Showing posts with label detection. Show all posts
Showing posts with label detection. 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!

09 February 2012

Right Under Our Noses



by Deborah Elliott-Upton
Mysteries of life surround us. Where there is something evil going on, something good is also flourishing. The idea of seeing what you want to see (half-empty glasses or half-full) has always
been up to the interpreter, but what is going on right under our noses isn’t always so easy to detect.

Sometimes I wonder what’s really going on out there. I know the truth is out there, but am I missing it just because I’m too busy to see? If you haven’t looked through an I SPY book lately, do
yourself a favor and find a kid who owns a copy, or go to a bookstore or library and find one to skim through. Only you won’t skim through. They are quite intoxicating. All those hidden- in- plain-sight things make a mind that enjoys mysteries wander. Considering Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” suggests there is much to be discovered right under our noses.







Over the years there have been many serial killers who lived seemingly normal lives right under the noses of those around them without any real hint they were committing heinous crimes.





Dennis Lynn Rader murdered ten people in the Wichita, Kansas area between 1974 and 1991.
His modus operandi was to bind, torture, and kill and rendered his nickname as the BTK Killer. Rader was viewed by many as a normal neighbor who ranted about a few things, but who didn’t?
Rader had earned an associate’s degree in Electronics and a bachelor’s degree in Administration of Justice. He’d earned a living as a home security installer, a census field operations supervisor, and a dog
catcher. He had spent four years in the United States Air Force. He was a member of a church and elected president of the Congregation Council, a Cub Scout leader, father of two and married to his wife for 34 years before his arrest.


Right under our noses and yet he murdered ten people before he was discovered.


Is the truth really out and we aren’t paying enough attention to discover it?


The son of one of our neighbors told me he was terrific at snowboarding. Our area isnot known for snow and the child claiming this was five, so I doubted what he said. The truth was he was great at snowboarding on his Wii game. He actually believed he could hit the slopes on a snowboard and be a professional. BUT, he was five years old. As mystery readers and NCIS junkies, we think we could figure out a serial killer before the police and we don't have innocence of youth in our corner as a defense.


One of my writing buddies who is a retired police officer from Colorado said most of us believe because we watch CSI that we know as much as the detectives and could warrant a decision as to who is guilty and why if we were privy to the information found at a crime scene and especially if we’d had the opportunity
to know the profile of the perpetrator. In real life, it doesn’t always work that way. That’s why shocked neighbors living next door to a killer for decades are always remarking to the press, “He seemed like such a nice guy. I had no idea he could do such a thing.”


Being a mystery writer is much easier than being in the trenches catching real killers. In our stories we develop the pace and decide how he will be caught. In the real world, there also is detecting, but often the ego of the killer also plays a hefty part. The BTK killer taunted police with letters which helped lead to
his eventual capture.


Luck sometimes plays a big hand in the apprehension and in those escaping becoming a victim. The
BTK killer had planned to strike again and actually stalked a woman and laid wait for her in her home for hours while she visited with friends. Angered when she didn’t return home on time, he left frustrated. Being with friends and staying late saved the woman’s life.



Dare we pay more attention to our neighbors and new co-workers with an inquiring mind? Perhaps, but maybe catching real criminals should be left in better hands of the professionals.


As for me, I will continue to plot my own fictional crimes and capture the bad guys on paper. I will enjoy reading other’s works and try my hand at mentally figuring out who did it and why. I will pay more attention to those around me in real life. I will probably visit longer with friends because it could someday save someone’s life.


That doesn’t mean to say I am giving up on still-great eye candy Mark Harmon and his exploits via the small screen. I think he’s doing a wonderful job heading up the NCIS due to the writers’ wonderful job tying up all those loose ends right under our noses.