Thursday, April 28, 2011

Multi-Tasking? Or "Tunnel Vision?"

It’s pretty much a fact of modern adult life that we have lists of things to do, and lots of bids for our attention. Some people get through their lists by multi-tasking; they’re able to do a lot at once, so they make very efficient use of their time. Other people have what you might call “tunnel vision.” They focus on one task at a time, almost as though shining a laser light on it, and then move to the next. Both ways of getting it all done can be very effective, and each has advantages and disadvantages. In crime fiction, there are certainly plenty of multi-tasking sleuths. That makes sense, because in real life, most detectives work on more than one case at a time. One or another case may have priority, but that doesn’t mean that real-life detectives ignore everything else. There are also, though, plenty of crime-fiction sleuths who concentrate all of their energies on only one case at a time. That’s believable, too; we can imagine a sleuth being caught up in a case and putting aside other things until the case is done.

Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot sometimes has to multi-task. For example, in Murder on the Orient Express, he’s called to London to follow up a lead on a case he’s investigating. We’re not told anything, really, about the case except that it’s “the Kassner case,” but it occupies Poirot during the first part of his journey to London on the famous Orient Express. In fact he’s a bit late to breakfast on the second morning of the trip because he’s spent the early part of the day working on his notes for that case. He’s soon drawn into another case, though, when one of his fellow passengers, American businessman Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed. M. Bouc, a friend of Poirot’s who’s also director of the travel company that owns the train, asks Poirot to investigate so as to have the solution to the murder ready when the border police enter the train. Poirot agrees and begins to interview the passengers and work with Bouc and the doctor who examines Ratchett’s body to find out who the murderer is. Although the novel focuses on the Ratchett murder, it’s interesting to see how Poirot manages his time and resources to “get it all done.”

In Christie’s Lord Edgware Dies (AKA Thirteen at Dinner), Poirot and Hastings investigate the stabbing murder of George Alfred St. Vincent Marsh, 4th Baron Edgware. The prime suspect is Edgware’s wife, American actress Jane Wilkinson. A woman matching her description and giving her name appeared at the Edgware home on the night of the murder and left just around the time that Edgware probably died. Moreover, Jane Wilkinson has made it clear that she wants to get rid of her current husband so that she can marry the Duke of Merton. In fact, she’s even said that if she can’t find some other way to get rid of Edgware, she’ll “bump him off” herself. The only problem with Jane Wilkinson as a suspect is that she’s got an ironclad alibi. She was invited to a dinner party in another part of London on the night of the murder and the host and all of the other guests vouch for her presence there. Poirot and Hastings untangle the mystery of Edgware’s death, but this isn’t Poirot’s only case. He’s also searching for the truth behind the disappearance of a pair of boots belonging to an Ambassador, and in fact, leaves an important luncheon early because he has a meeting with someone about that case. His need to leave the luncheon early means that he doesn’t get to hear first-hand an vital clue that’s hidden in a remark someone at the luncheon makes. In the end, though, Poirot finds out who Edgware’s killer is.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s sleuth, Reykjavík attorney Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, often has to multi-task. Not only is she trying to build and keep her law practice, but also, she’s a single mother. And sometimes, she has to try to do both things at once. For example, in My Soul to Take, Thóra is hired by Jónas Júlíusson to help him press a lawsuit against the former owners of the land on which he’s built his upscale spa and resort. His claim is that the land is haunted, but the owners never informed him. Thóra doesn’t believe in ghosts or hauntings, but she’s interested in the fee and in a getaway to the spa, so she takes the case. She arranges with her ex-husband Hannes to look after their two children, but she’s no sooner at the resort than she discovers that her sixteen-year-old son Gylfi has had an argument with Hannes and has left, taking his younger sister Sóley and his pregnant girlfriend Sigga with him. It’s half nerve-wracking, half-comical as Thóra desperately tries to track down her children while she’s also assisting her client. Matters only get more complicated when the body of Birna Hálldorsdóttir, a successful architect and fellow spa guest, is discovered on the beach not far from the resort. Thóra’s client is accused of the murder, and now she has to juggle that investigation, the original lawsuit and finding out where her children are. In the end, Thóra finds out who’s behind the murder and how it is connected to her client’s claims that the land is haunted. She also manages to find out what’s happened to Gylfi, Sóley and Sigga, but it takes real multi-tasking to do so.

Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti multi-tasks in more than one of the novels featuring him. For instance, in A Question of Belief, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello asks Brunetti’s help with a personal issue. Vianello’s aunt Zia Anita has been taking money from the family business without reporting what she does with it. Although she’s legally entitled to the money and isn’t stealing, the family is concerned that she’s being duped by a charlatan. Brunetti agrees to look into the matter and soon tracks down Zia Anita’s money to Stefano Gorini, a man with a very shady reputation. In the meantime, Brunetti’s been assigned to investigate the murder of local courthouse usher Araldo Fontana, who’s been bludgeoned to death in the courtyard of his apartment building. As Brunetti gets closer to the truth in both cases he’s looking into, we see how he multi-tasks himself, and how his staff does the same when they are working on more than one case at once.

Not all fictional sleuths multi-task, though. And that makes sense from the standpoint of the plot. A plot that’s too linear can be too thin but at the same time, readers want their plots to be focused. And fictional sleuths who are passionate about their cases can be very interesting characters. For instance, Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is a focused sleuth. He puts all of his energies into the case he’s working on. For example, in The Black Ice, he gets caught up in the death of fellow L.A.P.D. officer Calexico “Cal” Moore. Bosch isn’t even officially assigned to the case, but he hears news of it on his police-band radio, so he shows up at the scene of what looks to be Moore’s suicide. Bosch doesn’t believe it’s a suicide for very long, but he’s summarily removed from that case and assigned to close eight other murder cases left open by a fellow officer who’s on stress leave. Bosch stays “tunneled” on the Moore case, though, and finds out that one of the other open cases he’s looking into is actually tied in with the Moore case. In the end, Bosch’s “tunnel vision” takes him to Mexico and to the solution of the murders.

Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse also has what you might call “tunnel vision.” For example, in The Jewel That Was Ours, he and Sergeant Lewis are assigned to a case of theft when a group of American tourists comes to Oxford. Among the tourists are Laura Stratton and her husband Eddie. While in Oxford, Laura intends to donate The Wolvercote Tongue, part of a valuable Anglo-Saxon belt buckle, to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, which has the other part of the belt buckle. On the afternoon of their arrival, though, Laura suddenly dies and the belt buckle disappears. Morse and Lewis are investigating this theft when the next day, Theodore Kemp, curator of the Ashmolean, is murdered. In part because of his “tunnel vision,” Morse becomes convinced that the two events are related, and so they are. So he and Lewis continue to focus on the people closely related to the theft and the murder and that focus helps Morse to solve the crimes.

And then there’s FBI special agent Christine Saksis, whom we meet in Margaret Truman’s Murder at the FBI. When FBI agent George Pritchard’s body is found one day at the rifle range of the FBI’s headquarters, Saksis and her partner and lover Ross Lizenby are assigned to investigate, while causing as little public stir as possible. When a possible connection between Pritchard and a terrorist group is found, the FBI “higher-ups” want to call the case solved. In fact, at one point, Saksis is removed from the Pritchard case and assigned to another FBI office. Saksis doesn’t believe the FBI’s official story, though, and continues to search for answers. Her “tunnel vision” keeps her focused on the Pritchard case and leads her to the solution of the murder.

What about you? Are you a multi-tasker or do you do one focused thing at a time? Which kind of sleuth do you prefer, if you have a preference? If you’re a writer, does your major character multi-task or have “tunnel vision?”


  1. When I was younger, I was a multitasker with a vengeance. I was great at juggling. I find now that I'm older though, I must have tunnel vision in order to accomplish anything at all. Who knows, I might even have accomplished more if I had concentrated on one thing at a time earlier. I think the answer is that you must do what's productive for you, even if that isn't what's "in" at the moment.

    This makes me remember when I was Barbara Borland's assistant. She was an author and widow of naturalist/author Hal Borland. She used to berate me regularly for my "shotgun approach to life."

  2. Barbara - You know, I wouldn't be surprised if age plays a role in whether or not one multi-tasks or uses "tunnel vision." I've found of myself that as I get older, I do better if I accomplish one focused thing at a time than if I try to do too many things at once. I didn't used to be that way. Like you, I used to be a real multi-tasker.

    In the end, I think you're right and we all have to find the approach that works for us. And I didn't know you'd worked for Barbara Borland - very cool!

  3. I think you're right. I find that as I get older, I like to stay focused. I get very stressed when I have a variety of tasks in front of me. Great post.

  4. I am very good at multi-tasking - when I am doing thing that don´t really matter ;) Important things should be done one at the time because that is much more efficient.

    I enjoyed your example of Thora, but the multi-tasking of motherhood doesn´t count in the ´real world´, you know ;)

  5. Clarissa - Thanks! I don't like that stress of having to do too much at once, either, and the older I get, the more I mind it. Maybe my "get up and go" is getting up and going... ;-).

    Dorte - LOL! So true about the multi-tasking of motherhood. I always get so annoyed when people ask friends who stay at home to raise their children if they have a job. Yeesh!!!!

    And you make such a good distinction between multi-tasking for things that don't matter, and focusing to get things done that are important and take concentration. There really is a difference there. I also think it depends on how skilled one is at whatever the tasks are. The more skilled, the easier it is to multi-task.

  6. I try to multi-task but don't always do a good job of it. I agree age has something to do with it. I enjoy protagonist that work both ways. If the protagonist is too good at multi-tasking though, then they're not quite as believable.

    Thoughts in Progress

  7. Mason - Oh, that's a well-taken point! Protagonists who are too good at multi-tasking aren't realistic. I think a lot of readers find it hard to identify with a character who's not realistic...