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Skepticism and Murder Mysteries
 By Jey Wann 

Jey Wann is an O4R member and works at the State Library in Salem.

In the September/October 1996 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Jane Haddam wrote about the increasing preponderance of the supernatural in literary fiction. While I'm a compulsive reader, I read very little, if any, modern literary fiction. But her article got me to thinking about the supernatural and skepticism in one of my favorite fiction genres: the murder mystery. Murder mysteries, at least the well-mannered ones that I favor, seem to me to be one of our more skeptical literary forms, and one from which we can perhaps learn something.

     Agatha Christie is the first name that pops to mind when thinking about mysteries, and we find good examples of skepticism and logical deduction in her work. In "The Idol House of Astarte" (a story in the collection The Tuesday Club Murders), Miss Marple easily discovers the truth about a death surrounded by the supernatural images of the goddess Astarte. While the mysterious atmosphere convinced witnesses the death was itself a supernatural act, Miss Marple correctly deduced it is actually jealous, cold-blooded murder.

     In The Pale Horse, Christie pits Mark and Ginger, her hero and heroine, against what is, at first glance, a scientific method for causing death at a distance. The inhabitants of the house from which the book takes its name practice a hybrid form of witchcraft that includes animal sacrifice by the local witch, trance and channeling by the resident medium, and an impressively large and noisy machine run by the less eccentric of the three. When Mark, as part of his investigation, asks the witches to cause Ginger's death, brave and skeptical Ginger is sure nothing will happen. But in a few days she is dangerously ill. Not from death rays, dead chickens, or the channeled spirits of the departed, but from thallium, which someone posing as the meter reader had introduced into her toothpaste. (Agatha Christie worked as a dispenser during World War I and had a special knack for using the knowledge she gained then to use poisons in her mysteries).

     Skepticism in mysteries isn't limited to the British Isles. In The Love Talker, Elizabeth Peters (better known for Amelia Peabody Emerson mysteries) presents her heroine, Laurie, with a case of "fairies at the bottom of the garden." One of her elderly aunts, who has a history of interest in the supernatural, has actually discovered fairies on her farm, and has photographs to prove it. Normally skeptical Laurie doesn't believe it until she sees the pictures: They are too realistic to be fakes, much better than the fakes that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle (she even reads Doyle's The Coming of the Fairies in the course of the book). It's not until she finally shows the photographs to her brother that Laurie realizes they are fakes. Her brother, who reads a lot of science fiction and fantasy, immediately recognizes the figures in the photos as models (though very good ones), and traces them to their source in order to catch the perpetrator.

     My favorite mystery writer is Dorothy L. Sayers. She's hard to top for rich plotting, well-realized characters, and good writing. And there's logic and skepticism too. In the short story, "The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey," an unfortunate English woman living in the Pyrenees is assumed possessed by demons by all her neighbors, who believe a combination of Catholicism and local folklore. How else to explain that during part of the year, she is a beautiful woman (though speaking a language unknown to the Basque-speaking locals), but part of the year she is an ugly, slobbering creature, almost an animal? When Sayers aristocratic sleuth, Lord Peter Wimsey, hears of it, he recognizes the symptoms of thyroid deficiency. In order to earn the trust of the local people, however, he disguises himself as a wizard, complete with conjuring tricks, trained cats and a monkey as familiars, and a gramophone to provide the right atmosphere. Eventually, he is able to smuggle thyroid extract to the afflicted woman, who, it turns out, is being held captive by her jealous husband who alternately gives and withholds the drug she needs.

     My favorite example of skepticism in a murder mystery is in Strong Poison. Lord Peter Wimsey is faced with the difficult task of proving that the woman he has just fallen in love with did not murder her former lover by poisoning him with arsenic. Time is short; clues are scarce. After some initial sleuthing, Wimsey concludes the key to the murder lies in a will; he's seen a forgery, but is sure the original contains an entirely different bequest. The real will is likely to be in the house of the murder victim's aunt, who is an invalid. Wimsey calls on his sometimes-assistant, the elderly and loquacious Miss Climpson, to gain access to the house, find and read the will. Fortunately, the nurse who looks after the invalid is a credulous student of spiritualism. Miss Climpson, swallowing her high church principles, embarks on a series of seances, using, among other things, a metal soap box strapped to her leg, a bent piece of wire concealed in the wide sleeve of her dress, and the nurse's own eagerness to communicate with the spirits, to convince the nurse that the invalid, unable to speak, is desperately asking them to find her will and send it to her solicitor's office. The descriptions of the Miss Climpson's techniques for fooling the nurse are detailed and delightfully written. And, being not without conscience, Miss Climpson plans a few more seances to gently persuade the nurse that most mediums are, as she puts it, "as great a fraud as I am."

     Even a mystery novel with a strong supernatural element can contain elements of skepticism. Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Wholistic Detective Agency is full of ghosts, but they are there for logical reasons: one is a space alien who has wandered through time trying to undo an explosion that destroyed his ship (along his travels, he encounters Samuel Taylor Coleridge and inspires The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner and interrupts the composition of "Kubla Khan"); the other is a compulsive businessman who, murdered while on the phone, can't rest until he's finished his final call. Even Dirk Gently, the unethical and slovenly private detective, wields an interesting version of Occam's Razor. Confronted with one of the mysteries of the book and unable to solve it, he turns to a child, who easily comes up with the right answer: one of the characters has a time machine.

     Not all mysteries are skeptical or logical. For instance, the popular The Cat Who... Series relies unreasonably on the ability of a couple of Siamese cats to uncover clues. And some mysteries simply use the murder's confession, without having a string of deduction pointing to the guilty party. Nor should we require skepticism in our leisure reading. After all, reading fiction is fun. I enjoy a good fantasy novel, and also mysteries with a supernatural element, like some of Kate Wilhelm's Constance Leidl and Charlie Mikeljohn mysteries. But if you want logic and skepticism in your reading, the murder mystery is a good genre to explore.

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 2001 Oregonians for Rationality