Thursday, January 20, 2011

Try to See it My Way*

One of the skills that most of us develop is the ability to "read others" and take their perspectives. We may not agree with what others think, but understanding how they think makes us better able to communicate. For real-life or fictional detectives, understanding how others think can be critical to catching criminals. So most sleuths become fairly good judges of people's characters, viewpoints and probably reactions. As crime fiction shows us, though, not everyone is skilled at taking others' perspectives and seeing the world as others do. That sort of obliviousness can lead to misunderstanding and worse. In fact, it can get people killed.

That's what happens, for instance, in Agatha Christie's
Death on the Nile. Linnet Ridgeway seems to have everything: she's beautiful, she's very wealthy and she's smart. But Linnet isn't good at really understanding the way others think and feel. For instance, she decides to add a swimming pool to her property and when she discovers that some of the tenants' cottages will overlook the pool, she determines that the cottages have to be taken down and the tenants moved. The fact that the tenants might not want to move and might resent what she's doing doesn't really bother her. One day, Linnet's best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort calls with some exciting news; she's become engaged and she wants Linnet to hire her fiancé Simon Doyle as land agent. Linnet agrees, and she duly hires Simon. Soon enough, Linnet finds herself attracted to Simon and despite the fact that his fiancée is her best friend, Linnet marries him. During their honeymoon cruise up the Nile, Linnet is shot. Hercule Poirot is on the same cruise and he and Colonel Race begin to look into the case. At first, Jacqueline is the most logical suspect, since she had a powerful motive and she's on the same cruise. However, it's soon proven that she could not have killed Linnet, so Poirot and Race have to look elsewhere. They find that Linnet's unwillingness to take others' perspectives has made vulnerable.

In Christie's
The Hollow (AKA Murder After Hours), we meet Dr. John Christow, successful Harley Street specialist. He's intelligent, friendly, good with patients and his wife Gerda adores him. But John Christow has difficulty seeing others' perspectives. For example, he and Gerda are invited for a week-end to the country home of Sir Henry and Lady Lucy Angkatell. He's very eager to go; he enjoys the country, he's fond of the Angkatells and he's excited to get out of London for the weekend. There's also the fact that his mistress Henrietta Savernake, who's an Angkatell cousin, will also be there. Because he's so excited about the trip, it never occurs to him that Gerda might feel differently. As it turns out, she's dreading it. She's intimidated by the Angkatells, she loves her home in London and she doesn't want to leave it. Christow's oblivious to Gerda's views, though, and the two head out for their trip. On the Sunday afternoon, Hercule Poirot, who's staying in a cottage nearby, is invited to lunch at the Angkatell home. He arrives just in time to witness what he thinks is a murder-scene tableau designed for his benefit. Christow's been shot by the pool and the shooter is standing right by his body. After a moment or two of annoyance at what he thinks is a warped sense of humour, Poirot realises that this scene has not been contrived. Christow is really dead. So Poirot and Inspector Grange investigate the murder. It turns out that the murder scene was artificially contrived, but the killing of John Christow wasn't. In the end, his inability to take another's viewpoint had a tragic consequence.

In Colin Dexter's
The Jewel That Was Ours, we meet Dr. Theodore Kemp, curator of Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. Kemp isn't malicious, but he doesn't consider the way others think and feel. Ultimately, that proves to be his undoing. Kemp's very excited to find that Laura Stratton and her husband Eddie are planning to donate the valuable Wolvercote Tongue to the Ashmolean. It's part of a very valuable Anglo-Saxon belt buckle; the Ashmolean has half already, and is eager for the other half. The Strattons travel to England with the rest of a group of American tourists who are taking a tour of historic English cities, Oxford being one of them. On the day of the tour group's arrival in Oxford, Laura Stratton suddenly dies and the Wolvercote Tongue disappears. Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to investigate the case. The next day, Kemp is murdered. Morse is sure that the murder and the disappearance of the Wolvercote Tongue are related, and so it proves to be. When Morse and Lewis get to the truth of the matter, they find out that Kemp's death is directly related to his lack of empathy for others.

That's also true of John Heppel in M.C. Beaton's
Death of a Bore. Heppel's a successful screenwriter who's decided to offer writing classes to the residents of Lochdubh. Everyone's excited about the classes and several residents dream of becoming published authors. On the first night of class, the students' anticipation turns quickly to misery when Heppel publicly humiliates several of them. There's a lot of anger at Heppel's callous attitude and local Constable Hamish Macbeth warns Heppel that he needs to be more considerate of his students. Heppel doesn't pay attention to Macbeth's warning, though, and the second class proves no better than the first. Again Heppel humiliates his students. Soon afterwards, he's found murdered. Now Macbeth has to search among the many enemies Heppel has made to find out which of them killed the victim.

Shona MacLean's
A Game of Sorrows introduces the character of Maeve O'Neill, proud matriarch of the once-powerful Irish O'Neill family. Maeve dreams of restoring her family to its ancient status and sets out to accomplish her goal. To do this, she begins to manipulate the lives of her family members and takes little account of their views or wishes. This inability (or unwillingness) to take another's viewpoint and "read" the members of the family leads to tragedy. First, a local well-respected poet curses the entire family. Then, parts of the curse begin to come true. So Maeve O'Neill sends her grandson Sean O'Neill Fitzgarrett to Scotland to bring back his cousin Alexander Seaton. Maeve wants Seaton to find the poet who cursed the family and show him that not all of the curse can be fulfilled. It's Maeve's belief that this will lift the curse and help her to restore her family's power. Seaton's unwilling to get involved, but he reluctantly goes to Ireland and Maeve's domineering personality persuades him to search for the poet. Seaton's soon involved in family conflict, political intrigue and religious upheaval. Even to the end, though, Maeve O'Neill seems oblivious to the upheaval around her and to the tragedy that's resulted from her ambitions.

Sleuths tend to be most effective when they can take others' viewpoints and "get into the heads" of the people they're investigating. That skill makes it easier to determine who's lying, who's probably telling the truth, and who might be guilty. In fact that's the stock in trade of sleuths such as Jeffery Deaver's Kathryn Dance and P.D. Martin's Sophie Anderson. Both of those sleuths are skilled, each in a different way, at "reading" people. Dance uses her expertise at kinesics to "read" people. Anderson has psychic dreams and visions which enable her to "get in the heads" of killers. There are plenty of other examples, too, of sleuths who are effective at using their ability to take another's perspective.

But one unusual sleuth can't do that. He's fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone, whom we meet in Mark Haddon's
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Christopher has Autism, and although he's fairly high-functioning, he has quite a lot of trouble "reading" people's facial expressions and non-verbal language, and he finds it hard to take other perspectives. So he's at a real disadvantage when he discovers that his neighbour's dog has been killed and decides to find out who's responsible. He wants to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes, and he does find clues. But throughout the novel, it's clear that he's oblivious to some of the reactions of the other characters. It's an interesting example of what happens when the sleuth doesn't understand others' perspectives.

It can be difficult to take someone else's perspective, especially if it's very different to our own. But as crime fiction shows us, seeing things from another point of view can save your life ;-).

: The title of this post is a line from the Beatles' We Can Work it Out.


  1. This is so interesting, and though it doesn´t exactly lead to murder, different perspectives and attitudes to other people is also a part of the Håkan Nesser I have just put down. A boring old man and a tough young drug-addict (female) disappear, and no one understands why they were together in the first place - because people around them do not see them the way they see themselves.

  2. We all think we can read people pretty well, but can we really? My Sam thinks she can, but in reality she has too much faith in human nature, so sometimes makes the wrong judgement because of it. She assumes people will behave honorably. Other protagonists judge human behaviour from the other side of the coin and assume people are rat bags. Both ways makes life interesting for the protagonist, and the reader!

  3. Dorte - Now that is intriguing, and it is true that people don't always see others the way they see themselves. I can imagine, too, why it would seem strange that an old man and young drug-addict would disappear together if you didn't know how they saw themselves and each other. I'm looking forward to your review of the book.

  4. Vanda - You know, you've got a very well-taken point. People do misread others because of the assumptions they have about others. As you say, some are too optimistic, and some are too pessimistic. Either way, you run the risk of misjudgments and all sorts of complications. I think that does add interest to a novel, especially if the author gets you to believe what the sleuth believes, whether or not it turns out to be true ;-).

  5. What a great topic. I love it when my characters misread others and working that into the plot. Sometimes authors who write from multiple POVs will use the misunderstanding of characters to up the tension. It can work out so well.. it can also be cringe-worthy.

  6. Clarissa - Thank you :-). And I think you're right; having multiple POVs that lead to misunderstandings can either work very well...or not at all. I think that takes a deft touch. But it's always interesting when a character (whether or not it's the sleuth) mireads another character. That leads to all sorts of interesting complications and I think it's realistic, too. People can misread each other.

  7. I read people poorly...I'm thinking I should watch my step! Ha! Great post on a topic I've never thought much about.

  8. ELizabeth - LOL! I sometimes wonder about that, myself ;-). I always think it's interesting how easy it is to mis-read people... Thanks for the kind words :-).

  9. It adds a bit of suspense when the sleuth misreads the killer and begins to look for another suspect. Interesting post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Thanks :-). You put that quite well: it does add suspense and interest to a story when one of the characters is misread, especially if that character ends up being the "bad guy."

  11. This is one of the things I love about writing - and used to love about acting - the chance to see a situation through someone else's eyes. I suppose this is why I write in multiple POVs - no one sees the same thing the same way.

  12. Elspeth - You are so right! That is one of the beauties of writing and, I'd guess, of acting (other than grade school and junior high school stuff, I've never acted). One gets to see life through different eyes. We all have our own perspectives, and I think that's what makes it sometimes easy to mis-read people.

  13. All of human interaction seems to be about the hit and miss ability to really 'know' someone else. Wars, murder, love, education, racism and all those other ism's are focussed on believing that there is one way to perceive the world and ourselves in it.
    great post.

  14. Jan - Thanks :-). And I hadn't thought about it that way, but you are so right! So many of the -isms in our world, and so much of the conflict in it, comes from mis-perceptions. We have certain perceptions about the world and the people in it, and it's very hard to take other perspectives. That's such an important point! Thanks for making it.

  15. I think of Clarice Starling's ability to get inside Hannibal Lector's head and think it only should go so far.

  16. Jolly good post - and the title is also the title of an obscure Bacharach-David song....

  17. Patti - You make a good point. Hannibal Lecter's head is a very, very scary place and it's a good reminder that maybe we don't need to know everything about how someone thinks...

    Martin - Thank you :-). And thanks for the detail about the Bacharach-David song. I'm going to have to look for that one now you've mentioned it...

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