Tuesday, January 25, 2011

It Took Me So Long to Find Out*

In any well-written crime fiction novel (and in real life, too), the solution to a crime isn't always obvious. So detectives sometimes have to do some research. I'm not talking here of forensics details such as the sort of weapon used in a crime. Instead, I'm talking of background information that sheds light on a case. Research is crucial to building a case; for instance, research can tell a detective if two people have worked at the same place in the past and therefore, might know one another. It can tell the detective whether a suspect might have the necessary knowledge to commit a certain kind of crime, or whether a suspect has a history of certain kinds of behaviour. On the other hand, the actual research that detectives do isn't glamourous or sexy, so it takes a delicate touch to integrate it into crime fiction. Readers won't stay interested and keep turning pages if there's too much attention to the details of research. On other hand, without it, a story can come across as implausible.

Several of Agatha Christie's novels feature some interesting research. For instance, in Evil Under the Sun, Hercule Poirot is taking a holiday at the Jolly Roger Hotel on Leathercombe Bay off the Devon coast. While he's there, another guest, beautiful and notorious actress Arlena Stuart Marshall, is strangled. Since Poirot was quite possibly the last person to see her alive, he gets involved in the investigation. At first, her husband Captain Kenneth Marshall seems to be the most likely suspect; it was well-known that Arlena Marshall was having an affair with another guest. Captain Marshall has a solid alibi, though, so Poirot and the police have to look elsewhere for the killer. Poirot notices something about the killing, and decides that that may help in finding the killer. So he has some background research done on other murders. That research proves key to getting the evidence Poirot needs to catch the murderer.

In Christie's Mrs. McGinty's Dead, Superintendent Spence asks Poirot to investigate the murder of a charwoman whom everyone thinks was killed by her lodger James Bentley. Spence doesn't think Bentley's guilty, and he wants Poirot to find out what really happened before Bentley (who's already been convicted of the crime) is executed. Poirot travels to the village of Broadhinny to look into the case. He finds that just before her death, Mrs. McGinty had read a newspaper article about past crimes and had written to the newspaper about the article. So Poirot has to do some research to find out what Mrs.McGinty's interest in the article might be. He discovers that Mrs. McGinty had guessed more than was good for her to know about one of the crimes. It's not until Poirot goes to the newspaper's archives and finds the information in the article that he's able to pinpoint the motive for Mrs. McGinty's murder. That information puts him on the right trail to find the killer.

Lord Peter Wimsey goes undercover to do some research in Dorothy Sayers' Murder Must Advertise. Victor Dean is a copywriter employed by a very conservative and respectable advertising agency that does business as Pym's Publicity, Ltd.. One afternoon, Dean has a fatal fall down the spiral staircase at the company. At first, his death seems like an accident. However, Dean left behind a half-finished letter in which he claims that there's scandal going on at the company. Pym's managers, who want beyond anything else to maintain the company's reputation, hire Wimsey to find out what really happened to Dean. Wimsey agrees and takes the position of copywriter left vacant by Dean. He does some background research on the information that Dean had discovered, and finds out that someone at the company has been using company advertising to arrange meetings between a drugs gang and local drug dealers. Dean had found out who the guilty person was and began to blackmail that person. In the end, Wimsey learns who's responsible for the illegal use of company resources and for Dean's death.

There's some interesting use of research in Robin Cook's Outbreak. Dr. Marissa Blumenthal, who works with the Centers for Disease Control, is sent to Los Angeles to help investigate the mysterious death of ophthalmologist Rudolph Richter and several of his patients. It seems that the victims have been killed by a particularly virulent and highly contagious virus. Then more deaths occur at other health care clinics. The more deeply that Blumenthal looks into the case, the more likely it seems that there's been deliberate sabotage. In order to get to the truth about who's behind the deaths, Blumenthal has to do some research that includes property records, articles of incorporation and financial backgrounds. When she finally uncovers the complex networks of relationships that tie the saboteur to the deaths, Blumenthal discovers a ruthless conspiracy.

In Val McDermid's The Grave Tattoo, Wordsworth scholar Jane Gresham hears about the discovery of a mysterious body in a bog near her Lake District home at Fellhead. She believes that the body might possibly be that of Fletcher Christian, a native of the area who was known to be a friend of famous local son William Wordsworth. There's long been a rumour that Christian didn't die on Pitcairn Island as the history books always said, but that he returned to his Lake District home. Jane thinks that if he did, he might have told his story to his friend, and that Wordsworth might have left behind an unpublished manuscript in which he details the story of what really happened to Fletcher Christian. So Jane travels to the Lake District to try to track down the person who might have the manuscript, if there is one. In order to do that, she researches church and civic records. She also gets help from her friend and fellow post-doctoral researcher Dan Seabourne, who searches in London for any information he can find. At first, Jane's research is hindered by a mis-spelling. But she discovers who would probably have the manuscript and begin to follow up on her leads. Then, mysterious deaths begin to occur; none of them is unusual in and of itself, but taken together, they're ominous. Soon, Jane finds herself a suspect in what turns out to be a series of murders.

Research is so important to solving crimes that sometimes, quite a lot of police resources are devoted to it, especially for high-profile cases. For instance, in Mark Richard Zubro's Another Dead Teenager, Chicago detectives Paul Turner and Buck Fenwick investigate the brutal murders of star high school athletes Jake Goldstein and Frank Douglas. Both are the sons of high-profile, well-known citizens, and there's intense media pressure to solve the murders as soon as possible. The two detectives begin their work and look into the backgrounds of both victims. The trouble is, though, that both were popular, and neither was mixed up with drugs, gangs or drinking, so at first, it's hard to discover why they died. Then, there's another brutal attack and the pace of investigation gets even more frantic. Turner and Fenwick are given some valuable assistance from a crack computer team and with the help of that team and some research into newspaper reports of other killings, the two detectives find out who killed Goldstein and Douglas and why.

In today's world, much research is done electronically, and fictional sleuths have followed suit, sometimes with amusing results. For instance, in Ian Rankin's The Naming of the Dead, Inspector John Rebus and Sergeant Siobhan Clarke are in the midst of several investigations. One of them is the apparent suicide of MP Ben Webster at a posh dinner right before an important G-8 summit that's being held in Edinburgh. Another is the murder of convicted rapist Cyril Colliar, who'd recently been released from prison. Soon, it looks as though a serial killer might be at work, and Rebus puts together some background information he and Clarke found that might link the deaths to a particular website. He works with freelance journalist Mairie Henderson to get to the truth about the website and the people behind it. At one point, he gives her some information he's typed up:

"'This stuff about the website…' she was scanning the sheet for a second time.
'It's all kosher, Mairie. If you don't have a use for it …'
He held out his hand to take it back.

'What's a serial kilter? Is it someone who can't stop making kilts?'"

Research is an essential part of a police investigation. It's not always easy, though, to weave it into a plot in a way that doesn't drag the story down. But what do you think? Do you enjoy reading about the research that detectives have to do? If you're a mystery writer, how do you balance the need for your detective to do research with the need to move a story along?

On Another Note…

Speaking of research, I've got exciting news for writers. Thanks to
Elizabeth Spann Craig, there's a terrific new searchable knowledge base for writers. Click the button to check it out! Thanks, Elizabeth!!

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from The Beatles' Day Tripper.


  1. Wonderful quotation!

    When it is done convincingly, I love crime fiction with a bit of research. So a skilled writer can hardly give me too much of it.

    I do my best to include bits of research now and then, but I don´t think it is realistic to include too much in a cosy mystery with a private sleuth - or that readers of that genre want long sections of research. So the genre and the type of detective should make a difference, I´d say.

  2. Dorte - Thanks :-) - I was rather proud of that if I may say so.

    You make a very well-taken point. Sub-genre and type of detective should have an effect on how much and what kind of research the sleuth does. For instance, Liza Marklund's Annika Bengtzon can do extensive journalistic research quite convincingly. That's what she does for a living. But it wouldn't be as believable from a cosy sleuth such as Joanne Fluke's Hannah Swensen. And an amateur sleuth would not be able to do research on police databases.

    You also make a good point that fans of different sub-genres probably differ in the kind and amount of research that interests them. They key is that it be, as you say, done convincingly and of course, well-written.

  3. Thank you for your comment. I'm really glad you like my linguistic posts. I'm learning a lot about linguistics.

    Speaking of research, what a great post. I've seen Elizabeth's post but I haven't had the time to check it out. I plan to do so now.

  4. Clarissa - No need to thank me at all. Your post on forensic linguistics is thoughtful and fascinating. Keep 'em coming!

    And thanks for the kind words about this post. Elizabeth has done us all a tremendous favour by creating that search engine!!

  5. Oh research - I like doing it and I like it when there is a different angle on it. I agree though, too much research detail and I'm back in math class sleeping. When trying to figure out a mystery - readers have the research cherry-picked for them - sure there is a red-herring or two - what blows me away is how real life detectives have to work through so many irelevant bits of information to find what is needed. I loved the approaches taken on The Wire (I know, I know - I'm obsessed). One of the main investigators is told to 'follow the money' with very interesting results. forensic book-keeping is quite a bit more interesting than the name would suggest. (not sure what that is called but what the hey!)
    Interesting post as usual.

  6. Jan - Thanks :-). You make a well-taken point, too, that when we read a mystery, the research is cherry-picked (I like that term). The author doesn't generally take a lot of time discussing too much irrelevant research; otherwise, as you say, readers are asleep. Of course, those "red herrings" need to be there, but still...

    You're quite right, too, that in real life, detectives have to sift slowly through an incredible amount of often-irrelevant material to find information that really bears on a case. I'm always amazed by that, too.

    And forensic bookkeeping? I can see how that might be interesting, even though I should say right here that math and arithmetic are not my things.

  7. Wow, I'll have to check out Elizabeth's search engine. Or should I say research it?
    The way the research is written makes it either fascinating or something to skip. Love the last quote about the serial kilter.

  8. Kathy - Isn't that a great quote? I laugh out loud every time I read it, even though I know it's coming.

    And yes, I am so thrilled about Elizabeth's search engine; what a boon to writers!

    You've got a good point: it's not whether or not research is written into a novel, it's the way it's handled. I like that.

  9. I agree - terrific quote. And Elizabeth is a genius! :)

    I love research - in fact I tend to drift away into finding out 'stuff' when I should be writing! :)

  10. Jemi - It sure is a great line :-). And yes, Elizabeth is, indeed, a genius. I am really happy she went through the effort of putting this together :-).

    I have to confess, I sometimes do the same thing: I drift off into interesting things I've found through research instead of getting on with the writing. I think it's a consequence of having everything so easily available on the Internet.

  11. Research in a mystery adds another layer of intrigue when done right. When doing research one does have to be careful not to get sidetracked.

    Elizabeth has created a wonderful new tool for writers.

    Thoughts in Progress

  12. Margot, terrific post! Hard to imagine the days when detectives had to write away for information and then wait weeks for a reply. Only occasionally do I anxiously await something in the mail. It's not often I get anything in the old brass mailbox anymore. I'll have to check out Elizabeth's search engine. Thank you!

  13. Mason - You put that quite well. When the sleuth has to do some research, that can add a solid layer of interest if it's done well. But yeah, when you write, it's awfully easy to get ... um...what was I saying? ;-).

    And I agree: Elizabeth has done a fantastic job!

    Bobbi - Thank you :-). You know, it's funny. I've read lots of detective stories where the sleuth had to wait weeks for a letter or even days for a telegram. Now we take it for granted that sleuths and their teams will use the Internet, make a few quick calls, etc... And with modern "smart phones," you don't even have to sit down at a computer... I don't often wait by the mailbox anymore, either.

    Do check out Elizabeth's wonderful search engine; it's a treasure trove.

  14. Research is tricky, isn't it? We want to make our story realistic, without boring the reader!

    Thanks so much for mentioning the search engine! I appreciate it. :)

  15. Elizabeth - That's just it! You've captured that balance very neatly; we want our stories to be authentic, and that includes research. On the other hand, most readers really would be bored following each thing a detective does to do that research. Not easy...

    And trust me, it's my great pleasure to let everyone know about the wonderful search engine you created. You've done a real service to writers everywhere :-).

  16. Serial kilter??? Oh, that's a keeper. The lucky thing for our characters is the time spent in research gets accordioned down to 'several days later' or what ever. How dull it would be for a reader to have to experience every moment - although what our sleuth does when s/he's procrastinating (face it, everyone does) could be amusing.

  17. Elspeth - I have to say I love that line, too :-). It sends a great message about Rebus' comfort level with computers, too ;-).

    You know, I hadn't thought about it but yeah, following what our characters do when they procrastinate could be interesting and fun. I shall have to think about that. I do like it that we can say, "Several days later," or "After ____got the forensics report" or some other "telescope" sentence like that. They let the reader know what's happened without burdening the reader with un-necessary detail.

  18. Probably because I'm such a computer and Internet addict, I love contemporary mysteries where a lot of online research is needed. The TV show "The Mentalist" plays up that aspect of crime-solving a lot.

    Now gotta check out that database (I like databases, too).

  19. Pat - That database is fantabulous. I think you'll really enjoy it. And I agree; today's mysteries really are improved when there's Internet research involved. It's realistic, too. Today's detectives use the Internet, and in fact, that's often how they catch criminals.

    ...and I have to admit, I love computers and the Internet, too, although I shouldn't say I'm a computer expert. But how today's technology has changed the way we research and write is pretty incredible...