Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I'll See it When I Believe it

That twist on the old saying is a reminder that we base a lot of what we say and do – and even what we think we see and hear and sense – on our beliefs. In medicine, for instance, that phenomenon is responsible for the “placebo effect.” People truly believe that a pill or shot or course of treatment will help them to get better, and sure enough, they get well. Of course, the opposite is also true. If we don’t believe something, the power of that denial can be strong enough that we ignore our own senses. Because of the power of people’s beliefs to shape their behaviour, even when they’re wrong, those beliefs can complicate a criminal investigation. That’s just as true in crime fiction as it is in real life. That’s why, for instance, framing an innocent person for a murder is such a popular strategy to avoid being caught. If the police assume someone’s guilty, they sometimes look for evidence to support that assumption rather than questioning the assumption. It’s also why innocent people sometimes truly believe that they have committed a crime.

We see the powerful effect of beliefs in Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. In that novel, the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana has invited eight guests to an unusual dinner party. Four of them (Hercule Poirot, Superintendent Battle, Ariadne Oliver and Colonel Race) are sleuths. The other four are people Mr. Shaitana believes have committed murder but never been suspected of it. After dinner, everyone settles down to play bridge; the four sleuths are in one room and the four other guests are in another room. Mr. Shaitana, who isn’t playing, joins those other guests. At some time during the evening, Mr. Shaitana is stabbed. There are only four suspects; each has a motive and any one of them could have committed the crime. Poirot and the other sleuths examine each possibility to find out who killed Shaitana. At one point, one suspect confesses to the crime. Poirot doesn’t believe that suspect is telling the truth because this particular suspect’s psychology doesn’t match the sort of murder it was. When he points that out, the suspect admits to lying and claims to have been an eyewitness when another suspect committed the crime. The lies were a coverup for that other suspect. It’s an interesting case of believing something…and then seeing it.

In Christie’s 4:50 From Paddington (AKA What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!), Elspeth McGillicuddy is on a train en route to visit her friend Jane Marple. Another train passes, going in the same direction. Mrs. McGillicuddy glances into the window of the other train and sees a man strangling a woman. She alerts the conductor, and when she arrives at her destination, she alerts the police. But no-one believes her because there is no body, and no-one has reported a missing woman who matches the description of the victim. Miss Marple, though, does believe her friend and sets out to discover the body and the truth about the crime. Because she believes that there was a murder and therefore, a body, Miss Marple deduces where that body must be – on the grounds of Rutherford Hall, the property of Luther Crackenthorpe. Miss Marple persuades her friend Lucy Eyelesbarrow to take a position as housekeeper there and coaches her on where to look for the body. Sure enough, Lucy finds the body of a dead woman. Because the police didn’t believe there was a murder, they didn’t look for a body at first. Once the body is discovered, they begin to investigate and with Miss Marple’s help, they discover who the woman was and who killed her.

In Ellery Queen’s Ten Days Wonder, we meet Howard Van Horn, who wakes up one morning covered in blood. He remembers nothing from the night before and is now terrified that he’s done something horrible. He’s been having a scary series of blackouts lately, and truly believes that he committed a murder during this episode. So he visits his college friend Ellery Queen and begs him to help. Queen agrees and he and Van Horn begin to try to figure out what happened. Their search for the truth leads them back to Van Horn’s hometown of Wrightsville, a small New England town. Shortly after they arrive in Wrightsville, Van Horn has another blackout. And then there’s a murder. Because Van Horn assumes that he is guilty of this murder, he only accepts as truth evidence that points to his guilt. At one point, he even convinces Queen that he truly could be guilty. It’s not until Queen lets go of that assumption that he’s able to figure out what really happened and who framed Howard Van Horn for murder.

In Tess Gerritsen’s The Mephisto Club, Dr. Maura Isles is called to the scene of a brutal murder late on Christmas Eve. When she gets there, she sees that the police, including her friend Detective Jane Rizzoli, are already there. The murder scene is grisly and the killer has left strange symbols and signs behind. At first, both women, especially Rizzoli, believe that this murder is the work of a psychologically twisted killer. Then, there’s another terrible murder with similar hallmarks. And another. The more that Isles and Rizzoli find out about the victims, the more likely it seems that one person could the key to the murders. That one person is Lily Saul, who grew up with two of the victims. The only problem is that Lily Saul has disappeared. No-one’s been able to get in touch with her for months, and we soon learn why; Lily has fled and is in hiding. With help from a shadowy group of scholars called The Mephisto Club, Isles and Rizzoli track Lily down and try to convince her to help them get to the truth about the murders. At first, Lily refuses and sees Rizzoli and Isles, as well as the Mephisto Club, as her enemies. Then we discover that that’s because Lily has been living under a wrong assumption for many years, and has very much the wrong beliefs about the people who have found her. It’s not until Rizzoli convinces Lily that her beliefs are wrong that Lily agrees to help. As it turns out, Rizzoli herself has some wrong assumptions about this case, too.

Mark Haddon’s Christopher Boone, whom we meet in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, has a very clear and well-ordered picture of his family. He sees his family in a certain way because of his beliefs. That’s especially important to fifteen-year-old Christopher because he has Autism and relies heavily on routine and dependability. Then one day, Christopher discovers that a neighbour’s dog has been killed. He himself is suspected, so he determines to be a detective just like Sherlock Holmes, clear his own name and find out the truth about the dog. In the process of figuring out what happened to the dog, Christopher finds out that his assumptions about his family were wrong. As he becomes aware of the truth about his family, the reader learns that truth, too. Then, all sorts of things seem to fall into place, and we see a shifting picture of the family and of some other people in Christopher’s life. Since this story is told from Christopher’s point of view, we see even more clearly the effect of our beliefs on our perceptions.

Donna Leon addresses this issue, too. In A Question of Belief, Ispettore Vianello asks for help from his boss, Commissario Guido Brunetti. Vianello is worried because his aunt Zia Anita has recently taken what Vianello thinks is an unhealthy interest in astrology. She’s also been taking money from the family-owned business without any explanation of what she’s doing with it. Although she’s got a legal right to the money, her behaviour worries her family. She’s also become a fan of Stefano Gorini, a supposed medical doctor with a very shady reputation. Vianello asks Brunetti to help find out whether Gorini is as disreputable as he seems and whether he’s taking people’s money in return for false cures. The more the two detectives look into Gorini’s background, the more they see how willing people are to believe in him. All sorts of people claim that his cures have helped them even though it becomes clear that they have not. Brunetti uncovers the reason for these beliefs and when he does, tragedy strikes. As for Zia Anita, she refuses to see Gorini for what he really is until she is confronted with evidence that even she cannot deny. It’s only then that she realises she’s been “taken.”

The tendency to see and hear what we believe is true is a very strong part of human nature and it takes a lot of effort at times to get beyond our assumptions. Which novels have you enjoyed that hinge on that point?

ps Which woman do you see in the 'photo? An old woman, a young woman, or both?


  1. Another fine subject. You could say that to write good crime fiction you have to be a conjuror. You give your readers bits and pieces of information, but you try to make the most important clues seem insignificant while highlighting the red herrings.

    I read a thriller recently where the writer tried to convey the wrong image of one of the criminals. I don´t guess who did it very often (and never try to do so on purpose), but for some reason I was suspicious immediately in this case, thinking ´she did it´ after one chapter in her company. But do we mind when we guess? As long as the writer has come up with a proper plot, I think most readers just feel they have been clever :)

  2. Dorte - Why, thank you :-). You make a well-taken point, too, that if one's going to write a decent crime fiction story, one has to build up the reader's assumptions in a certain way. Otherwise where is the challenge?

    That's an interesting question, too, as to whether it matters to a reader whether s/he figures out who the murderer is before the truth is revealed. I've read more than one book where I guessed correctly and didn't mind (it is nice to feel clever ;-) ). Then I've read some where it bothered me. I think you are right that it has to do with how well the book's been plotted and of course, whether the characters are interesting.

  3. I only saw the young lady until you told me there was an older woman. I was fooled. You make great points about our observations and judgments based on beliefs. I really want to read that book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

  4. Clarissa - I remember the first time I saw this; I was fooled, too. Usually people notice either one or the other, but not both. I always find it fascinating the way what people see, hear, and think, and how they act, is so dependent on what they believe about those experiences...

    And I think you'll really like The Curious Incident.... It's an unusual book - not at all a "typical" mystery. But it's compelling.

  5. Margot: I saw only the young woman. I think I do better at figuring out word images than visual imaages.

  6. Ann - Thank you :-). Glad you found it worth the read.

    Bill - I'm a "word person," myself. The first time I saw this, I only saw the young woman as well and I couldn't believe I'd missed the elderly woman.

  7. Interesting post. You made me want to read Cards on the Table, now. I'm an Agathy Christie fan, but I missed that one. Great picture to make your point, too! It took me awhile to spot the old woman.

  8. Elizabeth - Thank you :-). Cards on the Table is an interesting book in a lot of ways. For example, we meet Ariadne Oliver and Superintendent Spence for the first time in it. And it's very interesting from a psychological viewpoint, too.

    I wish I'd created that picture; it is a nice little challenge, isn't it?

  9. Another intriguing post to make us think. I guess it's human nature to become focused on one thing in real life (and fiction) and because of that the killer's chances of getting caught grow slimmer. Mark Haddon's book sounds interesting, I'll have to add that to my ever growing list.

    Thoughts in Progress

  10. Mason - Thank you :-). You've got a good point, too. We tend to have one way of looking at the world - one set of assumptions. That world view affects everything, including the way sleuths investigate crime. It takes effort to "step back" from our world view and see things in a different way.

    I think you'll find the Haddon book very much worth the read. It's not a "typical" crime novel (if there is such a thing) but it's fascinating story.

  11. Sure enough, when I glanced at your title, I saw the original saying rather than the twist on it. Also, I see the young woman, still looking for the old one.

    I don't mind at all when I figure out whodunit even though I don't usually try.

  12. Barbara - Isn't it interesting that we see what we are "primed" to see - what we assume we'll see? It's such an interesting phenomenon, I think... Keep looking and I'll bet you'll see the old woman; look at the young woman's neckline and you'll see the old woman's chin.

    And like you, I don't mind figuring out whodunit if the plot and characters are solid.

  13. Try as I might, I only see the young woman. Perhaps to see the older one, you must take a leap of faith.

  14. Patti - Interesting point. It may take that, or just looking at it with fresh eyes. Here's another hint. The young woman's chin is the old woman's nose.

  15. Another thought-provoking post, Margot and I love that picture. It's a fascinating illustration that once we see one thing, it's very hard to change our perspective and see something else. First impressions can be wrong although many have a difficult time admitting it.

    I once wrote a murder mystery where the wrong person confessed to the crime as she was convinced she had done it. Of course, the poor lamb had been convinced by the actual murderer...

  16. Elspeth - Thank you :-). I wish I could say I'd drawn that picture but I didn't. It is fascinating, though, isn't it? I like that reminder, too, that we sometimes have to change our perspective to see the whole picture.

    Your story sounds interesting, too!. It reminds me of a few very fine mysteries I've read where people are convinced they've committed murder although they're innocent. I like that premise. You'd better patent it before I use it, too ;-).

  17. I'm going to have to go back and look again. I only see the young person.

    Glad to have found your blog. Look forward to following it and your writing

    warm wishes

  18. Debbie - Thanks so much for the visit. You are very welcome among us :-). The elderly lady is a bit hard to see, but if you look, you will see that the young woman's chin is the older woman's nose..