Lucky Detectives

Within detective fiction, luck plays a very strange role. In traditional hero stories, luck should always favor the bad guy so that the good guy can win by the exercise of virtue. For this reason, luck helping an investigation is disappointing—it feels like cheating.

The problem in detective fiction, however, is that all clues which allow the detective to solve the mystery are pieces of luck because they are mistakes on the part of the murderer (or other culprit). A perfect murder simply couldn’t be solved.

Because of this the detective must be lucky, and the writer of the mystery has to figure out how to deal with this luck. I’ve seen it dealt with in a variety of ways, most of which work. Of the methods for dealing with this luck, I think that hanging a lampshade on it is probably the least satisfying. That’s usually of the form

Inspector Lieusew had no idea what made him think to stop and enter the ordinary-looking dry-cleaner’s shop, but later he was glad that he did.

Of course I’ve seen it done far more skillfully, as in Chesterton’s first (and excellent) Father Brown story, The Blue Cross:

He alighted at Liverpool Street, however, quite conscientiously secure that he had not missed the criminal so far. He then went to Scotland Yard to regularise his position and arrange for help in case of need; he then lit another cigarette and went for a long stroll in the streets of London. As he was walking in the streets and squares beyond Victoria, he paused suddenly and stood. It was a quaint, quiet square, very typical of London, full of an accidental stillness. The tall, flat houses round looked at once prosperous and uninhabited; the square of shrubbery in the centre looked as deserted as a green Pacific islet. One of the four sides was much higher than the rest, like a dais; and the line of this side was broken by one of London’s admirable accidents–a restaurant that looked as if it had strayed from Soho. It was an unreasonably attractive object, with dwarf plants in pots and long, striped blinds of lemon yellow and white. It stood specially high above the street, and in the usual patchwork way of London, a flight of steps from the street ran up to meet the front door almost as a fire-escape might run up to a first-floor window. Valentin stood and smoked in front of the yellow-white blinds and considered them long.

The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.

Aristide Valentin was unfathomably French; and the French intelligence is intelligence specially and solely. He was not “a thinking machine”; for that is a brainless phrase of modern fatalism and materialism. A machine only is a machine because it cannot think. But he was a thinking man, and a plain man at the same time. All his wonderful successes, that looked like conjuring, had been gained by plodding logic, by clear and commonplace French thought. The French electrify the world not by starting any paradox, they electrify it by carrying out a truism. They carry a truism so far–as in the French Revolution. But exactly because Valentin understood reason, he understood the limits of reason. Only a man who knows nothing of motors talks of motoring without petrol; only a man who knows nothing of reason talks of reasoning without strong, undisputed first principles. Here he had no strong first principles. Flambeau had been missed at Harwich; and if he was in London at all, he might be anything from a tall tramp on Wimbledon Common to a tall toast-master at the Hotel Metropole. In such a naked state of nescience, Valentin had a view and a method of his own.

In such cases he reckoned on the unforeseen. In such cases, when he could not follow the train of the reasonable, he coldly and carefully followed the train of the unreasonable. Instead of going to the right places–banks, police stations, rendezvous– he systematically went to the wrong places; knocked at every empty house, turned down every cul de sac, went up every lane blocked with rubbish, went round every crescent that led him uselessly out of the way. He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best, because there was just the chance that any oddity that caught the eye of the pursuer might be the same that had caught the eye of the pursued. Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop. Something about that flight of steps up to the shop, something about the quietude and quaintness of the restaurant, roused all the detective’s rare romantic fancy and made him resolve to strike at random. He went up the steps, and sitting down at a table by the window, asked for a cup of black coffee.

As a side now, if you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend that you do. (It’s available online. Like all Father Brown stories it’s a short story, so it won’t take long.)

This is probably the best that I’ve seen the lampshade-hanging done and because Chesterton is a master, it works. But it’s not entirely pure lampshade-hanging. It has elements of what I think is the best approach, which is to have the detective earn his luck. Of course, in a strict sense one can’t earn luck because luck comes from God and all that comes from God is grace. But one can, through work, make oneself a fit vessel for grace—that is, a vessel without leaks that will not spill the grace poured into it.  (That too is, of course, grace, but life and language is easier if one just recognizes at the outset that all is grace and what is not distinct need not be pointed out in every sentence.)

The detective can earn his luck by doing the hard work to be in the right place to receive the luck. He can ask many questions that eventually turn up a useful answer. He can look into many places to find something there.

But there is an opposite danger, too, which the writer must avoid. A detective story is not interesting if the detective merely grinds his way through every possible place to look for clues. There is the tedium of that, of course, but tedium is very easy to elide. It takes only a few words to say:

After seven weeks of fourteen hour days spent knocking on every door in a five mile radius, Detective Inspector Drumwalt at last found somebody who had seen Wolfgang Gruenwald on the night he was murdered.

The problem to be avoided is not tedium for the reader. It’s a lack of imagination on the part of the detective. There’s no fun in trying to match wits with someone who evidently doesn’t have any.

There is of course a traditional solution to that, too, which is an army of people to do the grunt work for the detective. One can see this in the way CSI labs and uniformed policemen are used if the detective is himself formally with the police, but you can also see it in Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars.

This of course must be used sparingly and only for initial clues; the detective ceases to be the detective if somebody else hands him the solution together with conclusive evidence. In mystery novels—which need twists and turns before the solution becomes obvious to the reader—the solution to the problems raised by this solution is often to make the clues turned up by grunt-work misleading. This can often serve double-duty by putting an innocent person under suspicion and thus raising the stakes.

A popular way to play with that, by the way, is to have the evidence planted by the culprit to intentionally mislead the investigators. A clever murderer will make the evidence require some work to get, playing on human nature’s inability to believe that hard work does not come with rewards.

One of the great things about mystery novels is that at this point—130 years after Sherlock Holmes and 90 years after the golden age—every possible solution to every problem in the genre has been done straight, as a fake-out, and as a faked-out-fake-out. If you’re at all familiar with detective fiction, there’s really no way to guess which way the writer is playing it this time based solely on the form of what’s happened so far.

Suppose a suspect has confessed. Well, perhaps it’s a false confession to shield someone else, but it might also be a true confession with enough lies in it that it will be taken as a false confession and so suspicion will be thrown elsewhere. At this point, the mere fact that someone has confessed doesn’t tell you anything about who did it. This keeps things surprisingly fresh.

In fact, about the only think that you can be sure of, at this point, is that the butler didn’t do it.

If you like my discussion of murder mysteries, you might like my murder mystery, The First Chronicle of Brother Thomas: The Dean Died Over Winter Break.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s