Faith in Science: Detective Stories In A Confused World

The game is afoot.

    — Sherlock Holmes

There’s just one more question I’d like to ask you.

    — Columbo

And I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those nosy kids and their mangy dog!

    — innumerable Scooby-Doo villains

Forget about making a hundred, forget about the victim, forget about the suspect and focus on the only thing that can’t lie: the evidence.

    — Gil Grissom, CSI

O photoprocessing machine, I command you to reveal to me that which is hidden!

Like most good ideas, mysteries and detective stories have many ancestors, but they didn’t really get to take a place in entertainment until the Industrial Revolution. It’s not hard to see why. The underlying message behind the traditional mystery—and the traditional detective story, its most famous subgenre—is always the same. That message: our world may seem confusing, but patience, pluck, and especially reason can lay its secrets bare, punish the guilty, and reveal the monsters as aged men in latex or clockwork springs.

The true hero of a detective story is not the detective, but detection itself. For all the quirks of a Holmes or a Grissom, ultimately he is just a means to an end. You could swap Holmes with Grissom, give Holmes some time to get up to speed on new tech, and run almost all the Holmes mysteries and CSI episodes to the same essential conclusion. Every so often an element of the personal does make itself felt—a feared nemesis, perhaps, or a determined would-be lover—but it feels almost like an intrusion, a distraction from the power of reason that serves them and us so well.

If a murderer ends up coming after the detective to do him physical harm, that only reinforces the power of reason in the end—because in the traditional detective story, the detective will escape harm, protected by either a universe that seems ordered to preserve his life, or, even better, by his reason.

Television shows give this formula the force of ritual. Virtually every Murder, She Wrote ends with the suspects all cozily gathered in the den, virtually every Columbo ends with his famous line, virtually every Scooby-Doo ends with the ceremonial unmasking of the villain. The science in CSI and Numb3rs may be more sophisticated than in Dragnet, but its role never changes.

Have we?

Modern forensic science can still inspire the kind of awe that makes slack-jawed Watsons of us all. But detectives of all kinds have been having a bad decade. DNA evidence failed to convict O.J. Simpson. The 9/11 hijackers slipped through our every security measure. Enron embezzled more valuables than all the jewel thieves in the world could ever steal. And this year, the most massive intelligence failure in United States history can be summed up in one four-letter word: "WMDs." Of those responsible for these disasters, only the Enron employees face justice. And even this victory tastes bittersweet after we’ve learned about the culture of institutionalized crime at Enron and similar companies, how they got away with so much for so long. That corruption is what stays with us after the trials are over. Reason, it seems, is not such an unstoppable force for justice after all.

Can fictional detectives retain their power over us, after all of that?

Should they?

I believe that one of the many purposes stories can serve is to show us a world that’s better than our own. A world which, in the short term, can provide us escape, and in the long term, can inspire us to improve ourselves. But we must know our audience. Today’s reader is not as enchanted with reason as yesterday’s. In response, detective writers have tried either to reinforce the classical rules of the game—or to break them.

The Rules of the Game

1. Red herrings. Any detective story that centers on a question with only one conceivable answer is either a parody and not a real detective story, or a real bad one. The classic game Clue uses a sextet of suspects, for example. Five of them are clearly red herrings. And sometimes the herring can be a how and not a who—if a murder has been made to look like suicide, there may be only one suspect and the reader may have a gut feeling that it was murder, but the only way the murderer can be punished is if the detective can prove it was murder, by discovering how the victim was murdered. Suicide is the obvious red herring in this case, and a twisty mystery can add others.

2. Suspense. Detective stories are no more interesting than crossword puzzles unless something is at stake. They begin with a crime, with things going bad. But in any good detective story it must be clear that if the crime is not solved, things will get even worse.

3. The end in sight. Occasionally writers can get so enchanted with twists and turns, artful red herrings, and ever-escalating stakes that they end up with something that doesn’t lead logically to the conclusion. This must not be.

4. A fair challenge. In a classic detective story, the clues are all there for the readers to discover—they may not necessarily figure it out, but looking back on the story they will think, "ah, I should’ve known!" They’re a bit like puzzle games. Sometimes a lot like puzzle games. The Encyclopedia Brown stories, for instance, always paused just before their end to announce that the readers now had all the clues and should be able to answer the question themselves.

It may surprise you to learn that this is not the first guide to writing detective stories ever published. As early as 1928, S.S. Van Dine published a list of twenty commandments. Some of these were laughable—Dine outlawed love interests and atmospheric description, and declared that the culprit must be neither a professional criminal nor a cultist nor a spy nor a "servant." In Dine’s world, the butler never does it. But five of his rules are worth quoting:

The reader must have equal opportunity with the detective for solving the mystery. All clues must be plainly stated and described.

No willful tricks or deceptions may be placed on the reader other than those played legitimately by the criminal on the detective himself…

The culprit must be determined by logical deductions — not by accident or coincidence or unmotivated confession. To solve a criminal problem in this latter fashion is like sending the reader on a deliberate wild-goose chase, and then telling him, after he has failed, that you had the object of his search up your sleeve all the time. Such an author is no better than a practical joker.

The detective novel must have a detective in it; and a detective is not a detective unless he detects. His function is to gather clues that will eventually lead to the person who did the dirty work in the first chapter; and if the detective does not reach his conclusions through an analysis of those clues, he has no more solved his problem than the schoolboy who gets his answer out of the back of the arithmetic…

And most importantly (emphasis mine):

The truth of the problem must at all times be apparent—provided the reader is shrewd enough to see it. By this I mean that if the reader, after learning the explanation for the crime, should reread the book, he would see that the solution had, in a sense, been staring him in the face—that all the clues really pointed to the culprit—and that, if he had been as clever as the detective, he could have solved the mystery himself without going on to the final chapter. That the clever reader does often thus solve the problem goes without saying.

This is the rule the modern detective story most frequently tramples.

CSI and Numb3rs preserve the heroic role of science, but often as not they leave the viewer incapable of deducing the outcome. One key scene may describe the tools, identify the clues, and reach the conclusion all in one fluid motion. This kind of cheat makes a detective into a magician. "Yes," this brand of modern detective story says, "reason can protect you from criminals and monsters—when we apply it. It’s beyond you. Don’t worry your pretty little head over it. Leave the game in the hands of the pros."

This inspires awe and certainly creates a safe world whither people can escape, but it throws self-improvement right out the window.

To be fair to detective writers, though, they face a harder challenge than the entertainers of previous eras. The Web allows an audience to collaborate in challenging new ways.

Hoodwinking the Collective Intelligence

Pity, if you will, the creators of the TV series Lost. A recent episode had advertised the death of one of its characters, but which one? We’d have to watch to find out, yes? Well, no. My roommate informed me who was going to die one minute before the episode began, and he was right. He had arrived at this conclusion from the deductions of the online legion of Lost fans.

If a mystery becomes popular, then many people will try to solve it. In 1928, their ability to collaborate was limited… then as now, two detective novel aficionados might compare notes if they’d both reached Chapter 17, but that assumes a close friendship, and the information wouldn’t spread past the two of them. But the Web unifies people by interest group, bringing their collective intelligence to bear on the largest of problems—and the most trivial.

This means, essentially, that if one devoted fan of your work can figure out your detective story, they have all figured it out.

This is why shows like Lost rely on clues so abstract as to be almost meaningless. What do the "numbers" in Lost mean? Are they a mathematical reference, a biblical one, some kind of code? Who knows? We’re not sure the producers themselves have it figured out—earlier TV mysteries in the Internet Age like X-Files and Twin Peaks promised considerably more than they delivered.

How to play fair when the audience cheats?

That’s a puzzler.

In a sense, they’re not cheating at all. Collective intelligence theory holds that the Web gives us a joined identity in addition to our individual selves. The collective intelligence is like one mind, just a very, very smart one.

When I wrote a supernatural detective story in Fans, my red herring was the detective story itself—as the culprit stood revealed, we learned that the detectives pursuing him were as bad as he was or worse—and one of them promptly turned on our heroes. To my gratification, the readers didn’t guess who the culprit was. But they did guess every other twist and turn the story took until its epilogue, and I resolved to stay one jump ahead of them with future Fans stories. I was mostly successful—but I didn’t dare go back to the detective genre with such eagle-eyed readers watching me.

Mystery writers like Jason Little and Joe Zabel seem untroubled by this audience shift, and perhaps they shouldn’t be troubled. After all, no one is forcing their readers to check out the forums, just as no one forces a reader to flip to the last few pages of an Agatha Christie. But if we want to hold all our readers in the grip of uncertainty, perhaps we cartoonists have to leave the detective story behind. Perhaps we should see it as too much of a giveaway.

Or perhaps we should see it as our greatest challenge ever. Perhaps we should just build one that’s hard enough even to challenge the collective intelligence, yet clear enough that the answer is in there.

As I write this, I’m preparing a Fans sequel which attempts just that, and I urge the "detective cartoonists" in our community to try the same. Holmes showed the power of reason, but he was far too proud to mingle with the bungling efforts of policemen and other detectives. Modern detectives, and modern writers, can take full advantage of the wealth of information today’s world has to offer.

Let’s show what the power of collective reason can do in our entertainment. Let’s show collective intelligence its own potential. We’ve inspired ourselves to improve ourselves… let’s try now to inspire ourselves to improve ourself. 


  1. Memory lapse! Nic Juzda reminded me that he did, in fact, guess the culprit. But he was the only one. Statement:

    “To my gratification, the readers didn’t guess who the culprit was. But they did guess every other twist and turn the story took until its epilogue…”

    should read:

    “To my gratification, only one reader guessed who the culprit was, and he kept it between us. But the forum posters, sharing answers among themselves, guessed every other twist and turn the story took until its epilogue…”

  2. Wow! Another excellent compendium of the unique concerns of the mystery genre! Great job, T, this is up there with Alexander’s essay! (Ping and Eric did terrific essays as well!)

    You wrote, “Mystery writers like Jason Little and Joe Zabel seem untroubled by this audience shift…” Well, actually, on the day of the second installment of The Ice Queen, Eric did a Websnark that broadcast the little wedding ring clue planted there with the headline, “Look like she’s married, mm?” That actually was good feedback, because I realized that I’d have to work harder to fool the audience. As a matter of fact, I decided after that to reveal the marriage angle earlier, which allowed a conversation between two characters on the subject.

  3. I guess part of my frustration with the terms is that none of them really addresses the kind of mysteries that appeal to me. I guess you could call them “existential” mysteries. They’re not “cosy” at all and not fetishistically macho, either. Instead they have a disturbing quality to them, which is actually a lot more in keeping with the subject of murder. Some examples would be Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, The Glass Cage by Colin Wilson, Brown’s A Far Cry, The Bride Wore Black by Woolrich, and Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh.

    I also think it’s important for mysteries to recognize the overriding tragedy of the events they depict. Not only is a person murdered, but the murderer is revealed, and in the process lives are disrupted and destroyed. This sense of tragedy at the climax is one of the things that sets Chandler’s The Lady in the Lake apart; but it’s a quality that can also be seen in Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked.

  4. “Can fictional detectives retain their power over us, after all of that?

    Should they?”

    Actually, this is where modern detectives – especially amatuer detectives – can survive. Forensic labs are weeks – if not months – behind. The CSI effect is being lamented in courtrooms and writers’ dens. The police are overworked and underpaid. If your crime occured in a suburb instead of a large city, you could be dealing with a police force that doesn’t have the resources or training to deal with a crime.

    All that introduces the element of time as a challenge to solving the crime. Rex Stout was a master of this: The clues would be present at the end, but sometimes they wouldn’t be present UNTIL the end. The enjoyment came in how Wolfe orchestrated the whole thing.

    On another note: It’s interesting that you wrote mostly about cozies and not other kinds of mysteries: hardboiled (Chandler or Hammett) or police procedurals (McBain).

  5. Odd that you didn’t mention rule 9 (“It’s like making the reader run a race with a relay team.”) though with the roles of author and reader reversed.

  6. Regarding cozies, hardboiled, and police procedurals, I’ve never found those distinctions particularly helpful (see for more details.)

    For one thing, the level of unreality seems pretty much the same from one subgenre to another; its really entirely in the hands of the author. Some supposedly cozy mysteries have genuine psychological and sociological insight, and some “hard boiled” stories are just cozies for the American male, where instead of having a cat in the character’s lap they have a bottle of gin.

    According to the definition, Frederick Brown’s The Far Side is a cozy– it has an amateur detective. But the tone and intent is as far from cozy as it could possibly be. Is Woolrich’s Deadline at Dawn a cozy? Once again, a pair of amateur detectives.

    On the other hand, the Spencer mysteries by Robert Parker are supposed to be hardboiled (it even says so on the jacket copy). But all this crap about Pearl the Wonder Dog, and Hawk, the hitman with a heart of gold, those have all the preciousness of the most notorious cozy.

    I don’t think the procedural is a particularly useful distinction either. It just reflects how the detective obtains his information, what rules he or she has to follow; some procedurals emphasize teamwork a lot more. But I think we can learn a lot more by looking for the similarities between Simenon and Walter Mosley, rather than arbitrarily placing them in distinct sub-genres.

  7. I don’t rely on them either, but they are useful to help explain how some elements of stories can fall into categories. And when that happens, having the language available to discuss those categories is helpful.

    I think writers will use any element that makes sense to the story they’re trying to create. At the same time, there might be readers out there who identify as liking “hardboiled” stories to the point where the only cat allowed in the tale should be the one that becomes roadkill in the third chapter.

    So, yes, I agree with you about trying to adhere closely to someone’s arbitrary definition of something. On the other hand, they’re useful terms to use in a broad sense – perhaps more important to readers who like having a descriptive label to help find the kinds of stories they like.

    Of course, those labels also bring expectations. For instance, if you do set out to write something to appeal to fans of police procedurals, then you better have a good knowledge of police procedures or those fans will likely not buy into your story.

  8. OK, I think I know why this jumped out at me: “It’s interesting that you wrote mostly about cozies and not other kinds of mysteries”

    I understand why you turned quickly to television – your premise regarding challenging legions of fans who are able to communicate and compare notes is stronger if you consider it in terms of a TV show such as “Lost.”

    Personally, I don’t buy into the notion of equating a webcartoon reading experience with that of a TV show. For one, the TV show is actively promoting the interactivity of the internet as part of the entire experience. Witness the impending release of a book that’s actually a fictional work of fiction.

    Then, there’s the nature of that particular TV show: Its purpose is not to bring you to a definite ending, it’s to have an ongoing series of red herrings and twist and turns. All that contributes to the overall interactivity of the thing. And if interactivity is your goal, then the challenge isn’t to create a great mystery story to challenge those legions, it’s to come up with a continual series of plot points designed to induce conversation.

    And to do that then the larger the cast, the better. Within each person’s story you can hide clues and weave false trails. You can build the conspiracy. You can generate more heat, and therefore more interest, more conversation.

    I think that’s different from mysteries. And generally, I don’t think TV is a good example of mystery writing.


    As you point out, it’s easy for an ongoing series to become formulaic. Lately, I’ve been watching “Numb3rs” on CBS. I love the premise: an amateur detective with a special skill (in this case math) who is able to plug into a police procedural (in this case through his FBI brother).

    Again, good premise but they’re having a problem pulling it off. There’s not enough time in a single episode to give due to both the cozy elements of the amateur detective and the hardboiled elements of the police procedural. There’s no one point of view. Sometimes you’re following one brother, sometimes the other. Like “Lost,” they’re relying on a number of characters to give them material to fill up the series.

    In the end, each gets short shrift. Nuances of relationships are developed with all the subtlety of a jack-booted thug.

    And character is where television mysteries struggle the most. You mention a few successes: Colombo, Murder She Wrote’s Fletcher, CSI’s Grissom – another to add would be Monk. Those characters are actually actors who’ve brought a unique voice to the person they’re playing.

    In an ensemble cast like Lost or Numb3rs, it’s hard for individual voices to adequately develop. It seems to me, it’s more like throwing spaghetti on the wall: Get a large, diverse number of voices on the screen so you don’t have to worry so much about one character connecting with a large number of people – you have a number of characters so you give viewers a choice of who they’ll identify with.

    And that’s fine, but what’s lost is the challenge of creating a memorable character, someone like a Poirot or Marple to bring clarity to a confusing web of lies and false trails. Someone you look forward to listening to, a character you desire to follow – maybe even imagine to be Watson to the Holmes.

    Certainly the detective is the advocate of reason, but it’s the strength of the character who makes you want to stick around to the end.


    And that leads me to where I disagree with one more thing: The notion that “The true hero of a detective story is not the detective, but detection itself. For all the quirks of a Holmes or a Grissom, ultimately he is just a means to an end.”

    I’ve argued elsewhere that to write a good mystery you need a solid premise, a plausible “vehicle” for your character to become involved in mysteries. The most obvious and easiest vehicle is for your character to be a policeman. For amateur detectives, that vehicle is far more difficult to construct – but it can be constructed.

    However, you could have the best vehicle in the world but if your character is boring and predictable, then there’s no reason to take that vehicle for a ride.

    Holmes and Grissom are not interchangeable but they are both essential to drawing in the reader. Holmes is passionate: he thrills in the hunt and is driven to despair and depression – sometimes relieved by drugs – when he has no quarry to chase. Holmes would delight in the crime labs of CSI, but eventually he’d be driven from the lab into the streets.

    Grissom is the cool voice of reason, an attractive scientist who seeks to confirm theories with facts. He follows a trail whereas Holmes seeks to match wits. Both characters have appeal, but in different ways.

    The vehicle for the character helps define that character – but in the end is not necessarily the defining element of that character (Look at Tony Hillerman’s books starring the Navajo detectives Leaphorn and Chee). Sometimes it’s the other way around – the character PROVIDES the vehicle (witness the antiques rogue Lovejoy).

    What’s special about Grissom is how the actor has defined and differentiated the character from those around him. He shines in an otherwise homologous cast. Some of that has to be due to the writing: listen to all the characters’ voices, their delivery – it has to be very challenging to come up with distinct characters who have so many demands placed upon them (they need to explain forensics procedures, move the plot along, and each of them has to be capable of delivering a “zinger” statement to make you want to come back after the commercial break).

    The only other character to truly stand out is the young lab assistant who is being groomed as a field agent. Why? Because the writers found another vehicle, another voice in his character – that of the absolute beginner. It’s a great foil to Grissom’s voice of experience.

    And homologous is how I’d describe most of the characters on TV. To a certain extent, that’s a problem of the performance medium. You need to have characters acceptable and understandable to a wide variety of viewers.

    But to do that, you lose the opportunity of have an Aurelio Zen, a Travis McGee or Peter Diamond, Nero Wolf and Archie Goodwin. There has never been an actor large enough (in life or girth) to adequately portray Wolf. And Goodwin was modeled after Humphrey Bogart – that’s not a wish to be fulfilled anytime soon.

    You find these characters in books, in great writing. Certainly TV, film and plays can give you tips and ideas for presenting the story. But it all starts with the writing.

    Finally, regarding the forum user who gives away a clue – that’s a spoiler! Some like that kind of thing – others do not. That’s why it’s also very popular to give a spoiler alert.

    The beauty of the internet is you can choose your own experience. Obsessively nitpicking over the details is only one variation.

Comments are closed.