Monday, January 17, 2011

What Makes A Great Detective?

M.T. Logan

What Makes a Great Detective?

by M.T. Logan

Sherlock Holmes in Chapter 1 of The Sign of the Four identifies three abilities that are necessary to be a great detective.

“Oh, he rates my assistance too highly,” said Sherlock Holmes, lightly. “He has considerable gifts himself. He possesses two out of the three qualities necessary for the ideal detective. He has the power of observation and that of deduction. He is only wanting in knowledge; and that may come in time.”

Then, in Chapter 10, Holmes adds a fourth ability, what forensic science pioneer, Sir Sydney Smith, in his autobiography, Mostly Murder, 1959, calls “the power of constructive imagination”:

” I then put myself in the place of Small and looked at it as a man of his capacity would. He would probably consider that to send back the launch or to keep it at a wharf would make pursuit easy if the police did happen to get on his track. How, then, could he conceal the launch and yet have her at hand when wanted? I wondered what I should do myself if I were in his shoes. I could only think of one way of doing it…”

The power of constructive imagination is, according to Smith:
always controlled by intellect, an essential quality where there are no more facts to be observed and no further inferences to be drawn. “Doctor Bell and Sherlock Holmes,” (Mostly Murder, 1959, 31).

Dr. Joseph Bell
Dr. Joseph Bell was a professor of clinical surgery at Edinburgh University. Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, was Dr. Bell’s outpatient clerk and modeled Sherlock Holmes on Bell, “who had an almost uncanny gift of diagnosing not only disease but occupation and even character from a patient’s appearance,” (Mostly Murder, 1959, 29).

Smith, relates this story about Dr. Bell holding forth at a dinner party to illustrate:

‘Did you enjoy your walk over the golf-links to-day, as you came in from the south side of the town?’ Bell asked another patient, a complete stranger who had never been to him before. Bell’s out-patient clerk, although used to this deductive brilliance, was completely baffled until the surgeon explained. “On a showery day such as this the reddish clay at bar parts of the golf-course adheres to the boot, and a tiny part is bound to remain. There is no such clay anywhere else.’

It was really quite elementary, as Bell himself used to tell friends and social acquaintances after startling them with a demonstration of his remarkable gift. Elementary, my dear Watson…

‘Why,’ said a fellow-guest at a dinner party, ‘Dr Bell might almost be Sherlock Holmes.’

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
‘Madam,’ Dr Bell replied, “I am Sherlock Holmes.’

So he was. That out-patient clerk whom he loved to puzzle, and who later qualified as doctor himself was Arthur Conan Doyle, (Mostly Murder, 1959, 29-30).

To the above four abilities,

• the power of observation

• the power of deduction

• the power gained from knowledge of crime, character, and mores, and

• the power of constructive imagination,

I would add the following three. To be a great detective one must also:

• see it as a calling

• have a healthy respect for the law, and

• have a deep and abiding sense of justice

What do you think?

M.T. Logan started writing short stories about bands of wild horses and wolves for fun in grade school. In graduate school, the old desire to write fiction surfaced again. By this time, she had fallen in love with the classic whodunits , as well as the police procedurals. Working at odd hours while she worked on her degree and raised a family, she began to seriously pursue writing again—only this time, writing mysteries in the vein of one of her favorite novelists, Agatha Christie.
Her character, Lieutenant Detective Liam Farrell of the San Rosendo police, was born from these roots.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you, especially about the deep and abiding sense of justice. I think that seeking justice is what drives many detectives to pursue a case until all possible angles are exhausted. Great post!


Anonymous said...


I’m glad you liked the post. :)

I agree with you that a strong grounding in ethics is "what drives many detectives to pursue a case until all possible angles are exhausted." It will also keep a detective from engaging in misconduct such as unnecessarily roughing up a suspect to obtain a confession, or planting evidence to convict a suspect the detective believes is guilty, or “losing” evidence that would show a suspect’s innocence. But more is at stake here than refraining from wrongdoing. If what one cares about is not just justice in the abstract but the enforcement of principles of justice, then a healthy respect for the law is necessary because ethical principles by themselves are not self-enforcing. Only a legal system has the power to enforce justice.

And so it is essential that all detectives understand why refraining from such conduct is necessary for a successful prosecution and the eventual conviction of a suspect who he or she has reason to believe is responsible for the crime, as well as knowing what legal procedures must be followed for that successful conviction. Without such respect, justice is undermined.

To read a story about an actual case where this happened, click here:

This was a robbery case in which the police officers were clearly trying to right a wrong, but it wouldn’t be any different for a murder case.

Anonymous said...

In most police procedurals the detectives have major emotional flaws. Do you feel this is important in establishing a great detective?

Ruby said...

M.T. thanks so much for being our guest. My question is with so many detective stories out there, how do you make your detective unique from the others out there.

Anonymous said...

Ruby and Anonymous,

No, I don't think that emotional flaws are part of what it means to be a great detective. But I do think it's important to give the detectives in our stories flaws because they are also "human beings." This is something we should never forget when writing. By giving our characters emotional flaws and a backstory we can all relate to, we make them unique. And I think it makes us admire even more their courage to bring wrongdoers to justice by following the law.

Donnell said...

I am late checking in on this blog, but I wanted to say it was fascinating. We always think of the great Arthur Conan Doyle as creating the unforgettable Sherlock Holmes. But I don't think I ever thought who or what inspired that character. And now we know. Thank you so much M.T. This was hardly an elementary blog ;)

Anonymous said...


Thank you. It was a lot of fun writing it. :)

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