Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Don't Forget Your Second Wind*

There comes a time in many police investigations when the detective seems to “hit the wall.” After all, most murderers don’t want to be caught, and even accurate forensics information doesn’t always solve a case quickly. There’s also the matter of the long hours, the stress and the pressure to get the right criminal. Little wonder that real and fictional detectives sometimes get to the end of their proverbial ropes. But one quality sleuths seem to have is perseverance. They get their “second winds” and move on. And very often, at least in realistic crime fiction, it’s as much that perseverance as anything else that solves cases.

We see how that perseverance pays off in Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders. In that novel, Hercule Poirot receives a cryptic warning note that a crime will take place in Andover. At first, it seems to be a crank letter and not much attention is paid to it. Sure enough, though, on the day specified in the letter, newsagent Alice Ascher is murdered in Andover. At first, her estranged husband Franz is suspected, but it’s soon clear that he was not responsible. The police begin to look elsewhere for the murderer but the only clue is an ABC railway guide left on the shop’s counter. A month later, Elizabeth “Betty” Barnard is strangled. Poirot gets a warning note about this murder, too, and again, the only clue is an ABC railway guide, this time left under the body. Then there’s a third warning note, followed by a third murder, this time of retired throat specialist Sir Carmichael Clarke. Now it looks as though there’s a serial killer at work, and Poirot works with Scotland Yard and the local police to try to find the murderer before there’s another death. The investigation doesn’t get very far for quite a while, and that gets on everyone’s nerves, Poirot’s included. But he doesn’t give up, although everything seems so far to have gone as the murderer planned. Poirot’s view is that a murderer is a gambler and gets too complacent and too dependent on luck. Sooner or later, though, luck turns against the murderer. That’s in fact what happens in this case.

In Christie’s Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot’s perseverance also pays off. Ariadne Oliver, Christie’s fictional mystery novelist, has been invited to create a Murder Hunt as a sort of Scavenger Hunt for a fête to be held at Nasse House, the home of Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs. Oliver suspects that something more may be going on than just a fête, so she asks Poirot to visit for the event under the pretext of giving away the prizes for the Murder Hunt winners. Poirot agrees and at first, all seems well. Then, on the day of the fête, fourteen-year-old Marlene Tucker, who’d been playing the part of the victim in the Murder Hunt, is actually killed. Shortly afterwards, Lady Stubbs disappears. So Poirot works with Inspector Bland and his team to find out what happened to Lady Stubbs and who killed Marlene Tucker. The team makes very little progress for quite a long time. Marlene Tucker didn’t seem to have any enemies, and no-one had anything financial to gain from her death. To make matters more complicated, Lady Stubbs does not return, nor is her body found. The case seems to stagnate and that gets to everyone, including Poirot. Then, after reflecting on the facts one more time, Poirot comes back to one character who seems to be the key to the whole case. He visits that character and makes it clear that he knows that character has been keeping things back. That character’s refusal to co-operate is part of what gives Poirot the drive he needs to not give up.

Sometimes, the detective gets a “second wind” because the case becomes personal. That’s what happens in a couple of Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey novels. In Strong Poison, for instance, Wimsey attends the murder trial of mystery novelist Harriet Vane, who’s been charged with poisoning her former lover Philip Boyes. All of the evidence seems to point to Vane, but Wimsey has fallen in love with her and is determined to clear her name. When the jury can’t agree on a verdict, Wimsey gets the time he needs to look into the case. Although there aren’t many leads at first, he perseveres, in part because he’s fascinated by detecting. Mostly, though, it’s because of his feelings for Vane. In Gaudy Night, Vane investigates some troubling vandalism and other disturbing events at her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford. While she’s visiting the school, she’s attacked herself. It’s that danger to Vane as much as anything else that spurs Wimsey on to search for the person behind the events and discover what the motive is for the attack on Vane.

There’s a strong example of this kind of perseverance in Michael Connelly’s 9 Dragons, too. L.A.P.D. detective Harry Bosch is investigating Chinese tongs, or Mafia-like criminal organisations, in connection with his search for the murderer of a liquor store owner. Then, he gets word that his daughter Maddie, who’s now living in Hong Kong, has been kidnapped, possibly in relation to his investigation. So Bosch, who’s already overworked and tired, takes the first flight he can to Hong Kong. Bosch’s bond with his daughter is a major factor in pushing him past the exhaustion and stress and gives him the “second wind” he needs to deal with what’s happened. It also gives him the perseverance he needs to cope with the fallout from the case. There are a lot of other examples, too, of novels where the sleuth gets a “second wind” because a killer has targeted someone the sleuth loves. I’m sure you could think of as many as I could.

You might not think of anger as a positive trait, and lots of times it isn’t. But sometimes, when that passion is channeled, it can give the sleuth a “second wind,” too. For instance, in Pretty is as Pretty Dies, Elizabeth Spann Craig’s Myrtle Clover gets angry when she feels her son Red is trying to “put her out to pasture.” So when she discovers the body of real estate developer Parke Stockard in the local church, Myrtle decides to find out who killed the victim and why. There are plenty of suspects to choose from, and some of them are potentially dangerous. So Red, who’s the local chief of police, does his best to dissuade his mother from investigating. That only makes Myrtle more determined to find out who the killer is, though. In the end, that channeled passion gets Myrtle through a couple of very near escapes and leads her to the killer. Oh, and hey Elizabeth, I’d love to hear more from Myrtle. I hope a new Myrtle Clover mystery is in the works…

That “second wind” can even come from the detective’s determination not to be beaten by an intellectual challenge. Very often, that’s what keeps Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes on the case. When he’s investigating, he often goes for long periods without regular sleep or meals. He focuses all of his energy on his cases, and it’s the intellectual challenge as much as anything else that gives him the energy to persevere. In fact, he’s much worse off when he doesn’t have a case on hand than he is when he’s on the job.

That same determination to untangle intellectual knots keeps Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse going. He doesn’t like to think that he’s been bested, so when it turns out that he’s wrong about something (which does happen to him more than once) he’s all the more determined to find out the truth. For instance, in The Silent World of Nicholas Quinn, Morse and Sergeant Lewis are searching for the murderer of Nicholas Quinn, the only Deaf member of Oxford’s Foreign Examinations Syndicate. The Syndicate handles examinations given to residents of other countries with a British connection, and being chosen for membership is quite an accomplishment for Quinn; in fact, he was by no means the Syndicate’s unanimous choice. As Morse and Lewis look into the case, they find out all sorts of “dirty laundry” that members of the Syndicate have been hiding, and more than one motive for Quinn’s murder. At one point, Morse thinks he has the answer to the puzzle and he’s willing to be satisfied with his solution – until he discovers that he’s wrong. At the last minute, he finds out the truth. We can see his determination to find out what really happens when he returns to a witness he interviewed before. This time, he presses the witness much more than he did previously, mostly because he just has to know the truth. In the end, the witness tells Morse what he wants to know.

There are times when all sleuths “hit the wall.” They wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. But what keeps them from giving up when that happens is perseverance – that “second wind.” I like that about them.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s You’re Only Human (Second Wind).


  1. When I get to that point in my manuscript, that's when I hit 'writer's block' because for some reason when my detectives hit a brick wall, I do as well. But, you're right, eventually I get my second wind. And on I write. I love the post.

  2. Clarissa - Thank you :-). Yeah, as writers I think we hit that wall, too. And yeah, you just gather your strength, pick yourself up and keep going. And so do the characters.

  3. And writers need one too as Clarissa says. Even in a short story, you hit walls pretty hard.

  4. Patti - You sure do hit walls when you write. I think it's important to find a way to get that "second wind" when that happens...

  5. Great post, Margot! And you're right; there are a ton of different reasons why a detective could really get fired up over a case again--giving them just the impetus to solve it. Additional bodies, ticking clocks--annoying children. :) I *do* have another Myrtle book, but it will be looking for a home. Need to talk to my agent about it and figure out our approach. Thanks for the mention!

  6. Unfortunately, it is all-too-common in crime fiction that when the investigation or investigator seems to hit a brick wall, the "second wind" most often comes from another murder - leading to a definitive clue as to the perpetrator (perhaps with another murder or two thrown in to boot). I always like it when a novel does not resort to this overused method!

  7. Elizabeth - Thanks :-). And it was my pleasure to mention you and Myrtle. I'm glad that you've got another Myrtle story in the works, and I hope you and your agent will find a good home for it. And I agree; there are a lot of realistic reasons why a sleuth would get the impetus to keep going and solve a case, whether it's the "ticking clock" or something else. And those reasons are best, I think, if they are tailored to the individual story.

    Maxine - I know what you mean. When I read your comment, I was thinking about a comment that Agatha Christie's fictional detective Ariadne Oliver makes in Cards on the Table. She says that when she doesn't have a long enough word count she has to throw in another murder and get the heroine kidnapped again. She then says that it's all very boring. And she's right (as are you); just putting another body (or other bodies) in a novel to provide clues can really take away from a novel. I like it, too, when novels don't resort to that.

  8. I like it when a sleuth gets discourages, it demonstrates they're only human. That second wind can come from realizing they've interpreted the evidence incorrectly or discover someone they thought was honest actually isn't, or even when their prime suspect proves he has an unbreakable alibi, but they keep going.

    There's also the grim reality that no one is going to read a mystery in which the mystery remains unsolved!

  9. Elspeth - You've got a well-taken point. Most readers want that sense of closure that one gets when everything gets figured out. Maybe the "bad guy" doesn't go to jail, etc., but we want to know whodunit and whydunit.

    And I agree that it makes a sleuth more human when s/he "hits the wall." We all do at one point or another, and about one thing or another. So why shouldn't sleuths? But to be honest, I also like it when the sleuth doesn't wallow but instead, figures out that someone was lying, or the evidence isn't as it seemed or something else that breaks the case open. "Poor me" is human and perfectly understandable, but wallowing's annoying after a bit.

  10. That hitting the brick wall does tend to make the sleuths more realistic to the readers. While we (as readers) always want the sleuth to catch the killers, we also want them to have a few 'common problems' along the way. Great post.

    Thoughts in Progress

  11. Mason - Thank you :-). And you make a very important point about how important it is that the sleuth be realistic. Readers want their sleuths to act like real human beings. That includes hitting the wall at times. It includes picking oneself back up and starting over. All of those things make sleuths more interesting because it makes them more real.