The detective

Because it is our nature to attach great significance to the patterns we witness, we ignore the things we cannot see and make deductions and predictions accordingly.
— Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace, Creativity, Inc.

Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back.
— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Down, down in my bones
Somewhere I’d never have known
Right at the back of my head
It hit me like a beam of light
— The Vaccines, I Always Knew

From the time that humankind began a process of ‘civilisation’, grouping together in communities and building city states, there has been evidence, captured in cultural artefacts, of a constant reaching for meaning. Philosophers, theologians, semioticians, scientists, poets, playwrights and artists have posed questions of an epistemological and ontological nature. What is reality? What does it mean to exist? How do we make sense of these fragile and fragmentary vessels, our lives? How do we navigate the chaos that surrounds us? Are there really ever right answers to our questions? A figure we turn to constantly in our books, comic strips, films and television series as emblematic of this constant querying of the world and our place in it is that of the detective. The figure takes on various forms: the enlightened monk, the amateur sleuth, the cold logician, the hardboiled gumshoe and the assorted members of the police procedural investigative team.

One of the first detectives to feature in Western culture was Oedipus, the Theban monarch who solves the Sphinx’s riddle. However, in unravelling the mystery of his own life, he comes to realise that he murdered his own father and married his mother, prompting her suicide. His response is to blind himself. The story establishes a number of themes which resurface in the detective stories that have become so familiar to us in the last two centuries. Tales of detection play with our assumptions about logic, deduction and sense-making. They both build up and debunk the notion of the solitary, heroic figure making meaning out of chaos.

Such narratives also riff on ideas about vision, (in)sight and the other senses. Examples include Oedipus’s blindness, Jake Gittes’s slashed nose in Chinatown or Brother William’s use of glasses in The Name of the Rose. They are stories that are as much about the detective themselves as the mystery they investigate. These characters are often responsible either for its narration, or at least co-creators of the sequence of events that unfold. Frequently they are themselves implicit in what they discover. Their telephoto lenses slowly bringing into focus either their own criminality, as in the case of Oedipus’s patricide and incest, or their leading role in the machinations of a criminal figure. Think Holmes and Moriarty; Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon; Martin Rohde and Sebastian Sandstrod in The Bridge.

It is intriguing that during the industrial era, two dominant detective types emerged in our literature. On the one hand, you have the flâneur of Honoré de Balzac and Charles Baudelaire. This is the dilettante street walker and observer of people, who will evolve into the hardboiled gumshoe of the 20th century. On the other hand, there is the cold, logical, almost machine-like figure of the ratiocinative tradition. As Jon Thompson puts it in Fiction, Crime, and Empire, this is ‘a detective figure whose independence, superiority, and omniscience ensure his freedom from the demands of any kind of affective community.’ Characters like Auguste Dupin, the brainchild of Edgar Allan Poe, and Sherlock Holmes, first conceived by Conan Doyle, then revisited and refined by many others.

The reinvention of Holmes is fascinating in the BBC series Sherlock, created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt, and first broadcast in 2010. Here the notion of a machine has been taken to an extreme. Holmes is almost surgically attached to his smartphone. We see virtual reconstructions of the way he uses his Mind Palace. This is a human as computer. In The Great Game (season 1, episode 3), for example, we hear Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) exclaiming to John Watson (Martin Freeman), ‘I need data’. Earlier in the episode, pointing at his head, Sherlock observes to John, ‘This is my hard drive and it only makes sense to put things in there that are useful. Really useful! Ordinary people fill their heads with all kinds of rubbish and that makes it hard to get at the stuff that matters. Do you see?

[Photo: Still from the BBC TV series, Sherlock]

Throughout the same episode, Sherlock is a pawn in a game being played by Moriarty. He uses his logic and powers of deduction to solve one puzzle after another, cold cases, new murders, art forgeries. When the limits of his own knowledge are met, he deploys the technological means at his disposal – smartphones, laptops, hospital analytical tools – to supplement it. Or he mobilises other people – John, members of the police force, the homeless network (‘My eyes and ears all over the city’) – to help fill the gaps. He then processes the data, answering the question that has been posed, and moves on to the next problem to be addressed.

But he fails to see the bigger pattern; fails to recognise that he is both subject and object of a grander scheme. It is a flaw of the binary world. What if the world cannot be explained away in ones and zeroes? What if there are many shades of grey rather than just black and white? What if the patterns we sense and follow are just one option among many? What if we all sense and see different patterns? Sherlock’s great shortcoming is his lack of empathy for others. It prevents him from reframing and seeing things from the perspective of other humans. Instead everything remains theoretical; a puzzle to be solved.

While the hardboiled detective also often lives on the edge, it allows them to bridge different social strata. They are connectors, moving fluidly through their network. They ask questions, converse and observe. They often recognise that the current area of focus and investigation, even if resolved, will only reveal a small fraction of a greater ill. They accept that they cannot grasp the whole picture, nor comprehend the complete system. Those foolhardy enough to try and do so, like the characters that Gene Hackman plays in The Conversation and Night Moves, destroy themselves. Better to have your senses dulled through repeated beatings, drugs and alcohol, like Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or his latter-day cousin, The Dude of The Big Lebowski.

Their actions catalyse events. Their quiet periods of observation, sitting in cars, listening to wiretaps, looking through cameras and binoculars, allow certain elements to emerge from the chaos. The flâneur and gumshoe recognise that there are no right answers; that they alight upon one possibility among many. That itself is informed by instinct and previous experience, by networked knowledge and serendipity. As Lew Griffin, James Sallis’s wonderful creation, is informed in Moth: ‘Those early contacts developed into a loose network, a place we could go for information we didn’t otherwise have access to, a kind of information underground … Often I imagined they might represent this skewed nation’s only true intelligence, skein after skein of fragile webs piling one atop another until a rudimentary nervous system came into being.

The value proposition of the hardboiled detective, in particular, and of the digital flâneur too, relates not only to their own experience, knowledge and skills but to that of their extensive networks. It is not a case of simply what they know, but who they know as well. Their connections and their access to the stories and accumulated wisdom of those people become part of the value they themselves can offer. There is also something about understanding the enabling capabilities of the tools available to them too. About having the competency to use them in ways that add value, support sense-making and facilitate the sharing of knowledge and information. Like a leader confronted with chaos, they look for what works rather than seeking the right answer. Based on accumulated data, instinct, intuition and insight, they take what action they can to re-establish a sense of order, narrating their work along the way.

This sounds a lot like the knowledgeable networker of the 21st-century workplace. Our work, our learning, is a consequence of our sense-making and detection.

For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth.
— Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Sensing-making is how we personalize information and use it. This includes reflection and putting into practice what we have learned. Often it requires experimentation, as we learn best by doing.
— Harold Jarche, ch. on PKM in Jane Hart, Social Learning Handbook 2014

In a chaotic context, searching for right answers would be pointless: The relationships between cause and effect are impossible to determine because they shift constantly and no manageable patterns exist – only turbulence.
— Dave Snowden & Mary Boone, A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making

This post was written in response to a challenge from my friend Simon Terry. A conversation about chaos, patterns, insight and logic became littered with cultural allusions. Simon proposed that I write something about Sherlock Holmes. I have probably cheated by focusing on the modern TV incarnation.