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Detective Fiction for Science communication

People read detective fiction for various reasons, but the main one seems to be as a form of escapism. The interwar period where the Golden Age flourished was one full of turmoil and upheaval. In an essay written in 1944, Edmund Wilson puzzles over Why Do People Read Detective Stories? The writer is not a fan, and bravely attempts to read through know hits from Rex Stout to Agatha Christie. He’s not convinced but concludes that..

The world during those years was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility. 

The knowledge that the senseless violence and chaos will be rationalised and all put back in to order might be a comforting draw to fans.

The Detective Club is using the framework of a Golden Age Detective novel to explore the community of St Helens. This was a great way to get the members talking about the history of St Helens, examine the social, political and economic factors that make up the area. We always had in mind the idea that the crime novel is a tool to investigate the area we live in.

So, other than light-hearted entertainment or a device for enquiring into a subject, it’s great to see another use for whodunnits – science communication!

Science communication is  public communication presenting science-related topics to non-experts. Considering the pioneering use of forensics, medical knowledge from the detectives, and ingenious methods of murder (poison, home-made contraptions, explosives) from the criminal, it shouldn’t be too surprising.

I’ve come across a hand-full of scientist who’ve combined their specialisms and love of detective fiction to create a collection of blog posts pairing novels and a branch of science. They cover Golden Age favourites Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

The Science of Mysteries: An Overdose of Strychnine (Deborah Blum) covers Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and gives the low-down on strychnine.

 Strychnine is a naturally occurring plant poison, a crystalline alkaloid found in the Strychnos family of tropical trees  and climbing shrubs. The best known of these plants is theStrychnos Nux Vomica tree from Indonesia; the hard, disk-like seeds of the tree are sometimes referred to as vomit buttons.

The Science of Mysteries: Shock, Trauma, and the First Real War (Ann Finkbeiner) looks at Sayers’s Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, which opens on Armistice Day. One of the murder suspects, Captain George Fentiman and aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey both suffer from what was referred then as shell-shock and now diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder.

At first, doctors thought symptoms like Fentiman’s and Wimsey’s were neurological, the result of the physical shockwave from bursting shells. Then when doctors discovered that not everyone with shell shock had been subject to shockwaves, they thought the symptoms were psychological and cropped up only in sensitive natures.

The Science of Mysteries: For whom the bells toll (Jennifer Ouellette) is another Sayers novel, The Nine Tailors which delves extensively into campanology, including a cipher coded by bell ringing patterns in the plot.

Back before the days of insta-communication, English communities relied on the tolling of bells to sound alarms and mark the passing of village residents. Sayers took her title from the number of times a bell will toll to mark the passing of a man: nine strokes (“ringing the nine tailors”), followed by a pause, then the slow tolling of single strokes at half-minute intervals — however many strokes required to mark the age.

So there you have it – detective novels as gateways to the sciences. There are more The Science of Mysteries posts below.