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.