This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The Detective's Hunch

            In one of the vintage episodes of Law & Order, Detectives Briscoe and Green (Jerry Orbach and Jesse L. Martin) are investigating the murder of a young woman whose body was found in an alley. As they look into the case, they begin to suspect it might be connected to the disappearance of a female college student several years ago.
            Thinking out loud, the veteran Briscoe asks the question, what were both victims doing when last seen? Answer: Leaving a place to go somewhere a considerable distance away. Followup thought: Being in New York City, perhaps they both called a taxi.
            Going where that line of thought leads them, they eventually turn up a thoroughly creepy taxi driver, who turns out to have killed not only the two young women in question, but many others as well. (No spoiler alert necessary. If you happen to catch this one as a TNT re-run, that summary only took you to the beginning of the real plot, which has to do with attorney-client privilege.)

No Sin Against Father Knox

            At first blush, Briscoe’s hunch might be considered a sin against the Ten Commandments of mystery fiction, composed in 1929 by the Rev. Ronald A. Knox, a Catholic priest, converted from Anglicanism, and one of the fine British writers of mystery novels in the so-called Golden Age.
            In that long-gone era, mysteries were so popular that almost anybody who could write a comprehensible one could get it published and sell a few thousand copies. Most of those books are long forgotten, and justly so, and quite a few of them used story elements now considered beyond the pale. That they are so considered owes a great deal to Father Knox and his commandments.
            Among them were, “All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course,” and “No more than one secret room or passage is allowable.” Other strictures address such matters as the use of unknown poisons and having the criminal be someone who turns up only at the end of the book.
            Briscoe’s hunch might at first seem to be a violation of the Sixth Commandment, which reads, “No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.” The key word is unaccountable. Briscoe didn’t just guess; he thought through what someone logically might do in a situation and it led to the cracking of the case.

When The Crime Labs Can’t Solve It

            The vogue in crime fiction and drama these days is for the boys and girls in the lab to solve the case by coming up with an encyclopedia’s worth of information from a single strand of hair or whatever. That’s well and good as far as it goes, but the crime scene doesn’t always yield enough evidence. Sometimes what it takes is a detective asking a simple question, then following the trail to which it leads.
            One of the most famous cases of the Twentieth Century was solved in precisely that fashion. A psychopath was terrorizing New York with a series of murders in which people were randomly approached and shot by a poorly seen figure who quickly disappeared.
            After months of frustration, with the victim count mounting, one of the detectives asked a question: How would he get away? Most likely he had a car, and in New York, where parking is tight, he may have had to park illegally. The detective searched through parking tickets issued in the vicinity of the crimes, and the same car showed up more than once. That was how they caught David Berkowitz, a.k.a Son of Sam.