John H. Dirckx is the author of Dr. Thorndyke’s Dilemma (Aspen Press) and short fiction in AHMM, EQMM, and Woman’s World as well as nonfiction in the medical field. Today he talks about handling clues in mystery fiction, and in particular his short story “Go for the Juggler,” the latest in the series featuring Detective Sergeant Dollinger and Lieutenant Auburn, from the current issue of AHMM.
A detective story needs a crook, a crime, a sleuth, and one or more clues that enable the sleuth to pin the crime on the crook. Not all clues in mystery fiction, however, point to the identity of the criminal. Some merely help to establish a chronology of events, provide background details, or exonerate suspects. Others are blatant red herrings, designed to bewilder or mislead the detective for a while and, perhaps for a while longer, the reader.
But somewhere in every story there must be at least one piece of evidence that unerringly incriminates the guilty person by a rigorous and intellectually satisfying application of Aristotelian logic, thus ensuring a fitting sentence in a court of law. (Often overlooked or ignored in classic mysteries of the Golden Age was the difference between a damning clue, such as the ineluctable bloody thumbprint, and a mere hint or suggestion, such as the depth to which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.)
Whence does the mystery writer garner clues that meet the requirements of both plausibility and evidential value? Often they turn up in the ongoing series of occurrences, mostly banal, that weave the fabric of daily life: the broken shoestring, the misread headline, the book put back on the wrong shelf in a moment of distraction.
In “Go for the Juggler,” Detective Auburn tumbles to the killer’s trick of insulating a car battery terminal with a plastic cap because he had once made the mistake of wiring up a new battery without removing the protective cap placed on the negative terminal by the manufacturer. That idea occurred to me because I once made the same mistake myself.
Auburn finds a cache of gold and jewelry by observing that the discoloration on the underside of a kitchen cabinet caused by rising heat doesn’t match the present location of the electric toaster. Over the years I’ve noticed several such discolorations while sprawled on various kitchen floors installing or repairing appliances.
Clues mustn’t be too conspicuous or too transparent—otherwise there is little or no mystery. The word kieselguhr has had an intriguing and exotic ring to my ears from the first time I heard it in a chemistry lecture decades ago. Kieselguhr may not be in your working vocabulary, but you can find out more about it than you could possibly want to know with a simple Internet search.
“Be not the first by whom the new are tried . . .” Sherlock Holmes and Sam Spade never heard of surveillance cameras, but they’re ubiquitous today, and they pop up often enough in crime fiction. In this story, taped video footage enables the detectives to identify the “juggler.”
“Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.” In the construction of the modern detective story, convention permits an occasional nod to the venerable past of the genre. For the piece of evidence that clinches the guilt of the killer in “Go for the Juggler,” I fell back on that hoary cliché, fingerprints found on articles used in the commission of the crime. Who says tradition isn’t what it used to be?