I’ve decided that today, I’m going to write about a genre which I have a bit of a soft spot for but, unlike science fiction and fantasy, I don’t think I have looked into on this blog.
That genre being detective stories.
I’m particularly a fan of whodunits, That is, the standard murder mystery where the detective tries to find the true culprit.
I admit, however, that I prefer them in movie form. As far as written stories go, the only ones I’ve ever gotten really invested in are the ones written by Isaac Asimov, an author which I have mentioned before, when I wrote about I. Robot. Many of his short stories, like Little Lost Robot or Runaround, skirt the border of thriller and detective stories, but the novels The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn are proper whodunit detective stories, and I really enjoy them.
In fact, with the exception of Frankenstein, The Robots of Dawn is perhaps my favourite sci-fi novel of all time.
But I’m getting sidetracked. Like I said, I like televised detective stories a lot. I’m not ashamed I really enjoy Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, but my favourite detective is, without a doubt, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, played by the amazing David Suchet.
So is this all this article is, you might be wondering? Is it just me gushing about a genre?
No, of course not. I’m a pedantic nitpicker, so I’d like to share an observation about these two particular detectives.
You see, there is a word that is often repeated in their respective stories.
Both Poirot and Holmes regularly refer to their methods for ascertaining the truth as deduction.
The problem is, as some of you might be aware, that neither of them actually uses deduction.
Short lesson in terminology here:
Deduction, or deductive reasoning, is a form of logical reasoning, the other two being inductive and abductive reasoning. The latter two are lesser known, but they are very different things.
Deduction is to reach a logical conclusion that has to be true. The classic example is “Man is mortal. Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal”. If the premises are true, the conclusion has to also be true.
Induction is trying to establish a rule based on patterns, and drawing a conclusion based on that. For example, all eggs we have seen are ovoid (oval with one end rounder than the other, AKA egg-shaped), therefore we can logcially assume all eggs are oval.
That is a reasonable conclusion that doesn’t have to be correct. After all, there are eggs that are oval or, rarely, perfectly spherical.
Finally, Abduction is the process of reaching a likely explanation, based on a conclusion. For example, a page from a book has been ripped out. There are the remains of a piece of paper in the fire place. The paper is of a similar quality to the pages in the ripped book. Therefore, it’s likely that the paper in the fireplace is the missing page in the book.
As you can tell, Sherlock Holmes and Herclue Poirot both use abductive reasoning, rather than deduction, to solve mysteries. The more observations they make, the more likely their conclusions become.
But that leads me to an interesting question. Both these characters are very intelligent. So surely, they should know that difference, right?
So why then, do they carry on using the term “deduction” when that isn’t the correct term, and one of the two should be able to tell the difference?
Obviously, it could most likely just be explained as the authors making a mistake, with the terms of induction and abduction not being quite as popular. However, I actually have an in-universe explanation of my own. It has to do with something very crucial these two have in common.
Now I’m not going to pretend that the two characters are identical, because they’re really not. For example, their motives are very different. Hercule Poirot solves crimes, ostensibly to expose the guilty and catch the killer and make sure justice is done, whereas Holmes seemingly solves crimes and riddles simply because they were there.
It’s a known trait that Holmes is also an addict, both of cocaine and morphine. The reason is that, in his own words:
My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most abstruse cryptogram or the most intricate analysis, and I am in my proper element. I can dispense then with artificial stimulants.
But more than that, one major reason both solve problems: The thing the two really have in common, is that both solve problems to feed their egos! They may be main characters, but they’re not very nice people to be around.
They’re both condescending, arrogant and vain. Holmes is incredibly dismissive and dispassionate about most of his clients, beyond their function for the mystery.
And as for Poirot, there’s the entire idea of the denouement, where the detectives connect all the dots and tie the whole mystery together.
After all, the classic Agatha Christie moment when Poirot gathers all the suspects and explains how it all happened?
That is all there just for the benefit of Poirot!
They both love showing off how clever they are to everyone around them. Of course, it’s more apparent with Poirot than with Holmes, with the stories of the former usually being more straightforward whodunits, although that characterization is also there in BBC’s Sherlock, as well as Guy Ritchies movies, starring Robert Downey Jr.
In fact, with Poirot, they even point it out in one episode, after exposing the murderer.
-Whatever you choose to call yourself, Monsieur, you adore the flourish that is theatrical.
-You’ve got a nerve!
-All this! You’d already worked out where I was! You could have sent the police to arrest me at any time! But instead, you wanted your grand finale, show everyone how clever you’ve been!
And this, the way I see it, is also why they both use the term deduction so often. Like I said before, deduction leads to a conclusion that HAS to be true. And both these characters are so arrogant and conceited, they use the term deduction, knowing full well what it means, to describe their own methods, because they assume they are always right!
Again, Poirot brings this up himself at one point, talking to a suspect.
-The question is, can Hercule Poirot possibly be wrong…
-Nobody can always be right.
-But I am! Always, I am right! It is so invariable it startles me! And now it looks very much as though I may be wrong, and that upsets me, and I should not be upset because I am right. I must be right because I am never wrong!
There is nothing that bothers these two as much as the possibility of them being wrong, so much so that they can’t even accept that their methods of reasoning could be flawed. So, instead of calling it Abduction, a form of logical reasoning that is, by definition, fallible, they use the term deduction, a form that is infallible.
Of course, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea from this. I know that I keep referring to both Holmes and Poirot as arrogant and vain and selfish. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love both of them. They are so much fun to watch, and I honestly can’t say I see the two as unlikeable.
Strangely enough, all the things that should make them horrible and unlikeable, all the reasons that Agatha Christie herself actively HATED the character of Hercule Poirot? All those things are what I find so entertaining about both of them. They’re condescending and vain and all that, but both also have very good reasons to be, because both really are much smarter than people around them.
And I’m not the only one who thinks this. After all, there is a reason Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot have survived and remained popular for 137 and 98 years, respectively.