I’m Reviewing the Situation*

One of the benefits of reading crime fiction (besides, of course, enjoying the stories!) is that it arguably improves critical thinking. That’s one reason, for instance, that several reading experts recommend including fiction such as mysteries into children’s reading. How are critical thinking/literacy and crime fiction related? Not everyone is unanimous on this; this is just my perception, and not everyone agrees. But here are a few ideas.

Critical thinking involves identifying what the author wants you to believe – the author’s agenda. For authors who use misdirection, an important part of their writing is leading readers up the proverbial garden path. Critical readers know that, and ask themselves why, for instance, an author is making much of a particular conversation or item. Is it a clue? Is it a ‘red herring?’ What does the author want me to think? Agatha Christie, for instance, uses misdirection in several of her novels. I won’t give specific examples (no spoilers here!), but in novels such as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and Murder on the Orient Express (and there are others!), Christie lays out the story so that the unwary reader will miss some important clues. Matching wits against her involves critically considering what Christie wants the reader to believe and why.

Critical thinking is also useful when it comes to understanding what characters in novels want other characters (and, by extension, the reader) to believe. For example, in Qiu Xiaolong’s Death of a Red Heroine, Shangahi Chief Inspector Chen Cao and his assistant, Detective Yu Guangming, investigate the murder of Guan Hongying, a national model worker. As such, she was somewhat of a political role model, so this investigation will have to be handled very carefully. As they search for information, Chen and Yu talk to several people who knew the victim, and they get somewhat different perspectives on her. They get other perspectives from the ‘higher ups’ to whom they have to answer. Critical thinking skills allow the reader to consider why a character would want the police to believe certain things about the victim. Was that character jealous? Is that character covering something up? To put it another way, in whose interest is it that the police believe and act in certain ways? Of course, there are many, many other examples of fictional interviewees who want to persuade the police to agree with them.

Critical thinking skills are also important when it comes to fictional characters who might or might not be what we think they are. There are plenty of instances of this in crime fiction, especially in novels that focus on psychology. One of those is Lynda La Plante’s Above Suspicion. In the novel, Detective Sergeant (DS) Anna Travis has joined the Murder Squad at Queen’s Park, London. She’s still settling in when a new case comes up. Seventeen-year-old Melissa Stephens has been found murdered. There are some similarities between her murder and six other women who’ve been murdered in the same way. The major difference is that the other victims were older, whereas Melissa was a teenager. Still, there’s a chance the cases are related. The squad’s suspicions soon come to rest on beloved TV star Alan Daniels. It’s not going to be an easy case, though. For one thing, Daniels is very popular, so the media and the public likely won’t take kindly to his being ‘harassed’ by the police. For another, Daniels is wealthy and self-entitled. He may not co-operate easily with the police. Still, the team follows up the leads. Daniels may very well be innocent, as he says he is. He also may be guilty. But if so, what’s the motive? It’s a difficult case, and it requires Travis and the team (and the reader) to sift through what’s said and done and critically evaluate whether Daniels is likely to be guilty.

Legal novels especially lend themselves to critical thinking. In real life, juries have to decide whether someone is or is not guilty, and that requires sifting through the evidence, reflecting, and determining what that evidence means – in other words, critical thinking. It’s not much different in a good legal novel, especially where guilt or innocence isn’t clear-cut. For instance, William Deverell’s Trial of Passion introduces Vancouver attorney Arthur Beauchamp. He’s just retired to Garibaldi Island when one of his former colleagues asks him to defend one of the firm’s clients. Professor Jonathan O’Donnell, acting dean of law at the University of British Columbia, has been accused of rape by one of the law school’s students, Kimberley Martin. O’Donnell claims that he isn’t guilty. He admits that he and Martin were at a party and then went with a group of people back to his house, where a lot of liquor flowed. Finally, he admits that he had sex with Martin, but insists that it was completely consensual. It’s a very difficult case, in no small part because it’s a ‘he said she said’ sort of case where it’s hard to tell exactly what happened. It’s cases like this that invite readers to use their critical thinking skills, try to work out who wants them to believe what, and come to a conclusion.

And that’s a big part of what critical thinking is. Especially with today’s social media and instant information, it’s vital that people use their critical thinking and critical literacy skills to get to the truth about what they read. And crime fiction can arguably help hone those skills. At least that’s my perspective. What’s yours?

If you’d like to know more about critical reading and critical literacy, you’ll want to visit Dr. Alice Horning’s site, Critical Reading in Digital Times. It’s a rich resource on literacy, critical thinking, and reading.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Lionel Bart’s Reviewing the Situation.

Published by Margot Kinberg

I'm a mystery novelist and professor who loves to read, write, and talk about crime fiction.

10 thoughts on “I’m Reviewing the Situation*

  1. Margot: I am all in favour of critical thinking in a world where too many people believe what is true what they want to be true from sources who tell them want they want to believe. If I thought it would do any good I would encourage many Facebook friends to do critical thinking. The world would be a better place if more people read mysteries.

    Every day as a lawyer I must think critically or I do a disservice to clients. What is hardest is trying to assess the credibility of conflicting witnesses. Deverell does an excellent job in Trial of Passion at addressing that challenge. I wish every citizen served on a jury to appreciate the difficulty of judging witnesses.

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    1. I couldn’t agree with you more, Bill. We really do need critical thinking for so many reasons. As you say, too many people believe what they are told without really thinking about it or questioning what they’re told. And you make a well-taken point, too, that when people want to believe something, that’s even more likely.

      You make a good point about serving on juries. It would certainly show people why it’s so important to think critically when they’re assessing credibility. And, as you say, you need to do that, too, as a trial goes on. As a lawyer, it’s also, I would suppose, important to assess the credibility and perspectives of the jurors. That information is an important part of defending a client.

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      1. In Canada potential jurors cannot be questioned by lawyers as in American cases. And, for I think ill advised reasons, peremptory challenges have been removed. You learn very little about potential jurors outside what they may disclose to the judge in trying to avoid serving on a jury.

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      2. Oh, that’s interesting, Bill – thanks. I didn’t know that. I’ve been through that sort of questioning, and it’s an interesting process (actually been thanked and excused twice because of things I said or am that one or the other attorney didn’t want). I certainly think it’s a way to get a sense of what a juror may be like.

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  2. Totally agree, Margot. But I never considered the impact crime fiction could have on a younger mind. Your argument makes perfect sense. It’s also one of the best reasons I’ve heard to encourage young people to read. Brava!

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    1. Thanks, Sue! I’ve always thought that reading – and including mysteries among those books – really does so much to help young people to learn to think. Not everyone has to be a voracious reader, but I think it’s important for young people to learn to find and grapple with ideas in books. And crime fiction can combine a fun read with an invitation to think critically. I didn’t go into it in the post, but there’s research out there that suggests it works, too.

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  3. Some very interesting ideas there – I’ll have to think about it! I did very much enjoy the William Deverell book, and it did have an unusual arc.

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    1. I thought it did, too, Moira. And it highlights, I think, the way that crime fiction encourages readers to think critically. I’ll be interested in what you think of all this when you have the time to process it.

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