The Two Kinds of Evidence in Murder Mysteries

In murder mysteries, there are two kinds of evidence: evidence which tells the detective what happened, and evidence which can get a practical result from society. The practical result is often a criminal conviction, but it need not be; a wedding being called off, the payment of an insurance policy, or the settling of a will all require similar sorts of evidence.

Of the two, it is the former type of evidence, not the latter type, which is of interest to the reader.

The main distinction between the two types of evidence is not really one of the strength of the evidence, that is, of the level of certainty which it conveys. In fact, one of the common features of murder mysteries is the early presence of highly convincing evidence which will convict an innocent person unless the detective uncovers the truth. No, the distinction is not in certainty. The distinction is, rather, what is required knowledge and understanding is required to apprehend the true meaning of the evidence.

Convenient names for the sorts of evidence of which we are speaking might be complex evidence and simple evidence. Complex evidence requires extensive background knowledge and understanding of human nature. Simple evidence does not; it tells its story plainly. (Using this terminology, we can say that it is common for murder mysteries to, early on, have complex evidence which appears to be simple evidence.)

In order to achieve societal action, such as convicting the murderer in a court of law or getting some other legal effect, one must have simple evidence. However, simple evidence is, in murder mysteries, hard to come by. This is, of course, a selective effect. In the case where the murderer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon, and the murderer was seen killing the victim by multiple witnesses who know the murderer personally, and the murderer was caught immediately afterwards—these are not the stuff of murder mysteries.

Detective stories have the structure of story-within-a-story: the murder is the interior story while its detection is the outer story. Within the outer story, it is frequently the detective’s main purpose in his investigation to try to uncover simple evidence about the inner story. This makes it curious that his success or failure at achieving this goal is (almost) irrelevant to whether the story is a good story.

An excellent example of this is the Poirot story Five Little Pigs. In it, the daughter of a woman who was hanged for murdering her father, seventeen years ago, comes to Poirot asking him to uncover the truth. She just received a letter from her mother, written immediately prior to her execution but entrusted by lawyers to be delivered on her daughter’s 25th birthday, telling her that her mother was innocent.

Poirot undertakes the investigation and interviews all of the people principally concerned. At the end, he explains how all of the evidence which had pointed to the guilt of the woman’s mother actually pointed to the guilt of someone else. That person speaks alone with Poirot, afterwards, and asks him what he intends to do. Poirot says that he will give his conclusions to the authorities, but that it is unlikely that they will pursue it and very unlikely that they will get a conviction. And that’s fine. It’s a very satisfying ending to the story.

But why?

I suspect that the answer (which may be obvious) is that complex evidence is fun, while simple evidence is not fun. It takes brainwork to understand complex evidence, while simple evidence is too easy to be interesting. What matters in a murder mystery is being interesting, not achieving results. Achieving results is, really, the domain of an action story, or possibly a drama. This is why detectives tend to hand their cases off to the police at the end of the story. It’s best if the tedious work happens off-screen.

But there’s an interesting complication to this.

It is not a good story if the detective (and hence the reader) merely finds out what happens without anyone else learning it. Why this is so relates to the detective’s role within the story. As I’ve said before, the detective is Christ figure: the world has been corrupted by the misuse of reason, and the detective enters it in order to restore order to the world through the proper use of reason. So while society need not act, something must be put right. That is, someone beside the detective must learn the truth and be better off for it.

A good example of this is the Sherlock Holmes story The Blue Carbuncle*. It begins with a curious set of coincidences which place the key evidence in front of Sherlock Holmes, and with some investigation he discovers who it was who stole the gemtsone. He invites the man to his room, and he comes. After Holmes confronts him with the evidence, he falls apart and confesses, sobbing. I’ll quote just the last part:

“Get out!” said he.

“What, sir! Oh, Heaven bless you!”

“No more words. Get out!”

And no more words were needed. There was a rush, a clatter upon the stairs, the bang of a door, and the crisp rattle of running footfalls from the street.

“After all, Watson,” said Holmes, reaching up his hand for his clay pipe, “I am not retained by the police to supply their deficiencies. If Horner were in danger it would be another thing; but this fellow will not appear against him, and the case must collapse. I suppose that I am commuting a felony, but it is just possible that I am saving a soul. This fellow will not go wrong again; he is too terribly frightened. Send him to jail now, and you make him a jail-bird for life. Besides, it is the season of forgiveness. Chance has put in our way a most singular and whimsical problem, and its solution is its own reward. If you will have the goodness to touch the bell, Doctor, we will begin another investigation, in which, also a bird will be the chief feature.”

Here there are two aspects to the world which Sherlock Holmes has put right, even though he has produced no evidence for a jury. In the first, the man wrongly accused of the crime will not be convicted of it because the principle witness against him has fled. The second is less certain, but the true criminal may well repent of his crime since he’s seen what evil he’s capable of and still has a chance to make his way in society honestly.

This satisfies the role of the detective as Christ figure. In fact, it even has a curious echo (perhaps intentionally) of the story of Christ and the woman caught in adultery, and how he releases her from the punishment for her crime on the condition that she sins no more. Neither is, strictly speaking, a satisfying story, but they have something else to them—the idea that there is something better than justice. That’s a very tricky notion, because mercy should never be unjust—but at least in the story of the Blue Carbuncle, what was stolen is returned, and so justice is at least mostly satisfied in restitution.

Be that as it may, the primary point under discussion is satisfied. Holmes collects complex evidence which tells him (and thus the reader) the tale, and this is the interesting part. Achieving a practical effect from society is of minor concern.

(I suspect that part of the reason why The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle ends as it does is that, though it predates Fr. Knox’s decalogue, it violates rule #6 (“no accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right”). The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle is predicated upon a series of accidents, all of which help the detective. If he achieved a practical societal effect, his reputation would benefit by pure chance. By letting the criminal go, he remains in anonymity and so the accidents which help him produce only an interesting set of circumstances.)


*A carbuncle is a red gemstone, most often a garnet, so a blue carbuncle is something of a contradiction in terms. The story suggests it is a blue diamond, though it could be a blue garnet or even a blue sapphire.

Sherlock Holmes on Flowers

I like the Sherlock Holmes stories, though for some reason they’re almost never what I go back to re-read, while I do go back to Cadfael, Lord Peter, and Father Brown quite frequently. I think that part of it is that they are a bit intentionally antisceptic (moreso than most fans tend to admit). But there is in the story The Naval Treaty a part of which I am very fond and do very occasionally go back to:

“Thank you. I have no doubt I can get details from Forbes. The authorities are excellent at amassing facts, though they do not always use them to advantage. What a lovely thing a rose is!”

He walked past the couch to the open window, and held up the drooping stalk of a moss-rose, looking down at the dainty blend of crimson and green. It was a new phase of his character to me, for I had never before seen him show any keen interest in natural objects.

“There is nothing in which deduction is so necessary as in religion,” said he, leaning with his back against the shutters. “It can be built up as an exact science by the reasoner. Our highest assurance of the goodness of Providence seems to me to rest in the flowers. All other things, our powers, our desires, our food, are all really necessary for our existence in the first instance. But this rose is an extra. Its smell and its colour are an embellishment of life, not a condition of it. It is only goodness which gives extras, and so I say again that we have much to hope from the flowers.”

I like this scene, both for itself, and for the light it throws on the character of Holmes. He is so often, in the modern age, portrayed like a logic machine, except in the case of religion.

It is a great mistake that moderns make to think that logic is on the side of atheism. Indeed, atheism is, in a very real sense, little else but the denial of logic. Atheism is the denial that our reasoning actually works, when we look on creation and see the unmistakable hand of the creator. Atheism is the denial that we are capable of thinking logically, when it comes to explaining away our own minds as just sex robots that happened, by an odd coincidence, to fall under the delusion we could think.

There is another way to see this. If you look at the beginning of the gospel of John, you have:

ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος. οὖτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν. πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν.

In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, and the word was God. He was in the beginning. Through him all things came to be, and not one thing came to be but through him.

Now, the word translated as “word” is “λόγος” (“logos”), and it means an awful lot more than just “word”. If you look it up in an Ancient Greek-English dictionary, you’ll find it also means thought, argument, speech, rationality, and other, related things.

There is a very important relationship to the creation story in Genesis, where God spoke the world into existence. “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.” etc. That is, the world was created according to a rational idea. This is what makes the world rationally intelligible. This is why human reason works to know truth—because the world was created according to reason.

If the world was not created according to reason, but was merely a cosmic accident of unthinking [there’s no actual word that means the irrational being that has to go here in the sentence because words are intrinsically rational], then human reason is a phantasm that does not work.

Human beings reject logic not because they are hard-nosed logicians who want evidence, but because they are soft-headed people who do not think adequately or because they are hard-hearted people who prefer darkness to the light.

If you ever find a man who is ruthlessly logical, you will find a man who believes in God.

William Gillette: The First To Play Sherlock Holmes

Thanks to frequent commenter Mary, I recently learned about the existence of William Gillette, the first man to play Sherlock Holmes, mostly on the stage but also in a silent film.

Born in 1853, in Connecticut, William Gillette was a stage director, writer, and actor in America. In 1897, his play, Secret Service, was sufficiently successful in America that his producer took it to England. There, a Sherlock Holmes play written by Conan Doyle—who wrote it because he needed money after killing Holmes off but before he brought him back—was not having success at getting produced. It happened to come to Gillette’s producer, who recommended Gillette for extensive re-writes. The deal was made and Gillette began the rewrites.

The story of when Gillette and Conan Doyle met for the first time is quite interesting:

Conan Doyle’s shock was understandable… when the train carrying Gillette came to a halt and Sherlock Holmes himself stepped onto the platform instead of the actor, complete with deerstalker cap and gray ulster. Sitting in his landau, Conan Doyle contemplated the apparition with open-mouthed awe until the actor whipped out a magnifying lens, examined Doyle’s face closely, and declared (precisely as Holmes himself might have done), “Unquestionably an author!” Conan Doyle broke into a hearty laugh and the partnership was sealed with the mirth and hospitality of a weekend at Undershaw. The two men became lifelong friends.

(Undershaw was the name of Conan Doyle’s home.)

The play which Gillette wrote, or rather, rewrote, was enormously successful, both in America and in England. In total, Gillette performed it approximately 1,300 times, while it was put on under license—and not infrequently, without license—by actors in other countries.

Perhaps most interesting is the effect which Gillette had on the image of Sherlock Holmes. It was Gillette who introduced the curved briar pipe—prior to Gillette, the famous illustration in Strand magazine had depicted Holmes with a straight pipe. He also performed in the deerstalker hat and ulster coat, which seem likely to have had a strong impact on depictions of Holmes in those particular clothes. His use of a magnifying glass as a stage prop also likely helped to cement the iconography of the magnifying glass with the detective.

Also curious is that Gillette, as a writer, may have had an influence on the classic phrase, never to be found in the actual Holmes stories, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Gillette’s Holmes never said the exact phrase, but he did say, “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” This line, which would have been well known in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the first Sherlock Holmes talkies were made (starring Clive Brook), may well have led to the final version, which appeared in a Sherlock Holmes talkie starring Clive Brook. (At least according to Wikipedia; I haven’t watched any of the Clive Brook Holmes movies, though apparently at least parts of them are available on YouTube. A task for another time, perhaps. The first few minutes of part 1 of 6 weren’t encouraging.)

The Woman in Green

I recently watched the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movie, The Woman in Green. Released on the 27th of July, 1945, it was the eleventh Sherlock Holmes film in the series starring Rathbone and Bruce.

Interestingly, there were fourteen films in the series and they were released between 1939 and 1946. Though it wasn’t on a perfectly regular schedule, that’s an average of one movie per 6.85 months. It’s also curious that this ran from very slightly before World War II to very slightly after it—it’s curious in particular because the second world war is generally taken as the end of the golden age of detective fiction. With it, tastes changed.

In fact, the Wikipedia article on the series says something about this—the first two films were made by 20th Century Fox while the remaining twelve were made by Universal Studios, and part of the explanation given for why Fox lost interest was:

their decision to withdraw from further productions was also because the Second World War meant that “foreign agents and spies were much more typical and topical than the antiquated criminal activities of Moriarty and the like”.

Anyway, it was very interesting seeing the series I’d heard about before, with Basil Rathbone being the definitive Sherlock Holmes until Jeremy Brett came along. Supposedly there are those who still prefer Rathbone, but for my money Jeremy Brett perfectly captured the Holmes of the stories. Or at least in the first two series; Brett’s declining health did negatively affect the later Holmes films.

But even with Jeremy Brett being the better Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone had a larger impact, and in that sense was definitive. This is especially true of references in other works, including parodies and spoofs; people who have never seen Basil Rathbone’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes have seen imitations of it. It’s probably also a large contributor to the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” being well known (since it never appears in the original stories).

The Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes movies are especially curious, as the definitive Sherlock Holmes, because they’re not at all faithful to the original Conan Doyle stories. They sometimes borrow plot elements from the original stories, but are mostly just original creations.

Also very interesting is that after the first two, they were updated to modern times—modern at the time they were made, that is. People drove around in cars, rather than horse-drawn cabs, and made frequent use of the telephone. This has a curious effect since the mid-1940s is a time which is now a historical setting for us. Instead of being in the distant past of the Victorian times, it’s in the distant past of the 1940s; it still feels quite old. In fat, 1945 is 55 years away from 1890 but 73 years away from March of 2019, in which year I’m writing this post. The updated setting is still closer, culturally and technologically, to the original stories than it is to the modern day.

As to the specifics, I think that Basil Rathbone does a good job as Holmes. I do dislike the bufoonish character that Watson was turned into, though Nigel Bruce did play that character well.

The story is a curious one. Since readers will have had at least 73 years to have seen the movie, I will not withhold spoilers. And there isn’t much of a point to it; figuring out what’s going on takes up only about the first third of the story.

There is a series of murders of young women going on in London, with nothing to connect the women except that in each case the right forefinger is surgically removed after death. The police can make nothing of it and call Sherlock Holmes in to investigate. As Inspector Gregson is talking with Sherlock Holmes over a drink in a particular bar, they see Sir George Ferrick with a young lady. He leaves with the young lady, goes to her (remarkably luxurious and spacious) apartment, they talk over music and wine, and then Sir George wakes up in a cheap boarding house right next to the scene of one of the murders. He goes back to the apartment of the young woman and asks what happened last night. She tells him that he seemed offended and left in a distracted mood. Then a man enters the apartment and talks with Ferrick. He claims to have seem Ferrick murder the young woman and returns something which he claims Ferrick dropped when putting the severed finger into his pocket. He blackmails Ferrick.

Then a young woman who turns out to be the daughter of Sir George comes to Sherlock Holmes and tells him the story of her seeing her father bury something in the garden and how she dug it up and it turned out to be a woman’s finger, and she’s worried, and won’t he come to help. He does, but it’s too late—Sir George was murdered in his library, clutching a packet of matches from the establishment where Holmes saw him with the young woman.

Holmes deduces that the murders are set-ups to blackmail men who are somehow made to believe that they committed the murders, and that professor Moriarty is behind it.

This is about halfway through the movie, the rest of the movie is about how Holmes catches professor Moriarty.

Catching professor Moriarty involves a visit from the professor at Sherlock Holmes’s apartment, an attempt on Sherlock Holmes’s life by a hypnotized sniper from the empty building opposite, a visit to the Mesmer club, meeting the young woman who lured Sir George into the trap and hypnotized him, pretending to let her hypnotize him, and then the police rushing in to save the day, followed by Moriarty’s off-screen demise while trying to escape.

The main mystery of the story is an interesting device. The question which occupies a good ten minutes of the film—I still find it a little odd that the mystery is only half the movie, if that—is what could possibly connect these seemingly random murders. And the answer is a curious one: what connects them is nothing about the victim, but rather about the marks—the people who are being set up to be blackmailed for the crimes. It’s a clever and a workable mystery, though its solution depends almost entirely on Sherlock Holmes happening to have witnessed the titular woman in green seducing Sir George Ferrick. It does at least happen prior to the knowledge doing Holmes any good, but it’s still pure happenstance, which makes it not very satisfying.

Ultimately, the movie is not really about the mystery nearly so much as it is about showing off Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes. Which works for a movie, since Basil Rathbone is very charismatic.

Ultimately, I wouldn’t recommend the movie except for historical purposes, but I will say that it is quite interesting for those purposes.