Showing posts with label deduction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label deduction. Show all posts

02 July 2013

Counterclockwise?


by Dale C. Andrews
“That’s what made it easy,” I said.  “You were circling Margrave.  Not too close, not too far.  And counterclockwise.  Give people a free choice, they always go counterclockwise.  It’s a universal truth . . . .”  
                                        Jack Reacher in Killing Floor
                                        Lee Child
        A year or so ago I was reading an interview with one of my favorite authors, Tana French, and was astounded by something Ms. French said. According to her, while she was writing her second murder mystery, The Likeness, she did not know how the book would end.  She did not know, in fact, who committed the murder.  The Likeness is a favorite of mine and while it is not a classic “golden age” mystery, in which all of the clues are present and can, through deduction, lead the reader to the culprit, it is nonetheless a great murder mystery and a great read.  But the interview floored me:  How can you create such a tight mystery without knowing how it will end?
        I know there has been a lot of discussion on SleuthSayers about writing with or without outlines, but on the base principle of structuring a  “whodunit” I sort of thought we were always guided by the maxim underlying an observation Francis (Mike) Nevins made back in 2005 in his speech during the Ellery Queen Centennial Symposium in New York.  Mike mentioned that people over the years have asked him how he worked out the deductive process in his stories.  Mike rolled his eyes incredulously at his audience and said “of course we know how the deduction works -- we know who did it and how they did it before we ever start writing the story!”
      The incredible bravura performance of Ms. French aside, one of the most difficult aspects of fashioning a detective story is figuring out the ending and the string of clues that will tie everything satisfactorily together, ultimately pointing the reader to one, and only one, solution.  Once you have that well in hand, the rest (as Mike Nevins observed) is simply back-filling the details of the story that will lead up to your conclusion.
      And generally we mystery writers are held to a very high standard.  Those deductions, the foundation on which we premise our story, better hold up to pretty strict scrutiny.  Those who read mysteries tend to be an unforgiving lot that delights in trying to pick holes in an author’s deductive process.  As a personal example, before Janet Hutchings accepted my latest story, Literally Dead (appearing in the December issue of EQMM -- plug, plug, plug), she questioned whether my solution to the “locked room” aspect of the mystery would actually work in real life.  In order to convince her I filmed the solution (I got to play Ellery, my elder son Devon drew the Sergeant Velie straw) and emailed the filmed solution to her as a download.  (Sorry.  Can’t attach a link here.  It would be too much of a spoiler!)  Only after Janet reviewed the film did she accept my story for publication.
      All of which, at long last, brings me back to that quote at the beginning of this post.  
      Up until this winter I had never read any of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels.  I decided to remedy this since so many people around me were devouring this popular series.  I now have three under the belt, and I started with the first book in the series, Killing Floor.  I was happily enjoying the roller coaster ride until I came to the above-quoted language, approximately ¾ of the way through the book.  At that point I screeched to a halt.  
      When it comes to deduction I am a strict constructionist -- like other mystery readers alluded to above, I have to be convinced that the deduction works.  There seemed to me to be a number of things wrong with Jack Reacher’s deduction that this particular character would predictably begin circling the town in question in a series of bus trips at all.  But what bothered me most was Reacher’s (and Child’s) conclusion that he would begin this by going counter-clockwise and that there is a universal tendency for people to head counter-clockwise whenever they have a choice. So I set aside the book and started to research.
     As it turns out, I was initially surprised.  There is, indeed, a counter-clockwise bias in many of our movements.  In sports, for example, all races are run counter-clockwise, and baseball is also a counter-clockwise sport.  Moreover, studies have documented that virtually all joggers, if given a free choice, will settle on a circular route that runs counter-clockwise.  After a little digging I found that Professor Watanbe Hitoshi of SOKA University in California has devoted a great deal of time studying clockwise versus counterclockwise choices.  
[Professor Hiroshi] reached a point in his research where he had to decide if it was better to design stairs that you have to go down clockwise or counterclockwise. Experiments had been carried out previously and it was known that there is tendency to turn counterclockwise, for example, if you cover your eyes and try to walk straight almost always you will end up walking a little bit to the left. But Mr. Watanabe wanted to investigate more: 
  • Most . . . human beings are right handed.
  • Most . . . left-handed people are right-footed, while most of the right-       handed people are also right-footed.
  • Most . . . human beings have slightly longer right leg than left leg.
These three factors make our right leg . . . dominant over the left leg, which causes a tendency to turn to the left, and to be able to run faster and more comfortable in a counterclockwise direction. He also found out that:  Humans walk instinctively protecting the left part of their body (for example by putting their left part of the body nearer to walls) because our heart is in the center-left part of our chest.  Drifting to the left is basically human nature, and running in a counterclockwise direction practically an instinct.
        So.  All good so far, Mr. Child.  
      
     But consider this:  Executing a counter-clockwise circular route requires a series of left-hand turns.  Indeed, Jack Reacher’s deduction concerning where he would find that missing character was premised on a supposition that the first turn the character made would be to the left.  All of that counter-clockwise research notwithstanding, an equally large body of behavioral research indicates that, given an uninhibited choice, most people at an intersection will naturally turn not to the left, but to the right.  Professor Stephen Bitgood of the University of Alabama, in his article collecting and distilling prior studies on pedestrian movement noted the following:
The tendency to walk on the right side of a path is a common finding (at least in the United States). The sociologist William Whyte (1980, 1988) has studied people’s behavior in city plazas and on city streets. Whyte (1988), in his chapter on the “skilled pedestrian,” summarized the pattern of walking on the right of city sidewalks:
Pedestrians usually walk on the right. (Deranged people and oddballs are more likely to go left, against the flow.) 
        Summarizing earlier studies, Professor Bitgood also concludes that “[o]ne of the most frequently reported findings is a tendency for people to turn right at a choice point or intersection.”  Evidence of this is all around us.  Professor Bitgood notes that the right hand turn is always the easier and less energy consuming choice.  In recognition of this fact stores tend to be designed, as Bitgood notes, to allow shoppers to steer to the right upon entering.  There is also some evidence from highway studies that in cities circled by beltways the more predominant way to drive around the city is by beginning with a right turn, and then driving the beltway clockwise, not counterclockwise.  (A study by the Washington Post published just last Sunday noted differing commuting times for clockwise and counterclockwise trips on the Washington beltway.)  

     Bitgood also references a number of studies that have focused on museums and zoos, and by and large these have documented a pronounced tendency of visitors to enter and then turn right, although some (but not all) of the studies also indicated that the museums or zoos were then toured in a counterclockwise direction.  It has also been noted that typical grocery store design anticipates that the shopper will enter the store and turn right, usually towards the vegetables, but then circle the store counterclockwise with a series of left turns.  Professor Bitgood conducted his own study of shoppers entering several malls and found a pronounced, but far from universal, tendency of the shoppers to veer right, not left, upon entering the mall.

       But let’s get back to Killing Floor.  I don’t want to end up dishing out a “spoiler” for Mr. Child’s first Jack Reacher mystery, but suffice it to say that the purported “universal” tendency of people in all circumstances to bear left, that is counter-clockwise, is a key element in Jack Reacher’s deduction concerning where he predictably will find a critical (and missing) character.  From this postulate of “universally” predictable behavior Reacher concludes that when booking passage on an inter city bus to a random location one will always pick a bus that turns left, and heads out of town on a counter-clockwise route.  But would this be the case?  Does a person choosing a bus route on a map behave like a jogger or a baseball player, or does he or she behave like a shopper in a store, or a visitor to a museum?  And what about those beltways that have more clockwise than counterclockwise drivers?  Even in Lee Child’s native England (where driving is on the left) the answer is just not that simple nor that predictable.
        So here the deduction is simple for Reacher, but only because Mr. Child (the man behind the curtain), consistent with Mike Nevin’s observation, knows the result in advance.  But the deduction does not objectively and invariably flow from the evidence.  It is, in a word, far-fetched.  It would not, in the real world, support an incontestable conclusion.  

     Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoyed Killing Floor and the other Lee Child books that I have read thus far.  But if I structured a deductive conclusion based on a premise as suspect as Mr. Child’s, I would expect the Janet Hutchings of the world to at the least raise some very legitimate questions -- or more likely just send me one of those damned rejection notes!

08 November 2011

If It's Tuesday This Must Be Belgium -- or, "The Dutch Website Mystery"


by Dale C. Andrews

    Several times in the course of past articles on SleuthSayers I have referenced my Belgian friend and occasional collaborator Kurt Sercu and his remarkable website Ellery Queen  --  A Website on Deduction.  In fact, in my first post I promised more about Kurt in the future.  No time like the present!

    I stumbled on to Kurt’s site sometime in 2000, when it had been on-line for about a year.   As an Ellery Queen stalwart over the years I had frequently used internet search engines to look for on-line articles about Queen.  Invariably those searches yielded rudimentary lists of books, or abbreviated discussions on the lives of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, who were Queen.  My expectations  were therefore already low when I ran the search again in mid-2000.  I was surprised when  Kurt’s then-new site appeared at the top of the search list and was awed when I then visited the site.  Even if you are not an Ellery Queen fan you have to be amazed by Kurt’s website.  It goes on forever.   But before embarking on a short tour of the site, let’s delve a bit deeper into the background of its author and proprietor

Brugge, Belgium
    It is a sort of poetic symmetry that Kurt is superficially a wholly unlikely candidate to preside over the world’s foremost collection of facts pertaining to the Queen canon – after all, in Ellery Queen mysteries it is often the least likely character who is in fact the murderer!  How unlikely?  Well, Kurt is a head nurse at a large hospital in Belgium.  He and his wife Martine and their two children Dries and Astrid reside in the picture-perfect town of Brugge, Belgium.  His native language is Dutch, and his website offers up both an English language and Dutch version.  One might perhaps have expected Hercule Poirot from Kurt, but Ellery Queen?


Dale Andrews and Kurt Sercu,
2005

In the amazing world of the internet – where everyone can be everyone else’s virtual neighbor – Kurt and I first became friends during the course of an exchange of messages on the Golden Age Detective Forum, where Kurt presides over the Ellery Queen section.  Since then Kurt and I have corresponded by email, often several times per week, and we have visited in person twice – once in 2005 when literally on the spur of the moment he flew to D.C. and together we attended the Ellery Queen Centenary Symposium hosted by EQMM in New York City.  Thereafter, two years ago Kurt and his family vacationed in the United States and stayed with us in Washington, D.C. for one week.

But back to that website.  Kurt explains there that he first became interested in Ellery Queen when he read Queen mysteries, in Dutch translation, in the 1970s.
[Then, Kurt explains,] in 1997 the net came to my house.  After some time I wanted to start a website of my own. Not one with personal [reflections] but with content, content useful to the visitor.   If all webmasters would do the same the net [it seemed to me could become an] interesting place to spend some time.  My first idea was to start a website on Tolkien.  But several sites on the subject already existed and had done a great job! So what other subject I could talk about? Well, there was [my then] small collection Queen-stories.
Those stories, together with some articles Kurt had collected concerning Ellery Queen, formed the early foundation for Ellery Queen – A Website on Deduction.  
[At first I] tried to "cut and paste" my way through what grew into a large volume of information. Too few sites, in my opinion, do justice to [Queen], who started off in the late twenties and [continued to write] into the seventies.  He made maximum use of the media at that time and is now, I feel, grossly neglected. I hoped the site [would] fire up more interest in the Ellery Queen stories.
The result of Kurt’s efforts has now grown into a near-Byzantine website.  In fact, I know of no other site that is as complex, or that offers up deeper insight into its subject matter.

     A word of caution – as noted above, Kurt has published two versions of the site, one in his native Dutch language and one in his second (or perhaps third or fourth) language – English.  My second language is Spanish, and I do well if I can order from the menu in a Mexican restaurant.  So expect a few translation difficulties, and just marvel that someone can produce such a source of information in a language that is not their native tongue.

     Just as it is the best practice not to reveal “spoilers” when discussing detective fiction, so too I want to be careful not to reveal too much about Kurt’s website since, like Ellery Queen’s stories, there is much just below the surface that is best discovered by the reader working through the site at his or her own pace.

In many respects the site is half Wikipedia, half computer game.  For those of you somewhat removed from the “gaming community,” there is a device used quite often in games that is referred to as the “Easter Egg."  Easter Eggs are hidden messages or "in" jokes or references hidden in the course of a game.  Kurt’s site is full of Easter Eggs -- click-able words that the reader will miss unless care is taken, and that, once found, will lead the reader to hidden pages from which you can tunnel deeper and deeper into the subject matter.  As an example, if you dig really deep you can find my very first Ellery Queen pastiche, never published elsewhere.  But it will take a lot of looking.  I barely remember how to get there myself!  You can also find hidden goodies such as an essay on the Queen Centenary Symposium, one click away but otherwise not referenced on the site’s menu.

      It would be easy to spend a rainy day entirely entertained by Ellery Queen -- A Website on Deduction.  The homepage for the site gives you most of what you need to know in order to begin your journey.  While some guidance is offered below, explore the page with your cursor.  Like a good fair play mystery the site holds lots of twists and turns, just awaiting discovery.

That promise aside, here is a sort of beginner’s guide to the site.


    “List of Suspects” takes you to detailed essays on recurring characters in the Queen library – Ellery, the Inspector, Sergeant Velie and, among others that infrequent Secretary and almost love interest, Nikki Porter. You will also find essays on Djuna, a character in early Queen mysteries (who also figures prominently in The Book Case pastiche), and lesser luminaries -- like coroner Dr. Samuel Prouty.

   “QBI” unlocks an amazing sixteen pages in which every Ellery Queen book ever written – and not just those in which Ellery appears – is discussed in detail.  Kurt even provides the history of each of the works that Dannay and Lee “farmed out” to other writers in a perhaps ill conceived attempt to keep the Queen name before the reading public.  (Some, including Frederic Dannay’s son Richard, have argued that this in fact hastened the demise of Queen since these later volumes are generally inferior to the works actually authored by Dannay and Lee.)  While perusing these essays be sure to click on the covers of the various volumes – this will take you to even more in-depth discussions of each work.

     “Kill as Directed” offers up essays on every Ellery Queen movie, comic book and television series.  Clicking through the list of episodes of the first EQ television series, which aired on the ancient and largely forgotten Dumont television network, will lead you to a select few episodes that Kurt has uncovered that can be watched, in their entirety, through the website.   The section also contains a full and affectionate guide to the 1975 NBC Ellery Queen series, a personal favorite, now (finally) available in a re-mastered DVD collection, and surely one of the finest fair play detective series to ever grace the small screen. 

     “Whodunit” contains essays chronicling the lives of Dannay and Lee.  But you will also find biographical notes on every other author who  ever authored a Queen work as a ghost writer.  These comprise those farmed-out volumes, the Ellery Queen Jr. juvenile mystery series, and some later Ellery works that, while outlined by Dannay, were written by others during the period in which Manfred B. Lee famously suffered from writer’s block.  In "Whodunit" you will also find descriptions of every Ellery Queen pastiche ever written.

     This all just scratches the surface.  And the site continues to grow.  In addition to the interview with Iiki Yusan, which prompted my SleuthSayer’s article on October 25, Kurt has also recently devoted a growing number of pages to the “West Eighty Seventh Street Irregulars,” comprised of individuals who have been active in keeping alive the Queen name.  There you will find essays by Joe Christopher, Janet Hutchings, Jon Breen and (blushing) me!

     Enough guidance!  Go forth.  And be warned – there is a lot more clicking to be done before you even get beyond the site’s introduction page.  If you are a Queen fan, or potential Queen fan, well, read and enjoy.  But even if you are not, take a look around the website and marvel at how much sheer information is imparted through this grandly designed portal.


David Dean, right, with his Readers' Choice award.  (Runner-up on left)
A note to Tuesday readers -- as you may have noticed, there has been a little bit of disarray getting our Tuesday rotation of authors up and running.  For that reason you have had me lurking around here for several weeks in a row.  Next week, however, we welcome aboard a new SleuthSayer -- David Dean.  

David is a well known author of mystery stories, who will doubtless offer up his own introduction next week.  I have some (grudging) praise that I will proffer first, however.  David's short story Ibrahim's Eyes came in first place in the 2007 EQMM Readers Choice survey, thereby edging out -- by one vote -- The Book Case, which placed second.   Welcome, David!