Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I Think I'd Better Think it Out Again*

If you’re a crime fiction fan or author (or both), you’ve probably thought about the characteristics that make for a good sleuth – one who can effectively solve cases. Of course, every sleuth is different, and that’s as it should be; it would be awfully boring if there were only one way to solve a case. But there are certain traits that a lot of the best, most memorable sleuths have in common. One of them is flexibility. Sleuths have to be able and willing to completely change their thinking about a case. Otherwise, they can’t react quickly enough when new clues come along or when they find new evidence. A sleuth who’s “married” to his or her assumptions is, sooner or later, likely to let criminals get away. It’s a tricky balance, of course, because the best sleuths also form ideas about a crime – places to start their investigations. But being flexible allows the sleuth to put the pieces of a mystery together more effectively. In that way, effective sleuths are a lot like effective researchers; they fit their ideas to the evidence they find rather than trying to force evidence to fit their ideas.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot is not a character you’d call humble, especially about his ability to solve cases. Yet, he’s also quite willing to change his “little ideas” when he needs to. In more than one novel, he admits when he’s been misled and has had to stop and re-arrange his thinking. For instance, in Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Poirot and Captain Hastings investigate the stabbing death of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. His wife, the famous actress Jane Wilkinson, is the most likely suspect, since she’d threatened him, and since she had actually planned a divorce so as to marry someone else. As it turns out, though, Jane Wilkinson has an ironclad alibi for the night of the murder, as she was seen by twelve people at a dinner in another part of London. Poirot develops a theory of the crime, but as different clues and pieces of evidence come to light, they point in different directions, so Poirot isn’t able to make sense of the crime at first. Then, he finds a critical piece of evidence in a page from a letter:

“I have been foolish. I have been blind. But now – now we shall get on!”

A little later in the novel, Poirot is trying to make all of the clues fit into his theory. To take his mind off the case, he and Hastings attend a movie. On the way out of the cinema, they overhear a chance remark from another movie-goer. That remark gives Poirot the ideas he needs to completely solve the case:

“Ah! Mon ami – I have blind, deaf, insensible. Now I see the answers…Yes – I see it all…So simple, so childishly simple...”

…and the case is simple once Poirot is able to make sense of it.

In Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Roseanna, Stockholm police detective Martin Beck and his team investigate the rape and murder of an unknown woman whose body is dredged up from Lake Vättern. When the body is first discovered, Beck and his team, and Motala detective Ahlberg start with the theory that the woman was a local resident. They have to change their theories about the case when no reports of missing persons match the description of the dead woman. After they change their thinking, the team members begin to look at missing persons’ reports from other countries and eventually identify the woman as twenty-seven-year-old Roseanna McGraw, an American from Nebraska. It’s only after that identification that the team can start the slow process of finding out about the victim’s background and then, discovering who would have wanted to killer her and why.

In Henning Mankell’s Faceless Killers, Ystad detective Kurt Wallander and his team are faced with the brutal murders of local farmer Johannes Lövgren and his wife, Maria. When the police get to the scene, Johannes is already dead, but Maria is still alive, although just barely so. She dies soon after her husband, and now the team begins to try to put the pieces of the case together. As they look into the murder, the team gradually focuses on a particular suspect. This suspect seems attractive both because there is evidence pointing that way, and for what you might call political reasons. The team very much wants this person to be guilty. In fact, Wallander is looking forward to making the arrest and completing the case. He and the team have to change their theory, though, much as they don’t want to do so. Other evidence that they find leads them to the real story behind the murders. Despite the motivation to continue with their choice of suspect, the team members accept the truth. In fact at one point, Wallander says to a colleague:

“Then, when ____ came into the picture, we desperately wanted ___ to be the murderer. But ___wasn’t.”

In this case, not only does Wallander have to be flexible in the face of evidence, he also has to accept what the real evidence tells him despite pressure not to do so.

We also see a sleuth having to be flexible in several of Ian Rankin’s John Rebus novels. Rebus has his faults, including being – er – single-minded, shall we say. However, even he is willing to pay attention to the evidence and accept it when he has to change his theory about a case. For instance, in Exit Music, he and his team develop a theory about the murder of dissident Russian poet Alexander Todorov. Todorov was brutally murdered in what looked at first like a mugging gone very wrong. The team soon learns, though, that a wealthy and powerful group of Russian businessmen were not happy about Todorov’s political views. In fact, one of them even mentions that he wanted Todorov dead. When Rebus finds out that this group of businessmen may have connections to his nemesis, Edinburgh crime boss “Big Ger” Cafferty, Rebus thinks he has the solution to the puzzle. As it turns out, though, he’s wrong:

“Todorov had led him to Cafferty and Andropov, and he’d latched onto both because they were the ones who interested him – because they were the ones he wanted to be guilty.”

Once Rebus steps back and re-thinks his theory, that flexibility allows him to focus on the real killer and motive.

One sleuth who’s famous for having to re-think theories is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Morse is brilliant, and is able to put pieces of a puzzle together. However, he sometimes arrives at exactly the wrong conclusion. When he does, it must be said of him that he’s willing to be flexible and re-think his assumptions; in fact, that’s how he often gets to the real truth in the cases he and Sergeant Lewis investigate. For instance, in The Jewel That Was Ours, Morse and Lewis are examining the murder of Dr. Theo Kemp, curator of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. The evidence leads Morse towards a particular suspect, whom he then interrogates at the police station. Then, Sergeant Lewis telephones him with news that makes Morse’s theory untenable, so that he has to completely change his assumptions:

“Yet Morse’s mind was never more fertile than when faced with some apparently insuperable obstacle, and even now he found it difficult to abandon his earlier, sweet hypothesis about the murder of Theodore Kemp.”

Morse does abandon it, though, and it’s not long before he’s able to fit Lewis’ news in with the rest of the evidence and find the real killer.

Flexibility is a very important quality for a sleuth to have; otherwise she or he may end up ignoring important evidence, spending time ineffectively and ultimately catching the wrong person. So effective sleuths learn to be flexible, and there are many examples of their flexibility in crime fiction; more than I have space to mention. Which novels have you enjoyed where the sleuth has to be flexible in order to solve the case? If you’re a writer, how do you balance that need for flexibility with the need to have some sort of theory about a crime?

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Reviewing the Situation.


  1. Martin Beck and Inspector Morse are very fine examples. Quite often, Morse blunders along, but in the end he is always willing to admit his faults.

    What do I do as a writer? Well, now that I think about it, I think Rhapsody was quite flexible today. She put up with listening to the most atrocious superstition because "it wouldn´t do to antagonize your sources".

  2. I think it's a handy tool as a writer to have your characters get onto the wrong track and have to realign their thinking. It helps to prevent the story from becoming too linear, and also shows an additional dimension to the protagonist, they can alter their thinking, aren't afraid to admit they were on the wrong path, they are adaptable.

  3. All sleuths have to have theories from the very beginning. It's human nature to go into a problem with an opinion. However, I love sleuths that either keep guessing wrong until they get it right or they force their feelings and views down until they have all the facts. I think a story with both is fun as well.

  4. Dorte - That's one thing that I like about Morse, too! He's willing to admit when he's been on the wrong track. He gets angry with himself, but he is willing to admit it and move on.

    And it sounds as though Rhapsody is very flexible, too, as she was in The Cosy Knave. I like her reasoning, too; one doesn't want to put off one's sources of information...

    Vanda - You know, you're right. When a protagonist is willing to be flexible, this really does allow for all sorts of plot strands that keep the plot from being too linear. It also allows the sleuth to be, well, human. I think readers have a much easier time relating to a sleuth who's not perfect. And the process of re-aligning thinking is interesting.

    Clarissa - That's true; sleuths do have theories as they begin their investigations. It is only natural and besides, how sloppy would an investigation be without any kind of theory to go on? But when the sleuth goes down the wrong path and has to be flexible, this adds a dimension. It also forces the sleuth to think about the way she or he goes about the process of investigation - also interesting.

  5. If there are only so many types of crimes, I guess it is only natural to try and fit everything into what is available, and most detectives would do that. Because to not do that is to start with a blank canvas which almost negates experience.

    But the difference between a detective and his bumbling assistant is that the detective is willing to rearrange facts.

    And this post reminded me of that story of Holmes where the horse has sheep shoes fitted on it. Don't ask me why I thought of that, but my brain is stupid from lack of sleep.

  6. Rayna - You really make an interesting point! The difference between a good sleuth and someone who's a bumbler is that the good sleuth takes the facts as they are and re-arranges them until they make sense. As you say, to go into a case with no assumptions about the case isn't natural, and it's certainly not productive. But to be so enamoured of one's own theory that one can't be flexible is a grave mistake.

    And thanks for reminding me of Silver Blaze. That's a good story :-). Your comment also reminded me of The Adventure of the Priory School, where Holmes has to revise his theory because of an interesting device like that...

  7. I just finished reading Elly Griffiths second novel The Janus Stone and was thinking about what a great job she'd done showing two different kinds of detecting in the one story - the main policeman is tries very hard (and is largely successful) at not letting any pre-conceived ideas get in the way of this crime solving while one of his subordinates appears to be incapable of avoiding his own prejudices - in this case about priests and nuns. Flexibility definitely won the day in this case.

  8. Bernadette - Oh, that is a good example of the kind of thing I mean. I hope you really enjoyed this one. I like Ruth Galloway as a character; she's interesting! And you're right; very often when sleuths go into an investigation with too many pre-conceived notions, they're likely to miss out on important pieces of evidence.

  9. I try to remember to not let my sleuth get too clever, or figure it all out too soon! Anyone who is a detective (amateur or professional) has to be fairly self-confidant and thus have strong opinions. Some can see when they've made an error in judgment easily, for others it takes much longer. I've tried to make my detective very human; capable of being blinded by his opinions and past experiences, but able to see the evidence for what it is.

  10. Elspeth - It sounds as though your sleuth is an interesting and real-life, believable person. To me, that's part of what makes a detective a memorable and effective character. As you say, sleuths have to have a certain amount of faith in their own judgment. After all, without that, how can they have the self-confidence to investigate? But it's also authentic when they have to be flexible enough to change their thinking.

  11. It seems that many novels use the "incorrect hypothesis" (followed often by "flash of intuition that allows the same data to be realigned differently" ) as a staple, a device going back to Sherlock Holmes (and doubtless further back) reason that makes crime fiction both fun and a bit scientific/logical.

  12. Maxine - You put that quite well. It is an awfully popular plot device, isn't it? I think that's in part because, as you say, it makes the story enjoyable and lends an air of logic to the plot. I think it's also because in real life, people do have to sometimes be flexible and re-think things. We sometimes do have to look at the same set of facts in a different way. So characters who have to do that resonate with us.