Wednesday, February 23, 2011

You Probably Don't Want to Hear Advice From Someone Else*

Solving a crime, especially something like murder, is rarely a one-person effort; it takes the effort of a lot of people to put together the pieces of a murder puzzle. Wise detectives know that they don’t always know everything and have all of the facts, even though people tend to turn to them. So they themselves sometimes seek advice from people they trust. And even when they don’t actively seek advice, sleuths learn to pay attention to what people tell them. You never know when a piece of advice can turn out to be very useful.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for instance, is certainly not one to indulge in false modesty. He’s got quite a positive opinion of his “little grey cells.” But that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to listen to advice he gets from others. For example, in The ABC Murders, Poirot is working with Captain Hastings, local police and Scotland Yard to solve a string of murders. The murders have in common that Poirot receives a cryptic warning note before each killing. Also, an ABC railway guide is found near each body. At one point, Hastings makes a remark about one of the warning notes. Poirot doesn’t really say much about Hastings’ observation, but neither does he dismiss it. Later, it turns out that Hastings was quite right, and his comment turns out to be important in solving the mystery. In face, Poirot says that he relies on Hastings’ advice, since Hastings prevents him from “overlooking the obvious.”

In Hallowe’en Party, Poirot travels to the town of Woodleigh Common, where thirteen-year-old Joyce Reynolds was drowned in a bucket of water during a Hallowe’en party. Just hours before her death, Joyce had boasted of seeing a murder a few years earlier, and it seems clear that Joyce was killed because of what she’d seen. Poirot isn’t familiar with the people or the history of the town, and he knows he’ll have to get a sense of the town if he’s going to figure out what Joyce might have seen and who might have killed her. So he seeks advice from a few people. Two of them are Superintendent Spence, who’s retired to Woodleigh Common, and Spence’s widowed sister Elspeth McKay, who keeps house for her brother. Those two characters give Poirot some very helpful information about the town and its people. And then there’s Miss Goodbody, a local cleaning woman who knows all of the local gossip. Poirot asks her about the murder that Joyce Reynolds might have seen, and she gives him a cryptic piece of advice. Poirot listens to what she says and it turns out later that she was exactly right. That piece of advice is an important part of the puzzle of a past unsolved crime.

Dorothy Sayers’ Harriet Vane isn’t particularly arrogant or conceited, although she’s confident in herself. But she has difficulty accepting advice from Lord Peter Wimsey, at least at first. When the two meet in Strong Poison, Vane’s on trial for poisoning her former lover Philip Boyes. Wimsey, who attends the trial, falls in love with Vane and determines to clear her name so he can marry her. When the jury can’t agree on a verdict, Vane gets a new trial, and Wimsey gets a month in which to find out who really killed Boyes and why. When he’s successful in clearing Vane’s name, she’s very grateful to him, but is unwilling to base a relationship just on that gratitude. So for quite a long time, she resists allowing herself to get too close to Wimsey. And yet, she does reluctantly take his advice. In fact, when Vane discovers the body of a dead man during a hiking holiday in Have His Carcase, one of her first thoughts is

“What would Lord Peter Wimsey do in such a case?”

And she allows Wimsey to give her advice and help her solve the mystery of some frightening occurrences at her alma mater, Shrewsbury College, Oxford, in Gaudy Night. In both cases, Vane’s willingness to take advice leads to the solution of the case.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti knows full well that he can’t solve crimes on his own. He’s fortunate enough to have several sources of advice in his life. One of them is his wife Paola Falier, a professor of English. She’s got a strong moral compass and helps Brunetti stay focused on the right thing to do. She’s also got high social position and many contacts, to say nothing of coming from a family with plenty of money. So Brunetti often relies on her advice and her point of view when he’s on a case. Another person on whom Brunetti relies heavily is Signorina Elettra Zorzi, assistant to his boss Vice Questore Guiseppe Patta. Signorina Elettra is a technology expert, so more than once she gives Brunetti advice and information on computers and the Internet, since he’s not as well-versed in technology. Signorina Elettra also has connections all over Venice (and other places in Italy) and can often get things done much more quickly than Brunetti can. She also has quite a lot of informal power in the questura. So Brunetti has learned to listen carefully to her advice.

There’s an interesting case of a sleuth having to take advice in Martin Clark’s The Legal Limit. When successful Patrick County, Virginia prosecutor Mason Hunt ends up indicted for a murder he didn’t commit, he has to turn to his assistant prosecutor Custis Norman. Years ago, Mason Hunt was a witness to a murder that his brother Gates committed. Out of a sense of loyalty, he helped to cover the murder up. Now, Gates Hunt, who’s been imprisoned on a cocaine trafficking charge, wants his brother to help get him out of jail. He’s made it clear that if Mason won’t help, he’ll claim that it was Mason who committed the murder. When Mason refuses, Gates makes good on his threat and Mason Hunt finds himself indicted for murder. Custis Norman has worked with Mason Hunt for some time and is aware of Gates Hunt’s ulterior motives. So he comes up with a strategy to clear his boss’ name. Mason’s not sure whom he can trust, since his brother has betrayed him. But when he finally realises that Custis Norman is on his side, so to speak, Mason listens to his advice. It’s that willingness to listen (and Norman’s strategy) that gives Mason Hunt his chance to beat the charge against him and clear his name.

In Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Mma. Precious Ramotswe is often sought out for her wisdom. That makes sense, too, as she’s a sensible person and a clever detective. But Mma. Ramotswe knows that she doesn’t know everything. So she turns for advice sometimes to her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni and her friend Mma. Sylvia Potokwane, who runs a nearby orphanage. Neither of them, is a detective, but both of them have a lot of wisdom and common sense. When Mma. Ramotswe is sorting things out, she often relies on what they say. She also relies heavily on Clovis Anderson’s The Principles of Private Detection, and it’s interesting to see how, as time goes by, Mma. Ramotswe puts the advice she gets from that book into perspective.

Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri owns Delhi’s Most Private Investigators, Ltd. detective agency. He’s a very successful detective with a good reputation for solving cases. And, while he’s not what you’d call overly arrogant, he’s quite confident in his ability to solve cases. So in The Case of the Missing Servant, when an unknown assailant tries to shoot him, Puri is sure that he can find out who the culprit is. When Puri’s mother finds out he’s been attacked, she rushes over, intending to stay until the culprit is caught. Puri loves his mother and pays her the proper courtesies, but he definitely does not want her involved in the case and certainly doesn’t want to put her at risk. Puri’s mother does her own sleuthing anyway and finds out some valuable information. At first, he’s not willing to listen to her, but in the end, it turns out that information is very important.

There are times when it’s very hard to listen to advice and work with other people, but sometimes, it’s the best way to solve a case…

On Another Note….

Speaking of working together…I’m sure that by now, you know about the terrible earthquake that’s struck Christchurch, New Zealand. We can’t all of us go there and clear rubble and distribute medicine. But I’ve thought of something that we can do, all of us working together.

Please stay tuned to this blog. In the next few days, I’ll be giving lots of details about Do the Write Thing, a charity raffle I’m putting together to raise funds for New Zealand’s Red Cross efforts for earthquake relief.

Here’s how it’ll work. Several authors have very kindly and generously offered to donate signed copies of their books (Thank you!!!!!). When the list of donors and their books is final, I’ll be announcing a raffle for several “book packages” that’ll contain terrific reads by talented authors. To get in on the raffle and be eligible to win one of the “packages,” all we’ll ask is that you make a donation to the New Zealand Red Cross. Then, when you’ve done that, you’ll have a chance to win one of the great “book packages.”

I’ll have specific details for how to donate and how to enter the raffle in a few days. Please stay tuned!

If you’re an author and we haven’t yet been in contact about this, but you’d like to be a part of this relief effort, there’s still time and your donation would be greatly appreciated! Please just click the “Email Me” button (MargotKinberg(at)gmail(dot)com) and let me know of your willingness to donate a signed copy of your work, and the title you are willing to offer. I’ll give you all of the details. Thanks! Let’s all do the write thing!

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


  1. I love the way that Poirot accepts advice from others and really listens to the people he interviews (despite his high opinion of himself! :)

    So glad to hear about the raffle and am shooting you an email...

  2. Elizabeth - I like that very much, too, about Poirot. He's by no means modest about his abilities. At the same time, he's also wise and savvy enough to know he doesn't know everything. I like the way he listens, too.

    ...and many thanks for your Email :-). I got it and have responded.

  3. Nice of you to think of such a great way to raise money. What a world we live in lately. Hard to know where to contribute first.

  4. Patti - Thanks :-). Just trying to do something... And yeah, we live in the kind of world right now where it is hard to know what to do first. I figure this is at least one thing I can do...

  5. What a great idea for a charity. I hope that you gain a lot of support.

  6. As you know, I think the raffle is a terrific idea, but mightn´t it be a good idea with a separate post about it so we could tweet it?

  7. Another interesting and thought provoking post. A sleuth realizing he/she needs helps just makes them more realistic.

    Great idea for a raffle to help those in New Zealand.

    Thoughts in Progress

  8. Clarissa - Thank you :-). I do, too.

    Dorte - That certainly is a good idea. Thanks :-). And thanks for your willingness to donate. That means a lot.

    Mason - Thank you :-). I agree that asking for advice now and again certainly does make the sleuth more human.

    And thanks for your kind words about the raffle. I hope it'll be successful.

  9. I suppose that most detectives, PIs etc are confident in their own abilities, by definition, Margot, that's a good point. It is true that many of them are individualists who don't like to take advice, as you say! Kinsey Millhone, Sue Grafton's protagonist, is always pleasingly independent I think - she listens to people's opinions but does not take much if any notice. ;-)

    Well done for your New Zealand initiative, I look forward to reading more about it.

  10. Maxine - Oh, well-put :-). Kinsey Millhone listens to what people say, and she isn't arrogant enough to think she knows everything. But she is pretty sure of herself, and goes her own way, despite what people may tell her. And you're right, too: it'd be hard to be a PI or a police detective if you had no self-confidence. I'd think that's a pretty essential characteristic.

    And thanks for the kind words about Do the Write Thing. I hope it'll be successful.

  11. I think every detective (amateur or professional) gets help from some quarter; whether it's a knowledgeable friend, an expert or the crime lab.

    What a good soul you are, Margot for organizing this raffle. I wish you every possible success.

  12. Elspeth - Why, thank you *blush*. I really hope this is successful, too, not for me but for those who need it to be successful...

    And I think you make a very good point. If a detective is going to be successful, s/he has to rely on advice from others. Some are better at taking that advice than others are but in the end, I think even the most self-confident sleuth does get help.