Since some of the earliest detective fiction, authors have used mysteries to explore human behavior. While many investigations begin with physical evidence, it is often the act of diving deeper into the minds of the criminals or villains that reveal the truth. Author of the Bhrigu Mahesh murder mystery series Nisha Singh examines the study of human behavior in mysteries, from Edgar Allan Poe to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Get a peak into the mind of a great detective with “Psychology as a Forensic Science: from Auguste Dupin to Sherlock Holmes.”
Psychology as a Forensic Science: From Auguste Dupin to Sherlock Holmes
Of all the genres in fiction, I like mysteries the most because they attract you in a way that nothing ever can. Even in world literature, we have seen writers creating subplots that involved a mystery and its subsequent resolution. A very good example is Charles Dickens’s “Bleak House,” which introduces the essential elements of detective fiction for the first time. I have used this example to prove that a work of world-class literature that dives into the depths of Victorian England becomes an entertaining tale as it attracts us with a murder mystery. Another example is of poet Edgar Allan Poe, who is widely regarded as an authority on gothic. He, too, couldn’t resist the temptation of a mystery, and he did so by creating a framework for the logical detective that had never been attempted before. Dupin is a sleuth who uses logic to solve three cases, my personal favorite being “The Purloined Letter.” I will now explain why this story should have been given much more credence than it ever received.
“The Purloined Letter” is a story about a man who hides a letter that he stole from a woman he knew. Now the police detective faces the challenge to retrieve that letter. He searches the whole room that belongs to the man concerned, every nook and cranny, but fails to find what he came searching for. Exhausted, he decides to ask Mr. Dupin for help. What follows next is a solution that became the first study in using psychology as a tool for crime solving. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took inspiration from this detective to create his own, the great Sherlock Holmes, but he relied heavily on the physical and not the mental, which Dupin originally set out to do and hence left a scope for error. Relying too much on physical evidence can tip the balance of justice unfavorably and it’s every detective’s moral responsibility to see that this doesn’t happen.
Dupin solves the case by going inside the mind of the man and only then does he begin to understand what he must have done to hide the letter.
When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is anyone, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.
These lines clearly express what Dupin is trying to do. If we cut to the core of it, we’ll understand that he is just attempting to read the minds of his suspects by wearing the same expression they do. He believes that by imitating their expressions, he will get a glimpse to their state of mind. I applaud this early effort at using psychology as a forensic tool but Dupin fails to see that it’s just not possible to wear an expression and understand what lies beneath.
For that, it’s important that we know what the suspects think and how they think, and it is important to deduce their entire chain of thoughts without a single break. Even one break can completely disrupt the logical process. This can be accomplished only by a detailed study into human behavior and hence the need to develop the field of psychology. If you don’t know the person before you, you’ll never be able to understand what he is thinking, and if you don’t know what he’s thinking, you’ll give him the power to trick you as intelligent criminals have been doing since the beginning of human civilization.
I would now like to get back to Sherlock Holmes and his great powers of deduction. He is the quintessential detective who dominated every new one born after him. I must confess that he inspired me, too, as I became more interested in crime fiction. Sherlock Holmes relies entirely on physical clues to solve a crime. As he says, “I had come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which shows, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data.”
By “data,” he refers to the physical evidence he himself sees to arrive at a logical conclusion, one that is just not possible to achieve by merely listening to the suspects because he doesn’t probe their minds. He only probes a crime scene as he is a master of it. There is a reason why we call physical evidence circumstantial because as long as we don’t have a confession, we will try to link that evidence with the chain of events to prove beyond doubt that the suspect is guilty; however, many a time we see that the evidence ends up telling a completely different story from what actually happened. This has led to many false convictions and the destruction of innocent lives.
Hence, it’s very important to develop the field of psychology to the point that we can clearly state that something is just impossible because, under the circumstances, the suspect couldn’t have done this, regardless of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against him. The criminal justice system needs to give more credence to forensic psychology than it does now because with it lagging so far behind other fields of forensic science, we just can’t hope to save those who deserve their freedom.
After this discussion on the world’s two most famous detectives and their methods of deduction, I would like to talk about crime fiction and world literature. Wilkie Collins’s book, “The Moonstone” is hailed as the first literary work on detective fiction. It uses many elements that went on to define the genre of crime fiction. There is a stiff competition between the supporters of Wilkie Collins and Edgar Allan Poe as to who was the true pioneer. For me, this debate only proves that this genre can be effectively used to showcase the conditions of the society in which great authors live. The adventures of Sherlock Holmes become a feast because the books beautifully capture the image of a quaint Victorian England with big country houses, rolling moors, hansom cabs, and the great fog that is also a permanent part of an English landscape. The characters are Victorian to their core with their dressing style and mannerisms, easily distinguishable by their behavior as being part of the English landed gentry or belonging to the proletariat. I have personally enjoyed indulging in the beautiful imagery as much as I have relished the deductions of the great Holmes. I believe that the language has the power to transport you to a place that you can never visit. It acts as a time machine and gives you the best of that period. The stories that lack that power have always seemed ineffective to me as they failed to come alive on the pages. For a detective story to succeed, it’s very important to weave it with the beautiful and colorful threads of life, so that the picture that we paint is enjoyed by generations to come. The power of imagery and characters is something that can never be understated. These are the pillars on which rest the works of great literature.
Unfortunately, I have yet to see someone make advances on what these greats accomplished in their age. I must confess that I haven’t read many contemporary writers as I haven’t found any one story where all these elements were intact. In the modern world where we live side by side with technology, numerous avenues have opened up where the good old genre of crime fiction can take a leap. It can leap like it has never done before. Due to the advancement of technology, the world has become our oyster, opening us to millions of elements that can be used to make any story richer and more meaningful. It’s a pity that the modern writers have just decided to let it go. This, I believe, is my personal opinion that might not resonate with others. I have yet to read contemporary fiction that captures our quickly evolving world.
More from Nisha Singh
My name is Nisha Singh and I am the creator of the literary murder mystery series “Bhrigu Mahesh.” My detective uses psychology to go behind the minds of the suspects and lift clues that could be matched with the physical evidence to arrive at a conclusion that leaves no room for doubt. Hence, it is safe to say that my detective is a mind magician because he is perceptive enough to acutely observe what any lesser person would fail to notice. He gleans information about a suspect’s personality based on the questions he strategically poses to him and then he uses that advantage to further predict what direction the mystery will take; if there’s a murder, he can easily use the psychological insights to help surf through the physical evidence and then decide what to use and what not to. He believes in the saying of English jurist William Blackstone that “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” My detective has amazing powers of perception and hence he is a great humanitarian.
Some of his sayings are :
Sometimes a suspect interview is even more technical than a forensic job where you have simple physical objects that easily tell you all they know. In an interrogation, on the other hand, we are dealing with a manipulating person. One has to be very, very skilled when one is dealing with the most sophisticated creation of all.
Suspects are like pieces of chess. Read them correctly and be ahead by one move only. You’ll win the game.
He maintains a diary where he records his insightful observations and also uses the help of statistics to draw accurate conclusions. He believes that one day a great mathematician will come along who fits his data into equations that would then help to study the human mind like an exact science. According to him, “Psychology looks like a pseudoscience, but let me assure you that if we are here for a hundred years more, it will be proven that it is as exact a science as any. At present, we just lack the proper tools to study or analyze the human mind. Once we do, psychology could become so exact a science that there would be a unit system for thoughts and dreams, emotions and feelings.”
In my books, there are characters with well-developed personalities because without them, the lifting of mental cues would be impossible. My childhood was spent in rural India and hence the imagery that runs through my books is quintessential to the great Indian landscape. India is a country that is a haven of colors, warmth, and characters that have peculiarities on a scale that can never be measured. My books celebrate this beauty in the form of these mysteries. Also, my books deal with ideas and issues of the modern world that would be a unique experience for every new reader. As my book is an exploration of mind, it is also a celebration of ideas and thoughts.
Books in the Bhrigu Mahesh series:
Bhrigu Mahesh: The Witch of Senduwar
Bhrigu Mahesh: The Return of Damayanti
Bhrigu Mahesh: The Difficult Tenants
More blog posts to check out:
The Top Ten Sherlock Holmes short stories
FROM JACK REACHER TO SHERLOCK HOLMES: THE ENDURING POWER OF PREQUELS