The Evidence Suggests*

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.