Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com.
There’s a line from an old Paul Simon song The Boxer, which sums up the problem of bias in a few short words. “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” In psychological lingo, it’s called confirmation bias. People tend to interpret events and information in a way that confirms what they already believe, and view the world through the lens of their preconceived opinions and expectations.
The police are often accused of confirmation bias. They form an opinion about whodunnit and stick to their guns regardless of contradictory witness testimony. Prosecutors build their case and, even when confronted with exculpatory evidence, refuse to acknowledge error. During voir dire, jurors must deny any prejudice or predilection that would prevent them from rendering a fair verdict. Of course, many of our biases are subconscious. We may be unaware of a subliminal predisposition to believe an attractive person with an appealing smile, and disbelieve an ugly cuss with a sweaty demeanor. Inherent assumptions and first impressions are hard to overcome. Studies have shown that once a person has formed his or her hypothesis, whatever evidence follows – regardless how flimsy – serves to substantiate that original hypothesis. Presented with a range of ambiguous statements, we latch onto those that reinforce our preconceptions.
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes weighs in on the subject of bias. “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly, one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” The crime drama TV series “True Detective” offers another warning against getting carried away by theory ahead of the facts. Detective Rust Cohle is laying out a profile of the murderer based on books he’s read on metapsychosis. His partner Marty Hart asks, “Do you have a chapter in one of those books on jumping to conclusions? You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it and prejudice yourself.”
If more real-life detectives thought like fictional detective Marty Hart, there’d be fewer miscarriages of justice. But the creators of fictional detectives have an entirely different objective. It’s our job to bend the narrative so as to induce confirmation bias. We want our readers to jump to the wrong conclusion, make false assumptions, and fall for the lies that spill out of the mouths of our characters, some of whom we favor with appealing smiles and airtight alibis. Others, we handicap with shifty eyes and no way to account for their whereabouts at the time of the murder.
Both the reader and the detective have to start with some idea of what happened, however tentative or preliminary, and first impressions are the obvious starting point. How does the sleuth react to the suspects initially? Do particular attitudes or mannerisms irritate, or charm? What hinky stories do the characters tell? The investigation proceeds and more facts are gathered, but facts are subject to a variety of interpretations. The reader’s ideas tend to coincide with those of the protagonist, and the protagonist thinks what the author wants her to think. With their thumbs on the scale, writers encourage their readers to ascribe greater weight to some facts, and ignore or dismiss others. We give our brilliant detective hunches. We plant misleading clues to incriminate the innocent, and we permit the guilty to get away with their lies until the final chapter.
The challenge for the writer is to sprinkle in facts that are consistent with the guilt of more than one suspect. The reader may focus on the facts as they apply to one character, but at the time of disclosure, the detective shows how those same facts point inescapably to the real murderer.
All human beings have certain expectations that color their judgment, expectations based on their life experiences and the laws of probability. It would be unrealistic if our fictional sleuths had none at all. My main character Dinah Pelerin has never had an easy time sorting lies from truth, and in Where the Bones Are Buried, that job becomes nearly impossible when her Seminole mother becomes the prime suspect in the murder and scalping of a man who’s been blackmailing her. Her alibi doesn’t hold water and when Dinah tries to question her, her eyes slide suspiciously to the side. In spite of the woman’s habitual inventions and evasions, I’ve predisposed Dinah to believe her. But when a second murder occurs, Dinah can no longer afford to believe only what she wants to believe. She has to come to terms with the fallibility of bias and see all of the suspects as they truly are – even the one with whom she shares her DNA.
The writer has an obligation to play fair and give her readers the opportunity to guess the murderer. That doesn’t mean we don’t try like crazy to manipulate their expectations and surprise them. A lot of readers enjoy that feeling of self-congratulation they get when they find out they’ve guessed right. I think it’s a bigger kick to discover you’ve been had.