnaby’s daughter and son-in law manage to surprise him with a new lawn mower for his birthday. That scene isn’t a major part of the novel, but it adds a real layer of interest to Barnaby’s character.
Many people don’t think of those with special needs as having particular skills as well, but in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, we find out that Christopher Boone actually does. He’s a fifteen-year-old boy with autism, who one day decides to be a detective. He’s found the body of his neighbors’ dog, and wants to know who’s responsible for the killing. He’s read about Sherlock Holmes, and decides to use his detective powers to solve the case. Christopher has an extraordinary visual memory, so he’s able to form very clear mental pictures. He notices very small details, too, and in fact in one chapter of this novel, he describes how his view of a room differs from that of other people. Despite his lack of what most people think of as social skills, Christopher finds out what happened to the dog, and in the process, learns some surprising secrets about his family and his past, too.
We all have faults and failings, and so do sleuths. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be interesting. But it’s also interesting and engaging when sleuths have special interests and skills that make them unique. They may or may not use those skills to solve cases, but even if they don’t, those special talents add to the sleuth’s personalities. Which special skills do your favorite sleuths have?
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Matchbox 20's I'm Not Crazy.