An interesting post from Kate at Cross Examining Crime has got me thinking about the way that fictional sleuths get information about a case, and the way the author gives the reader access to those clues. Before I go any further, let me strongly encourage you to visit Kate’s terrific blog. She’s an expert on Golden Age crime fiction, and her reviews are thoughtful and detailed.
In her post, Kate reviews Agatha Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia. She also makes mention of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Both of those novels are interview-heavy; Hercule Poirot spends quite a lot of time talking to the suspects and other interested parties. In Murder on the Orient Express in particular, Poirot and the reader get important information about the suspects’ personalities and backgrounds. To put it a slightly different way, Christie uses those interviews to give clues to the reader, both about the characters and about the murder itself. Kate argues (and I think she has a point) that the same strategy doesn’t work quite as well in Murder in Mesopotamia. That said, though, interviews can be effective ways to share character development, clues, and more.
Alexander McCall Smith’s Mma Precious Ramotswe gets a great deal of information from the people she interviews. She has found that being personable and approachable helps to make people feel more comfortable around her. And that means they’re more likely to say things to her. She uses psychology (although not really in a formal way), and her own experience and knowledge of human nature to get people to give her information, even if they don’t want to talk. I’ll bet you could name many other books, too, that use effective interviews – more than I could.
But interviews aren’t enough. After all, people lie. Or they don’t remember things correctly. Or they don’t mention things because they ‘don’t matter,’ or are embarrassing or even illegal. Any good lawyer will tell you that what people say they saw or heard, even if it’s the truth, isn’t usually enough for a good case. That’s why crime writers also share information and clues in other ways. In her post, Kate mentions (and again, she’s got a strong point) that when they’re done well, other clues (physical clues, bank records, and so on) also convey a lot to the reader. The trick is, of course, to provide helpful, truthful clues that also are not spoilers. That’s not as easy as it may seem. Trust me.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes relies a great deal on physical clues, whether it’s candle wax on a hat, a twisted piece of metal, or stick figure drawings. To Holmes, physical evidence is objective and scientific. And he sees that as a great improvement over intuition. In a few cases (I’m thinking, for instance of The Boscombe Valley Mystery), witnesses tell him what they heard, but Holmes doesn’t rely on that information exclusively. He finds other evidence that helps him make sense of what witnesses say.
Christianna Brand’s Green For Danger makes use of some very interesting clues. When a postman breaks his leg and is sent to the nearest hospital, everyone thinks it’s going to be a routine case that will involve a fairly low-risk operation. Instead, he dies on the table. At first, it’s put down to one of those tragic losses that can happen with any operation. Inspector Cockrill of the Kent police is sent to the hospital to do the routine paperwork that accompanies an unexpected death. He finds, though, that this case is anything but routine. There are certain physical clues that don’t quite add up. What’s more, one of the people who were present at the operation blurts out that she knows the man was murdered, and she knows how. When she is killed later that night, it’s clear that this is a case of murder. Cockrill does interview the other people involved and gets some information from them. But not everyone tells the truth, so Cockrill has to rely on the other evidence. It’s an interesting case of using different sorts of clues to (mis)direct the reader.
The ‘Queen Team’ also did this with several of their Ellery Queen stories. In The Last Woman in His Life, for instance, Queen investigates the murder of a jet-setting playboy. There are several suspects, and of course, Queen talks to them. But there are also physical clues that point Queen (and the reader) in the right direction once he knows how to interpret them correctly.
There are other ways, too, to place clues and ‘red herrings’ in novels. Whether it’s interviews, physical clues like murder weapon, or other information (bank records, CCTV footage, and so on), it’s important that they give useful background that fleshes out characters and helps the sleuth (and reader) to the solution. How do your top authors place information in their stories? If you’re a writer, how do you do it?
Thanks, Kate, for the inspiration. Now, folks, treat yourself to a visit to Kate’s excellent blog. I learn every time I visit.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Perón’s Latest Flame.
14 thoughts on “The Evidence Suggests*”
Some interesting thoughts there, Margot. I always like the differing methods of Poirot and Marple; the latter is so clever at worming out facts because everyone thinks she’s just a woolly old lady. That stereotyping helped in her case!
Thanks, KBR. It is interesting to see how very different those two Christie creations really are when it comes to sleuthing. To me, that’s just a bit of evidence of her skill. You’re right, too, about how easily people are disarmed by Miss Marple’s non-threatening ‘wooly old lady’ persona. She makes good use of that stereotyp!
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Wonderfully thoughtful post, as usual, Margot. 🙂 Got me thinking, sometimes it’s how forensic countermeasures are applied that gives great clues, for example, the lack of CCTV footage in a city that has thousands of cameras.
Then I started thinking about how I write, and I follow the same clues as the investigator and the reader, and yet I’m the one who puts the clues into the story. A conundrum. All these years and I still don’t know for sure how it works! 🙂 🙂
I know what you mean, Cat! I put the clues in my stories, and yet, if there is a formula for it, I don’t know what it is, either. I wonder if it’s that we’re trying to be realistic. You know – ‘OK, I’m ________, the sleuth, and I’ve just seen seen a text on the dead person’s telephone. What do I do with it?’ Treating the clues – even though we put them there -as though we didn’t know the story can be a good way of making it more believable. Does that even make sense?
At any rate, thanks for the kind words! 😀 And now you’ve given me a good idea about that CCTV footage…
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That makes perfect sense to me. We are the sleuths so therefore we must follow the breadcrumbs just like the reader. Our brains are quite clever aren’t they?
Sometimes the clue is what isn’t there. 🙂 🙂
Right you are, Cat. It’s like the dog barking in the night-time… 🙂 And, yes, we have to follow the trail as the reader does. I like that way of thinking…
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Such an interesting and entertaining post, Margot. I love how you make me really think about the detail of what I read. I haven’t a lot to add really, partly because the death of The Queen seems to have made me far more woolly-minded than I ever would’ve expected. I’ve just finished reading Burglars Can’t Be Choosers by Lawrence Block and there was a significant lack of interviews in that because of course poor Bernie was on the run, stuck in an apartment most of the time, and had to cope with the investigation on his own apart from help from Ruth. So that was a sort of non-typical crime story but interesting how Block handled it.
Thanks very much for the kind words, Cath; I’m glad you like what you find here. And the Queen’s death has really impacted a lot of people. She had so much influence for a long time, and of course her family and friends have suffered a deep loss. So has the UK. As for Burglars Can’t Be Choosers, you’re right that that’s not the sort of story where there are a lot of interviews. But Block makes use of other strategies (and I respect him for it) that move the reader along, I think. As you say, he handles it in an interesting way!
Interesting post Margot. I probably read less investigative crime fiction than a lot of your readers. When I do enjoy a police procedural, I like the investigator to have to work for the evidence and not find out things too easily. I’m a fan of a PI book, or an investigation where someone shady is seeking to recover something or enact a revenge. Those people can use somewhat more unconventional means for extracting information, where they aren’t bound by rules and regulations.
Thanks, Col. I’m with you when it comes to finding evidence. It really is most engaging when the sleuth has to work to find out the answers. I think it adds to the plot, and it is realistic. And you’re right that some PI books, or books about people on the wrong side of the law, can feature even more innovative ways to get information. When it’s done well, that can be part of the appeal.
Interviews are my daily fare. Every legal fiction has to rely on interviews. Most real life lawyers like to conduct interviews of witnesses themselves rather than others. While we do not question as repeatedly as police important witnesses will be interviewed more than once. I have given up being surprised by how people think they only need to tell me what they think is important. In fact, I cannot think of any legal fiction mysteries where interviews were not featured. Maybe you can come up with one.
I can’t think of any legal novel, either, Bill, that doesn’t involve interviews. Lawyers depend on interviews, and I don’t think a legal novel would be very credible if it didn’t feature them. And I’m not surprised that, in real life, lawyers prefer to do their own interviewing. There are so many nuances and subtleties to the way people answer questions that a lawyer would need to be there to really see them. I’m not surprised, either, that people only tell you what they think is important. It must make your job that much harder.
Like modern technologies, I feel modern police procedures and the law must make it more difficult for crime writers today than their vintage forebears. Realistically suspects today have to be warned up front that they don’t need to say anything and will probably have a lawyer present to stop them incriminating themselves. In vintage crime, even amateur detectives seem to be able to get people to talk – it’s quite rare for a suspect just to refuse to say anything at all, unless that in itself is part of the plot…
You make a very well-taken point, FictionFan. It’s a lot harder to incriminate a suspect than it was, and I give credit to contemporary authors who acknowledge that in their writing. It was much easier for Golden Age and other vintage authors to create a believable sequence of interviews, evidence, and so on to catch the culprit. The thing is, too, that as police procedures and the law change, crime writers have to keep up with it all! Trust me, that’s not always easy!
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