How Do Detectives Solve their Cases in Best-Selling Fictional Stories?
They have an advantage: there is a method in their madness!
If you read or watch enough detective stories, you know that there are basically two ways that most detectives solve their case:
The detective is skilled (or becomes skilled) at putting pieces together and coming to the correct conclusion
Honing Their Skills of Observation
How do we develop and hone those skills? It’s similar to the way some fictional detectives solve the crime in detective stories!
Agatha Christie’s character, Miss Marple, always stuns the other characters in the end by figuring out who committed the crime and how, but usually no one else in the story figures it out until she explains it (except for the ones who are guilty of committing the crime).
How does she do that?
The first thing she does is observe very carefully. She pays attention to important clues that others either don't notice, or notice but dismiss as unimportant. Many of the other characters dismiss her as just a little old lady who knits and is the local busybody in St. Mary Meade.
Adrian Monk drives everyone crazy by doing the same thing in the series, Monk. He suffers from OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) and struggles with perfectionism, which drives everyone crazy. The only ones who seem to understand him are his now-deceased wife and Captain Leland Stottlemeyer, Monk's former detective partner.
One of the reasons he drives everyone crazy is his extreme attention to detail, especially details that most other people would either overlook or dismiss as unimportant. However, those details are usually what allow Monk to solve the cases that no one else seems able to solve.
In the TV series, Psych, Shaun has an amazing ability to remember even the most minute details of a situation or event, but pretends to have psychic visions that give him specific information (the viewers are “in on” the game because we see the scene through Shaun's eyes as he remembers it). In each episode of Psych, Shaun has flashbacks to his childhood where he focuses on specific memories. In those flashbacks, you can see Shaun's dad teaching him to develop the skill of paying attention to detail. Because they've they have developed their ability to observe more than most of us do.
Those skills that each of these fictional detectives have are ones that every human being has naturally, because of our ability to observe the world around us. In the case of these detectives, they don't simply observe the world in a passive way; they have developed their ability to observe really well by paying closer attention to details in world around them than most of us do. The lenses they use to see the world allow them to observe more details while they're gathering their evidence.
The ability to observe WELL is the first step in critical thinking
It’s not enough just to observe a lot of things—cameras capture images of scenes and objects but they don't analyze them.
Human beings take their observations and try to make sense out of them, especially when something seems odd about what they're observing. We may see things that are in a particular place but shouldn’t be, or the reverse—we can wonder why something is not there, but should be.
This is what Miss Marple, Monk, and Shaun do in their stories. They don’t simply take in information and either store it or dismiss it. They follow that observation and then consider whether or not the information is important:
Miss Marple always uses examples from her hometown, the village of St. Mary Mead, that are similar to the current situation as a comparison
Adrian Monk asks questions about seemingly minor details and takes actions that others think are weird and unnecessary because they don’t see the importance of it—yet
Shaun goofs around and entertains the audience while annoying other characters as he’s gathering information while putting the pieces of the puzzle together
Authors often try to get the readers or audience to make mistakes in these first two steps:
We might dismiss some important clue, or think some of the information is more important than it actually is
We can take puzzle pieces and put them together to complete an image, but we don’t always put them together in the right way needed to solve the case
All of this requires the use of reason based on our observations
After carefully observing and then analyzing what we’ve observed, we can use our ability to reason to come to a well thought out conclusion.
Miss Marple, Monk, and Shaun all explain how they knew what they knew by using reason:
Miss Marple always uses examples from her hometown, the village of St. Mary Mead, to draw parallels between past events that are similar to the current problem to solve the case
Adrian Monk was always a good detective, but it’s his OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) that causes him to pay greater attention to details that others dismiss. Those details matter in the end, because Monk is also good at putting the pieces together to solve the case
Shaun pretends to know the answer through “visions” but he still gives a rational explanation which solves the case. What Shaun really does is rely on the training that his dad enforced while he was growing up so he could make better observations. We know that’s true because there’s always a flashback to a scene from his childhood where we see his dad doing exactly that. In the end, he has sorted through the evidence and used reason to come to the conclusion
It’s because each of them developed their natural ability to observe and to pay attention to the world around them, and then sort through what is important or not that provides the foundation for solving the case in the end.
ALL of the writers of detective/whodunnit stories have a character who does similar things even if the audience doesn’t see it or know about it until the end of the story, like Sherlock Holmes.
The stories work because the crime-solving character uses these three foundational steps of critical thinking. This is something that every one of us can learn to do as well (even if you’re not a detective in a mystery story).
You can start that now, by downloading this free PDF: