Sunday, September 5, 2010

Like a Bolt Out of the Blue*

How do you get inspired? Where do you get your best ideas, whether it’s for something creative or to solve a problem you may have? We all have different ways of sifting through problems and getting ideas; some of us turn to others, some of us turn to a hobby or pastime, and others to other sources of inspiration. Detectives are no different. They, too, sometimes need inspiration to help solve their cases. That’s especially important in crime fiction, because a sleuth who has all the answers without any inspiration is just not believable. Crime fiction fans want their sleuths to be believable.

In fact, that was just the complaint that Arthur Conan Doyle had about then-current fictional sleuths. He didn’t think it was realistic that a sleuth would be able to solve a case through what seemed almost to be magic. Rather, he thought it was much more believable for a sleuth to have some sort of scientific basis for reaching conclusions. Thus was created Sherlock Holmes. Holmes doesn’t solve problems by guesswork, even inspired guesswork. He makes deductions from observation and sometimes, from scientific inquiry. He does turn to the violin, and sometimes to cocaine and morphine, for solace, but for inspiration, he turns to scientific principles.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot has said more than once that solving problems is a matter of using what he calls, the “little grey cells.” He has claimed that one can solve problems not by looking for cigarette ash, footprints and so on, but by sitting back and thinking. And yet, he, too, seeks inspiration at times. Two of Poirot’s sources of inspiration are houses of cards and jigsaw puzzles. In Three-Act Tragedy (AKA, Murder in Three Acts), for instance, Poirot is invited to a cocktail party at the home of Sir Charles Cartwright, a famous actor. At the party, beloved clergyman Stephen Babbington suddenly falls dead. It’s not long before it is established that he died from nicotine poisoning. However, there seems to be no motive for murdering him. He had no fortune to leave and, as far as anyone knows, no enemies. There matters stand until there’s a similar death in Yorkshire; Sir Bartholomew Strange, a Harley Street specialist, is poisoned during a party at his home. The cases seem to be connected, since some of the same people who were at the first party are present at the second. In fact, Strange himself was present at the first party. Poirot tries to establish what the motives for both murders are and to help his creative processes, he builds a house of cards. While he’s doing so, he gets a visit from Hermione “Egg” Lytton Gore, who was a guest at both parties, and who’s trying to help solve the case. She’s not pleased at finding Poirot playing with cards instead of trying to find clues, and chides him for it. Then, unexpectedly, she gives him a clue as they’re discussing the card house. In the end, that house of cards inspires Poirot in more ways than one.

In Christie’s
Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot is invited to Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, for a fête, where he’s scheduled to give away prizes to the winners of a Murder Hunt (akin to a scavenger hunt). During the party, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’s playing the part of the victim in the hunt, is actually strangled. Then, Hattie Stubbs disappears. Now, Poirot and Inspector Bland sift through what witnesses say, and what they learn about both Marlerne and Hattie, to find out who killed Marlene and what happened to Hattie Stubbs. Poirot is exasperated because after five weeks of investigation, he is no closer, really, to finding out the truth. So he begins to work on a jigsaw puzzle. As he fits the pieces of the puzzle together, we follow his thought process as he begins to assemble the pieces of the case. After a time, he comes to the conclusion that there is one character who seems to be the key to the case. He pays that character a visit and, although that character doesn’t give him vital information on that particular visit, it turns out that he drew the right conclusion. That one character is, indeed, the key to the case.

Miss Marple, another famous Christie sleuth, gets her inspiration from people she’s known in the village of St. Mary Mead. As she says, she’s lived in the village all her life, and has gotten to know many different kinds of people. So as she encounters new cases, it’s those people – and Miss Marple’s knowledge of human nature – who inspire her. For instance, in
The Mirror Crack’d (AKA The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side), Miss Marple has a bad fall and injures her ankle. Heather Badcock comes to her rescue and helps Miss Marple into her home. The two get to talking with Heather’s husband Arthur, and we soon learn from him that,

“There’s never any holding Heather. She always gets away with things.”

Instantly, Miss Marple is reminded of another villager she knew, Alison Wilde, who also did things without thinking of the consequences. When the Badcocks ask Miss Marple what happened to her, Miss Marple says,

“Alison Wilde? Oh – she died.”

Those words turn out to be quite prophetic, as Heather herself suddenly dies not long afterwards from a poisoned cocktail. In the end, Heather’s tendency to do things without thinking of how they might affect others is the reason for her death.

Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri Paiboun, Laos’ chief medical examiner, has a very unusual source of inspiration. He shares his body with a thousand-year-old shaman named Yeh Ming. That spiritual connection allows Dr. Siri to commune with the dead, and gives him insight into the natures of the people whose deaths he investigates. What’s ironic about this source of inspiration is that it runs directly counter to the prevailing wisdom of the government authorities, who do everything they can to promote communist military rule. Getting inspiration from Yeh Ming is very helpful to Dr. Siri, but it can also be quite dangerous. For instance, in Thirty-Three Teeth, Dr. Siri investigates the connections between a very dangerous teakwood box and some mysterious deaths. Those connections involve some very malevolent spirits, about which Dr. Siri learns from Yeh Ming and from a guru who tells him what he needs to do to stop those spirits. In this novel, we also learn about Yeh Ming’s past and how that’s related to the deaths.

Tony HIllerman’s Jim Chee also has an unusual source of inspiration. He is a member of the Navajo Nation and in the early novels, he is studying to be a yata'ali, or Navajo singer/healer. Chee is a traditional Navajo in many ways, and that includes Navajo spirituality. He often turns to Navajo rituals such as sweatbaths and ritual chants to help him focus his mind and get to the truth of the mysteries he is solving. And in more than one of the Jim Chee novels, we see him turning to Navajo rituals when a case is over and he wants to restore the balance in his life that’s been upset by the case.

And then there’s P.D. Martin’s Sophie Anderson, an Australian transplant to the U.S.. She’s been haunted by visions ever since her brother’s abduction years ago. As an FBI profiler, she finds those psychic dreams and visions useful, because they allow her to “get inside the heads” of killers. Her visions allow Sophie to experience what the killer is experiencing. More than once, the inspiration she gets from those visions helps her solve cases.

Of course, many sleuths rely on more pragmatic inspiration. For instance, Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti depends on his wife Paola for inspiration. She frequently gives him new ideas, a new way to think about a case, and useful information. My own Joel Williams gets the same sort of inspiration from his wife, Laura.

As Thomas Edison is believed to have said, “Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” The real inspiration that most detectives get is often the result of their own hard work and doggedness. That’s the case, for instance in Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, the first of their Martin Beck novels. In that novel, Beck and his colleagues are searching for the killer of Roseanna McGraw, an American visitor to Sweden who’s killed while she’s on a cruise. For months, the team chases down leads, interviews witnesses and gets a slowly-growing file of information on the victim. When Beck gets the idea of using photographs taken by the other passengers and the crew members to find out who the killer is, that’s an inspired idea, but it’s really as much the result of hard work as of anything else. That’s also the case for a lot of other police-procedural sleuths.

Crime fiction sleuths get their inspiration and ideas from a lot of different sources, some of them more prosaic than others. How do your favorite sleuths get their good ideas?

: The title of this post is a line from Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s When You Wish Upon a Star.


  1. Jim Chee is a favorite character of mine. I especially like the fact that he turns to his Native American roots for inspiration and guidance when he's working a case and after. His roots help him think things through. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Mason - Thank you :-). I agree, too; part of what makes Chee a unique character is his identity as a member of the Navajo Nation. He certainly seems to gain strength from that identity and you're right; he does use his spirituality to think things through. Well-put :-).

  3. You keep talking so much about Tony Hillerman, I know I really want to read him. None of the bookstores stock his books, but maybe I can try ordering online.

  4. Rayna - I have to admit I'm a fan of Tony Hillerman. I find his characters fascinating, and his depiction of the American Southwest is, I think, beautifully done. I do recommend his work, and I hope you can find it.

  5. What irritates me about some sleuths on television is that many of them hear someone say something and bam! the whole case is solved. Really!? Someone says something and you tied a completely different conversation into the case you were working on and all the loose ends fell into place.

    Margot, if I ever do that with any of my books, shot me. Or at least let me know I'm doing it and I'll change it.


  6. Clarissa - Um, you're asking a mystery novelist to shoot you? ; ) Seriously, though, I agree completely that so much crime/mystery fiction is so unrealistic. The sleuth gets this brilliant idea from seemingly out of nowhere and is able to solve the entire case - I don't think so. I don't watch a lot of television, but when I do, I prefer to watch series where sleuthing is more accurately portrayed.

  7. I agree completely with Clarissa; when a sleuth gets the solution from seemingly out-of-the-blue it drives me batty. I have no problem them seeing something I didn't or something similar, but please, when then solution is revealed I want to say "Of course!" or "Oh, I see!" not "What?".

    It helps, of course, in tv shows that one gets a lingering camera shot of 'something important' to give the viewer a hint. Also, I must confess, if when the credits roll at the beginning of the show and there someone noteworthy, I will immediately assume they're the guilty party. Why else would the actor have taken the part? Cheating, I know. But there it is.

  8. Elspeth - I know exactly what you mean. It bothers me, both in books and on film/television, when the sleuth has no realistic way to figure out whodunit - but does. That's just not possible and I see it as a easy way out for the author/screenwriter. It's not satisfying for the reader or viewer, either. As a crime fiction reader, I want to try to pick up the clues and solve the crime, and I can't do that if the sleuth has a magical way of solving crimes.

    Of course, as you say, on film, cinematography can help give a clue, and I don't have a problem with that if it's done well. I hadn't thought about looking through the credits for the famous name, but now that you mention, it does make sense. Either the famous person is guilty, or is framed, or has some other important role. Interesting point...

  9. I like when detectives get three-four pieces of the jigsaw puzzle (and the writer shares them with the reader, of course), and slowly he/she is able to put them together and form a picture - it may still be blurry, but you can see that two or three of the suspects may fit in, and now the question is how to eliminate the ´misfits´.

    I do my best also to write crime novels that way, and I remember several years ago when a beta reader who really appreciated that said: "the towel was a fine clue." Oh, I cherished that comment.

  10. Great post, as usual, Margot! I am lost in admiration for the number of different themes you come up with for your posts, and how many books you weave into them.

    This post is typically thought-provoking. The book I have just finished, An Easy Death by Laura Wilson, is very interesting in this regard as she is a modern author but writing not only about the past but about a time in which everyone was preoccupied with other things (WW2 London). Yet she manages to create a really good mystery out of these circumstances, involving a hospital and identity, that were really scientifically accurate of the time, and yet still managed to tease the modern reader. Quite an achievement. I highly recommend this book, it is very well written.

  11. Dorte - Oh, now you've made me very curious. I must know about that towel! I will have to read that book of yours. I agree with you, too, that it works very, very well when the detective gets a few clues - real clues, and then uses them to figure out the truth. As you say, you don't necessarily get the exact answer, but you can eliminate some suspects. I try to do, that, too, actually.

    Maxine - How very kind of you *blush*. That really means a lot to me *another blush*.

    An Easy Death does sound very interesting. I like historical mysteries, and I have heard very good things about that one. One of the things that, I think, must always be a challenge for the historical mystery author is how to have the sleuth find clues and get ideas in a way that's consistent with the time (e.g., Wilson's sleuth couldn't look at a victim's mobile to find out clues). To do that, as well as keep modern readers guessing is a talent and I respect that.